Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (2014). First read: January 2015. ~~caution: this review contains details of the plot~~
What I thought then: Although I didn’t review Annihilation on this blog when I first read it, I did write about it on Goodreads: “Absolute cracker of a book […] The long-drawn-out uncanniness of Area X; the way that all of the characters are women and all are characterized as human beings first and foremost, not as wives/mothers/appendages; the way that human relationships are present in the story but are nuanced and awkward and life-like; and above all, the few answers we manage to glimpse at the end… It’s very well done.”
What I thought this time: One of the great pleasures and purposes of rereading is the recovery of detail. My memories of Annihilation‘s plot were in the right shape and order, I remembered most of the truly salient scenes, but so much of the specificity had disappeared. I had forgotten, for example, that the Tower (tunnel) near the expedition’s base camp was not marked on their maps, and that this is the first hint of deception on the part of the agency who have financed and trained the expedition team. I had forgotten that the expedition leader, the psychologist, is authorised to use hypnotic suggestion on the other team members, and that she takes this power too far almost immediately. I had forgotten that the protagonist, known as the biologist, was married to a member of the previous expedition who came back changed, and that she joins this team in part to find out what happened to him.
The entirety of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy also existed in my memory as a kind of unsolved puzzle. I seemed to recall that we don’t really get any answers about what on earth (or, rather, not) is happening in Area X. Rereading Annihilation, I realised that we do. I could see the hints and clues much better the second time around: the unnerving gaze of a dolphin, the mysteriously human tissue contained in the creature known as the Crawler, the molted husk of dead skin that the biologist finds on a path. With the faintest of recollections from eight years ago, I was able to come up with a theory for Area X much earlier than during the first reading. I had forgotten, also, that the biologist has a theory which she actually articulates, late on in the novel, and with which mine largely matched up. It doesn’t explain the actual origin of the phenomenon occurring in the area, so perhaps that’s why I recalled the mystery as unresolved, but it does explain, to an extent, what the biologist has observed and what we’ve observed through her eyes. It satisfied me, this time.
As before, I was pleased by the fact that every character (except for one we only meet in flashbacks) is a woman. Other readers have been irritated by the lack of personal names, but for me it just reinforces that these women are their jobs, first, and their relationships to others (as mothers, wives, etc.) don’t define them. This extends to their characterisation, as well, or at least as much as it can do with a single point of view. The biologist thinks like a biologist. Area X’s weirdness throws her off a little, and she’s already emotionally vulnerable, so she’s inconsistent, but she takes samples of the organisms she comes across, analyses them, thinks in terms of ecosystems and niches and adaptability. The psychologist, although she makes mistakes in doing so, also thinks like a psychologist, in terms of control, manipulation, and reward. It’s still so unusual to read a book where women are allowed to relate to each other with distrust, dislike, even violence, not because they’re competing in some feminine arena of desirability, but because they’re human beings trying to survive in an inexplicable environment.
VanderMeer is known as an ecological activist, and the Southern Reach trilogy strikes me now as one of the first wave of what has become known as climate fiction, or eco-horror. (Not that concern with the environment and the horror potential of the natural world are new in literature; just that there’s a specifically 21st-century interest in these themes.) There’s also a cosmic, Lovecraftian aspect to the weirdness of Area X: full comprehension means madness, subsumption, even (dare I say it) annihilation. But the strange hopefulness of the ending lies in an understanding that, in Area X, the experience of death may simply be more obviously related to its tarot-card meaning: not a termination of anything, but a complete change, a transformation.