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on January 10, 2015
I debated between three and four stars, but ultimately decided on four stars, mainly because the writing is so darn good. Also, being a fan of these types of books, I felt VanderMeer had created the bones of great story, thought the fleshing out of that story was highly problematic and ultimately took what could have been a fabulous book down to merely a good story. It could have been so much more, and that, my fellow readers, is what is so deeply disappointing here. I wanted this to be a five star review, not merely three or four stars.

The bones of the story are truly intriguing - a mysterious Area X along the "lost coast" (the location is never truly identified for us by VanderMeer because God forbid we name anything here because names carry something mysterious about them. Unfortunately, we are never really told what. Names and locations are meaningless? Too confining? To defining? Your guess is as good as mine) where something dramatic and alien and unexplainable has occurred. Little goes in or comes out of Area X - and what does come back out is never who or what we think it is.

As I said, VanderMeer is a good enough writer that he hooks the reader early on and doesn't let go. I read all three books in the series, one right after the other, even though, in my opinion, the series remains vastly overpriced. Yet he is a very good writer and I did not want to wait to get through the series until the prices came down for each book. The first book is definitely the strongest of the three, but my feeling is that if you are going to invest time and money in the first book, there isn't much point unless you are prepared to see it through to the end of the series.

Many reviewers have compared the books to the TV series "Lost." I think the comparison is apt in that the island in "Lost" is mysterious and replete with strange and unexplained phenomenon. But I think the analogy is even more apt than that. Many viewers of 'Lost" loved the ending, which I found sappy and saccharine, without any real answers to the questions I asked through-out the whole series. But many viewers became ,more attached to the characters than the storyline, so maybe they didn't care so much that no answers were really provided at the end. I did, however. I wanted real, concrete information to a show I had invested viewing over the course of many years. When I didn't get answers, I felt betrayed and let down.

I think many of the negative reviews of this series reflect this same kind of sensibility. VanderMeer has engaged in the cardinal sin of many writers - getting us hooked on a story, then disappointing many readers by failing to provide a concrete, satisfying conclusion with answers to our most important questions. Yes, you can leave some mystery, but too much unanswered is never a good thing.

I suspect that the author was striving to continue the mystery and lack of conclusive answers that the characters felt when confronting themselves, their motivations, each other, life, the unknown, etc. That the characters didn't fully understand themselves (ie, the mystery of their personhood) or the mystery of Area X, so why should we? I speculate here, but the author probably felt he was simply mimicking Area X in all of its grand mystery (and yes, mimicry plays a large role in the story and no, we are never really told why) and that his mimicry was important to the story.

But the problem is that such an approach is never truly satisfying to a large percentage of readers. What I was hoping for (but never got) was not so much an ending like the conclusion of "Lost" where there are no real answers but we feel so in love with the characters and their relationships with each other that we are not supposed to care our questions go unanswered, but more like the ending to the series "Battlestar Galactica" in which are questions are answered, but the answers are nothing that we really expected. I wanted a refreshing and unexpected surprise at the end. Something I didn't see coming.

You won't get that here. That is not to say that VanderMeer answers no questions about Area X - he does do that by the final book. That said, he just doesn't go far enough with many of those answers, nor are those answers in any way truly a wonderful and unexpected surprise.

Moreover, I failed to feel strongly attached to many of the characters, who seemed "lost" (no pun intended) within themselves. Control plays a strong role in book two, but fades almost entirely away in importance in book three. A lot of times you feel like shaking the characters and screaming "wake up," but they never do, but rather remain mired in their own confused and obscure states of being. Now I get the sense that VanderMeer wants use to revel in this as being a reflection of the utlimate meaning of the human condition, but frankly, it just feels unsatisfying and makes one feel frustrated with the characters. Many times they just meander through the story and their non-stop stream of consciousness fretting and lack of clarity does drag the story down at times.

Ending the story by stressing simply - aren't these characters fascinating in and of themselves and this is just the human condition, to remain an ultimate mystery to us - was deeply unsatisfying to me. Tell me what happens to Control. Tell me what happens to the Earth. Tell me the "why" of Area X. Tell me the "Why" of what happens to the biologist. Or what happens to Saul or the psychologist.

