Part H.P. Lovecraft, claustrophobic like choice Poe, part reality television show, Jeff VanderMeer's first novel in a projected trilogy is a juicy, fast-moving read. It probes Area X (shades of Roswell, N.M.), a strange region way off the grid that has swallowed up 11 expeditions mounted to find out just what happened there. "Annihilation" is the tale of the 12th expedition.
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This is a creepily sensual book. Mr. VanderMeer is good at probing the psychological tensions that attend the latest foray into these distinctively icky hinterlands, picking at the relationships between the narrator, a biologist, and her anything-but-close companions, a psychologist (the putative leader of this unmerry band), an anthropologist and a surveyor.
All are women. None is named. Such impersonality helps Mr. VanderMeer expertly and inexorably build the sense of dread that comes to define this book (it's small in size and fewer than 200 pages), but it detracts from the sense of humanity that might have made the story even more gripping.
Perhaps its sequels -- "Authority" scheduled for June and "Acceptance" for September -- will be more engaging on a less abstract level. Mr. VanderMeer calls his project the Southern Reach trilogy, and "Annihilation," which packs a lean, well-developed plot and plenty of intellectual provocation, is an impressive start.
Mr. VanderMeer's narrative impressively interweaves the biologist's increasingly fearless exploration of fearsome territory with musings on her failed marriage to a man who perished on the 11th expedition. And, while her three colleagues seem underwritten, the biologist, a self-styled chronic introvert who found her calling gazing into the tiny marine world of the overgrown swimming pool in the backyard of her childhood home, becomes someone we care about by the end of this spooky fantasy.
The Area X expedition is skillful and promising. "Annihilation" has its mostly perverse pleasures, particularly in Mr. VanderMeer's conception of the force behind what may be a tunnel, looks like a tower and may be both. The first clue things aren't quite regular hits the biologist when she sees that the walls of this -- Is it a structure? Is it an organism? -- is alive with language.
The biologist's name for the force behind such peculiar and disturbing verbiage is apt, and the descriptions are sure to make your little hairs stand on end. Here, the biologist and the surveyor take a look inside that force:
"These things, too, we experienced together during our initial descent into the darkness. The air became cooler but also damp, and with the drop in temperature a kind of gentle sweetness, as of a muted nectar. We also both saw the tiny hand-shaped creatures that lived among the words. The ceilings were higher than we would have guessed, and by the light of our helmets as we looked up, the surveyor could see glints and whorls as of the trails of snails or slugs. Little tufts of moss or lichen dotted that ceiling, and, exhibiting great tensile strength, tiny long-limbed translucent creatures that resembled cave shrimp stilt-walked there as well."
The picture is at once wriggly and intimidating. Area X feels humid and, thanks to Mr. VanderMeer's precisely fevered imagination, comes across as a place of conflict with a secret history and a chemically questionable provenance, a place where the lighthouse (be sure to keep your eye on it no matter how challenging the focus) isn't a beacon of hope.
"Annihilation" sets the stage for a deeper look into Area X -- it won't give away too much to say such exploration is key to the biologist keeping her humanity intact in the face of evil shape-shifting -- and its sequels are likely to probe human psychology at least as deeply and dramatically.
Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.