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‘Annihilation’ by Jeff VanderMeer – Review by David Burton

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I’ve been inextricably drawn to Annihilation since its publication a few years ago. It won the Nebula Award, spawned a smash-hit trilogy, and is about to be released as a blockbuster film. When I first read it, I was underwhelmed. I knew nothing about the novel when I settled into read it, only its critical success. I knew it was ‘sci-fi’, and this rather misleading genre categorisation led me astray. I found no spaceships or adventurous space romps. Not even a large, green, threatening alien that wanted to take over the galaxy. I found four unnamed characters, on an exploration mission into an unknown territory, for unknown motives, subject to an unknown conspiracy, and vaguely threatened by an unknown sense of encompassing dread.

Annihilation is a slim volume, and it leaves so much unanchored to reason or context that at times it doesn’t feel like a novel, but an opaque suggestion of a novel. This is a very fine needle to thread. Leave too much unanswered and you risk losing the reader entirely to frustrated indifference. I was reminded at times of the television series Lost, or even The X-Files. The credits roll and we are left with more questions than when we began.

But author Jeff VanderMeer succeeds spectacularly. With a renewed sense of what to expect on my second read-through, I was hooked. Questions are answered and beget more questions, all with a slowly escalating sense of horror. And that is, ultimately, the book’s most fitting genre. This is a tale of horror. I read this book over a couple of nights, at the end of long days, drifting on the edge of sleep, beer in hand, a sleeping, teething eight month-old by my side. Suddenly all the feelings of isolation, engulfing mystery and existential bewilderment seemed inescapably relevant.

annihilationSo, the plot – what little of it I can give away without ruining it for you. Four scientists – a surveyor, a psychologist, a biologist, an anthropologist – are the twelfth expedition to explore ‘Area X’. The biologist is our narrator and hero. From page one there’s an unsettling disconnect – an unmapped large tower structure that demands to be explored. Except the biologist is the only one who thinks of it as a tower. The others insist on calling it a tunnel, much to the biologist’s confusion. Questions upon questions abound, and the thudding pace of the novel, the gentle ramp into violence, is expertly handled. We are always spared the gory details. We never behold a graphic description of blood, or even the rantings of a colleague’s madness. “I can’t bear to transcribe the details here,” is a comment we hear more than once from our narrator, so the reader must fill in the gaps. Otherwise our narrator gives us the story with scientific distance.

We eventually learn that the biologists’ husband was lost to a previous expedition. He returned home, but half of himself, as if hypnotised or in a trance. Without ever hammering the point home, VanderMeer’s architecture of the counter-point plot is beautiful. As our narrator feels more isolated, more overwhelmed by a sense of loss and bewilderment, she recalls similar feelings in her relationship – even before her husband went away. We are all familiar, after all, with that sense of not being quite grounded in ourselves or connected with those we love the most. This most unnerving tension is the emotional drum-beat at the heart of the novel.

“As I came and curled my arm around his, he had a puzzled, almost forlorn look on his face, as if he could remember that the boat was important to him but not why. He didn’t acknowledge my presence, kept staring at the boat with a growing blank intensity. I could feel him trying to recall something important; I just didn’t realise until much later that it had to do with me. That he could have told me something vital, then, there, if he could only have recalled what. So we just stood there, and although I could feel the heat and weight of him beside me, the steady sound of his breathing, we were living apart.”

A Natalie Portman movie adaptation inspires some initial confidence, although there is certainly a bad movie version of this book that is hard to avoid. The essential distance that makes the book so successful would be almost impossible to capture on film. Where the book can gesture to an image with a simple phrase, leaving a reader to conjure it in their own mind, a visual rendering may not avoid solving all the mysteries for us. We needn’t work at all. This has me concerned. A sleek CGI-filled blockbuster would not only be boring, it would mis-place the essential success at the heart of the book. But director and screenwriter Alex Garland is a safe bet. He is, at heart, a horror filmmaker, and a good one. 28 Days Later and Ex Machina, are at the very least interesting pieces of filmmaking, whatever your taste. I look forward to seeing the movie adaptation and his interpretation of the tale.

There are conflicting reports about when/if Annihilation will come to Australian cinemas.  Some say this will be in February and others say the film will go straight to Netflix outside of North America.  Either way the trailer looks sufficiently creepy.

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