The Short Version: Area X, an uninhabited region in an area called the Southern Reach, has been visited by several expeditions. Each expedition has met a strange and terrible ending – suicide, paranoia, cancerous death, etc. This is the story of the twelfth expedition and the strange, inexplicable things that they found there.
The Review: Jeff Vandermeer is one of the first authors – long before this blog was even an idea in the back of my mind – who I had the pleasure of making contact with. I wrote a terrible short play in college set in his marvelous city called Ambergris and I’d emailed him back and forth about it, with questions about the grey caps and the city history and all those things. And Ambergris is one of my favorite fictional haunts, all these years later – Albemuth Boulevard still sometimes appears in my dreams, during the festival of the great squid.
And so when it was announced that Jeff had landed an exceptional deal for a new trilogy of novels – all published in one calendar year, a movie deal with Scott Rudin – I couldn’t’ve been more excited. It had been too long since I’d delved into the uniquely strange mind and I wanted it, as soon as I could possibly have it. So, hey, thanks to the fine folks at FSG for feeding my need and sending along an advance copy of Annihilation as well as putting me on the list for Authority and Acceptance. I only wish time could speed ahead faster now, so that I could dive right into those ASAP.
But okay, the book itself. For those unfamiliar with Jeff’s work, he’s a practitioner of the Weird. And he has a singular interest in the way nature can get strange – and how it can pervert the human form. A moment early on in the novel reminded me of the spores that infect Wyte in Finch – but whether or not these novels take place in the same universe as those is irrelevant. Because Area X is a confusing, strange, indescribable place, the things that happen there do not actually make much sense – so the question of “this world? that world? another world?” matter very little at this point.
This may be frustrating to a certain type of reader. There are not only a seemingly infinite number of questions that arise from this opening salvo of the trilogy, but (in a masterstroke of incredibly assured literary skill) Vandermeer actually manages to deliver the sensation via words of things being unanswerable because they cannot even be fully encompassed by the way we use words to describe things. There is a hallucinatory effect in the writing, especially as the pages dwindle down, that I found absolutely spectacular. Readers who aren’t so much into the strange may find it less-so – because, for me anyway, I found that the image centers of my brain (the ones that translate the words on the page into the world I see in my head) were short-circuiting. Not unlike, I now realize, those of the botanist, too. This trick, if I can call it that, brought me closer to the protagonist than anything else – we were both facing something indescribable and the best she could do to describe it was still just a jumble of things and sensations and thoughts and, as a result, the reader gets a very palpable sensation of just how messed up things actually are.
We’re never given much detail on our characters – no one gets a proper name, instead just referred to as their job title. This goes, too, for the botanist’s husband – he’s simply her husband. This detachment of course sets the reader up for a transient relationship to the characters in a sort of horror-film way and that’s not terribly inaccurate. I don’t know that I’d call this a fantasy novel or a sci-fi novel or any of those things that the Weird so often gets lumped into… but horror is the one that comes closest. This is, at its core, a terrifying novel – not just because of the scary things that happen on the page (and there are plenty of things that are definitely scary) but because of the underlying concepts that build in a sort of feedback loop over the course of the whole book. This strange region, changed somehow after some capital-e Event earlier in the book, is run (or watched over?) by a shadowy group who clearly don’t have people’s best interests at heart and who are – it would seem – aware that the natural world within the border of Area X is changing. The world, our world, is rebelling. Not against us, not necessarily – although I’d say that the strikeout record for these expeditions might argue that humans (as we currently exist) aren’t really meant for that area – but rather just against what we (as the dominant species) have come to understand as the ‘natural order’ of things. It’s like a less specific version of particular evolutionary trait found in The Ruins – things aren’t supposed to work that way and yet here they are, doing just that.
Rating: 5 out of 5. This book is cool as shit. The overriding sensation that I have, after finishing it and now writing about it, is that it is just going to be (if there’s any justice in the world) the trilogy to talk about next year. Sure, there are people who may find it way too out there and way too strange. Those people also probably would not laugh at this video here (SQUIDPUNK!). But no one else is writing like Jeff these days. There are people who are writing equally as crazy stuff, like China Miéville, but they’re all doing it in their own ways. If there’s any justice in the world, before Area X expands to change us all, this’ll be the trilogy that launches Jeff into the recognition he deserves. Within the first few pages of this book, you’ll feel it – a brightness inside you, something changing. Embrace it – I promise you won’t be disappointed in the end.