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Jeff VanderMeer
Farrar, Straus, Giroux
US Trade Paperback First Edition
ISBN 978-0-374-10409-2
Publication Date: 02-04-2014
200 Pages; $13
Date Reviewed: 02-20-2014
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2014

Index:  Science Fiction  Horror  General Fiction  Mystery

We never know the names of the four women who comprise the Eleventh expedition into Area X. We know only their occupations. 'Annihilation' is the biologist's journal. She is accompanied by the psychologist, who is also the acting leader, the surveyor and the anthropologist. What has come of the previous expeditions; what has happened to create Area X; it is all Mystery. It is all in front of our eyes, and we are unable to understand what we have seen or what we are seeing.

Jeff Vandermeer's latest exploration into the literary landscape is markedly different from what has come before. 'Annihilation' unfolds in a world that is recognizably ours, caught in the act of becoming something else. The prose is stripped bare, the world is scrubbed clean, left gleaming with potential. VanderMeer crafts for his readers the mystery that is right in front of our eyes, every waking and dreaming moment. These moments are rendered with a crystalline beauty and precision that makes it rather difficult to discern the difference. It is in fact rather difficult to discern the import of any difference.

Written as an explorer's journal, unfolds as a naturalist's nightmare. The biologist has a troubled background that we only learn only slowly and slightly. We meet her husband, and infer a marriage in a world that should seem more familiar than it does. Her confederates on the mission have all been hypnotized before going in to Area X. The psychologist is holding back, pushy, unpleasant. The others are flat in aspect, immersed in tension. Previous expeditions into Area X have not fared well.

Area X itself is the lead, and here VanderMeer has found his strongest protagonist yet. Veiled in prose as pristine as the wilderness it pretends to be, Area X is no longer of this earth. VanderMeer manages the neat trick of describing a precise and hyper-real landscape, a swampish backwater that might be found anywhere or everywhere. But the immanence of what is emerging, underneath, which he offers us stunning glimpses of, is utterly alien. It's hard to read 'Annihilation' and see the familiar world around you without more than a bit of worry.

As a standalone novel, 'Annihilation' is a masterful exploration of the familiar turned into the ineffable. VanderMeer crafts characters who reside with uneasy familiarity in our minds, chunks of an unpleasant civilized world, with which we must deal on a daily basis. He embeds them in trees, grass, sand and mud that is hiding the ferocious, devouring unknown of nature. We look into the world, see ourselves as the terrors we must be to do what we have done to this world.

But 'Annihilation' is only the first part of a trilogy, and in this sense, it also works well, asking questions and providing answers that inspire new questions. Many novels want us to know something having read them. 'Annihilation' wants us to know that we don't know very much at all, that what we think we might know is merely camouflage for an ignorance that is quite likely to be casually fatal.

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