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Review: Annihilation / Author: Jeff VanderMeer / Publisher: Fourth Estate / Release Date: Out Now

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first in The Southern Reach Trilogy, is a tricky book to classify. While there are definite elements of sci-fi and horror, it has more in common with literary fiction and the ghost stories of the early 20th century. The text functions as the narrator’s journal, and, stylistically, reads like a cross between sci-fi big wig Arthur C. Clarke and American novelist Cormac McCarthy.

Right from the opening pages there’s a sense that the narrator (referred to only as the biologist) is doomed. There’s something of a Vulcan about her, and her empirical nature soon becomes a source of comfort. The biologist is, by her own admission, an unreliable reporter. Though she’s not entirely trustworthy, the reader is let into her life, little by little and always from afar. 

The landscape is pitched as an antagonist to overcome, and grows more and more unsettling. Nature isn’t often cast as the enemy in any supernatural sense; it’s perhaps most memorably portrayed as such in Lars Von Trier’s headline-baiting Antichrist. Man’s influence on the environment, however, is a widely explored issue, and Annihilation presents the reader with a Chernobyl-level effect on the environment rather than climate change or nukes. Though there are whispers of an otherworldly influence, it’s never fully addressed. The description of Area-X is steeped in loneliness described with an unsettling Lovecraftian quality.

In the hallucinogenic landscape the reader is comforted by the ordinary, the drinking of a beer or the smoking of a cigarette. A through-line of paranoia develops into a near tangible horror, stemming from the piecing together of disparate information, telling the story with scraps, offering a BioShock-style mystery.

The story is concerned with transformation; it has a Cronenbergian fascination with the body, its limits and possibilities. At 195 pages long the novel won’t take more than a few sittings to get through, and brevity is very much a strength.

Annihilation is a departure from the grand scale of contemporary horror and sci-fi. Instead it’s a concentrated, slick narrative, an affecting, profoundly lonely story that’ll have you looking over your shoulder for days.

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