Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

I love Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later) so when I saw the trailer for Annihilation and found out it was based on a book I decided to give it a go. I don't usually read such extreme science fiction, but he has always impressed me so much with his work that I thought I'd try it. Garland adapted the Kazuo Ishiguro book Never Let Me Go, so I had a lot of faith in him in regards to his relationship between a script and a novel. So I went out and bought Jeff VanderMeer's book - the first in his Southern Reach Trilogy.

Annihilation focuses on a team of four women (a biologist, anthropologist, psychologist, and surveyor) on the twelfth expedition to Area X. How this bizarre location developed or why the government is so worried about it is never identified. All we know is that there have been previous expeditions and they have either ended in violence, suicide or cancer.

We move through Area X from the perspective of the biologist (no one's real name is ever exposed). When the team gets there they discover a staircase going deep into the ground and decide to explore it. From here a bunch of weird shit starts happening ... It isn't a spoiler to say that only the biologist survives, as she says early on in the book:

I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. Besides, we were always strongly discouraged from using names: We were meant to be focused on our purpose, and 'anything personal should be left behind.' Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X."

Natalie Portman in the movie adaptation directed by Alex Garland

I'll start by saying I will probably never read the other two books of this trilogy. Garland has also said that he has no intention of working on a second or third film. The reason I won't keep reading is simply because I didn't really enjoy the first book. There were too many times that I felt a little lost and some of the topics I was interested in were ignored.

One of the reasons I picked up this book was because I was so interested in the concept of an expedition lead by only women. There is some brief mention about how they have experimented with different combinations for expedition teams ... our main character's husband went on an all-male expedition for instance. I guess I was hoping for some sort of explanation ... like why they thought having all of the same sex would influence what they found in Area X or their experience of it ... but there is nothing about this at all.

This was also acknowledged when the biologist talks about how her husband was on the 11th expedition and her reason for signing up after he died:

A spouse of a former expedition member had never signed up before. I think they accepted me in part because they wanted to see if that connection might make a difference. I think they accepted me as an experiment. But then again, maybe from the start they expected me to sign up."

This is the sort of stuff I love about science fiction books ... it gets you to ask why some of these scenarios exist, and what are the intentions behind them. Why would they want a team of all women or all men? What does the government believe having a spouse of a past-expedition leader accomplish? It makes you wonder more and more about the nature of Area X ... my issue here is always that I don't get any answers, just more questions.

One thing I did really like was that VanderMeer does not use any of the stereotypes associated with women. No one on this team is a "nurturer," no one is overly emotional or compassionate: "Observation has always meant more to me than interaction." There is no camaraderie at all between this group of women.

I do love sci-fi in that I wish I was a scientist ... a marine biologist, animal behaviouralist, or someone who could potentially work for the Department of Natural Resources. This is what drew me to the book. I love a team of female scientists exploring a dangerous, unnatural environment.

How what we had seen below could coexist with the mundane was baffling. It was as if we had come up too fast from a deep-sea dive but it was the memories of the creatures we had seen that had given us the bends."

a scene from Garland's upcoming adaptation

There is also talk early on about how their team originally had a fifth member, a linguist. Obviously I was super pumped about this as Meg and I both got our master's degree in linguistics. I love that our field of study is always mentioned in movies because that is exactly the kind of attention we would want ourselves. For instance, I remember watching the first Thor movie and one of the CIA guys was like "GET SOMEONE FROM LINGUISTICS DOWN HERE!" I mean there's also Arrival, based on a linguist who has to help decipher an alien language. God, maybe I'm as cool as I aways wanted to be.

The book is super short (208 pages), but is eery the entire way through. VanderMeer is constantly alluding to the dangers this expedition will face. But there is also a sense of unease between the characters for other reasons: lack of trust, the history of past expeditions, and a sense that they haven't been given all of the information about Area X.

I hope it's only about six feet deep so we can continue mapping," the surveyor said, trying to be lighthearted, but then she, and we, all recognized the term "six feet under" ghosting through her syntax and a silence settled over us."

Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez in the film adaptation- in theatres February 2018

Another topic I did really enjoy was the nature of curiosity. What we are willing to do to answer puzzling questions, to explore what's new, and to continue to push into the unknown.

I feel like this quotation below summarizes why people flock to science fiction, and how these types of books often become best sellers. It is the same reason we are obsessed with true crime ... we'll never really know the truth, but we still grasp at answers. We HATE not knowing.

You understand, I could no more have turned back than have gone back in time. My free will was compromised, if only by the severe temptation of the unknown. To have quit that place, to have returned to the surface, without rounding that corner ... my imagination would have tormented me forever. In that moment, I had convinced myself I would rather die knowing ... something, anything."

This is a sentiment I can understand. While I am certainly a coward, I am also very curious, and having things left unanswered actually pains me.

This book is short and is worth the read if you really love science fiction. Again, I do enjoy sci-fi books now and again, but I needed more from this one. I can't help but think Garland's movie adaptation is going to be much, much better than the book.

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