InQuire's Books of the Decade - Annihilation (2014)
By Leo Lamb
The 3nd entry in a new series, spotlighting the University of Kent students’ favourite books of the 2010s.
Image courtesy of BBC.Focus
This 2014 science-fiction thriller is a surreal, twisted, and deeply unsettling look into the relationship between human understanding and the natural world. The narrative follows a group of female scientists exploring a strange envi
ronmental hazard zone known simply as Area X. Something happened 30 years ago that has resulted in the emergence of this biological anomaly, a mini ecosystem that both resembles the world outside and perverts it into horrific parody.
Through our main characters narration, we discover that the threat comes not just from the dangerous ecological habitat that our protagonist (an unnamed biologist whose husband died of cancer upon returning from a prior expedition) must navigate, but also the infighting and draining sanity of her fellow scientists.
One word that can truly be used to describe Annihilation is interesting. Interesting in its presentation, interesting in its prose, interesting in its thematic intention and certainly interesting in the internal mythology that author Jeff VanderMeer weaves.
It is by no means an easy read. It’s at times outright baffling, truth be told. Upon writing this I’ve even come to realise how difficult it is to properly put an adequate synopsis into words. So much happens that purposefully defies description, at least description in the traditional sense. Instead, VanderMeer uses baseline imagery from the incredible awe of the natural (and human) world as a means to spark insight into his vision. The spiral of a shell, the presence of a lighthouse. A particularly gruesome analogy is made by comparison to a king crab invading a tide pool and eradicating the entire ecosystem through a process of biological annihilation. Without getting into spoiler territory this is sure similar to how the core of Annhilation’s ecological threat works, hence the name.
It’s rare that any story can be so cryptic and mystifying, while keeping at its core a grounded foundation in science. This novel, for me at least, made me realise the true horror and mystique of the natural world and how incomparable the human attempts to understand it truly are. Like the myth of Sisyphus, it is endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill to no true avail. It’s a sign of a good read when you start to question your place in the natural order.
First reading this novel back in 2017 before the release of the equally entertaining movie of the same name (directed by Alex Garland and starring Natalie Portman) helped keep the light burning on what was a growing trend in my literary taste at the time; an appreciation for Lovecraftian horror. Despite only having read one short story beforehand, Annihilation (due to its wealth of influence) inspired me to read further into H.P Lovecraft's canon. It turned out to be a true jumping off point into some pretty weird stuff.
The book is part of a trilogy. I haven’t read the sequels, though apparently they aren’t all that necessary, opting to explore side plots and expanding on elements of the narrative that weren’t given full exploration first time round. Interestingly though, despite my enjoyment of the book I really didn’t leave feeling much yearning to read more. It felt like a satisfying and self-contained sci-fi thriller completely lacking in need for any sequel, much like the original Frankenstein novel. In fact, at times I’d say there is a definite similarity between the two’s prose and the feelings they elicit. The mystique of science and the horrors of its perversion.
I would highly recommend this book, especially to those that enjoy thought provoking science fiction tales. Don’t read it if you’re squeamish though. Actually, if you find insects weird this book isn’t for you. Or if you ever got lost in the woods as a kid. Or if you like the idea of the human body remaining the way God intended it (and if that’s the case then definitely don’t watch the film.)
Image Courtesy of Artfocus.org