MacMillan, 2014, 195 pages
If J. J. Abrams, Margaret Atwood, and Alan Weisman collaborated on a novel…it might be this awesome.
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: An anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist - the de facto leader - and a biologist, who is our narrator. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers - they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding - but it's the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.
Annihilation, the first in a trilogy, is a strange blend of literary surrealism and environmental sci-fi, not exactly post-apocalyptic, but vaguely dystopian, in a world not quite ours where something strange is going on.
It's a story of four women, never named except by their titles (the Biologist, the Psychologist, the Surveyor, and the Anthropologist) who are sent by the government (a government that is never named or described in detail) to explore a mysterious section of wilderness called Area X. Area X was once inhabited, but now it's lain fallow for generations. There have been twelve (maybe more) expeditions to Area X previously. Some never returned. Some ended up killing each other. Others returned... changed, and unable to talk about their experiences.
This short novel leaves only questions when it's over. What is Area X? Why does the government even want people to explore Area X? What happened to the people who were there before?
The Biologist (the narrator of the story) experiences strange things which she describes sometimes out of order, in streams of consciousness, interspersed with stories about her failed marriage (which will, in a way, become connected to Area X) and her childhood.
Her interactions with the Psychologist, the expedition's leader, and the other two members become increasingly tense and paranoid. They encounter phenomena they cannot explain, which they are tempted to label supernatural though it's never clear whether they are. Despite this being a mystery novel of sorts, most of it takes place inside the Biologist's head. The writing is intense and claustrophobic at times, meandering at others.
It is certainly an intriguing book to whet your appetite to read the rest of the trilogy and found out wtf is going on.
Also by Jeff VanderMeer: My review of Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.
My complete list of book reviews.