Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Source of book: I own this.

This book was selected by the local book club I am part of. Previous selections for the club (at least the ones I read) were:

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Annihilation is part of a science fiction trilogy, and is a quite short book - more of a novella. I am not quite sure why it was broken down into three books, although I suspect that each has its theme. It is irritating that one has to buy three books (and they aren’t cheaper than longer books) to get essentially one book length. Of course, I am fond of very long books, so I may be biased.

One of the things that frustrated all of us in the club was that very, very few questions were answered. There are so many hanging ends and unexplained things that it feels like the book ended rather than finished. I looked into it a bit more later, and found that most reviewers recommended reading all the books as a set rather than individually, and then the vision of the author became more clear.

The basic idea of this book is that there is this mysterious “Area X,” where some vague environmental catastrophe occurred in the past. Nature has re-taken where civilization has been, and the area is sealed off by a boundary. One after another, research teams have been sent to Area X, to...well...what exactly they are supposed to do isn’t really clear. Keep notes in journals. Explore. Something. And they have all ended in disaster. One in suicides, one in the team members killing each other. In others, the members return, but are somehow shells of who they were.

The narrator, known simply as the biologist, is the widow of a man who was on the previous expedition, and who died mysteriously of cancer soon after returning. She is a highly unreliable narrator, even telling us she is leaving stuff out, and yet all we know is what she tells us. It is a weird experience, contributing to the claustrophobic reading experience.

One of the things never explained are why The Biologist refers to a spiral tunnel as “The Tower.” She never does explain. Another is exactly what she sees at various points, where she makes an allusion before refusing to disclose the truth.

Also left unknown is the purpose of the expeditions. Each team is given nearly zero information, and nothing about the prior teams. So it is like inventing the wheel each time. The members of the teams don’t even know anything about the others other than their profession - and are not supposed to share their information or journals with each other. Supposedly, this is to eliminate bias, but, as The Biologist says, “But I knew from experience how hopeless this pursuit, this attempt to weed out bias, was. Nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective - even in a vacuum, even if all that possessed the brain was a self-immolating desire for the truth.”

I think this is one of the big clues about the theme of the trilogy - and one explanation of the book’s name. There is a desire for truth here, at least on the part of the Biologist - and that is presumably the point of the expeditions. But truth is never without bias as long as it is perceived by an individual. As the book goes on, a form of annihilation happens to various characters, and I am left to wonder if this is some of the point. The search for truth leads to self-immolation. That is, annihilation.

We also felt that the book was almost anti-personality. There is no real characterization. We know a bit about The Biologist from a few of the flashbacks we get from her. But really very little. The reduction to function that the teams undergo pervades the book as well, and the narrator feels like a means of exploring the world and the truth, but not a real person herself. It is only her unreliability that humanizes her, I suppose.  

I am interested in reading the rest of the books now, to figure out how this ends and what the heck is going on. This wasn’t my favorite book of the year, but it was an unusual read with an intriguing premise and style. I guess that was some of the point. Not the same old genre fiction, but something different. I was also reminded a bit of some Asimov short stories, with the depersonalization. Since the books are all pretty short, if I get to the end and want to throw the book, it won’t cost me much in reading time.

As usual, the book club discussion was a lot of the fun. So many different perspectives, and a wealth of possible links between moments in the book and influences from other books, movies, and video games. (Yes, this IS the 21st Century!) 


One note: This book (or Trilogy?) is being made into a movie. Some of our club members saw the trailer. The universal comment was “is this even the same book?” Or, as I paraphrased the usual movie attribution, “Based on a book - just not necessarily this book.”

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