Synopsis: An expedition of four unnamed women explores a strange “Area X” that is cut off from the rest of the world and rife with paranormal activity.
Book Review: This book is cross between Myst and Lost, with some Cabin in the Woods thrown in. So you’d think it would be great, right? But something about it just didn’t click for me. I’m still not sure exactly why. The writing is strong. The mood is perfect, you get the feeling of isolation and creepiness dripping off every page. And you can really see Area X in your mind as you’re reading, it’s very vivid. But for all that, I can’t quite figure out why I’m reading the story.
As far as I can tell, this is an exploration of the isolation of being an introvert, and of the barriers we put between ourselves to keep us emotionally safe. And it’s about the helplessness and futility of being a small human in a natural world that doesn’t care if humanity exists or not. And it’s about the quest for ego-annihilation (as the title implies) that seems to be the focus of popular Eastern religions. My favorite scene was one where the protagonist runs into a former-human (I can’t call it an actually person anymore) who has achieved this – perfect sublimation in divine work. The loss of the self in the ecstasy of service to the divine. And we realize that this is not a human, this is something that lacks what we would consider “conscious awareness,” it is an eternal whacked-out heroin high. It is a demonstration that what many protestant sects think of as Heaven is not a place that contains any minds we care to preserve, and I personally find it horrific.
But… that’s just one scene. And as amazing as it is, a single scene doesn’t make a novel. And as strong as the Myst-like mood of isolation and exploration is, a mood doesn’t make a novel either. Honestly, Myst is preferable, because there you get all sorts of cool puzzles along with the mood, and you get to uncover the complex backstory on your own. I kept trying to figure out what Jeff was trying to say, and I couldn’t find it. Maybe he isn’t sure himself?
I think it’s possible that his thesis is presented over the trilogy, and you have to read all three books together to understand it. But in that case, why the hell did he release what should be a single novel broken up in three books? They were all released within a few months, and they’re all fairly short, there’s nothing stopping him from doing so. There were a couple sections of Annihilation that were extremely inessential. The action scene with the giant snake served no purpose and bored me. It makes me feel like he’s trying to pull a fast one, getting three book sales out of a single novel by splitting it up and padding them out a bit. I may very well love the trilogy (I do intend to continue it), but I resent paying full price three times for what is a single book.
Perhaps most to the point though – this book didn’t have an emotional impact on me. Therefore it will likely be quickly forgotten. Myst did the isolated island mood so well I made an emotional connection to the story. Lost did the same thing with flashbacks, Echopraxia did it outstandingly with existential horror. Annihilation dabbled with all those things, but never made an emotional impact. Maybe I will love the trilogy when I finish it. But, for readers like myself, this book on its own is Not Recommended. BUT – see the next section.
Book Club Review: This is easily in the top 1% of books for book clubs. First – it is short. That makes it easy to read and encourages participation. Secondly, its lack of commitment to any explicit message – while simultaneously sounding like its putting forth something profound – means that absolutely everyone who read the book saw something different in it. It was like a reflection of what the reader desired the story to be about. There were even two directly conflicting views, where one reader saw it as a call to return to nature and stop imposing our isolating and destructive ways on the world, and another reader saw it as a warning about how nature doesn’t care for us and will swallow us up if we don’t defend ourselves against it. Every single reader had something to say, either important or personal or both, about what they’d read. We had a record turnout and no one simply kept quiet.
The unexplained nature of the paranormal aspects also meant that there was a lot of theorizing and guessing about the nature of Area X, the Southern Reach institute, and what exactly was going on. And most interestingly, the reactions to the book ran the full gamut from Loved It to Hated It, with a lot of people in the middle who loved some parts and hated others. This book WILL get you talking. For Book Club Reading – Strongly Recommended.
Puppy Note: Before the Sad Puppy shit storm, there was some talk that Annihilation (or the Southern Reach Trilogy) had a good shot at the Hugos. It made the Nebula nominations. I’m curious to see if it would have made it in the top 5 if not for the Sad Puppies. I don’t think this is a book that the Sad Puppies would like. It contains only one gunfight, and far too much angst and disillusionment for their taste. But I do think it should be pointed out that this was a book that – individually – I don’t find particularly compelling. It was only when I started discussing it with others that the whole hidden dimension of “revealing a different thing about each reader by what it said to them” was made manifest, which made my total enjoyment of the reading MUCH greater than it had been. Certainly greater than it is for most books. This sort of “gathering together and discussing books” is what WorldCon is about. It’s why we enjoy the con, and it’s why some books that aren’t a great rollercoaster ride when read solo can make it to the top of lists when a bunch of readers start talking about them. I think a Sad Puppy would be utterly baffled as to how Annihilation made it onto an award short-list. Yet it is pretty obvious to anyone who wants their books to contain stuff they can talk about with others. I wouldn’t vote for it to win, but I can totally see why it’s a contender.
And again, I urge everyone to get into some sort of book club if they can, they’re great fun!