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[GUEST REVIEW] Jo Lindsay Walton Reviews ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Eleven failed expeditions have ventured into Area X. We embed with the twelfth – a psychologist, a surveyor, a linguist, an anthropologist, and a protagonist – as they cross Area X’s mysterious border, hoping to discover their precursors’ fates.

Annihilation, first in a trilogy to be drip-fed throughout 2014, is part dark fantasy horror, part sci-fi adventure into verdant wilderness, and part bittersweet fabulism. The prose is lucid, gripping, and establishes a not altogether disagreeable sense of “breathless and unexplainable dread,” in H.P. Lovecraft’s words.

Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936) and William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908) are significant precedents in their mix of trepidation, adventure, and rapture. Annihilation can also boast a crawler and a pit, a bit like Abraham Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” (1918).

The biologist narrates. Whereas most of the other characters are deliberately vaguened, the biologist is richly and distinctively drawn. But even her richness is based on a particular sort of inwardness and inaccessibility: she is detached, taciturn, guarded.

The biologist is equipped with backstory, with some antiquated kit – Glass and Siri go wonky in Area X – and occasionally with some antiquated style. In moments of stately, mannered, almost translationy storytelling, she evokes the claustrophobic atmosphere of dignified cordiality of – say – the bourgeoisie of Sárszeg on the eve of the First World War.

The archaistic stuffiness is conducive to a specific sort of anxiety and repugnance. It could be called the abhorrence of experiencing oneself as nothing more than a fragment of social and economic architecture. It’s certainly palpable in the way Annihilation‘s characters go nameless, pared down to their professions.

But Area X turns out to be difficult to circumscribe, and this specific sort of anxiety and repugnance also turns out to be sneakily pervasive. It definitely goes far beyond a Fight Club-ish complaint about the suckiness of office life. Franz Kafka – or, even better, Thomas Bernhard – often portrayed scrupulously distinctive situations that somehow conveyed administrative anonymity nevertheless. Likewise Annihilation gives us the protagonist’s husband as a “man who had been a passionate recreational sailor” (57), who “had never wanted to be a doctor, had always wanted to be in first response or working in trauma. ‘A triage nurse in the field,’ as he put it” (55). Shudder.

A few more shudders may be gleaned via VanderMeer’s ambivalent presentation of scientific rationality. Sometimes the archaistic tendrils of Annihilation feels as if they’re groping for a historical moment before science went evil – that is, a moment before the saturation of villainy by hyper-rational evil geniuses, before the diffusion of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo’s authority experiments, and Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, into popular consciousness. Scientific rationality is often at its holiest and its most honest when it’s the underdog. For instance, when scientists are fighting a losing battle for sanity as the irrational horrors ratchet up.

But what’s just as striking is the sinister way various intellectual disciplines in Annihilation (psychology, anthropology, etc.) are always tacitly turning people into objects. Perhaps it’s significant that the expedition’s linguist flakes so early on. The psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan once claimed that anti intellectualism was always an alibi for something deeper – fear of language itself. In fact, the linguist never properly appears in Annihilation. Almost as if linguists were comforting stories told to children, because language has become so terrifyingly incomprehensible.

One example of such language-that-might-get-you is a certain long green sentence spinning down into the darkness. It is described as something out of the Old Testament, and it may recall the voice from the whirlwind in The Book of Job – the divine presence whose only justification is that He does not need to justify Himself.

But the association of language and contamination feels even more relevant. Language is both outside us and part of our make-up. Change language and you change the soul. As well as its garrulous green helix, Annihilation features post-hypnotic suggestions, sparked by short phrases (or, in one of the more superb passages, by a solitary word), a sort of allegorical example of personal autonomy getting usurped by events within language. Then there’s a certain crucial festering heap, a prolix monument to failure, which recalls the long history of missions to purify language in one way or another – to finally, once and for all, get language right. Obviously these missions are also doomed. Hymn-smith Rev. Isaac Watts described how “words that once were chaste by frequent use grow obscene and uncleanly” (Logick Ch. IV) – his own “the Lord is come” hasn’t dated well. For the Victorians trousers became indescribables and then unmentionables, whilst inside them legs became limbs and then lower extremities. Euphemistic and roundabout ways of talking often feel just as festeringly infective as the corruption they are supposed to contain.

