Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: _Annihilation_, by Jeff Vandermeer (first installment of the ‘Southern Reach’ Trilogy)

*Don’t be alarmed – the following review has no spoilers!
Alex Garland’s rendition of Annihilation is set for release sometime (hopefully) within the year.  The film is an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy, which also includes the sequels Authority and Acceptance, and is sometimes collectively referred to as Area X.  Garland is most well-known at the moment for having directed last year’s superb artificial intelligence thriller, Ex Machina.  So, in anticipation of the upcoming adaptation, I decided to get a copy of Vandermeer’s book and read it for myself.  Cards on the table: I’ve never read anything by Vandermeer before, but based on the reviews and reactions toward Annihilation that I encountered, I went ahead and bought the whole damn trilogy (you can purchase it as an omnibus edition from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, titled Area X).  I was taking a chance, but then I was also pretty confident in my decision.
            Now, having finished the first installment in the trilogy, I can definitively say that my confidence was well-founded.  Annihilation is a strange, unsettling, perplexing, yet also hauntingly beautiful work of fiction.  I find myself hard-pressed to settle on a label for what kind of fiction, or what genre Vandermeer is writing in.  Many have called this science fiction, and it certainly is… to a degree.  Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to associate it with the Lovecraftian “new weird,” somewhat in the vein of China MiĆ©ville.  The shortcomings of human perception, the potential for madness, an unforgiving nonhuman world… all of the ingredients are there.  Alternatively, the novel also reads at times like a kind of eco-thriller, a text with conservationist undertones.  The narrator is a biologist who constantly reminds readers that true objectivity is impossible – that no matter how much she tries to remove herself from what she observes, her act of observation is always a part of the ecosystem under her surveillance.  Modern eco-critics condemn the invasiveness and corrosiveness of industrial and postindustrial technologies, but Vandermeer reverses this concern, imagining instead an unsettling scenario in which humans are no longer the invaders.  Something else, rather, might be trying to invade us.
            Lovecraftian indeed.
            The narrative recounts the progress of an expedition sent into the mysterious space known only as “Area X.”  Their mission isn’t entirely clear, even to them; but their primary purpose seems simply to be to investigate the region, locate specific places mapped by previous expeditions, and learn as much as they can about what happened – “what is still happening” – in Area X.  The biologist, who also serves as the primary narrator, is accompanied by three other specialists: a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a psychologist.  All four characters are women, and the novel passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.  Almost none of their conversations are about men.  The only significant male character in the novel is the biologist’s husband, who appears only in her recollections and who was “lost” on an earlier expedition (I’ll leave the juicy details of this development for those who wish to read the book).  The novel’s style is sparse: there are no proper names, of people or places, that would help us identify the exact location or historical period in which the novel is set.  The only proper names unveiled in the novel are: The Southern Reach (the vague government entity that holds jurisdiction over Area X), Rock Bay (an ambiguous location that the narrator visited in her past, on one of her field assignments), and Area X itself, if we can even consider “Area X” to be that “proper” of a name.  Even the locations within Area X are hopelessly anonymous (the black pine forest, the marsh flats, the abandoned village, the lighthouse… and a source of ever-present unease, the Tower).
The novel’s pace is swift and compelling, making it hard to put down.  The narrator’s process of discovery is our process of discovery; and even when her realizations end up complicating our impressions of what exactly is going on in Area X, we feel the need to know more.  The text never feels as though Vandermeer is trying to misdirect us, primarily because his narrator is so impressively critical of her own observational perspective.  She seems to be constantly aware of potential flaws in her reasoning, even if her awareness is sometimes slightly delayed.  A somewhat unsettling and destabilizing event (I can’t be more specific) occurs surprisingly early in the text, rendering the remainder of the novel perpetually uncertain; but the narrator never presumes her objectivity or her accuracy.  Her intense self-reflection never becomes overbearing or daunting, but rather entices us as readers to somersault with her through the valences and obscurities of her environment.  Area X is no normal ecosystem, that much is certain… and that negativity may be the only certainty.
The novel concludes on a satisfying yet not entirely revelatory note, and I’ll say no more in this respect.  Conceptually, Vandermeer’s text is grappling with some fascinating topics mainly having to do with the difficulties or paradoxes of symbiotic biology (the narrator is a specialist in something called “transitional ecosystems”) and the fragility of human selfhood within and among such interconnected lifeforms.  Ultimately, knowledge itself comes under fire as the narrator-biologist increasingly ponders how anything like a coherent set of facts could be derived from organisms and ecosystems that are constantly in flux, sometimes violently so.  Vandermeer even manages to include some speculative inquiries on language and communication (language plays a central part in the narrative of Annihilation, although I’m not entirely sure we can actually describe this phenomenon as “language” – but you’ll figure that out as you read…).  Ultimately, transitional ecosystems and symbiotic organisms are also communicational entities, forms that actively infiltrate and augment their hosts (the work of Michel Serres comes to mind, specifically his 1980 book, The Parasite).  Something is definitely communicating in Area X… but I’m still not sure I know exactly what it is yet.

Of course, there are still two more books to go.  More to come…