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Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 1) Kindle Edition
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I will add a few other pieces of information before moving on to the substance of the review. This won a Nebula award. I am not always a fan of award-winning books (absolutely could not stand "Among Others" by Jo Walton, for example). But if you are looking for books with critical acclaim, this has it. Also, I am utterly unfamiliar with the television show "Lost" (other than knowing it exists) and other media references from some of the other reviews for this book.
I am not sure how to describe this book. It is part ecological monograph, part travel/adventure novel, part personal diary, part character study, even part mystery (not in the traditional sense of solving a murder or some such, but in a sense of people being thrown into an environment they're totally unprepared for and trying to get to the root of some strange phenomena).
There are four characters at the start of the novel but we really only get to know one of them, the biologist of an expedition into an anomalous area called the Southern Reach. This book is written from her perspective, in the manner of a personal diary or journal. (One could argue that her dead husband is a fifth character due to flashbacks and the like. We learn more about him than about the mission's anthropologist, at any rate.) Expeditions keep getting sent into this area and things keep going dreadfully wrong -- everyone murdered, or lots of suicides, or people returning completely changed (in terms of personality). We learn a few details of the early expeditions and of the 11th (this book is an account of the 12th), but say 4-10 are still unknown to us. I think I don't mind this. It probably would've been clutter for the author to develop and include seven additional specific outcomes, especially if they weren't directly relevant to the story of this expedition.
Early on, the biologist begins to suspect something is not as she has been led to believe. (The members of the expedition received extensive training before leaving on their trip, but serious gaps in the training come to light as the story moves along.) It seems that other members of the expedition are feeling the same, and it causes cracks in the cohesiveness of their unit (which was never super cohesive in the first place -- how can it be if you are not even sharing your names with each other?).
But, I don't want to get into too much plot summary. Anyway, this book doesn't have a plot in a traditional sense. There is a lot of exploration through a fascinating environment and I honestly just enjoyed reading the descriptions here, which is not often the case for me. There's not much dialogue though there is a fair amount of introspection and some flashbacks, of a sort. (The flashbacks are well done and serve to further the plot!) There is a climax but it's not the sort of confrontation you might expect at the end of a work of speculative fiction (where there are usually battles and such).
The atmosphere created was wonderful. In a creepy sort of way. I also really did like the focus on a single character. This book is a good character study (albeit in weird circumstances). What might cause a person to go on an expedition from which few return? And, the biologist is a good proxy for the reader. She doesn't have all the answers (or really any of them), she is discovering them along with the rest of us. What is it that the higher-ups back home want to know about the Southern Reach? Why are they so adamant that people don't remember how they got into Area X? At the end of this book, we have started forming the questions, and hopefully in future novels we will start getting answers.
Minor quibble, but at one point the biologist looks at some cells taken from a non-human mammal (a fox, I think) carcass and looks at them under a light microscope and says they are human. I don't think you could tell one mammal's cells from another using only a light microscope. You could tell cell types (neurons or smooth muscle or skin or whatever) if you were able to properly stain them. You could tell, say, a frog from a mammal (nucleated red blood cells in the frog but not in the mammal). But that is a minor point, and if there was some type of madness or neurodegenerative condition or residual effect of hypnosis affecting the biologist, it is possible she was reporting things that weren't true.
Overall, I enjoyed this book very much and am looking forward to starting the sequel, Authority, this weekend!
This book is a surprise and mystery if you have never read metaphysical horror before. To see what Annihilation would look like if executed flawlessly, read House of Leaves. The now-commonplace horror elements of humans encountering the utterly foreign and unknowable make up the backbone of the narrative. But whereas it is on glorious and staggering display in Lovecraft, King, amd other giants, here it is reduced to a bizarre oddity that induces head-scratching instead of spine-tingling.
The primary reason for this is the clashing styles. The first 160 pages of the book are so sterile and cold that even the strangest things are as interesting as unfinished jigsaw puzzles. The main character, The Biologist, states that this is to provide an objective account of events which necessotate a subjective experience in order to terrify. The last 30 pages are forced to give up the objective description, and only then does Annihilation actually become interesting.
The Biologist herself is done great injustice by the first 160 pages. In providing nothing but objective descriptions of events, the author fails to establish her as anything resembling a human being. She is nothing more than a camera lens that requires occasional flashbacks by the author to establish that she has Emotions and these are often at odds with the character as portrayed. The Biologist is a heavy introvert. She eschews people for her work. This is mentioned often and in bold fashion. Yet this person married, for reasons that are never explained beyond "he offsets my introversion". The Biologist is not portrayed as a person interested in the feelings or experiences of others. Why marry?
At the end of the book the semblance of a person begins to emerge from the Biologist, but by then the narrative has established her so firmly as a non-presence that her character feels like something the author shoved in when he realized there was no point to which the audience could attach. She is a walking fight between a detached third-person objective lens and a woman who wants to tell her own story. It does not end well for either party.
Finally, the book simply starts. No world-building or character history or any point of reference that would be helpful for an audience seeking a way into the story. In theory this plays along with the idea that the characters themselves know little, and are themselves poorly informed. In practice it is disorienting and dull. We know nothing about the state of the world. No baseline is established. Even the characters know more than we do, as is revealed later in the book - well past halfway in. The effect is like waking up to find yourself weightless inside an empty sphere. There is no point of reference and you can only make guesses until someone pops in and tells you what is happening.
There are many more small details that add up into a large pile of errors - debunked pop psychology from 1950 paired with hard science, characters that serve no purpose and go nowhere, jarring switches between clinical observation and surrealist prose, a world that is somehow both tantalizingly alien and horribly mundane - but describing those would take much longer.
Read a summary on Wikipedia. I guarantee it will be much more cohesive, interesting, and above all much less time-consuming than reading this book.
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The audio CDs popped and cracked nonstop, it was horrible.Read more