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.’