A biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist walk into a postapocalyptic Eden: That’s the grabby setup for Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Sometime in the future (or the past), in a world that could be Earth (or not), the four female scientists arrive in mysterious Area X. Something happened here long ago, a never-explained event. Strange nature has since reclaimed the place. Mythic landmarks dot the landscape: a lighthouse, a ruined village. At dusk, a creature moans in the distance. Our scientists constitute the 12th expedition into the zone. Some earlier explorers never returned, and the ones who did were changed somehow. The biologist narrating Annihilation knows the risks. Her husband was on the 11th expedition.
To say much more would be difficult, because Annihilation is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. And I mean that as a compliment: VanderMeer has crafted an evocative adventure that suggests an episode of Lost reimagined by Andrei Tarkovsky. Which is exactly as fascinating and frustrating as it sounds. Nobody has a name. The book is filled with questions and open-ended answers. It could be a Christ allegory, a Genesis allegory, or a Revelation allegory. ”All of the Above” is possible, but so is ”None of the Above.”
Annihilation is the first in a trilogy, and it feels both unfinished and overextended, a stretched-out short story. But it is a captivating meander, filled with lush prose describing naturalistic imagery that veers between the beautiful and the terrifying. What makes Annihilation special is the biologist’s voice: clinical but also wandering, struggling to understand the monstrosities lingering in Area X and the emotions lurking beneath her own serene surface. Like all the great weird books, Annihilation will scare you and move you, and you might never know why. B+