Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)

In most social circles, profession is what most characterizes a person, in a far larger degree than the name or any other individual characteristic. “What’s your job/occupation?” is usually a default question when coming into more-than-trivial conversational contact with someone, and profession tends to extensively colour our thought-form of most persons. It could be said that name and surname are necessary evils only in situations where the same occupations is shared by more than one person.

Enter the Annihilation’s 4-person expedition into Area X. A quartet of women, each with a different professional specialisation, inside an area empty of people. Suddenly names become unimportant; we are left with the surveyor, the psychologist, the anthropologist, and our protagonist, the biologist. Though it is implied later in the book that there might be yet another cause for this abandonment of names, it is also true that in a situation like this (where the only humans in the vicinity each have a different occupation) names are superfluous. Thing is, this equation of one’s being with one’s profession is a bit contradictory in a society where work and personal life are (ideally – for society at least) two completely separated spheres of one’s life.

Enough with this detour. Annihilation, the first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, is a rather short horror/sci-fi novel, which tracks the aforementioned expedition’s trek into Area X, an uninhabited area, demarcated from the rest of the world by a Border of unknown properties. Our expedition is the eleventh to brave Area X’s depths according to the Southern Reach, the vague organization behind the Area’s exploration. Written from the biologist’s first person view, the book reads like a journal of sorts, which mixes the present-day exploration’s narration with flashback fragments of the heroine’s past life.

Annihilation is laconic both in its cast of characters (four main ones, along with two or three more orbiting around them) and its spatial diversity. The whole novel takes place in Area X (though flashbacks connect us with the outside world); or, to be more specific, it unfolds in three landmarks inside the Area: the Camp, the Tower, and the Lighthouse.

«Scientific expedition» + «dangerous, uninhabited, and maybe infected zone.» This aggregate, evident from the book’s first pages, screams of science fiction and has a touch of apocalypse (could it be zombies that I see?) on the horizon. Not exactly my cup of tea as far as horror fiction is concerned. Thankfully, the story grows quickly towards the uncanny and weird side of horror, with a fairy-tale-esque touch towards the end. This is quite a feat, all things setting-wise considered. The unfolding of the story borders on the Lovecraftian, the ghost story, the post-structuralist linguistics, never quite letting any of these dominate. Allusion, implication, and the absence of graphic violence and gore are pillars of the book. The whole idea of the Crawler/Tower complex is pleasantly disturbing and archaic, almost mythological in hue. The despairing uselessness of written-speech-sans-reader is a theme resonating throughout parts of the narrative.

On the negative part of the spectrum I would put the somewhat anti-climactic resolution at the end, though I understand that it is the first part of a trilogy (and yet quite able to stand on its own, though many things are left unexplained). One other thing that bothered me (though not terribly) is the over-abundance of the protagonist’s personal and emotional details in the flashbacks. I understand that there really is one character, so she should be expanded upon, yet I think we could do with slightly less such material, since it tends to weigh down the narrative (this is obviously a matter of personal taste – I like my horror rather de-personized).

Annihilation is a great read, graced with several ideas and images that tend to stick in one’s mind. An excellent genre crossover, it emits an air of vagueness which satisfyingly rewards active imagining initiatives.

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