The Nameless Horror

Review - Jeff Vandermeer's ANNIHILATION

I finished Jeff Vandermeer’s excellent FINCH last year, a sort-of-crime-sort-of-revolution story set in the fungus-ridden mess that is the city of Ambergris. Consequently, I was very much looking forward to reading ANNIHILATION, a shorter (novella-ish length, I think) standalone about a scientific expedition that goes, in some ways, badly wrong.

Potted, spoiler-free summary: there is a place, Area X, a region whose flora and fauna are weird, whose people fled or vanished over time, into which numerous survey teams have been sent through the vague - and unremembered-by-any-of-them - boundary over recent years. They are supposed to catalogue the life, structures, and topographic changes they encounter, as well as their own psychological reactions to it. The narrator, The Biologist, lost (more or less; he returned, but changed and strange) her husband on the last expedition, so now she’s followed up to see what he did. And everything goes wrong. If, indeed, anything was supposed to go right in the first place. The expeditions are not what they’ve been told, the reasons for them very different, and Area X is… well, it’s not Kansas any more.

Vandermeer does a great line in body horror - or fruiting body horror (a little fungal pun there, thankyouverymuch) - and while the Doomed Expedition is a much-delved basis for a story, this is both fresh and believable, if surreal. Area X, and its secrets, reminded me somewhat of the collective unconscious invaded by the army in Michael Marshall Smith’s SPARES, while the “everything alive here may be an enemy, and may have been changed by something” vibe is perhaps closest to THE RUINS, if THE RUINS was good (which it’s not; that book annoyed me so very much).

The Biologist is a great lead character, and the drip-feed of her history, and the changes she undergoes from the moment she’s affected by spores from the words written in living form in the tower the team find within days of arrival, give her a lot of depth and interest. You want her to overcome the ‘brightness’, and get to the bottom of what happened to the others in her expedition, and the expeditions before them. You want her to make it, whatever that entails exactly - which, given that the reasons for her being there, even her memories of her life before, may not be genuine, is open to question.

ANNIHILATION is atmospheric, gripping, and genuinely creepy in places. The story is told as a sort of story recorded in a journal (that all expedition members are encouraged to keep), but not in a way that’s intrusive or clunky. Vandermeer doesn’t tie up all the mysteries at the end - a very, very great deal is left open (particularly in relation to Area X, what it is and whether it ever truly ends) - and this is good. You’ve got to leave the reader with enough to get their teeth into afterwards. It does wrap up the Biologist’s story in a properly satisfying way, even if her eventual fate is completely unresolved; this is her journal, and she doesn’t take it with her where she goes, so you can’t know how that pans out.

Really good, and I’d happily recommend it to anyone. I’d also happily read anything else Vandermeer writes.

(Next up, STATION ELEVEN. I’m late to the party on this as always, but a third in I can at least say it’s also very, very good and well deserves its awards noms and good press.)