Initially reminiscent of classic horror stories like At the Mountains of Madness, Annihilation is a biologist’s record of a scientific expedition into Area X, a partially charted territory reclaimed by nature decades ago. Most of the eleven previous expeditions into Area X have ended in death, suicide, or cancer, but the Biologist and her three companions have accepted the risks.
Upon arrival into Area X, they discover a giant geographical feature not on their maps. A seemingly endless stone staircase descends into the earth, and the company discusses whether to call it a “tunnel” or a “tower”, as well as whether it should be explored. At the entrance to the tower, the expedition finds the beginning of a message written on the wall, spelled out with fungi, plant life, and other tiny creatures. As they create a plan of action, the company begins to fall apart.
I really like the tone of Annihilation, which I think stems from the scientist as a data-driven introverted observer, her detailed yet emotionally devoid description of the surroundings providing a detached day dream quality to the story. As a reader, you experience one piece of Area X at a time alongside the Biologist, in addition to flashbacks of her life and what brought her to volunteer for the mission. She brings an innate perspective of the power and awe of the weird and sometimes grotesque natural world that pushes her further than her colleagues into the unknown.
This is a slow book, with tension that builds not from action, but from tone. I like it better now that I’m done, because I needed time to reflect on the experience as surreal and captivating, but also rather dispassionate. I’m sure Vandermeer has me exactly where he wants me at each point in the story, whether it’s paranoia, frustration, or confusion. Recommended for scifi fans of subtle creepy prose who don’t mind ambiguity in their characters or their plots.
“That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”