Set an unspecified number of years in the future in a mysterious zone called Area X, and featuring characters who are never referred to by proper names, Hugo Award-winning author James VanderMeer's latest novel is a sci-fi/horror page-turner that is heavy on mystery and the surreal.
Because it's the first part of a planned trilogy -- books two and three of the Southern Reach trilogy are set to be released later this year -- many of its mysteries remain unexplained, yet Annihilation still works as a standalone story that recalls genre films like Ridley Scott's Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing.
Four women who are only referred to by their specific roles -- psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist and biologist -- are sent by a government body called the Southern Reach to explore Area X, a space cut off from the rest of the continent for several decades following an unexplained "Event" that left the area to be reclaimed by nature -- or perhaps by an alien or supernatural force.
The biologist narrates the story, presented as a found journal -- each member of the expedition, and the 11 missions that preceded it, is instructed to keep an account. In addition to their diaries, the individuals are given a few weapons and other basic supplies prior to entering Area X.
A sense of dread is felt early on, as it is explained that previous expeditions ended with mass suicides, colleagues turning on and killing each other, or with members emerging as shadows of their former selves and dying of cancer shortly after their return.
The story begins with the discovery of what the biologist insists on calling a tower, but is actually a deep cylindrical hole in the ground that everyone else more correctly refers to as a tunnel. Inside, the group discovers fungi on the walls that somehow form a series of words -- an almost apocalyptic, biblical run-on sentence that continues for as deep as the tower/tunnel goes.
Getting too close to the fungi, the biologist inhales tiny spores that begin to change her perception of the mission. She discovers that the psychologist knows more than the others and is using hypnosis on the group to control their actions -- except that the biologist is now immune. Soon one of the members turns up dead and a growing sense of paranoia hits.
But is the biologist really immune to the hypnosis? What are the true effects the spores had on her? Her unexplained insistence on calling the tunnel a tower suggests that she may not be thinking clearly, and much of what she describes is unexplainable and dream-like. Then, partway through, she reveals her own secret motivations. The fact that our narrator may not be a reliable source adds to the book's unsettling tone.
VanderMeer does a great job of creating tension in this slim, addictive book, which can easily be devoured in a day (hopefully with the lights on). He also creates unexpected, imaginative scenarios that seem terrifying and wondrous at the same time.
Best of all, he manages to bring this volume to a satisfying conclusion, while also instilling the desire to learn the keys to the rest of the story's mysteries -- which one hopes will be answered in the same satisfying way later this year when Authority and Acceptance complete the Southern Reach trilogy.
Alan MacKenzie is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.