A biologist investigates impenetrable mysteries in Jeff VanderMeer’s enigmatic 2014 science-fiction novel ‘Annihilation’

January 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 22, 2019

When I saw Alex Garland’s Annihilation last spring, I found myself captivated by the atmospheric, understated science-fiction story. I recently read the book it’s based upon, Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, which similarly establishes an odd and unsettling mood.

The story unfolds entirely from the perspective of an unnamed biologist, the template for the movie’s Lena, played by Natalie Portman. Much like Garland used an interview with Lena after her emergence from the strange Area X to frame most of the events, the book unfurls as an account that the biologist has written in her journal following the dissolution of her four-woman expedition.

The exploration party is led by an older psychologist and includes an anthropologist and surveyor. (The movie’s group was led by an older psychologist and had an anthropologist, but featured a physicist and paramedic.) The biologist has followed her husband, who vanished along with the previous party sent into Area X before mysteriously returning to the couple’s home; unlike in the movie, the husband — here a seaman turned paramedic, rather than an army special forces operator — has died.

Although both the book and film versions of Annihilation feature a lighthouse, much of the plot of the text revolves around a strange underground structure, which the narrator refers to as a tower but the others call a tunnel. This location, where the biologist and surveyor make a number of unnerving discoveries, including a feverish line of writing on the walls formed by an unknown fungi, is linked to the disappearance of two of the biologist’s companions. It’s also the setting of the story’s climax, which the movie staged beneath the lighthouse.

If I’m relying a lot on comparisons between the two versions of Annihilation, it’s partly because so much in the book is never explained. (It’s also, I confess, because I finished reading VanderMeer’s novel a few weeks ago, and since have consumed a few other pieces of fiction.)

Like many tales of unfathomable alien phenomena — Solaris comes to mind — there’s something inherently frustrating about Annihilation. By definition, it’s impossible to understand much about the mystery that the scientists are attempting to unravel. The story is even more off-putting because its narrator is emotionally distant and not particularly likable; nor are any of the other characters appealing.

Still, I was keenly interested in learning what the explorers might discover and whether the biologist would reach some measure of redemption or at least revelation, be it concerning Area X, her husband or herself. In addition, VanderMeer masterfully constructs an unsettling ambience. Take for instance this passage where the biologist inspects the living writing in the subterranean structure:

The curling filaments were all packed very close together and rising out from the wall. A loamy smell came from the words along with an underlying hint of rotting honey. This miniature forest swayed, almost imperceptibly, like sea grass in a gentle ocean current. 

Other things existed in this miniature ecosystem. Half-hidden by the green filaments, most of these creatures were translucent and shaped like tiny hands embedded by the base of the palm. Golden nodules capped the fingers on these “hands.” I leaned in closer, like a fool, like someone who had not had months of survival training or ever studied biology. Someone tricked into thinking that words should be read. 

I was unlucky — or was I lucky? Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the [letter] W chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out. I pulled back, but I thought I had felt something enter my nose, experienced a pinprick of escalation in the smell of rotting honey. 

Unnerved, I stepped back even farther, borrowing some of the surveyor’s best curses, but only in my head. My natural instinct was always for concealment. Already I was imagining the psychologist’s reaction to my contamination, if revealed to the group. 

“Some sort of fungi,” I said finally, taking a deep breath so I could control my voice. “The letters are made from fruiting bodies.” Who knew if it were actually true? It was just the closest thing to an answer. 

My voice must have seemed calmer than my actual thoughts because there was no hesitation in their response. No hint in their tone of having seen the spores erupt into my face. I had been so close. The spores had been so tiny, so insignificant. I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead. 

“Words? Made of fungi?” the surveyor said, stupidly echoing me. 

“There is no recorded human language that uses this method of writing,” the anthropologist said. 

About two decades ago, I read J.G. Ballard’s novel The Day of Creation, which concerned a physician’s quixotic journey along a strange new river in a remote stretch of Africa. More than anything else in my experience, Annihilation reminds me of that 1987 book, where the landscape and the protagonist’s psychological struggles also feature heavily.

That Ballard volume, and Ballard’s body of work in general, is not for everyone; the same, of course, is true of VanderMeer’s novel. Still, I found myself intrigued by the fraught setting and charged conflicts VanderMeer depicts in Annihilation, and I intend to read Authority and Acceptance, the subsequent books in his Southern Reach trilogy.

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