Review: The Strange Colonies of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation
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Jeff Vandermeer is one of the PEN World Voices Festival’s speakers for 2017, where he will be speaking on “Gender, Power, and Authoritarianism in the Dystopian Age” and “Dystopian Wastelands.” Annihilation is the first book of his Southern Reach trilogy, and is currently being adapted into a movie due for release later this year.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation tells the story of the twelfth expedition into a strange and unexplored space known only as “Area X.” Area X is an abandoned region being slowly reclaimed by nature. It is surrounded by a near-impenetrable barrier, referred to as “the border.” Previous expeditions that have crossed the border typically come back changed, or not at all.
The book is presented in the form of a journal kept by the biologist of a team of four that enter Area X, following an expedition that collapsed when its team abandoned the project and simply walked home. We're told that the previous expedition team disappeared from Area X, only to return to their day-to-day lives somehow vacant, as though they had forgotten who they had been before they left.
The book's characters have no names, and are referred to only by their expertise. The biologist is accompanied by the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor. Their expedition was originally to have included a linguist, but she opted out at the last minute. The team is bolstered by months of training and deeply-implanted posthypnotic suggestions to ensure that they react in the most efficient manner possible without panicking.
In terms of existing analogues, Annihilation often has the feel of a 19th century adventure novel. This is at least partially thanks to the fact that it’s epistolary science fiction, and the resonances with books like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World are strong, particularly at the outset. That said, as things progress it begins to feel more and more like Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, which posits a similar series of expeditions into a fundamentally contaminated space (in this case “The Zone”), though there it is in an effort to retrieve apparently alien artefacts.
Of course, there are pronounced differences, not least of which that the trips into The Zone are largely illicit affairs, performed without supervision or permission, while the ventures into Area X are well-funded and equipped by comparison. Moreover, where The Zone is laden with dangers predicated on weird twists of physical laws, Area X’s dangers more often stem from the threat of biological contamination. The two share a feeling of abandonment, both in terms of the sense of place they communicate to their readers and in terms of the environments in which they find themselves.
Early in the book, our biologist-narrator breathes a cloud of spores native to Area X, precipitating an immediate panic about the extent to which her body has been compromised by exposure to Area X. Alongside the constant sense of abandonment, this is one of the running themes of the novel, and much of its plot and action revolve around the experience of (and perhaps paranoia of) exposure to Area X’s virulent biome. Indeed, just as the earth’s scientists must find a way to breach Area X’s borders, so too the spores of Area X must find a way to breach the boundaries of the human body to begin their colonisation effort.
Indeed, despite its focus on abandonment, if we are to boil Annihilation down to one central theme, it is that of colonisation. The space of the book, Area X, often feels like an alien (perhaps even extra-dimensional) environment that has somehow established a beachhead on Earth. When we learn that Area X has been slowly expanding, the border swallowing more and more of the surrounding landscape, that impression of Area X as a colonial space grows accordingly.
This impression of Area X as a space of colonisation is also reflected in the persistent fear of contamination, which most often seems to take the form of a physical colonisation of the bodies of those present on the expedition. In some cases, this may be relatively benign, while in others it is horrifying, manifesting with spongiform fungal growths on the body. The end result is a combination of body horror and colonialism that’s utterly compelling.
Indeed, this introduces us to one of Annihilation’s most interesting facets, the constant interchange between our impression of who is the coloniser and who the colonised. At first, it seems the expedition, with its base camp and its mountains of equipment, has set out to establish a colony in the alien space of Area X. That this team should so quickly become the subject of a biological colonisation from Area X inverts the relationship entirely.
This interplay is made only more complex by the fact that the expedition team’s training includes the implantation of posthypnotic suggestions (to be triggered as necessary by the team’s psychologist). It’s easy to read these hypnotic suggestions, triggering “alien” thought processes that have been planted in the team’s minds by their superiors, as their own flavour of colonisation. This idea is echoed later, when our narrator opines that she could feel the spaces of Area X “infiltrating my mind in unexpected ways, finding fertile ground...”
It is worth noting too that the team’s lasting impressions of Area X are first established by the maps and notes that they are given. These are, in many ways, the entextualisation of the experiences of previous expeditions into the space. It seems fitting then that the fungal spores that later contaminate our narrator are themselves being inspected because they appear to grow in shapes and patterns of words. The exhibition team's colonisation of Area X begins with the consumption of texts, while Area X’s effective colonisation of the team begins with the consumption of a text produced by Area X itself.
It is hardly a coincidence then that the first indication that the fungal spores of Area X have affected our narrator comes when she fails to respond to the posthypnotic suggestions planted during her training. Moreover, we see the effects of Area X on the mind taking place in similar, near-unconscious ways to hypnotic suggestions. There is a sense that these forces act against one another, particularly when it comes to the character of the psychologist. These processes of inter- and counter-colonisation are genuinely fascinating to watch unfold.
Commenting on the unearthly stillness and the strange moaning sounds that permeate Area X, our narrator adds,
“The effect this has on you cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”
This paints the members of the team themselves as the site of repeat colonisation efforts both by Area X’s native fauna and by the government of their home world.
Annihilation presents us with a setting in which boundaries are more permeable than we would expect or want them to be. This applies to the grand boundaries that separate the outside world from the world within Area X, but also to the more immediate and personal. The relationships between characters are governed and mediated by structures not only of interpersonal communication, but also by thought-steering hypnotic suggestions implanted before the action of the novel.
That Area X introduces a physical, biological agent that also permeates these boundaries is at the core of the story. Thus, we see that the physical space the characters inhabit comes to govern their interpersonal relations externally (as in the case of their drive to explore Area X), but also internally (as it does through both the linguistic structures that seep into the expedition team’s minds and the spores that physically enter their bodies and seem laden with a sinister, transformative power). That these act in opposition to one another lends the novel an uncomfortable tension that makes it hard to stop reading.
For now, suffice it to say that Annihilation is at its core a fast-moving and entertaining science fiction novel, but one with a thought-provoking theme whose invasive interplay between environment and character holds a sort of grim fascination.