the Little Red Reviewer

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Posted on: February 16, 2014

vandermeer annihilationAnnihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

published in February, 2014

where I got it: purchased new

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If you’re familiar with the works of Jeff Vandermeer, you know he enjoys playing with the theme of infection. How we’re infected by physical things, how we’re infected by ideas, how by the time we noticed we’ve changed, it’s far too late.  The word infection itself, it has negative connotations, but it doesn’t have to.  No, not infected, that’s not quite right for what’s happening here. The word I’m looking for is colonized.

Near the beginning of Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword, when Duncan returns to the surface, covered in barnacle looking fungi, he’s glittering, glowing, changed forever, infected, colonized. It’s around page 50 I think, and I still remember the beauty of those paragraphs. Duncan was infected, his insides were possibly being changed against his will, but he was fascinated and curious by what was happening. The reader was, perhaps supposed to be disgusted. But instead, I found it completely beautiful, I was fascinated, I was curious, I wanted to go deeper into the caverns. Later, In Finch, characters are also changed, are infected. Finch is horrified by it, so the reader picks up on that disgust and physical horror too.

And now, in Annihilation, our protagonist, known only as the Biologist, becomes infected with something.  She has no way of knowing how exactly it is changing her, and she teeters on the triple razor’s edge of curiosity, disgust, and terror of what’s happening.  She is not the only one in the story to be infected/colonized.

So, how do you feel about being infected? Will you grab the antibacterial soap, or open your mouth wide? The answer lies in how you react to Annihilation.  Maybe you’ll see this as a horror novel, a nightmarish, unfathomable moaning thing to run from. Or maybe you’ll see it as something beautiful, something to explore further, a place not to be feared, or at least not much. Maybe you’ll feel like you’ve finally come home.

No characters are ever named in Annihilation, the characters are only known by their occupations: the psychologist, the anthropologist, the linguist, and our narrator, the biologist.  The only things that are ever named are within the context of Area X, a nameless place itself. There’s something telling in the fact that the only proper nouns are distinct places in Area X, the base camp, the lighthouse, the ruins of a village. As if only things that we believe won’t ever change deserve to be named and put on map. When someone asks the biologist what her name is, her response is to ask why that matters.

The biologist is an expert on transitional environments – tidepools, edges of rain forests, environments that experience extreme changes in a small area. We get a gorgeously vivid flashback of time of her youth when her family rented a home with an unused swimming pool. The pool grew into an ecology an introverted young girl got a thrill out of studying, full as it was of tadpoles, dragonflies, different species of birds. It became her first secret. Even as an adult, she sought out the tiny portions of wilderness in the city she called home. She was always felt more at home in natural surroundings than in a claustrophobic apartment in an uncaring city, with the husband she kept pushing away.

As the story progresses, we learn the Biologist hasn’t told us everything. As the reader is getting a comfort level with what’s happening (or not), the biologist is getting a comfort level with the reader.  She’s waiting to learn if she can trust you before she tells you the real reason she joined this expedition.

I won’t get into the details of what happens in the novel, but events become only more shocking, more surreal,and you should go in with as little information as possible for the greatest effect. However, there is an underground tower, and a message, and is that why each expedition had a linguist? There is an event trigger, and a something that might once have been human, that most certainly was. These are things that should not happen, should not exist in reality.

In a way, Annihilation runs parallel to what we know about Area X.  When I started the book, I felt confident that I knew certain things about Area X, because the characters had told me those things. By the end, I felt confident and comfortable about nothing, even as the biologist gained a disturbing comfort level with her surroundings.  There’s a reason books like this are called “new weird”.  Their taxonomies run through your fingers like mist, and you don’t know what you’ve caught,  because it simply doesn’t compare to anything. Annihilation pushes at genre and literary boundaries at the same speed that Area X pushes at and expands beyond it’s own boundaries.

One thing I am confident of is that Annihilation will be the most groundbreaking book published this year.  Get it. Open it. Trust Jeff Vandermeer to lead you, blindfolded, into Area X so you can see the truth for yourself. And ask yourself: are you willing to risk the reward of being colonized?

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21 Responses to "Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer"

I loved Annihilation and am looking forward to the next book! Thanks for sharing your review: I’m glad to know other folks enjoyed it as much as I did.

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and the best thing is we don’t have to wait very long for the next book! Dear authors who write the entire series before going to press: you are geniuses.

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Just finished Annihilation this morning and am looking forward to book 2 & 3. At least not a long wait as they are coming out in May and Sept. I am a big fan of Vandermeers and highly recommend all his books-Finch being a favorite.

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Woohoo! Another Vandermeer fan! I’ve been a fan of his since City of Saints and Madmen came out. It was totally weird, and I didn’t get half the literary references, but I knew I’d found the kind of prose I could read forever.

Finch was an odd one for me. The first time i read it I wasn’t sure about it. But now that I’ve read it a few times, each time I read it I like it more. I think I went into that one with skewed expectations, so any issue i had with the book was user error.

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I’ve never read anything by Vandermeer and I think I need to start here. Maybe it’s my background but I’m really into science-y stuff especially in my horror, and with a biologist AND an anthropologist in this one (those are actually my two fields :D ) I may have to check this one out.

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This is an excellent starting point for Vandermeer. it’s weird (everything he writes is weird), but it’s very accessible. It helps that it takes place in our world (at least maybe), and that everyone is human (maybe).

and if you like science + horror? this was written for you!!

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I’ve liked Vandermeer since the days of Ambergris. I do need to read this, I think.

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You totally do. so we can discuss it. You got 3 months to get your hands on this one, before book 2, Authority, hits shelves.

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*does happy dance* You liked it!!! Whoooot!

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“liked it” is the understatement of the year. ;)

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Sounds like something to make my skin crawl. But I do like weird.

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nah, i don’t think it’s quite that creepy. lots of psychological “oh god, what’s around the next corner?”, and is what you imagine something to be worse than what it really is? ok, sometimes the real thing actually is worse than you imagine, and that does happen in this book.

i take all of that back. this might make your skin crawl.

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Every time I stop by here, I add one more book/author to my list… :)

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Achievement unlocked! Blogger, Level Up. ;)

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Certainly this novel looks intriguing (VanderMeer writes with such integrity its difficult to believe he could produce anything otherwise), but whether it’s “groundbreaking” remains to be seen. The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic utilizes an extremely similar premise, and M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing implements the idea of a mysterious, physics-defying zone… I will simply trust VandeeMeer, as steeped in genre as he seems to be, is aware of the other works and struck off in a direction of his own.

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i don’t use the word Groundbreaking lightly.

it’s not so much a physics-defying zone, a la Nova Swing (I haven’t read Roadside Picnic), more of a perception-defying zone, and that’s not even the right term. There’s also something about the scope of the mysteriousness.

you’ll have to swing by and let me know what you thought of Annihilation.

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But only if you check out Roadside Picnic. ;)

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[…] of Jeff VanderMeer‘s ANNILATION, which to this point, has been a real treat (BTW thanks Andrea). That, and plenty of quiet time to contemplate a story outline of something […]

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