If J. J. Abrams, Margaret Atwood, and Alan Weisman collaborated on a novel…it might be this awesome.
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: An anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist - the de facto leader - and a biologist, who is our narrator. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers - they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding - but it's the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.
©2014 Jeff VanderMeer (P)2014 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
I want to be very clear about something: VanderMeer is a beautiful writer. I was transported to Area X and remained there for the duration of the story. The imagery and psychological development and devolvement... just beautifully done.
That being said: This book is really, really weird. I just finished the book about 20 minutes ago and am still on edge. It is very much a bizarre dreamscape- one that verges into a nightmarescape more than once. In fact most of the book could be classified as slowly being wound tighter and tighter into the surreal. There honestly wasn't anything I would find particularly terrifying or graphic... but I am left feeling disturbed nonetheless.
If you are looking for a classic "beginning/middle/end"... don't listen to this book. If you are looking for a satisfying resolution after listening... don't listen to this book. If you are looking for "Lost" on drugs... this is the book for you.
There are gaps in the story (intentional I am positive), gaps which may be filled in the following two books of the trilogy. I agree with other reviewers thoughts that this could be a stand alone book- in fact I am really intrigued what on earth the other two books are going to be about.
I was not particularly impressed by the narration- quite frankly she put me to sleep a few times with the monotone reading. But, the story carried it through where I might have tossed this into the return queue otherwise.
In closing, that's just about all I can say without doing the unthinkable and putting spoilers in the review (something that continually stuns me when reviewers do on this site).
Cheers for the new sub-genre of Weird Fiction: Fungal Fiction (although John Wyndham may have planted the seeds in 1951 with The Day of the Triffids). Lost, down the rabbit hole, through the mountains of madness, into the Garden of Earthly Delights where you might find H.P. Lovecraft tending the plants with a potion mixed by the likes of Ambrose Bierce and the Strugatsky brothers. You've only to go to the novel cover artist's site (Eric Nayquist) and see the animated cover to get your first chilling warning that the primordial lush beauty of the environment belies what lurks beneath the expanding Area X -- the mysterious target area of the *Southern Reach* program, controlled by a cloaked branch of the government. This is the 12th expedition sent into the *contaminated* area, a team comprised of 4 unnamed female scientists, with a vague protocol: a surveyor, a psychologist, an anthropologist, and our narrator, the biologist.
"Our mission was simple: to continue the government's investigation into the mysteries of Area X, slowly working our way out from base camp."
The story unfolds in a series of objective journal entries by the biologist beginning at the point of entry into Area X. The rusted remains of equipment and the husks of tents left by the previous 11 expeditions appear deceivingly untroubled. Listening is experiential, a bit like trekking by way of helmet cam... your field of vision limited to each step of your boots as you proceed into the terrain, all senses dependent on the observations of the biologist. Personal observations begin to seep into the narrative: her husband was a member of the ill-fated 11th expedition; there was a fifth member, a linguist that pulled out of the mission for reasons known only to the psychologist; there is a prominent tunnel/tower that is not on their map. The narrative seems to slant and erode the listener's confidence in the biologist. Even in the carefully chosen words to be recorded, you can hear the unraveling.
VanderMeer excels in rationing out this story with tortuous control, intensifying the doubt, dread, and sense of impending doom by degrees, as much as he does in spinning a fantastical tale with some real merit. The sense of an unearthly foreboding reminded me of Algernon Blackwood's The Willows (Lovecraft's favorite). So often the story span of a trilogy is dependent on its parts, but this may be the exception, as well as exceptional. Annihilation is a strong independent read, definitely one of those exciting and rare species that you race through and want more. With the release of the second installment expected in June, the third in September, this coming summer already has a bright spot. This was a great choice -- just way too short.
*Some of the power of this novel is in the unfurling of the events -- knowing too much could be a spoiler.
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
I'd never read anything by Jeff VanderMeer before, but I found this tight, haunting science fiction novel to be an enjoyable mix of Lovecraftian horror and Roadside Picnic-like paranoia, revolving around an alien environment that calls into question reality-as-we-understand-it. The initial setup is intriguingly sparse and mysterious; all we know at first is that some vaguely-described government body named the Southern Reach has been sending research teams into a abandoned region called Area X, in which things turned weird years ago. Most of these expeditions, as one would expect, have come to bad ends, but a 12th, composed entirely of women, is on its way in.
Why things are as they are -- or even what time, place, and world we're in -- isn't explained at first. Instead, VanderMeer provides us with a pinhole view into an enigma, metering out information (and tension) in the form of journal entries written by the 12th expedition's biologist. She, as we learn, hasn't been told everything known to the Southern Reach, and may not be a wholly reliable narrator herself. As the team explores a strange, unmapped structure that communicates portentous, Biblical-sounding messages through fungal writing, its members -- known only by titles such as the Psychologist, the Linguist, or the Surveyor -- begin to vanish, die, or turn on each other. And things are out there in the dark. Things alien, but not altogether so.
