Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Southern Reach (#1)

Published: 2014

I read it: January 2015


With this trilogy, I decided to just go ahead and believe the hype. Every angle seemed intriguing, right down to the cover art. Now that I’ve finished the first volume, what is there to say? To those interested, the only helpful message is: put aside my opinions on it and give it a try. Curl up under a blanket and get spooked.

For those who have read it, I’d probably start by elaborating on the comparisons to other works. The television show Lost looms large here. The mystery, the sticky wetness of a vibrant and mysterious landscape. That was a show I really enjoyed despite its flaws, and it’s great to tap back into that feeling.

As far as books go, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves comes swirling back to the surface. The sneakily unsettling plot. The prying apart of the natural order of things. The question of genre. Is this horror? And specifically, a deep tunnel that holds something truly unknown.

And above everything hovers the singular giant shadow of H.P. Lovecraft. By coincidence, I’ve been working through a Lovecraft anthology that I started around Halloween last fall when I thought the mood was right. It’s been a lot of fun, and I feel like whole new corners of dark psychological intrigue are opening before me. Jeff VanderMeer is clearly an honor student in Lovecraftian lore, and his modern take in that vein of fiction is vivid.

But I don’t want to go into plot and character just yet. What I’m wondering instead is, what is the attraction to these survivalist stories? Why is it so fascinating to be on a desert island adventure, where you’re not sure who to trust, and you second guess every shadow that catches the corner of your eye?

We’ve all lived through the pop culture popularity of zombies, which has caused us to discuss the term “zombie apocalypse” in half-seriousness, in broad daylight in front of almost any type of person, with nobody lifting an eyebrow to question our interests. At one job I remember the game of putting together a zombie apocalypse dream team where the rule is you can only choose coworkers. We would snatch at names as if picking teammates in a scrimmage. (My top choice was a hardworking, level-headed mother of two with a good sense of humor and a low tolerance for bullshit. I didn’t know her all that well, but for some reason I knew I would want her by my side with a crowbar.) And in the back of our minds we would wonder: would anyone pick us?

We love playing what-if in the weird alternative universes. It’s safe but thrilling in an almost embarrassing way, because you have to imagine some worst-case scenarios. Your family might be dead or missing. You might never return to a functioning society. You might have to turn against your neighbor, or they might turn against you. What if the entire sum of your past brought you to a very specific physical present, one in which you had no conventional responsibilities and no one to look after? What if it was you versus the universe?

Let’s walk down into that tunnel. Or is it a tower? No one here knows. You’ll have to go with your educated but incomplete guess. So stay alert. Stay present. As it is written: “Some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.”

7 thoughts on “Annihilation

  1. Like you, I thought that prying apart of the natural order was one of the most powerful things here. By not using standard horror tropes, it created something far more unsettling.

    I hadn’t thought about the comparison with other survival stories, but it’s an interesting point. I’m currently enjoying watching The 100, despite its sometimes inconsistent characters. I think that part of the appeal is looking at how you’d cope with the darkness. It provides a catalyst for characters to become their best or their worst selves, and lets the reader imagine themself at their best.

    • Hi, thanks for reading! Yes, I see what you mean about the best and worst selves. In our normal lives we have the opportunity to constantly edit and refine our words and actions, but in extreme situations we are stripped down to our barest selves. It’s very intriguing.

  2. Great question, Levi. I’m definitely starting to wonder about the appeal of dystopian stories, although this didn’t read quite that way. It seems the easiest way to thrills–tearing things apart around us and watching us squirm. I have this strange theory that we used to get our thrills from running away from predators, and now we don’t need to anymore, so we like movies and books like this. I definitely agree it has a lot of the House of Leaves aspects, and so maybe even a bit of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House too. I hadn’t thought of the Lovecraftian connection while I was reading, but now that you mentioned it, it is obvious. I really do love the idea of thinking bigger, and further, and more complicated or less clearly, than normal science fiction.

