A summer read that is a creepy good time.
Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation, the first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy, concerns a team of scientists sent into a quarantined region to find out as much as the can about what has happened there. They are the 12th team of scientists to undertake this mission.
The region, known as Area X, appears to be growing several miles wider each year, more-or-less destroying what it encompasses as it expands.
Annihilation reminded me of so many other books as I read it, but this was part of the fun for me. Now it’s like that Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic; now it’s like Dahlgren; now it’s like an H.P. Lovecraft Cathulhu novel; now it’s like Three Skeleton Key, the story about the three guys trapped in a lighthouse by thousands of starving rats. It even had a paranoid is this the real world element a la Philip K. Dick.
I had a great time reading it.
The story concerns the 12th team of scientists sent to investigate Area X, a psychiatrist, an anthropologist, a surveyor and a biologist–all of them women. They soon discover a tower structure which they find has a long stairway going down into the earth. The stairway going down is such a prominent feature that they debate whether or not they have found a tower or a tunnel.
Along the tunnel walls the biologist, who is the first one into the tower and the narrator of the novel, discovers a moss or some other bioluminescent plant life that is spelling out an ongoing message on the passage walls. While both grammatical and in English, the message makes no sense to the biologist and seems to be one long sentence without end. The further down she goes the further the message continues.
Eventually she is sort of under the spell of the message as its imagery enters her subconscious and as the spores from the plant enter her system leaving her a changed person when she comes back up to the surface.
The story gets strangers, and more fun, from there.
In Three Skeleton Key a group of men are trapped in a 19th century lighthouse by a horde of ravenous rats who have escaped from a ship that broke up on the rocks around the island. The narrator tells the story of their last days which end with a kind of “this will be the last time I write in this journal” passage written as the rats finally enter the room where he has locked himself. That’s a typical, pulp-fiction ending, one H.P. Lovecraft used many times in his Cathulhu novels which typically feature a narrator struggling against a strange, dark god figure. Mr. Vandermeer has mixed these elements in his story of a very strange alien invasion.
By the end of the book we really still don’t know what is happening in Area X, just as we never found out what was really happening in Dhalgren or Roadside Picnic. (I never found out at least, because while I admire Roadside Picnic very much, I’ve never been able to finish it.) But that doesn’t matter so much. It’s the journey that counts. Which is where Mr. Vandermeer leaves the reader when his narrator finishes her journal and sets out to explore further into Area X.
I’ll be getting book number two very soon.
This is book number 13 in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge