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Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) Paperback – 2001
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
An Amazon Best Book of the Month, February 2014: There is a comfort in familiarity, a foundation from which to definitively identify and label. But Jeff VanderMeer is not interested in putting his readers at ease. With Annihilation--the first volume of The Southern Reach Trilogy--he carefully creates a yearning for answers, then boldly denies them, reminding us that being too eager to know too much can be dangerous. The story follows an expedition of four women who are known only by their professions: the Psychologist, the Surveyor, the Anthropologist, and the Biologist--nameless pawns tasked with exploring, discovering, and (hopefully) delivering data about a portentous coastal territory called Area X. We are a bit like fifth members of that team (perhaps "the Reader"), learning at the same pace, guided by the observations of our narrator, the Biologist. Still the context remains blurry as VanderMeer twists each discovery into a deeper mystery. Through potent description and unrelenting tension, he achieves a level of emotional manipulation that should appeal to anyone who embraced the paranormal phenomena and maddening uncertainties of Lost. --Robin A. Rothman
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
*Starred Review* An expedition of four women is sent into an unknown region called Area X, beyond the borders of humanity: a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and our narrator, a biologist. The purpose of the mission is to collect data about Area X and report back to the government, the Southern Reach, but circumstances begin to change when the group discovers a tower (or tunnel) that was previously unmarked on the map. Inside the structure, strange writing scrawls across the walls, and a spiral staircase descends downward, beckoning the members to follow. Previous expeditions ended badly, with group members disappearing or returning as shells of their former selves, but little is known about what actually occurred on those trips to Area X. A gripping fantasy thriller, Annihilation is thoroughly suspenseful. In a manner similar to H. G. Wells’ in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), VanderMeer weaves together an otherworldly tale of the supernatural and the half-human. Delightfully, this page-turner is the first in a trilogy. --Heather Paulson --This text refers to an alternate Paperback 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!
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.