I’ve been participating in the MadLibs Reading Challenge 2018, and I chose this book as one of the “noun” categories. Be warned that spoilers are coming ahead, so if you plan on reading the book, do not pass this line!
Annihilation is a relatively short read, but don’t let it’s small size fool you. There is such a complexity of character and plot happening that the writing itself very much resembles the way the biologist, the main character, views the world around her. Even though VanderMeer wrote the story so that none of the characters had names, it didn’t create for a lack of depth with each one. I felt a particular kinship with the biologist though, as we saw most of the story unfold from her point of view.
She tells the story with a clinical voice, especially at the beginning, in which she constantly talks about observation and analyzing the environment around her, whether it’s in a lab, at a tidepool, or even in her own marriage. She makes it clear that observation holds more value to her rather than interaction, and I felt such a relief in seeing a female character that emphasizes this point without ever being villainized. Through her habit of observation, she remains apart from her ecosystem, and never becomes a part of the ecosystem. I think after recent conversations I had with a friend of mine about how I’m so quiet all the time and I rarely tend to interact with people, it felt good to see another woman portrayed this way, but not made to be evil.
That doesn’t mean that her tendency toward introspection and observation didn’t irk those around her. It’s made clear in her flashbacks to her marriage with her husband, one of the lost souls to the previous Southern Reach expedition to Area X, that he was vexed with her habit of retreating into her own observations and never letting anyone in, emotionally. When she volunteered to go as part of the next expedition, the psychologist was also annoyed at how little she could get out of the biologist.
Now, as to the plot of the story, I’m not gonna lie. I don’t entirely know what it’s point is or where it’s going (as there are two more books). I do know that I enjoyed the scenery VanderMeer created with the plant spores that created actual writing on the wall and seemed to have its own life. Throughout the book, the reader knows there have been various expeditions into Area X to study the phenomenon happening, but we know as much as the explorers do. There is no source or origin for why these mutations are happening or how. There is no explanation as to why they are researching and exploring Area X. Do they think it’s dangerous to the world as a whole? Is there still a world outside of the Southern Reach and Area X? If there was an apocalypse, was this the source?
The explorers and reader don’t even know where the entrance point is to Area X. There’s no recollection how they got there, and more worrisome to the mysterious government agency in charge of the expeditions, they don’t know how anyone could have gotten out. The biologist’s husband returned from the expedition, but he was the first to do so and he did not return as himself. One can assume that despite their strained marriage, the biologist entered Area X to find out what came back, because if it wasn’t her husband, what was it, and what else came through? We start to catch glimpses toward the end when the biologist discovers the journals of previous explorers, of which there were many more than the Southern Reach disclosed to present expeditions.
As the book comes to a close, the reader sees there’s something strange going on in the way of clones, doubles, or doppelgangers. How they come to be and where they go is still to be determined. The one thing I wish I had seen more of in the book were the animals and other plants. There was such a high focus on the living writing on the walls of the tower/tunnel that the reader didn’t actually see much of Area X’s other creatures, except for a brief appearance of a wild hog that comes close to the expedition’s camp.
When I’ve talked about this book with friends I’ve described it as the kind of story that fans of Archive 81 would enjoy, and I stand by that statement. I’m definitely itching to find out where the biologist’s journey takes her in the end as she follows her husband’s path deeper into Area X, so I will be picking up the next book.
Has anybody else read this book? What did you think? Do you have theories as to what Area X is exactly and how it came to be? Let me know in the comments!