Days before I instated my book buying ban, I went to see the new Star Wars film for the second time, and they played a preview for a movie that I did not know about at all. I was hooked when Natalie Portman appeared on screen, because I absolutely worship her and her work, and when Oscar Isaac showed up — it was over (the Star Wars crossover duo we all dream about!). As the preview wound to a close, I realized that the plot sounded familiar, and when the title flashed, ANNIHILATION, I remembered this book that I had picked up in nearly every bookstore I’d ever been into but had never bought. I remembered the cover, with the perfectly split single-word title, and the perfect art that just made this book one that was impossible not to pick up. I had never bought it though, because it claimed to be science-y and I am distinctly not, but, in the dim light of the movie theater, I bought Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation on Amazon anyway.
It’s hard to precisely put my finger on how I feel about this novel. There were pieces of it that were simply astounding, moving, and affecting. There were other pieces that so befuddled me that I caught myself staring blankly at the page performing mental acrobatics to work out the previous sentence. There wasn’t anything that I didn’t like, but there was plenty I didn’t understand. Alright, I’m going to just go with my gut here: I loved this book.
The premise isn’t terribly original for sci-fi: in some unidentifiable future, scientists are sent to a dead zone to study and everything is nefarious and ambiguous (Avatar, Alien, almost any other big budget sci-fi blockbuster). This particular version of this tale follows the expedition of The Biologist (no one gets a name here) who is following in her dead husband’s footsteps as she ventures with three other women into the strange and Other-ed Area X, which is some sort of zone reclaimed by nature and possibly infiltrated by something distinctly unnatural. I can’t really explain much farther than that, other than to say things go wrong. Again, this set up is not groundbreaking, but the success of this novel isn’t in the idea, but the execution.
For much of the novel, I was just dumbfounded. There were words on walls written in strange hand-like, plant-like organisms that didn’t make sense. There was hypnosis and mind-control. There was some unfathomable monster. There were doppelgängers and war zones. There were betrayals. It was a hard novel to get into because there was so much that I had to just go along with. At first, I thought I had picked up the wrong book in the series because there seemed to be so much that I should already know — information about the prior expeditions, the world this story was operating in, the Southern Reach and their goals and motives. Additionally, I found myself at a distance from the narrator because of her technical and impersonal language. I really had to commit to this one, and it paid off.
This novel, hands down, has one of the best character developments in any book I’ve ever read. The progression of the Biologist, how she unfolds both to us and to herself, is so utterly moving and captivating, that I found myself unable to leave her alone in Area X. I felt like I was right there with her, that she was talking as specifically to me in her journal as her husband had written to her in his. I felt like she was my friend, or could have been, if the world had been different. I watched her unfold and bloom like the flowers and fauna she so carefully studied in her youth, and I could not look away from her. I am so thrilled to witness Portman in his role in February when the film is released. I desperately wanted more of her, but unfortunately the next novel does not follow her trail. I wonder if I’d like the next novel as well, if I could trust in it the same way I trusted in this one, and I don’t have a doubt that VanderMeer could win me over. Still, the jury is out on whether or not I’ll continue this harrowing story.
This year, I want to try to read a little harder, to stretch myself to pick up books I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to read, to read voices I don’t normally hear, to travel to worlds that I wouldn’t normally look twice at. I think this novel was a good start.
Have you read any of the Southern Reach Trilogy? What book have you read that you didn’t love from the start, but stuck with and found you actually enjoyed?