Southern Reach Trilogy: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

"Some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answers long enough."

Any bibliophile knows that there are certain books that often call to us; books that, once picked up, would be incredibly difficult to put down. And long after the spell of its story has been broken, the link can never be severed completely. It would haunt the reader even after that first page has been turned. There are several books that have had the same effect on me, and most of them have been science fiction stories, if not all. I've read at least 12 sci-fi books since 2014, and they have stayed with me, tucked away in the deep recesses of subconscious, both darkening my soul a little as they set me free as well.

When I encountered copies of this trilogy, I was mesmerized of the covers, and had great hopes for the promising story within, seeing that it's critically-acclaimed. I curtailed these expectations, however, when I saw a few of users I follow in Goodreads, and whose reviews I respect, responded in rather lukewarm terms about the first book. That being said, it's just a small consideration, and did nothing at all to hamper my personal reading experience about this introductory novel to the trilogy entitled Annihilation.

I should mention that in the breadth of time I was reading this installment, I took long breaks in between to read some manga, play visual novels, and write dark AU fanfiction for a certain fandom. This is notable, I think, as to why I was able to distance myself from the story and contemplate about it. This is, after all, a short book. Only under two-hundred pages long, I think it can even be considered a novella. Another thing I want to add while I write this review is that I recently watched the New England folktale horror movie The VVitch about two nights ago, and the tone and atmosphere created by that film's cinematography can be likened to the sense of dread and alienation that steadily permeated Annihilation.

The premise of this book may be a tad misleading. It's not a psychological thriller, or even an action-packed suspenseful story. If that's what you're expecting, then Annihilation may come off as dragging and too shortsighted in its perspective. Written in a limited first-person POV, it's more or less something of a slow-burning chronicle of the twelfth expedition composed of anonymous four female experts in their field; a psychologist, anthropologist, surveyor and biologist. Readers see the events unfolding through the eyes of the biologist. All that we know of the unfamiliar landscape they are trekking called the Area X is solely dependent on her accounts, and her private inquiries and contemplations about the life she left behind were also a part of these entries. Because the story is told only through one person's accounts, there are aspects to Area X and even the other characters that readers will never know, and that's what makes Annihilation not the easiest book to get into and remain invested in. However, I think author Vandermeer made the best decision to weave the story through one character's perceptions alone, and to choose an unnamed biologist at that.

"There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connection so deep that when they are broken, you feel the snap of the link inside you."

The unnamed biologist in question, I think, was a compelling voice all throughout. With the personality of an introvert whose inquisitiveness and scientific curiosity have made her both endurable and ultimately a tragic, sympathetic character, Annihilation is not so much as an adventure to fight or extinguish an unknown force of nature, as it is more about the grueling mediation concerning fear and loneliness. In fact, the more I read the biologist's chronicle of the events, and the regrets she had to deal with that are made meaningful by the horrors and alienation she had to face, the more I imagine her as the explorer Rousseau from the TV show Lost. Just like that character, the biologist was in Area X for scientific research and data gathering, only to find herself stranded with a crew who more or less she could not trust or truly know. The biologist soldiers on, however, driven by her innate desire to investigate, and the dire lack of options of survival offered to her. 

Area X may be an enigma that this biologist can't even fathom as she walked on its deceptive thresholds and climb down its caverns, but readers will at least find comfort in the knowledge that they're getting to know the woman who is leading the way of the expedition, even if she has no idea where she is going. And that is ultimately how the majority of life must feel like for humans who lived thousands of years ago, surrounded only by the wilderness and unknown species of creatures. Vandermeer struck that primitive chord in me. 

As someone who grew up in these contemporary times during an industrialized age with constant technological advancements, I would often take for granted that there are grander mysteries outside the comforts and luxuries I'm surrounded with. All of us would do that; safe and content in our cities and homes to even bother to track back where life on earth all began, and where it might lead. The expeditions by the Southern Reach to demystify the splendors of the rich ecosystem of Area X is, at this point in the first book, a possible sham to cover up the undergrowth of terrors beneath its seemingly beautiful and vast forestry. It's  frightening because to do so is to traverse what is unknowable and beyond human.

"That's how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality."

Reading Annihilation is almost like watching a documentary, only you become a part of it as it goes on, and each discovery that the biologist would stumble upon is rife with juxtapositions about her own life back before she joined the expedition. Readers will slowly get to know what an individualistic and solitary person she is in spite of being married to a man who is the complete opposite of her inclinations. Readers will recognize too that perhaps her strong stubbornness to claim to her autonomy is the reason why Area X hasn't devoured her as of yet. Her personality and overall countenance about how the world works based on ecosystems and microscopic organisms were things I was engrossed why. I share some of her inherent traits, particularly how solitary she was. It made me wonder how I would react if faced with something incomprehensible as she has that shook her core of beliefs the more she got closer and yet still remain as far from it as when the journey began.

I found her internal struggles to be relatable because of this. After losing her husband to the previous expedition, she was now caught in a battle not to lose herself to Area X. This book presented the Man vs. Nature conflict in such a deft and earnest manner of writing and delivery, whose impact haunted me significantly because its resonance was sharp and almost pitiable. The unnamed biologist resigned to her fate in the end, but not before providing readers her tales of the slow descent among herself and the other members of the crew who became all lost in their own way as soon as they reached Area X.

There is no personal victory to be had in Annihilation. If the title of the book doesn't already give it way, that is. It was, however, a splendid and searing look on the general irrelevance of human life in the composition of the universe as a whole, and how us being granted consciousness may have been an evolutionary failure of our species after all. Humans, burdened with self-awareness, are the only ones plagued by the melodrama and contemplation how alone they truly are in the grander scheme of what had been, and what is yet to come. 

"Has there always been someone like me to bury the bodies, to have regrets, to carry on after everyone else is dead?"



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