An Adventure in a Cursed Land

Author: Jeff Vandermeer

Area X is a mystery, a deadly portion of land, contaminated, cut off, and expanding. For decades doomed expeditions have been sent into the heart of this land to study it, to understand what happened, to try and stop the land from further encroaching. Those who do return are different: mad, sickened, dying. Yet expeditions continue, and this is one such incursion into a beautiful, cursed land.

There are three women on this expedition, lead by a psychologist, who at turns manages the expedition and hypnotically controls the volunteers. The other members are an anthropologist, a surveyor, and our narrator, the misanthropic biologist with a past and a secret agenda. Together, these women explore the area, but all is not as it seems. Some things are known about Area X . . . and those things have been hidden. As the biologist gets deeper into the landscape, as she herself becomes infected and transformed, answers spool out ahead of her, leaving a trail of violence and only more questions. What is Area X? What is the biologist becoming, and will she get what she came to find?

I discovered Annihilation through one of my Good Reads book clubs. I was excited by the premise. I love tales of spreading malignancy – plagues, mysterious creatures, pathogens, spores. These are the stories that terrify me and stoke my imagination. These are the stories that pivot around survival, around the most wonderful and most base aspects that make up the human psyche. These are the stories that show us at our best and worse, that demand introspection alongside horrific exploration.  Yet, something in Annihilation left me uninspired, removed, as the biologist’s story unwound and the group discovers a hidden tunnel with a mysterious creature scrawling across its walls.

Ultimately, I like a bit of mystery. Many spread stories remain unexplained. Think of my favorite – Night of the Living Dead. We never entirely know what started the zombie outbreak, and it hardly matters, because surviving the night is the only pressing order of business. Ultimately, in this cult classic story, a lack of information works in the narrative’s favor and draws on a sense of realism. In the middle of such a worldwide event, who would have time for the pragmatic formulation and testing of hypothesis? Yet, the lack of information in Annihilation works against the story.

Image by Karen Nadine from Pixabay

We have so many questions, but the narrative never gives any answers at all. This goes from intriguing to irritating, especially since the story ends much as it started. There are no answers to anything, no real revelations, no character growth, no path forward or conclusive ending. Things just sort of happen, slowly. There are a few weird vignettes, a notable description of actual, living, fungal words, and then it just ends. It’s all too vague, too fever-dreamish without drawing a living portrait of Area X or of the women who briefly inhabit it.

That brings me to the character. The biologist opens up, somewhat, but she still seems far away, the story told through layers of gauze. Perhaps part of it is the character’s own psyche. She admits to being a loner, unattached, unapproachable. As such, we watch her, but never connect with her. The others are too distant from the story, known by professions instead of personality attributes, and everything happens both too quickly and too slowly, the perfect mixture to bring apathy to an interesting story that ultimately doesn’t have enough going on. It ends as it began, with a slight pall, a vague sense of the ominous, and a great, unpassable distance.

I didn’t hate the Annihilation, but I was never particularly engaged either. It was just ok, neither offensive nor inspiring, an easily forgettable foray into the bizarre.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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