In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad took us to a mysterious place where isolation bred madness. Since then, that concept has been abundant in books and films. People enjoy the concept of an untouched land, where they can be free from societal restrictions (for better or worse). It’s been most popular in the sci-fi genre. Jeff VanderMeer’s book, Annihilation, is the latest to explore that territory.
From the first page of the book, you can’t help but be filled with the feeling of dread. It’s the tale of a doomed scientific expedition to a piece of coastline (called Area X) that has somehow developed physical properties that defy explanation. It used to be open for all to visit, until the unexplained “Event.” Now, only small expeditions are allowed through. The first expedition returned with descriptions of a beautiful, Edenic paradise. The second expedition ended with a mass suicide, the third in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. Members of the eleventh expedition returned as ghosts of their former selves, unable to quite remember what they had seen. Within months, they had all died of cancer. This is the story of the twelfth expedition
The book is told through the journal of one of the scientists-the biologist. There’s also a surveyor, a psychiatrist and an anthropologist-all women. We never learn their names. As the biologist explains to us, names aren’t important. Throughout the book, we get more glimpses of our secretive narrator, but the rest of the scientists remain a mystery.
Early into their expedition, they find a large structure that wasn’t on their map. The others call it a tunnel, but for some reason, the biologist feels it’s a tower. It’s a hole dug deep into the earth, with a solitary winding staircase in the middle. Once they descend, the walls of the tower are covered in words made out of glowing fungi. The writing forms sentences that don’t really makes sense, talking about “strangling fruit” and “the seeds of the dead.” The writing isn’t the only surprise, as the members of the expedition are keeping secrets from each other, the kind of secrets that could threaten everything.
This book was an intense mindfuck, and I really enjoyed it. Hints about what was to come were dispersed intermittently throughout the book, making me eager to read on to see how everything played out. Our narrator’s motivations make sense the more we learn about her, but I can’t help feeling like I can’t trust what she’s telling me. The first entry of the Southern Reach trilogy, this book was pretty self-contained. Unlike other books in a series, I felt satisfied when I closed it for the last time, while still feeling excited about tackling the next one. If you like scifi, the book is worth your time.