Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

One of the big science fiction books of the past year. Winner of the Nebula Award. The first book in a trilogy all of which were released in a single year. It's a slim little book, and I'd certainly heard some of the hype around it, although really nothing about the content. What little I'd heard made me think of The Maze Runner, which is really not the comparison you want running through your head. (God, I hated The Maze Runner.) So I went into this with very few expectations, and was more than pleasantly surprised.

It is obviously the first book of a trilogy, in that by the end of the first book, there are far more mysteries than there are answers. This works for two reasons: 1) I know the other two books are already out, and so it didn't bother me in the way sometimes the first book in a trilogy usually does, but more importantly, 2) the character's story comes to a satisfying conclusion, even if there are still larger questions about the world unanswered. We don't cut off at a random point - her story comes full circle to a deeply unsettling end. It feels like a complete book that is part of a larger work, and I'm sorry to realize how few trilogies accomplish both those things.

What this book accomplished is being damned creepy without pushing so far into horror that I was out. I'm a huge chicken when it comes to scary stuff. This skirted that edge, and yet made me think my horror-loving husband might really appreciate the book. It's on the atmospheric edge of horror, where it's small revelations that are unsettling, not big things lunging at you from the dark.

The main character, who we never know by name, is one of four women who make up the 12th expedition into Area X. What exactly Area X is, how it came to be, and what it is becoming, are never entirely delved into. Partly, it seems that no one knows, but it's not far from a city where life goes on much as we know it. Except there are some unsettling suggestions of difference. She is the biologist, along with the psychologist, the surveyor, and the anthropologist. Other expeditions have been larger, or smaller. Some have disappeared utterly. Some have mysteriously reappeared back in the city, but changed. 

It would spoil the effect to get in to what they find there, but from the beginning, there is something deeply unsettling about the moment where they find a passage leading down into the earth, and the biologist is only able to think of it as a tower. None of the other agrees, but it creates a dissonance every time she thinks of The Tower, and that helped set the unease in my shoulders as I read further. 

This is the biologist's story, as much as it is that of the expedition. Who she is, what drove her to sign up for the expedition in the first place, and how that drives her to interact with the uncanny nature of Area X, form the emotional core, and it is equally unsettling.

As I said, in the end, we don't find out exactly what's going on in Area X, but we are given revelations that were exactly the type to make my spine crawl. Good work, Jeff Vandermeer.  At the end, that character comes to a point in her journey that is a satisfying, if also creepy and ambiguous, ending. It's a good combination of answers and questions, and makes me eager to go on to book two, although I'll probably try to hold out for a while.

I didn't know if I'd like this book, given the hype. Turns out, I liked it quite a lot.

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