I had my wife read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and report back to me if it was worth reading before the movie is released. She loved the book and suggested I pick it up, as it would be a quick read. This was a fortunate turn of events, because had I read the book first, I would have told her that she wouldn’t enjoy it and to just wait for the movie.
The book tells the story of the twelfth expedition into Area X, a weird part of the country that’s been abandoned by civilization and taken over by plant life and bizarre new species of animals. The narrator, referred to only as the Biologist or Ghost Bird, records her findings and past experiences into her journal, which makes up the book.
Before the Biologist began her journey, her husband had been part of the previous expedition and he may or may not have returned. The Biologist is travelling, not just for scientific understanding of Area X, but to also discover the fate of her husband.
For a short read, this book took me a long time to finish after I started it. It was dense with descriptions of the bizarre Area X, in an almost Lovecraftian level of detail. There wasn’t much of a narrative push to keep me reading, as the story is moved along by one strange finding after the other. However, the odd environment is never explained, nor are many of the findings put into context, which means much of this book is the narrator saying, “Isn’t this weird” and me just nodding my head.
The book is written in a dreamy sort of way and none of the characters act like people. Everyone seems out to kill everyone, right from the beginning and we’re never allowed to grow attached to anyone. The dialog doesn’t read like real human speech but aggressive robots. The narrator freely admits to being aloof and preferring to be alone. However, in the context of the other members of the expedition, this doesn’t pack any punch as all the characters are eerie non-humans.
I think this is why I preferred the flashback scenes between the narrator and her husband. There was no science fiction in these chapters, but against an actual human, the narrator becomes more interesting. Her husband is more outgoing and a people-person and this shines a light on the narrator. She’s frustrating but not a cold monster, she’s solitary but has heart for nature. Watching her marriage strain against the clashing personalities, alongside the husband’s departure to Area X, makes for an interesting read that the science fiction parts of the book fail to replicate.
I think, when it comes to science fiction, I either need believable science or interesting characters. Annihilation had neither. VanderMeer’s writing is too abstract while also being too detail oriented, with descriptions down to the measurements but with zero context. The characters are like ghosts of people and maybe there’s artistic merit to that style that I’m missing. I’m sure I’ve read books with characters like this before that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t the case with Annihilation. I’m still excited for the movie, but that’s more to do with Alex Garland directing it, as Ex Machina was great. My wife will continue this trilogy of novels and, maybe, she might convince me to keep reading as well. But, unless such prompting happens, I personally have no interest left.