ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

With the box office this past year as any indication, we’ve had a good run of stories helmed by women protagonists, and I’m already excited to see what the next year in films will bring. One of the movies I’m most excited to see is Annihilation, a new science-fiction thriller starring some of my favorite actors, with a trailer that seemed intriguingly eerie, wondrous, and unsettling. I’ve been meaning to read the book that inspired it, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, for a long time. It was recommended to me not just as a delightfully strange, impossible-to-categorize work of speculative fiction (so, my jam), but as a book that put women at its center in an interesting and unexpected way. With the movie trailer finally baring down on me, I figured it was finally time to read this long-backlisted work. The cover was beautiful, the book small and slim. I figured I was in for a good afternoon of creature-feature adventure, and came in to the story ready to turn the pages. Don’t make the same mistake I did: this book is deceptively slim, but the story inside is so dense that it’s almost difficult to read too much in one sitting. Not only that, but I encountered something I wasn’t expecting as I read it, home alone, late one night: this book is TERRIFYING.

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Annihilation is about a team of four scientists–a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist–that have been sent on an expedition into a mysterious piece of wilderness known as Area X. They are not the first expedition to explore the area; for a variety of mysterious and disquieting reasons, no one has been able to return with any answers about this place. The book details what the four members of this new team find as they venture into the landscape, and what they learn about themselves while inside.

Any more plot would be giving too much away–then again, I’m not even sure that I could tell you what I found within the pages of this account. The story envelops you like a nightmare, moving you through its imagery and mystery in a fluid and completely immersive haze. My experience was not so much that of learning about Area X, or about what happened to the people inside of it, but rather inhabiting Area X, with all of the sweaty-palms, adrenaline terror that came with it. I’ve come out the other side, but truth be told, I don’t know that I could really sum up what happened to me while I was in there–that’s part of what makes this book SO GOOD.

And when I tell you that there were moments of sweaty-palms, adrenaline terror, I am not saying that lightly. The horror in this book is subtle, until it isn’t. Then it’s chasing you at the edges of the wilderness, breathing down your neck. The scares come in a variety, too: body horror, creature horror, things that make strange noises in the dark. The book draws both on haunting imagery and the less tangible sense of uncanny that permeates the plot. The horror wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the sprawling beauty of VanderMeer’s prose. The moments that are scariest are also some of the haziest, the surreal, nightmare-esque quality at its most heightened; as a reader, you are grounded in such moments by the vividness of the writing, the way it creates a world around you clearly and sharply, even when it’s a world you don’t understand. It was an impressive feat, and I’m curious to see how it will translate to the big screen.

If gorgeous writing and nightmare fuel isn’t enough for you, let me assure you that Annihilation is even bigger than that. Layered within the lush strangeness of Area X is a really interesting exploration of humanity–how it relates to both nature and itself, and the way that both of those questions could evolve and change. In many ways, the narrator’s exploration becomes as much a study of herself as the landscape, of trying to understand the ecosystems within us, and the ones we build for ourselves into adulthood, and the ones we forge with strangers in a strange place. The book even has some moments that would fit into a traditional literary fiction novel: deep, moving reflections on the interior of someone’s life. There really was so much to unpack in this dense little novel; I’m almost not sure how to wrap my head around it.

So, there’s a movie coming out, along with two more novels in the series that I have left to read. I guess that means that much like those first expeditions, I haven’t really come out of Area X yet, either. Given how much time I’ve spent thinking about this book after I put it down, I’m not sure when I will.

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