Annihilation can be pretty cutting-edge too, with many kinds of uncanniness at play. The approach of Annihilation to facsimiles and metamorphoses is subtly informed by Singularity-type SF of the Naughties and beyond. The scary sentence loops in space, just as Bernhard’s sentences loop syntactically; but here Bernhard is perhaps filtered through the metaphysical horror writer Thomas Ligotti – the fragments of the sentence are redolent of the dreamy, hammily prophetic, and yet incrementally terrifying titles in Ligotti’s “In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land” – “His Shadow Shall Rise To A Higher House” etc. (And just as Bernhard/Ligotti try to prang us out with italics, VanderMeer insists that something “has to do with the other boot print” (58)).

Annihilation courses unfailingly with crisp cinematic cues too. The recurring motif of green light is very UFO. Dolphins flash in the river. The biologist bursts a trapdoor with a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other. I got left feeling, “Whatever you think of the story, it was beautifully shot.”

Annihilation comes across as self-contained, despite a whole rich tapestry of loose ends. And despite a multitude of influences – I’ve picked a few that make sense to me, but the connections and associations keep bubbling up – it is remarkably even, integrated and focused.

Perhaps that’s because VanderMeer isn’t really being influenced by his uncanny inheritance so much as manipulating it. There is a ghostly attaché to the expedition’s experts: the anthologist. The anthologist has pored over more uncanny screeds than you’ve eaten hot TL;DRs. Jeff VanderMeer – this is what they say – always knows where to score some weird. It’s to his credit that this suggestive little novel doesn’t just put its suggestiveness totally in service of a creepfest (or he would long ago have chosen the orthography “Van d’Ermeer”), but also discovers thematic direction.

By the way: plenty of explorers of Area X have already come back and everything. Wha-a-a-a-t? Why are you looking at me like that? When did I claim otherwise?

This is another of Annihilation‘s characteristic moves – a subtly disfigured cliché, which nourishes you with its ancient resonances, yet somehow still wrong-foots you. That particular trope is folded into a second, of the gibbering expeditionary who has seen That Horror Whereof One Cannot Speak. Once more, it’s not quite the cliché you expected: the protagonist’s husband came back from Area X, but he didn’t foetus up and cackle. He just stared, a bit nonplussed, at a boat.

(To be fair, he didn’t last long).

So is the (New?) New Weird stuck in the past, or can it come back from the early part of the Twentieth Century with something necessary to our present moment? One of Annihilation‘s big themes, and one of its big mysteries, is what counts as coming back? The survivors of the mass conscriptions of the First World War – those survivors who were not just psychologically damaged, in some way intelligible under the existing social order, but carried spores of an entirely new social order – did they ‘come back’?

Sometimes I feel a special kind of queasiness when I realise that the mysteriousness of a book, film or whatever has reached such a density that only the big, unsatisfying twists can now tie everything up. It was all a dream, a reality TV show, a descent into madness, an allegorical critique, etc. The levels of mystery get pretty high here, but the book is more teasing than that – the fabulism gradually gives way to the science fiction, and the feeling that mysteries are being invoked almost for their own sake, and will explained at most by new mysteries, gradually gives way to an intricate hybrid of many kinds of mystery, and the realisation that there may well be one or two reveals in there.

So finally, a little riskily – and spoilerishly – here’s a bit of conspiracy theory lit crit. Might there have only ever been one expedition? If bodies can be re-created endlessly, as we discover, and if Area X’s influence – if that’s the right word – extends beyond its borders, if memories can be implanted and erased . . . who’s to say that the protagonist of this story isn’t just some phase of some function? Some process endlessly replicated with slight variations within a larger system? Not only a biologist, but also a day in the life of some probiotic gut flora?

And, of course, there are two more of these things on their way. Annihilation is the first of a trilogy, so there may well be more answers ahead. There will definitely be more mysteries.

Note: A slightly shortened version of this review first appeared in Interzone #252. Authority, the second book in the Southern Reach trilogy, is now out from 4th Estate and Farrar, Straus And Giroux.

Jo Lindsay Walton is the author of one contemporary fantasy novel, Invocation (Critical Documents 2013), and some poetry, although he says he’s currently on poetry strike. He keeps a SF/F blog, Everything That is Solid Melts into Aargh!, with reviews and other things on it. He is on Twitter as @jolwalton. (And he is not to be confused with Jo Walton, the author of myriad SF and fantasy novels).

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