Science fiction

Investigators brave the forbidding Area X, mysteries of the human heart in Florida author’s sci fi trilogy.

 <span class="cutline_leadin">ANNIHILATION. </span>Jeff VanderMeer. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. 208 pages. $13 in paper.
ANNIHILATION. Jeff VanderMeer. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. 208 pages. $13 in paper.

Jeff VanderMeer makes his home in Tallahassee, and the Florida wilderness indeed comes to mind as we enter the remote, overgrown area in which his new sci fi novel is set.

Much of the flora and fauna seem familiar, but that’s what’s so fascinating about the carnage that VanderMeer sets loose. He has created a science fiction story about a world much like our own. Annihilation features murder, suicide and a full-cavity search by an alien monster, yet it arrives at a dream of reconciliation, hauntingly familiar, between an estranged husband and wife.

Speculative fiction has been VanderMeer’s métier since City of Saints & Madman in 2004. He knows the genre so well that Annihilation dares to risk the most common complaint leveled against sci fi: It dares you to call the characters cardboard. The four unnamed women heading out to explore the mysterious and desolate Area X are known only by their function. Our narrator is “the biologist,” and early on she explains that “only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. Besides, we ... were meant to be focused on our purpose, and ‘anything personal should be left behind.’ ”

Soon enough, they leave a lot behind, including the surveyor. Apparently Area X has seen worse: “[D]ark splotches across the walls and pooling on the floor told of unspeakable ... violence.” The geography may suggest Florida, coastal and lush. But that regime, called the Southern Reach, reveals earmarks of a military dictatorship, and X proves to be alien territory indeed.

The story, however, never bogs down in gory monotony. VanderMeer finds a balance between destruction and discovery, as his biologist earns the term “heroine” not just for her staying power but also for her poet’s openness to the natural world: “A species of mussels found nowhere else lived in those tidal pools. ... and a tough little squid I nicknamed St. Pugnacious ... because the danger music of its white-flashing luminescence made its mantle look like a pope’s hat.”

As the expedition’s lone survivor endures the gauntlet of the Area’s extraterrestrial — in a passage that rises to the challenge of describing the otherworldly — in her head she falls back on the ordinary, a trauma out of childhood. She has wits about her enough to solve a few riddles of the creature’s origin, as “a thorn ... buried deep in the side of the world.”

More questions linger, to be sure. Annihilation is only the opener of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. All three books, which will be published this year, have been optioned for movie adaptation as well. Yet despite the menacing vagueness of the Reach and its hinterland, the core issues for this extended story, as in the other great works of the genre, are those of troubled men and women on this planet.

The biologist frets over “ecological devastation” outside the home and within it, the decay of her marriage. Now the husband’s gone, and yet, in a richly emotional twist, the wife’s trekking brings her to an intimacy she’d never expected. The tale refutes its own title, in that the annihilations here open up fresh avenues of possibility. Or as the biologist tells her husband, on their last night together, “We live in a ... continuous dream” until “some pinprick ... disturbs the edges of what we’ve taken for reality.”

John Domini’s latest novel is ‘A Tomb on the Periphery.’

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category