Written By: Mia Manning
Jeff VanderMeer’s first novel in his suspenseful Sci-Fi dystopian series, Southern Reach Trilogy, is Annihilation. The novel follows a biologist, and for a small period of time, her unit, through her expedition to Area X, an environment that mimics earth without known civilization: an area that has been overgrown by land, plants, animals, and monsters which all contribute to the danger of the exploration.
The novel is written from a first-person perspective, in a way that mimics a journal, making the reader feel as if they have become a part of the universe itself. The biologist frequently refers to the reader as some unknown, expected entity, which does make it easy for the reader to want to know more and continue flipping the pages. The plot line itself is new and unique, and if that is all the reader is after, it is not a bad place to start.
However, despite this unique plot line, the work as a whole still falls flat. While it could be considered an adult version of dystopian novels that have hit the market in the past, such as Divergent or The Hunger Games, it does not carry the same weight to it when it comes to the information the reader is given about the characters, government, etc. The potential is there, but VanderMeer leaves too many unanswered questions. While the lack of information is most likely to highlight the little knowledge the biologist has about her expedition, it nonetheless, causes the reader to be reluctant to pick up the novels following this one. The ignorance Vandermeer throws upon his reader causes a feeling of estrangement between the characters, the government, the fictional world itself, and their relationship to each other. What starts as interesting questions the reader asks themselves while exploring the novel ultimately leads to disappointment, rather than satisfaction, upon completion. If one wants to even somewhat understand the motive behind the government, this definitely is not a good choice, as all such below-the-surface questions largely go unanswered. For example, background information on how these expeditions started is sparse. Though the main character may simply be unaware of the truth, such exposition would be relevant to the reader either way, as it would help create a relationship between the narrator and the audience. This certainly is not the novel to reach for if one is looking for a deep understanding of the political motives behind such a dystopian society.
Although the novel has a vast array of characters, especially in the beginning of the book, no real connection can be made to any of them. Backstory is not provided, character relationships are not truly made, and the dialogue seems two dimensional, almost as if it is forced to be there. Throughout the novel, the few conversations that take place seem robotic: emotion is not portrayed in a realistic way and it feels as if the various characters lack humanity, even the biologist’s personal, internal reflection feels detached. No character has a name that is revealed, not even the biologist, who only reveals the pet-name her husband gave her in her life before the expedition – despite her being the protagonist of the novel. VanderMeer reveals that this is a product of what the fictional government has told them to do. However, because of the story being told as if it is a journal, the reader has the impression that the storyteller can not trust them with the truth, even if it is a minor, personal detail. The biologist does reveal some aspects of her past as the novel continues, which aids the story, but the placement seems choppy, as if they do not truly belong in the areas where they reside. This causes the reader to have a lack of empathy for the characters, which, in turn, causes a strange feeling of indifference to come over the reader as the common qualities of such a novel – where typically the reader is rooting against the government, or at least feels remorseful for a certain character – never occurs. This ultimately detracts from the novels effectiveness as a dystopian story, as the relationship between the characters and reader is never strengthened.
The wording in the novel is also difficult to fully emerge into, VanderMeer focuses on using long winded descriptive sentences, which helps the reader imagine the scenery, but also causes a lack of flow between the words, making the reader want to skip these long paragraphs to get into the ‘real action’ of the novel, which is actually a rather small part of the book in comparison. If the reader is looking for a truly action packed sci-fi novel, with true insight into the world that surrounds the characters, this is not the novel or series for them.
What certainly had potential to be a shockingly new take on sci-fi novels, turned into somewhat of a disappointment mainly due to the lack of connection between the reader and narrator. Annihilation is full of good, interesting ideas, but simply was not written in a way that presents them in the best light. While it certainly is not an awful read, it is not a good one either. The wording, unanswered questions, and lack of real and emotional character relationships use the unique plotline as a crutch, which, because none of these issues are resolved by the end of the novel, causes a ridiculous amount of disappointment. The novel is not one to be recommended.