Author/Publisher: Jeff Vandermeer/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release date: February 4th 2014
Grade: 5 out of 5 Meatballs
Reviewed by: Pawl Schwartz
If you are reading this article and have never read Jeff Vandermeer before, well, you’re in for a treat. Annihilation may be both the best place to start with him, as well as the first book in what may be a modern classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. I’ve followed him since 2006’s The City of Saints and Madmen, which has to be right up there with Bradbury as far as quality interconnected short story collections go. The Strange Case of Mr. X in particular sticks with me because of how clever it is and how wonderfully it sums up what Vandermeer does well. In that story, the author of the short story collection we are reading is being held in an insane asylum within the world he has created, scrawling fantasy stories about our real world. Jeff Vandermeer is a master of the uniquely weird, the gory, and pulling twisted narrative out like a loose stitch. The best thing about him though, is that through all of this, he is as fun to read as a comic book, but it would have to be an Alan Moore comic, because goddamn is Vandermeer verbose in the best possible way.
Annihilation’s story struck me hard and pulled me in fast. I haven’t had a reading experience this creepy, intense, and edge-of-your-seat since H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. The two works share a similar structure, but it is one that you do not often see duplicated so well — a big journey into something completely unknown undertaken by beings with no frame of reference for what is happening. In Annihilation, the world of humans is over. The last remaining humans live in a small village, and it has been that way for a long time. So long, in fact, that the world has grown over completely and become something new, maybe multiple times, while the humans have hidden away. The worst part of it all? They don’t even know what caused the end of the world. They just know that it happened.
The humans have sent out multiple teams to explore Area X. The first team reported a veritable Eden; the second team committed suicide. It goes on like this, some returning months later with amnesia, others groups turning their guns on each other mid-mission and no one knows why. Annihilation begins with the expedition of the twelfth group. They are made up of an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and our narrator, the biologist — all women. The first thing they encounter out in Area X is a large tower, which they start exploring. It extends miles into the ground, and about halfway down, a run-on sentence starts on the wall, written in living, glowing fungus. The team tries to unravel the message, but quickly, our biologist narrator discovers something even more sinister: the psychologist is hypnotizing all of them and is causing them to all see a tower. What are they actually inside? They have no idea, but the biologist can’t let on that she is avoiding the hypnotic suggestion now, and the further they get down what may be the gullet of a giant beast, the closer they get to whoever is writing this message in fungus.
I love the Philip K. Dick-style mistrust of reality that comes in with the idea of hypnotic suggestion acting as a layer over reality or a replacement of it, because then there is even more fear going into this unknown Area X: not only what are we going to find, but can we even trust what we see out there? What is being filtered out by the psychologist, and why? For fear that I may have already given away too much, I’ll end this here. Just know that Jeff Vandermeer has become the true dual heir to both Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft, all while aiming at the same territory that China Mieville does. I will be very surprised if he ever puts out a bad book. Pick up Annihilation and you have opened the most fun and joyful path to never trusting anyone (including yourself) ever again.