Annihilation follows the 12th expedition into Area X, a strange zone along the American coast where inexplicable events happen. We follow one of the four members of the expedition, a woman known to us only as the biologist. All earlier expeditions to gather intel about Area X have come to harm in some way or have just disappeared, or their members suddenly turned up somewhere outside the zone.
This book follows an old idea that to travel outwards goes hand in hand with traveling inwards. The setup of the story is almost identical to the novel Roadside Picnic (1971) by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, which was adapted to the big screen as the movie Stalker (1979) by Tarkovsky. But the basic premise of this story also goes back to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the books by JG Ballard, like The Drowned World (1962). All these stories are about a strange area that defies the normal laws of the world, and the people that enter these places are transformed psychologically to something new.
Annihilation is like a little nightmare about loss of control. The Area X messes around with the biologists’ feelings and subconscious drives. It exerts a control over her that she doesn’t really understand and she carefully monitors her own feelings and desires from moment to moment, without really understanding where they come from. It is like the weirdness of the place is colonizing her. On top of this, the psychologist who is the leader of the expedition uses hypnotic suggestions to control the team members, with opaque motives, so that is another layer of losing control to an outside agency.
But the biologist, a person who is a bit estranged from other people, joined the expedition to lose herself. To step away from the person she was before. In this sense, Annihilation differs from Stalker and Roadside Picnic, because Area X is about the oblivion of the self, whereas Stalker was about ego, about a promise that your deepest wish would get fulfilled once you reach the heart of the area. While the area in Stalker was about a greatest shining wish, Area X in Annihilation is about, well, annihilation of the self.
Does Annihilation add anything new to these stories?
The book is deeply mysterious, creepy and absolutely fascinating. Gross and uncomfortable. There is a sense that while the characters walk through the area, they are being observed, and the people overfocus on things that don’t matter to take away that uncomfortable feeling. There is tension between the characters that somehow makes everyone a bit “off”. It is like a whirlpool of gross alien biology and psychological stress.
Annihilation is also a little nightmare about not understanding. It is a failing search for truth as the biologist disengages from the team and tries to support her sanity through her scientific training, but she never seems to get to that point that things start to make sense. VanderMeer understands very well that weirdness, the uncanny, lies in moods and feelings. Reading the book feels like being hypnotized.