Desolation tries to colonize you.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

I grew up on horror. My early loves were (of course) HP Lovecraft; the now underappreciated James Herbert; Stephen King; Peter Straub; Brian Lumley; William Hope Hodgson; M. R. James; Robert R. McCammon; Guy N. Smith with his series of novels about giant man-eating crabs invading Britain; the magnificent Ramsey Campbell. There were many others, now largely lost to me.

The contemporary horror authors shared some characteristics. Their stories were generally set in locations familiar to their readers. They contained healthy dollops of sex and lovingly detailed acts of appalling violence.

The threats were rarely personal to an individual but more often involved entire towns or countries facing madness or atrocity. Particularly with the British authors body counts tended to be high.

Hodgson and James offered more classically supernatural ghost stories (though Hodgson’s The Night Land was a much more curious beast). Enjoyable, but lacking the visceral thrills offered by the contemporaries. Both had a nice sense of how fear could come from the mere presence of the uncanny.

Lovecraft though, and to an extent Campbell, they were different; their horrors stranger. Instead of conjuring fear with ghosts or hostile creatures or scenes of pain and death they instead went existential. The terror here was that the world no longer made sense; that it never had.


Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the first of a trilogy, published in full during 2014. It’s not a long novel, but it is a resonant one. It’s very, very good.

The biologist is part of a team of four sent into Area X, together with the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist. The linguist didn’t make it through processing. They’re all women, the thought being that perhaps that will somehow help in Area X. They’re not the first expedition.

What is Area X? That’s not quite clear. It’s a zone where the world isn’t as it should be. There were previous expeditions, the last one including the biologist’s husband. People who enter either don’t come back at all or come back changed. Whatever is in Area X is alien and dangerous.

Names are left behind. Crossing over to Area X involves passing through some kind of boundary and the effects are psychologically devastating, so the expedition members pass through under hypnosis waking on the other side armed with post-hypnotic commands and considerable uncertainty as to their own mission.

Almost immediately they discover something the biologist names a tower and the others a tunnel. It’s a large disc with steps penetrating deep into the earth. It’s not on their maps. Within they find cryptic and ominous writing growing in fungal form from the walls, written by who knows what. It’s so close to their camp that it must have been known about, so why wasn’t it mentioned?

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

The expedition begins to break down. The biologist finds she’s become immune to the psychologist’s post-hypnotic suggestions after inhaling some spores, but does that mean that her experiences are more real than the others or less? Is she escaping programming or hallucinating?

This is a strange and slippery novel. The reader is rapidly as unmoored as the biologist and the other expedition members. The characters here have lost their names, can no longer be certain of their past, can’t even agree on what they’re seeing and hearing. The psychologist tries to control them with her hypnotic trigger-phrases, but there’s no control to be had either for her or the reader.

As the biologist realises she can’t trust her team-mates or, after inhaling those spores, herself she comes to realise that she also can’t trust the people who sent them in. The expedition’s goals don’t make sense given what must have been known about the tower, and the hypnosis seems to have left none of them with any clear idea of how they’re supposed to leave once they’re done.

The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?

Perhaps the best thing to say about Annihilation is that I genuinely don’t know how to describe it. It’s an insidious and disquieting novel. It evokes a sense of dread, but of what isn’t always entirely clear. As the biologist delves deeper into Area X she encounters signs of what may have happened to those who went before, but the uncertainty is the true horror here.

At times VanderMeer does seem to be making quite deliberate homage to other works. The whole concept is clearly in part at least inspired by Roadside Picnic, though you could easily read this without having read that. Similarly, the following passage where the biologist visits an abandoned village contains imagery strongly (and I suspect intentionally) reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson‘s famous horror short The Voice in the Night:

But in what had been kitchens or living rooms or bedrooms, I also saw a few peculiar eruptions of moss or lichen, rising four, five, feet tall, misshapen, the vegetative matter forming an approximation of limbs and heads and torsos. As if there had been runoff from the material, too heavy for gravity, that had congregated at the foot of these objects. Or perhaps I imagined this effect.

One particular tableau struck me in an almost emotional way. Four such eruptions, one “standing” and three decomposed to the point of “sitting” in what once must have been a living room with a coffee table and a couch—all facing some point at the far end of the room where lay only the crumbling soft brick remains of a fireplace and chimney. The smell of lime and mint unexpectedly arose, cutting through the must, the loam.

If you’ve read the Hodgson it resonates with that, but if you haven’t it still works and in any event it’s certainly not mere pastiche. VanderMeer is master of the disconcerting detail – here that smell of lime and mint which in a way is more horrifying than just the suggestion that something terrible happened here and to the people in these houses.

In the end it becomes evident that horror isn’t intrinsic to Area X and nor is it restricted to it. The world is worse than inimical, it’s unknowable. As the biologist concludes:

Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.

Annihilation is a rare example of genre fiction that I’d potentially recommend to non-genre readers. It’s well written and its effects linger uncomfortably long after you’ve closed the final page. I’m looking forward to reading the second and third in the trilogy.

Other reviews

None in the blogs I normally follow that I’m aware of, but please feel free to alert me to any in the comments.

Edit: Kaggsy alerted me in the comments to a very good review by Annabel Gaskella which is here. Lee also alerted me to this review by Trevor, which I thought I’d read and commented on but looking back I think I may have missed entirely.


Filed under Horror, SF, VanderMeer, Jeff

17 responses to “Desolation tries to colonize you.

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Annabel’s covered these books at her blog:
    She thought so highly of them that I bought them for my son’s Christmas!

