Tuesday 4 February 2014

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer


Area X has been contained behind the border for 30 years

So starts the first book in a new trilogy from Jeff Vandermeer. The Southern Reach has sent 11 expeditions into Area X. Many of them have failed to come back, or have come back changed Our narrator is one of 4 in the 12th expedition, she is a biologist and joins a psychologist, surveyor and anthropologist. This is her story. This is the story of the 12th expedition. This is the story of, well let’s not reveal too much here shall we?

This is an example of isolation fiction with a hearty dollop of paranoia on top of the fear and mystery. Vandermeer weaves a web of wicked weirdness that conceals to reveal. We have so many questions that are not answered and may never be but this is because the mystery is, well mysterious. Our narrator is no more clued up than we are and, crucially, compromised. Can we trust her? Can we trust anyone on the team? Can we trust The Southern Reach? Why aren’t expeditions allowed to take cameras, or telecoms, or most other modern technology but are allowed to take guns? What is the true purpose of the expeditions? What is Area X? What is the significance of the Lighthouse? Do we really want to know what the strange noises in the night are? Why did the Biologist join the expedition?

There are several Vandermeerisms (yes that is a word) that will appeal to fans of his earlier work (no spoilers but I bet you can guess what I mean) but this is a slightly different tale to those he has told before. He describes a real and lush landscape in almost cinematic terms. He also manages to make it feel uncanny with a few deft touches and therefore even though the palette is light he achieves a darker tale. I was in the story from the first paragraph, rushing gladly through the book simultaneously desperate to know what was going to happen and deeply dreading knowing in case that knowledge were to change me irrevocably.

It will be compared to Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys no doubt and possibly Dark Matter By Michelle Paver and there are brief elements of familiarity here if you are well read in the Weird. However Vandermeer has carved a compelling and fresh tale that may owe a passing nod to Lovecraft but only in the same way that a modern car would owe a nod to a Model T. If any complaint were to be levelled at this it would be that we are forced to wait some months before the second in the trilogy is released. Will we get our answers in that tome? Do we want answers? Perhaps it’s safer not to know.

Overall – I can only describe this as Vandermeerian (yes that is also a word) in its brilliance. If you’re a fan of Vandermeer go, buy, read! If you’re not a fan of Vandermeer why the hell not?

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