Give me something new and unexpected, but don't leave me in the dark, Mr. VanderMeer.
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on October 1, 2017
VanderMeer's modern approximation of Lovecraft's cosmic horror seems timid and restrained throughout, despite its vivid and surreal setting.

In large part this is due to the author's earnest borrowing of Lovecraft's hoariest narrative techniques - a first person retrospective account from a narrator with uniformly flat affect, the use of the narrator's fear of comprehension to suggest horror - but as Stephen King memorably suggested in "Danse Macabre", those stylistic touchstones were Lovecraft's means of writing around his fundamental weaknesses as a storyteller, his means of crafting stories short of dynamic characters or propulsive in-scene writing.

One gets the sense that VanderMeer may be using his referents in a similar way. That the book's protagonist, the Biologist, is written as a melancholic loner doesn't really excuse how wan her characterization is - is her quest driven by ambivalent love for her husband, or her curiosity at strange ecosystems? What are the stakes for her? The lack of character names, also rationalized in-setting, points us toward some overarching allegory for something, but for the life of me I can't figure out the thrust of this novel.

By the end I had the sense of an author with a spectacular setting and no stories to render that setting as alive. As its own work it feels derivative and belligerent - highbrow Michael Crichton via the cult novel Roadside Picnic (itself made into the classic Tarkovsky film Stalker, and more recently a series of video games in the STALKER franchise that bear many indirect similarities to this book). As a Lovecraft tribute, it lacks that author's capacity for mood and foreboding. As a reader I never connected with the disorientation and paranoia that VanderMeer clearly sought to elicit from me.

All in all, a great idea for a setting, a few scenes of effective body horror, and a whole lot of incident that is fitfully engaging and doesn't tell us much about these nameless characters, or even the fantastical quagmire they find themselves in. At the end we're told what is to happen beyond the denouement, but it's not a culmination or a reveal, just a new veneer on all the strangeness.

It feels like a waste - there's clearly something to be drawn from all this imagination. In this case, a story wasn't it.
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This is super short and can be read fairly quickly. I think I did enjoy this more than Borne, but I think it had an added element of horror that sucked me in because horror has sort of always been my go-to genre.

We start by meeting expedition twelve. They are traveling to Area X to find out what the deal is with this strange place where no one lives and no one ever really returns from. No one knows each other’s names, because names don’t matter in Area X. So our MC is known as the biologist, but we also have the psychologist (the leader), the surveyor, and the anthropologist. Upon making base camp, the first thing they notice is a strange tower/tunnel that was not marked on the map. This is strange because when they volunteered they were forced to memorize the map and were drilled on it repeatedly. So they decide to investigate and the expedition starts to go badly.

There is a lot of ambiguity with this plot. Things are left open to the reader’s imagination and interpretation. Don’t pick this up if you’re going to need definitive answers. Though I never knew her name (it’s an all female expedition) I really enjoyed and related to the MC. She’s an extreme introvert, and fascinated by her work and the workings of ecosystems all around her.

There isn’t a whole lot to say about the other characters, you don’t really get to know them very well. The writing was excellent. I appreciate VanderMeer’s style in that he takes the weird and makes it poetic somehow. It’s weird and it’s science fiction and it’s horror but it’s also literary.

The setting was really well done. It evokes a spooky, haunted feeling, if for no other reason than the biologist is out traveling the marshy wilderness alone. The pacing wasn’t super fast, edge of you seat thriller style, but it wasn’t slow either and 5 part format made it easy to pick up and put down.

I’m definitely going to see the movie- but judging by the trailer it won’t have much in common with the book. I’d recommend this to fans of VamderMeer’s other work, or people who like horror in general.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon January 20, 2017
Apparently I purchased this book in 2014. I have no memory of the event (am guessing there was a good deal on it; I had bought the other two volumes in this series as well), but I was scrolling through my Kindle library the other day, looking for something to read, and for some reason, I stopped on this cover. And I have to say, I am glad I did. I read 80% of this book in a few hours one afternoon and finished it the next day. I have not been reading so much lately and that is an unheard of speed for me. I was really into this; I wasn't stopping and checking things online. So, the reading experience was right up my alley.