As the situation unravels, the biologist's detached, protocol-driven observations give way to more personal reflections and memories. We find out that her semi-estranged husband was a member of the 11th expedition and wasn't quite himself when he returned, and that the biologist had her own reasons for volunteering.
VanderMeer's tight, crafted writing contributes much to the book's cinematic, shifting, just-out-of-focus feel, as does audiobook narrator Carolyn McCormick’s well-controlled reading (I’d thought she’d overacted a little in The Hunger Games, but she’s great here). The biologist, who seems more comfortable viewing the world through a magnifying glass than a wide-angle lens, tries to hold back from impossible conclusions, yet appears to circle around them. Her oddly clinical response to events only heightens the disquieting atmosphere of the story, as her mental viewscreen jumps between familiar, intimate observations of the natural world, weird, incongruous imagery, and her own doubts about why she's there and what's real. As in the best science fiction, the answers seem to be there in a fragmentary way, but elusively. I think this is an effect Lovecraft aspired to, but lacked the prose gifts to really pull off.
Altogether, a strong entry in mind-bending speculative fiction, echoing past works of note (Christopher Priest's The Islanders and Peter Watts' Blindsight also come to mind), but showcasing VanderMeer as a fresh and capable voice unto himself. The spores, it seems, have infected me, and I'm looking forward to the next entry in this trilogy.
Not the audio version. Perhaps if I'd read it, I would have preferred it. Most of my friends are not fans of speculative fiction or biopunk or the new weird or whatever this book falls into. So I only recommend genre books when I think they are exceptional: Perdido St. Station, The Wind-up Girl, Finch. I don't think this book will be appealing to someone who is not already dipping pretty deeply into the F&SF pool.
It was very stilted. The character she is performing is an unreliable narrator if ever there was one, someone who has been infected by mysterious spores and undergoing transformation into something probably not human, so I understand what she was trying to do. But as a directorial decision, it failed. One scene in the book is treated pretty much the same as the next, one word in a sentence is treated pretty much the same as the next. It did not draw me in at all. It was especially disappointing compared to Oliver Wyman's reading of Finch, which was so charged and so engaging. Granted, McCormick was reading a very different book.
Go back and listen to Finch again.
I'm a fan of Vandermeer's and I may well prefer the print version of this book. I loved Finch, LOVED IT. This book? No. We are offered narrator's vision of events which she presents as a biologist's POV. There's a lot of biology speak that doesn't ring true. Perhaps she was never actually a scientist and that is the point. But I don't want to read a book full of pompous delusional blathering. Sure, I want to know the secret, want to know what area X is and what the authorities think they are doing about it. But it's not pressing because I don't care about the character. I don't know that I'm interested enough to continue with the series.
Naturalist, firefighter, actor.
From the very beginning the sense of dissonance, of wrongness seeps into your mind. You try to fit the tale into a category but it just won't fit anywhere. Mystery, adventure, horror, literature, Annihilation is all of these and none.
It is a fever dream set on paper. It is a rationalist's attempt to process the irrational. It is the face you didn't see in your bedroom's darkened window. It is the realization of true love, long after it matters. It is the wonder of the unknown and the dread of the unknowable.
This book will bind you to itself. It will not release you until you have walked the dark stairway to it's end and traced the words written upon the walls with your trembling hand. The journey is not long. This is a short book. But it is a worthy tale that will stay with you, long after you reach the end.
Carolyn McCormick is well suited for this book and her narration adds yet another layer to the eerie atmosphere of Annihilation.
Annihilation is the first volume in a planned trilogy but the novel easily stands on it's own. It reminded me of the work of J.G. Ballard in that it's at least as concerned with the psychological state of it's primary character as it is with the strange, mysterious area she and her companions are exploring. There's a dose of Machen and Lovecraft in the book too, which isn't surprising since Jeff Vandermeer is a champion of weird fiction. However, in the end, the novel is unique and original, a beautifully written, sometimes harrowing, exploration of humanity's encounter with something new. There are passages that border on the hallicinogenic and Vandermeer wisely leaves some questions unanswered. Perhaps they will be answered in subsequent books but honestly, I hope not. Some things are best left to the imagination.
I highly recommend Annihilation. I found Carolyn McCormick's reading of the book a little monochromatic but it's certainly not bad and there are moments where the placid tone she uses really works in the novel's favor.