  2. Ooh, thanks! I’d missed that. Nice review, I’ll add a link. Looks like roughghosts has read them too from the comments.

  3. I’ve read this one. A creepy weird little book and one that I enjoyed.

  4. As I read this review, it struck me that Sci-fi presents such rich possibilities for horror. I suppose it’s all that alien unknown stuff.

  5. Great review Max.
    Thought this one was excellent but wasn’t so keen on the second.
    Are you reading the rest of the trilogy right after?

  6. I loved this too, the whole trilogy, in fact (if you’ve not read the others, you really must… they’re both very different from the first book (and from each other)) but somehow still manage to gel with one another. I think it’s more about mood or, as you say, a kind of slipperiness, than anything you can actually prove with a few quotes from the book.

    Also spot-on with your Roadside Picnic comparison. The idea of unstable/messed-up ‘zones’ seems to be particularly voguish in SF these days. M.John Harrison has one in his recent Empty Space trilogy, so does China Mieville (“The Torque”) in his Bas-Lag books.

    I’ve been trying to tease-out the metaphoric-literary significance of these zones, and I think there are numerous possibilities, from reflecting the grab-bag/smorgasboard nature of current genre fiction, which allows for an anything-goes approach to SFF (horror mixed with fantasy mixed with science etc.) and disregards rigid genre taxonomy, to more in-the-world concerns (there seems to be a definite ecological bent to Area X, nature fighting back against civilization/global warming, maybe?). They also allow for a lot of border-crossing imagery which, in our post-Mieville genrescape, is very topical.

    Awesome review, as ever.

  7. I’m pretty sure Trevor over at Mookse covered this.

    Great review of an exceptional book.

  8. Funny you should mention Roadside Picnic as Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’ came to mind as I was reading your review. This trilogy does sound excellent, but I’m probably more likely to read Picnic as it’s a standalone novel (plus there’s the link to Stalker, of course). Good point about the sense of uncertainty being the true horror here – the fear of the unknown can be terrifying, especially when it allows the imagination to run riot.

  9. Jennie, creepy and weird is pretty fair!

    Guy, it does but it’s an opportunity less exploited than one might expect. It was much more common in the early 20th Century when genre boundaries were a bit less rigid, but now I see it more in film than literature for some reason.

    Laurence, I’ll be reading them all this year, so not right after but hopefully not too soon after. Pretty much everyone seems to like the first best.

    Tomcat, mood, absolutely. It’s a hard book to quote because the quotes lose the cumulative power of the text.

    On zones there’s also a not-that-well-known John Brunner novel called alternately Age of Miracles or sometimes The Day of the Star Cities. In that aliens come to Earth and overnight detonate all our fissionable materials and then set up what we call cities where they do who knows what. They ignore us and entire industries spring up based on their refuse. It’s not a bad premise, and I think may involve hypnosis so as to manage the shock of travelling through the alien cities which is a similarity that suggests VanderMeer may be aware of it.

    Area X does seem to reflect at least in part ecological concerns, and SF does tend to reflect the fears of the day.

    Lee, he did. I think I commented on it. I’ll edit the piece to add a link. Thanks.

    Him doing so does support my suspicion that this is a rare example of SF one can sensibly recommend to non-SF fans.

    Jacqui, I would read Picnic first certainly, though you might also enjoy this. It’s very much a matter of cumulative mood as Tomcat said. The quotes can’t really quite do the impact justice.

  10. Lee, you mention Justin Cronin in your comment against Trevor’s review. What were those again?

  11. I read this trilogy on a long train ride, during which it rained continuously. Each volume is so different from the last, yet manages to intensify the same ominous mood (and, in volume two especially, there are some moments of jolting, sudden horror to spice up the miasmic horror of the whole). A triumph of atmosphere, as you so well describe it here. Also a triumph of book design, at least in the one-voume version of the trilogy that I read. A beautiful object. VanderMeer’s Ambergris trilogy is also excellent.

    The things this man can do with mushrooms.

  12. The rain would help I suspect. I read Enard’s Zone partly while on a train (there’s a review here) and that helped that similarly.

    I’m glad you like the second and third since many seem less taken. Thanks too for the tip re the Ambergris trilogy – I think this may well be my first VanderMeer (he doesn’t seem an author I’d have forgotten reading previously).

    And yes, mushrooms. Don’t go to his for dinner.

  13. I absolute loved the trilogy, and had the privilege of spending some time with the writer during 2014. He’s one of my favourites. But I’ve really struggled to review the Southern Reach trilogy myself for exactly the reasons you describe – it’s a slippery and elusive set of books, but awesome nonetheless.

  14. Sorry for the slow reply. I’m glad you liked the whole trilogy, particularly since as I mentioned above many seem to like the first best and be less sold on the second and third.

    I think if one could easily review this book it’s power would be much less if that makes any sense.

  15. I was thinking of Roadside Picnic right from your first paragraph. I think that nobody does that kind of fiction as well as the Strugatskys. How would you compare the two novels?

    Incidentally, there seems to be a renewed interest in the Strugatskys lately (which can only be a good thing). Hard To Be A God was published for the first time in a direct English translation from the Russian, last year. I’d recommend that one, in particular.

  16. Well, I think Roadside Picnic is a bit of a masterpiece, though I remember the story more than the prose. There’s a new(ish) translation out that I need to read.

    This is ultimately much more horror than SF, whereas Roadside Picnic is definitely on the SF side. I think Roadside has more to say about human experience perhaps, but this creates a tremendous sense of dread and unsease.

    Hard to be a God I definitely must read, thanks for the push.

  17. Pingback: 2016 end of year roundup | Pechorin's Journal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s