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!
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on November 6, 2017
This felt convoluted and bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. The story goes nowhere and is more of a documentary meant to show off the authors vocabulary skills. The writing techniques used just to show off how clever he thinks he is. I've read all three books and wish I could not just get a refund but get the wasted time back.
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VINE VOICEon March 8, 2018
The first in a trilogy I am eager to read more of, Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy begins boldly with ANNIHILATION.

I still have yet to see the film version, yet have read nothing but stellar reviews. One thing I can piece together is that Alex Garland's film seems to have much more action and potentially a different ending. Not a bad thing, as this novel is very introspective and haunting. What I found most original about the novel is the fact that none of the lead characters use their proper names, just their titles. For instance, the narrator is 'the biologist'.

There could be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the coolest and most chilling is that the current characters are members of the 12th team about to go on the expedition into the unknown and alien territory that has settled on our planet that is referred to merely as 'the shimmer'. The previous expedition, those who survived, all came back very 'different' and were dead within in weeks of returning. In fact, there is only one living member of any prior expedition this being the biologist's husband. Being a sci-fi geek and astute reader, I knew that the husband might not really be the same person who left for the eleventh expedition.

Whatever is going on in the portal world the shimmer --- breached only by the appropriately named Tower --- is something out of either a Kubrick film or H.P. Lovecraft story. The fact that nothing much is explained in the novel makes it that much more intriguing to dive into the rest of the trilogy. This is smart sci-fi at its finest with deeply layered characters, rich atmosphere and enough scientific mystery to keep the pages turning in sheer wonderment.
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on September 28, 2017
I read this book largely because the trailer for the film looked so interesting. The story itself was very intriguing and I kept reading to find out what the heck was happening, but the writing is fairly lackluster. I had a hard time visualizing what was being said and as I was reading, it was easy to forget that the book is supposed to be an account taken from someone's journal, but that's just my opinion. I debated giving it 3 stars, but it's a quick read and though I was disappointed with the writing, I've already bought the second book, so the author is doing something right.
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on April 21, 2018
Annihilation is a near-future Science Fiction Fantasy story that is rich in mystery, deep in theme, and decidedly character-driven. It is a well-written and thoughtful story that delves deep into the protagonist’s head. We follow her evolution as the story works out to an ending that is satisfying while staying wide open to further development in the succeeding books of the trilogy. In presenting a strangely altered and devastated world, the story explores themes of change from confronting reality, our essential characters, and how secrets and distrust separate us. It is not the usual mind-candy of current SF, but art that presents mind-food in the way that is the strength of good novels.

The plot is driven by the exploration of “Area X,” which is a space of land, apparently somewhere in North America, that has been seized and altered by some unknown power. Teams sent into Area X over the years have either not returned or returned changed to the point they offer little information. A secret government agency, the Southern Reach, is responsible for the explorations and sends a twelfth expedition consisting of only women. Expedition members are required to keep journals. The protagonist’s journal is the basis of this story.

I was moved by the big theme of this story, which I perceived as a metaphor of life. To understand what life is, we must deliberately pass though the veil of our fabricated realities. We find a strange world when we do—one that will challenge our beliefs and our very sanity. Some will try to control the discovered reality and our perceptions of it, but if we keep pushing, keep exploring, we’ll find what’s real and it will change us.

The universality of this theme is emphasized by the main characters being unnamed. They are referred to by their roles in the expedition. So the protagonist is “the biologist” and the team is led by “the psychologist.” This works and does not detract from our identification with the inner life of the biologist that drives the story (I think the movie does not follow this convention). Unnamed characters is an often-done tactic for emphasizing a universal theme and I think it works here.