Everything in The story feels like a cardboard cut out to hang beautiful language on. It might work as poetry but as a novel it falls short.
There's practically no characterization and no affect at all from the protagonist/narrator. Making a sandwiches drowning are all the same.
Very flat reading. While this may be due to the nature of the story it still feels like an endless drone
Boredom and disappointment. I kept waiting for the story to start then when I realized there was none I was waiting for some explanation as to what was going on. It never came.
A mashup of kafkaesque bureaucracy and old-school horror, without the elegance of the former or the velocity of the latter. Lots of nice images, but not really much momentum; The plot does not advance through narrative necessity but through a series of scene changes design to show you the next (admittedly interesting) "woo" scene. Every piece of this book was OK, but in sum I found it a little tiresome, despite liking the premise.
I'm a voracious audiobibliophile, mainly interested in speculative fiction, with the occasional mimetic fiction or non-fiction title sneaking in.
When I started reading about this book, I spent far too many hours trying to come up with my dream narrator for it. Somehow I never considered McCormick, the voice of The Hunger Games, but from the first line she is fantastic. Her laconic, detached mainline narration perfectly suited to the biologist's clinical, scientific mind, and it is the biologist's narrative voice, through the structure of the novel as her definitive account left in a journal, which, detail by detail, flashback by flashback, brings depth both to the mysteries of "Area X" and to her character. McCormick does not employ too much in the way of vocal gymnastics to differentiate the few characters -- just enough to characterize them effectively and succinctly as, one presumes, the biologist herself might do. The principal exception to this is her work on the voice of the psychologist, the designated leader of the expedition, which is given a decidedly (almost British-schooled?) formal turn, a flavor which makes McCormick's outstandingly dynamic work with her later in the novel stand out all the more strikingly. On the story: from the first pages, the narrative -- of an all-female 12th expedition to a mysterious "Area X" after 11 previous and mostly catastrophic expeditions -- is driven by a compulsion, a both scientific and inescapably personal curiosity to answer the question of: what lies at the tower's base? This tower, which is not even supposed to be here, which does not appear on any map or in any record of "Area X"? This curiosity grows further into fear-yet-we-must-see territory as the first foray into the tower reveals strange words written, glowing, breathing, alive? on the walls of the tower, heading down. We find the mysteries of Area X and "The Southern Reach" growing deeper and broader both down into and in the surrounding, increasingly surreal landscape beyond the tower, setting up and leading naturally into further explorations in the successive books, but the biologist's journal stands alone as a completed arc, a completed story of inquiry, discovery, and transformation. It is a fantastic book and audiobook, highly recommended.
I'm a big fan of SF/F/Horror, and all things in between and out.
It’s a simple, classic set-up: A group of explorers head out on an expedition to the mysterious Area X. They have gone through rigorous training that strips much of their identity in hopes of generating unbiased field reports. Instead, they are referred to simply by their scientific professions: Psychologist, Anthropologist, Surveyor, and Biologist. There was a Linguist too, but something happened to her. They are the twelfth expedition. Some of the prior expeditions have been successful. Others have ended in the death of every member on the team. Pretty soon, this latest expedition comes across something that’s either a tunnel or a tower – something that wasn’t on the maps in their briefings. There is, of course, something very wrong about this tower tunnel. Not long after exploring it, things start to go very wrong for the twelfth expedition.
I’d say the fun starts here, but really – the terrifying fun starts pretty much right away. The expedition is out of its depth from the very first page – before they cross over the border into Area X. It quickly becomes clear that nothing about the expedition or Area X are as these scientists have been led to believe.
It’s a simple, classic set-up, but it’s written by Jeff VanderMeer, so things are a unique level of intensely, wonderfully, WTFery weird. VanderMeer is simply an incredible writer, his prose popping like mushroom spores in your ears as he leads you in a delightful, dangerous daze across the mysterious, unexplainable landscape of Area X. It’s filled with invisible boundaries, spooky doppelgangers, strange creatures, and unexplainable events. It’s a primal story of coming to grips with a place impossible to understand – a place just as strange as ourselves. For all its weirdness, it’s incredibly accessible, and never dull.
Carolyn McCormick was the narrator of the Hunger Games trilogy, and she does very strong work here. The story is told from the journal entries of the Biologist, and McCormick does an excellent job of coming across as a seemingly detached scientist on assignment, but secretly luring you in with just the right hint of inflections that cut beneath the surface, exposing you to a surprising amount of emotion: fear, love, longing, and the struggle for individuality.
Annihilation is my new addiction. It’s as if The Company from Alien sent The Dharma Initiative into the Mountains of Madness. It’s an expedition into the bizarre, and I can’t wait to try and find my way back to the border.
(Originally posted at the AudioBookaneers.)
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