A very immersive and atmospheric Lovecraftian sci fi, with an ethereal narrative that doesn’t intercede a strict boundary between surrealism, post modernism, adventure, horror and suspense.
Area X is a Visitation Zone, an Arkham blasted heath, somewhere along the tropical coast line, presumably in America; For its obfuscating transitional alien ecology, the area is demarcated for exploration, by a shadow (non)government agency called Southern Reach(VanderMeer’s Umbrella Corporation or Dharma Initiative or Wayland Yutani). Our narrative follows the 12th expedition to The Tower, by a team of 4 members, all women, who are identified by their respective roles- a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist. What we read in its entirety, are survey notes by the Biologist – an after incident relic, with obvious missing information, like the shaky camera footage from Blair Witch Project. The setting is similar to the classic premise of Lovecraft’s A Mountain of Madness or its space cousin Randezvous with Rama, where a group of individuals are exploring the unexplainable. But here, VanderMeer’s after event narrative doesn’t trust the readers, nor can it be trusted absolutely.
If you are invested in clear cut explanations and conventional character developments, this book is going to disappoint you colossally. Our Biologist is an unreliable narrator, exploring a House of Leaves, too strange for her brain cells to intercept. The narrative won’t let you identify with any of the characters, except for the biologist, who in turn is openly critical towards the readers. A man might need a name, but clearly these women don’t. In its Hard Boiled Wonderland treatment, none of the characters are addressed by their names, not even among themselves, like they have already detached their personal attachments for the higher purpose of Area X happenings. I found author’s philosophy eerily similar to that of Strugatsky Brother’s Roadside Picnic – explorers investigating stuffs they can’t or will ever possibly comprehend, like cats and dogs trying to make sense of leftovers from a picnic.
For its ‘plot far bigger than the characters’ treatment, I found the biologist monologue genuinely heartfelt, almost in lines with that of Chiang’s Story of Your Life. The digressions in her monologue, the seemingly gratuitous past life side quests, in course of reading, added to the mega narrative confusion, often making sense. VanderMeer’s writing was well crafted, layered and well engineered with fragmentation, anxiety and growing paranoia. The log entries were prosaic yet poignant, and kept definitive character traits of the biologist, from the adjectives she use, to her working explanations of Area X. It corroborated with the unreliability of narrative, for our manifestation of the place, was solely through the biologist pov, who kept detailing the physical and psychological aspects of Area X, as unraveling of some eukaryotic alien biology. Assuaging this limited available research was his highly efficient wordplay, with minimal embellishments; every word and occurrences served a purpose, from the critical linguistics of hypnotic suggestion to the strange writings at Area X, like they were part of a bigger conspiracy. And they were.
Permanence, I believe, was the biggest luxury in this novel, for all the five(including biologist’s husband) characters, well within their ulterior motives, were found to be perpetually transitioning throughout their progress in survey. Their perception of the alien environment was shaky(the tower? the tunnel?), with memory vacuums created by psychological suggestions. The Area X in itself was full of radically different ecosystems in overlap, constantly rearranging themselves, and the map, the equipments and sponsoring organization were severe misdirections to even begin with. But there was one character that enjoyed the luxury of permanence in this transgressional narrative, The Lighthouse Keeper, though he was finally absorbed by the Crawler. The real time Crawler writings seemed allegorical and biblical to certain extend in its archaic style, luring individuals to a personal purgatory. All these could be taken as suggestions towards a meta-fictional approach, where the unreliable ever expanding nature of Area X can be potentially argued as an allegory towards encroachment of fictional world over author’s imagination.
A lot of the novel felt like playing Alan Wake, or Silent Hill, or like binge watching first season of Lost. Though the environment was unfathomable, the writing kept me on the edge like reading Then There Were None for the first time. But unlike the detective novel, there was no postscript message in the bottle that explained the mystery, and I was left with more questions than answers. Still in a weird way, I found this love letter to the dread and uncanny, thought provoking, excitingly dark, intensively suspenseful and oddly satisfying.
Annihilation is the first installment in Southern Reach Trilogy and is followed by Authority and Acceptance. A 2018 movie is under work as per wiki, with Natalie Portman as the Biologist. So brace yourself for , “oh, this was where Dr. Foster been” Thor jokes.