The idea of division created by discovering and interacting with the truth of things is another big theme. It is, in fact, the story’s driving conflict. The Southern Reach’s big problem with exploring Area X is that the exploration destroys the expeditions by changing and dividing the expedition members. We see how a controlling institution deals with that problem, in contrast with how an individual deals with it. I found that the most interesting aspect of this novel.

My biggest criticism is how Mr. Vandermeer handles the climax. He builds to it and does bring it about, but it is a very ethereal (psychedelic?) moment that lost me in trying to follow what was happening. I think the intention was to split the reader from a concrete reality but it wasn’t handled as well as the rest of the narrative. The result, for me, was a bit of a “so what?” but this is actually a small criticism. The intent is understandable enough to make its point in the rest of the story.

Annihilation does pull readers along with building conflict and mystery, but many will not like the lack of resolution for the central mysteries. That’s probably why the movie (apparently) changed the story so much. Of course, this book is part of a trilogy and it needs to retain the mystery enough to prompt readers into the next book. I’ve no problem with that, though, because the protagonist’s story is resolved (well enough) and the author’s statements are made.

There is a Lovecraftian aspect to Annihilation that I really liked. Interacting with Area X changes the characters, but it is an indifferent change from the standpoint of Area X. It supports the theme of “what is our essential character?” When reality changes us, is it a change for the better? Are we better off not seeking what’s real?

I hope you can see that this is not a space-opera, tech-worshipping, SF tale. It is deep in the sense of using fantasy, or speculation, as a tool to prompt thinking. That’s the fun of long-form storytelling when it’s done right. I think Annihilation does it right and is why I give the book my enthusiastic recommendation.
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on March 25, 2018
I’m so glad I came upon the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Annihilation (FSG, 2014) is exactly the book I needed on this lazy, cold spring weekend. I read the whole thing in a day, and immediately purchased book #2 on my Kindle the instant I was finished. I plan to devour this series.

If I have one word to describe Annihilation, it is ineffable. Perhaps I don’t read a lot of sci-fi horror, but I’ve never read anything like this book. It captures the deep and dreadful mystery of what it means to be alive. It plays with your mind. The reader can’t be sure whether to trust the narrator, and the indescribable mystery of what the hell is going on in Area X keeps the pages turning and turning.

Our narrator is a nameless biologist who volunteers for a government mission to explore an otherworldly, uncharted wilderness, simply called Area X. Rational thought begins to leave her as she examines the strange new organisms in the land that can’t be defined or classified under any science she knows. As we follow her harrowing story of survival through Area X, her own developing madness and the madness and manipulation of her comrades, more of her melancholy backstory and the horrific expeditions that came before hers float to the forefront.

I won’t spoil anything other than to warn that all the answers aren’t clear by the end of book #1. I kept reading on in hopes for all the puzzle pieces to finally fit together in my brain, but we don’t get anything solid apart from theories. Which, in a way, is a poignant metaphor for life. Luckily, there are two more books in the series that will hopefully unravel the mystery of Area X.

Overall, this is a skillfully written, fast-paced yet introspective, almost philosophical adventure/horror of sorts. I would highly recommend this dystopia to readers interested in preternatural science fiction, survival stories, and even monster stories – and to adult fans of The Hunger Games.
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on March 10, 2018
As I read Annihilation, the Escher print of birds becoming fish becoming birds kept coming to mind. Some event in Area X set off a continuous process of transformation though not based on long established patterns. Not all the phenomena are easily comprehended by the human mind, either. Vandermeer excels at describing that which is indescribable through the observations of the biologist in a four person expedition which includes a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor. The biologist's discoveries about Area X's deceptively familiar landscape enthrall the reader. Her uneasiness about her own perceptions in this vertiginous landscape leaves much open to interpretation. There is, however, a satisfying linear structure created by the process of revealing ever more about Area X along with transformations that take place over time. The topic of language also features prominently in Annihilation. Intriguingly, the biologist ends up doing much of the linguistical analysis. There's also the use of NLP/hypnosis indicating there might something more here than has been described by the biologist. All of which point to further discoveries to be made. Thoroughly engrossing read.
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