    • Hi Kali, thanks for the comment. I think you’re onto something with a biological explanation for our thrill-seeking. I imagine our ancient ancestors lived constantly on edge with little time for peace (as some modern folks do as well I assume) but for those of us with luxuries and spare time, we manufacture excitement. There was a lot of primal stuff going on in VanderMeer’s trilogy.

      I’ve not yet read Shirley Jackson’s classic, but I’d really like to. That one, as well as We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

      Overall, I also think this brand of sci-fi/speculative fiction/whatever is very interesting and has a lot of potential. Creative authors are finding neat ways to make things strange.

  3. I think it’s interesting to consider that while we have this apocalyptic fascination with fiction, there are real-time but small-scale apocalypses occurring across the world- for example, Haiti and the devastating earthquake of 2012 (I believe?). But what’s everyone’s responses to those? People in our situations just kind of ignore them or consider their impact but we don’t really picture ourselves over in Haiti struggling to survive. We don’t really see it as an apocalypse because it’s not happening to us. These situations in other countries don’t really qualify as apocalypses because they don’t fit our exciting and adventure-filled ideas of what the media has shown us an apocalypse to be. So, are our perceptions of apocalypses muddled or even privileged?

    In fact, many third world countries have undergone apocalyptic/castastrophic situations – in Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia, or even in the Middle East in Syria and Palestine leave people in hopeless scenarios where they are struggling to survive an authority that is actively killing them. So are we, the people who are so fascinated by the popular fictional accounts of white, first world men and women (The Hunger Games, The Road, Divergent) surviving in apocalyptical first world countries, living in a glorified means of survival that we’ve conveniently tailored to our tastes? I think if you were to ask the people surviving in Haiti during the aftermath of the earthquake what they think of these stories, they wouldn’t understand our fascination because this destruction is their daily lives. So is it a matter of privilege for us?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love apocalypse stories, but I don’t really think a majority of those interested really understand the impact of an apocalypse and how it really affects people in our world. What’s interesting to consider is that this exciting apocalypse story we’ve been craving has actually been happening around us in countries we have affected and colonized with big business (example, oil troughing off the coasts of west Africa have impacted coral reef accumulations which affect the tides. Without these coral formations that are irrepably damaged, tides are free to consume the surrounding farming areas and devastate them, creating a castastrophic situation to those living there. Or even the fact that Coca-cola in India zaps clean water supply and screw over the people living around those plants or factories).

    Why aren’t these situations as interesting to us as these novels?

    BOOM. Levi, there you go bro. My analysis that isn’t even about Annihilation kind of. Good book though.

    • Good points all around. I think the whole concept of reading a book for fun only happens within a sphere of privilege. Some people are so unlucky they could never conceive of an activity. So that goes for all types of stories, not just apocalyptic ones.

      But more to your point, I think there’s something to be said for engaging with the first-hand accounts of a devastating story, but through the lens of fiction. We can, and should, read up on real stories and learn about the real world. One issue of National Geographic will take you through plenty of horrors. I just don’t think the human psyche could dwell there that long. You start really trying to take in all the truths we have access to, and the sheer fucked-upness of it all will make you want to poison yourself to sleep. This is just a guess, but it might be better to be intensely interested and up to date on one or two real life horrible situations, than to hear summaries of thousands of them. Our hearts just aren’t that big.

      So one function of fiction is create a helpful divide in our brains. We can interact with a harsh story while part of us knows it isn’t true. We can get super close to someone in despair or being tortured, and try to feel what that might be like, without actually having to know that a real human is suffering this fate. At its worst, that activity can be a shield against doing anything to make the real world a better place. But at its best, it can take us to places that a news story, or even a well-written non-fiction account, can never really go.

      It’s a messy mess. But I think these stories do have some value. We just gotta keep trying to figure out what it is.

      Thanks for commenting!

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