Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer | Review
Publication: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 
Genre: Science Fiction
Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audio Book, Paperback
As I raced through the pages of this book, I kept wondering if the story is supposed to signify ideas of environmentalism in some way. As if the text were repeatedly screaming a planetary revenge against humanity’s destruction of the natural world, a world that would otherwise be our welcoming and sustaining mother. Maybe this is reading too much into the text. Well, shall we give this environmentalist theme a chance and see what floats to the surface?
This environmentalist theme caught my attention in the first chapter where VanderMeer’s narrator talks about her love of the coastline just inside the influence of Area X. She writes (in what the reader can assume is her field journal) that her attraction to the portion of the sea captured in the orb of Area X is linked to some kind of almost magical cleanliness inherent in that part of the ocean, “while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself.” This biologist character goes on to talk about how her work outside Area X had “always felt as if [it] amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are.” This to me sounds like VanderMeer is setting the stage for an all-out war between humanity, in all its grasping for control, and the natural realm, in all its terrifying and perhaps unknowable true beauty, with death and life captured in an ever-cycle of revitalizing repetition.
Throughout the novel, VanderMeer continually turns up the tension of this humanity versus nature conflict by lulling his readers into what he artfully presents as the simultaneously deadly and yet overly luscious, and therefore continuously weird, reality of Area X. Through some trick of carefully-chosen vocabulary, he succeeds in creating a mysterious attitude of ultimate acceptance for the story’s trajectory via the beauty of his prose. This use of hypnotic language is not only contained within the text of the book, however, but expands into the reaches of the very plot.
For example, the psychologist character is seen to surreptitiously use trigger words and phrases to gain control of the other members of their expedition. The first of these made known to the reader is, for perhaps the sake of next-book-foreshadowing, “consolidation of authority.” What does this signify in the overall theme of the novel? At this point, my suspicion began to mount about what the overall theme might actually be, if one had been intended at all. Some novels are just adventure stories created to inspire an escape from the normalcy of everyday life. My experience with at least one of this author’s other books (Borne, specifically), however, suggests that letting go of a chance for an allegory like this is not exactly how VanderMeer rolls.
What authority is being consolidated? As much as the text may seem like a metaphor for environmentalist advocates setting their teeth in ready defense against the too-long domination of the overly-expansive human race, maybe there is a joining of the two that is being proposed that can produce an ultimate winning force? Perhaps this version of consolidation is VanderMeer’s idea of compromise, and perhaps it takes a special kind of abdication, or merging of forces, to bring a deeper meaning to the forefront. If only the sea, the rocks, and the trees could talk to us . . . or if only we could listen with their ears.
I’m going to take what may seem like an odd breath and talk about the biologist character’s reactions to the papers she finds left behind by those whose missions into Area X that had come to such mysteriously abrupt endings before the beginning of this book’s narrative. In her readings of these accounts, VanderMeer’s biologist realizes she’s been “looking for hidden meaning in these papers” and that this was “the same as looking for hidden meaning in the natural world around us” so that “if it [a hidden meaning] existed, it could be activated only by the eye of the beholder.” In the written observations of these former expedition members, the biologist narrator confesses she found the oblivion she was endlessly looking for, “a kind of benign escape, a death that would not mean being dead.” If we’re following my above-noted proposal that the book’s primary goal is to awaken environmental consciousness, then maybe this undying, or non-death concept is larger than the biologist narrator’s singular, internal perspective.
But while VanderMeer’s biologist seems the only character initially most predisposed to welcoming or at least not running away from the wild strangeness that inhabits Area X, she also doesn’t want to name her experiences in that place with too much exactness. This seemed odd to me, as I would expect a person with something so exacting as a biologist’s training would want to do just the opposite. I’m not sure how intentional this was on VanderMeer’s part, or if he was using this as a way to relay to his readers a deeper concept to which he wasn’t quite ready to give a more definite form. Although this idea of hiding exact definitions from immediate view seems to come out in VanderMeer’s refusal to give names or individual identifiers beyond their occupational titles to any of his characters in the novel.
Faced with her fears of the categorically unknown, perhaps more easily dealt with by keeping these fears in the realm of obfuscation, the biologist character contemplates ways “to wage a guerilla war against whatever force had come to inhabit Area X.” Yet, she goes on to internally observe that in order for the individual to stay alive and to win her fight against the force that embodied Area X, she “had to fade into the landscape . . . or [she] had to pretend it wasn’t there for as long as possible . . . [because] to acknowledge it, to try to name it might be a way of letting it in.” (I loved the shout out VanderMeer gave in this passage to The Thistle Chronicles, by the way. Having the characters of any piece of fiction reach around the corners of the readers’ reality always gives me a special thrill of connection when exploring literature.) The biologist narrator also explains in this passage that a true examination of the condition that was taking over her being during her time in Area X——“to quantify it or deal with it empirically when [she had] little control over it——would make it too real.” So we have the battle lines drawn, and our main character seems unsure which side she would prefer to join, so that she is seen hiding in a way from both the realm of humanity she’s slowly abandoning and the forces of nature (as mystical as they may be) that have taken over Area X.
Driving forward this idea of hiding from an unknown potential enemy as well as from oneself, the details of the main character’s childhood came as a surprise to me. Further into the novel, she recalls the orange juice her alcoholic mother poured onto her cereal one morning, her dad’s “incessant chatter,” and the cheap motels they stayed at while on vacations. These memories the narrator holds back from the psychological tests she was put through before being allowed to enter Area X, covering up her fear of being perceived as a possibly disturbed or wounded creature by using the word “normal” as her only voiced self-descriptor in answer to the psychologist’s insistent quizzes of fitness. I think VanderMeer is here trying to show how his main character had a very sad and lonely childhood. Maybe it is her instinctive practice of hiding the history of herself, and therefore her very individuality, that predisposes her to being chosen by Area X as the perfect chameleon that could so readily disappear into its eerie grasp?
At one point, the main character finds that the psychologist has written that “silence creates its own violence” when referring to the biologist. It is as if the psychologist saw through the biologist’s mask of self-proclaimed, quiet normalcy to the war the biologist had perhaps unwittingly already begun to fight on behalf of the natural world that was consolidating its power and authority within Area X. Ideas of identity get muddled in the text as the biologist tries to preserve her own safety by keeping herself simultaneously separated from and yet also merged into the landscape of Area X to the point of almost disappearing completely from the reader’s view.
Around this part of the novel, the biologist narrator finds out that the psychologist’s most dangerous activation phrase “annihilation” is meant to assist any listener of this word toward immediate suicide. Again, our narrator reflects on the meaning of death within the border of Area X, as she observes that “death, as [she] was beginning to understand it, was not the same thing here [in Area X] as back across the border.” Perhaps VanderMeer is proposing that death is not a true ending at all. The ponderings of what it means to fight toward a winner within any battle, as well as possibly what it means to lose to a consolidation of realities toward the possibility of a greater understanding, seem captured in this portion of the text. Specifically to this point, near the end of the book the biologist observes that “we all live in a kind of continuous dream . . . [and] when we wake, it is because something, some event, some pinprick even, disturbs the edges of what we’ve taken as reality.”
If nature were given a voice we could understand, or if we suddenly developed the patience to allow room for the megaphone of nature’s authority for just a moment, would the above-mentioned pinprick look like the dolphin’s eye that intrigued our biologist narrator again and again during her journey farther and farther into Area X, that eye which was also oh so reminiscent of her husband’s stare that was inexplicably absorbed into the depths of Area X ending in his ultimate disappearance? Is this merging of the past’s consequences with reality’s immediate now the type of consolidation of authority VanderMeer is trying to propose?