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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer - A Book Review

It is both Nebula Award and Hugo Award nomination season. I love this time of year. It gives me easy lists of books to listen too and review. Unfortunately the same forces behind gamersgate have also trolled the Hugo Awards this year. The award is like a people's choice award, and it is vulnerable to vote campaigning. That is all I'll say about it, except I will be at WorldCon this year and I will be voting appropriately. If you want to know more please follow John Scalzi's blog Whatever, or read what George R.R. Martin has to say about it, or use this Google Search for other opinions. That controversy isn't what I want to write about.

[caption id="attachment_4661" align="aligncenter" width="317"]Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, published by FSG Originals (ISBN 0374104093/ISBN13: 9780374104092)[/caption]

What I want to write about is the first book I've finished from the Nebula nominees. That book is Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: book one in his Southern Reach trilogy, which I scored for a single credit on :D I recently had a four hour drive (one way) for business, and the audio book for annihilation is just over six hours long. It was a perfect fit for a there and back again journey. I love getting through a book in a single day. :) Before I begin my review, here is the publisher's summary of the book.

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

So let's start with this simple observation. If you are the sort of reader who requires closure at the end of a book, you will be wholly unsatisfied with this book's ending. It is not just that it is part one of three. From how part one is constructed, I suspect all three books will deal with different expeditions and discoveries about Area X, and the protagonist in Annihilation may not figure prominently in future books. They will stand alone. And it isn't that there isn't a resolution, a form of conclusion, made at the end of the story. There is. But this story falls into the sub-genre of Science Fiction named New Weird. That's a hard sub-genre to describe. The genre is more about the atmosphere and the tenor of a story than its outcome. The story is experientially oriented, not objectively oriented. I can't even say it is subjectively oriented as the narrators are quite often (always?) unreliable. What you get is the protagonist's experience as they live the story, and you may or may not agree with their conclusions. The best comparison I can come up with for those unfamiliar with the sub-genre is The X Files show of the 1990s and early 2000s. New Weird tends to run darkly like The X Files, and what happens is never wholly explainable. There is plenty of mystery to go around and quite often a bit of scare to share - though it doesn't often delve into outright horror. Betrayal is often perpetrated. New Weird strives to create an atmosphere of suspense and mystery that may end horribly or be no big deal. The point is the suspense, the racing heart, the turmoil of incomplete human perception - not the nausea inducing gruesomeness on which other sub-genres rely.

In this regard Jeff VanderMeer does an excellent job of keeping suspense an ever-present companion to the story. I suspect had I been reading this the old-fashioned way I'd have been ripping through the pages needing to know what happens, but dreading finding out. As it was, I anxiously waited for each reveal, while clutching the steering wheel and trying not to hold my breath. Yeah, it was that suspenseful in places. It was delicious.

Where this book seems to fall short is in character development. At just under 200 pages, even the protagonist was an archetype. The other three characters on the team are also fairly two-dimensional. It could be said the protagonist was as well, lacking depth and having an inner conflict that is never fully kindled. There was nothing particularly worthy of love or hate in these characters, though the surveyor came close. I did have a little sympathy for the protagonist.

That said, it really didn't matter. In fact, the atmosphere of the story was probably better for having such easily recognizable characters with their predictable foibles. That freed me to concentrate on the prose, which was excellent. Words and descriptions flowed from the story and built a picture in my mind I can still see vividly. That's not an easy feat when you are dealing with alien landscapes, strange creatures and otherworldly manifestations. I never once felt as if I didn't know exactly what the protagonist was seeing, or how she was feeling about what she saw. Kudos to Jeff VanderMeer for being a master word smith.

If you are into New Weird, I highly recommend this book. If you think you might be into New Weird, this is a short, easy sample to taste test. If you like good prose, and are not opposed to suspense and a bit of tasteful gruesomeness, you will also enjoy this book. If you want concrete outcomes, stick to Space Opera. ;)


  1. CSM elections show the power of bloc-voting. Apparantly (SF) writers now discovered the same.

    Suprised by seeing Jim Butcher on the ballot though, I really like his Dresden Novels but always considered them 'pulp' instead of literature. Designed to entertain.

    Spend another hour reading articles about the subject. Sounds so much like grr goons and the CSM.

  2. Most voting systems are vulnerable to bloc-voting as you so succinctly nailed it. With awards like the Hugo, the vulnerability is compounded by the very small voting base and the fact voting is open to anyone for a price. In the end, the Hugo is just a fund drive for WorldCon. That it has grown into a beacon of Science Fiction mastery is mostly due to Science Fiction being mostly ignored by other awards like the Pulitzer. But all these awards are vulnerable to bloc-voting, even the Pulitzer. I hope you read George R.R. Martin's post on the subject because he outlines that well. This has happened before, and it is sure to happen again. If it becomes the norm, then the Hugo award becomes meaningless. We can only hope the Sad Puppies get bored and move on.

    As for Jim Butcher, one of the grievances the Sad Puppies have with the Hugo is that authors like Jim are routinely ignored, though they are hugely popular. It is also interesting that these authors were not specifically asked if they wanted to participate in this bloc-vote. The fact is many want no part in it but have been dragged into it without their specific permission. But back to point of some authors being ignored, this grievance is not without merit. However, there are other aspects to the Sad Puppies, namely their alliance with Vox and the gamersgate hate show, that makes me not want to listen to any grievance they have. There is a dark, misogynistic undercurrent to the Sad Puppies now that makes me despise it as much as I despise those who make death threats against female developers and gamers. Respectful civilization does not work that way.

    Unfortunately, disrespect in everything seems to be the norm in the U.S. these days - at least that's all that seems to drive the news cycle. And as you mentioned them, the Goons are but one aspect of America's fall from grace. Yes, I just tied Goonswarm to a larger social issue happening within my country. Did you think The Mittani wasn't motivated by these social forces? Here's an interesting but not widely known fact about U.S. lawyers, of which The Mittani is a member. The profession is hugely over staffed. There are many more lawyers than the legal industry can support. That is why there are so many lawyers in politics. They can't make a living as lawyers because competition, so they turn to the only other profession their degree prepared them for: politics. The U.S. is run by a bunch of lawyers, and so is Goonswarm. So whatever you dislike about U.S. politics, there it is in a game we've both played. If I was still blogging about EVE Online there'd be a post in that last sentence.

    Fortunately I know more people who are respectful than are not, so I've not completely given up hope for a fairer society where people are treated with respect because they are human beings too. And I hope these current protests will lose steam as their members become bored and drift away to do something else to spice up their lives. I think the end may be near. People on both sides of the aisle are getting fed up with the BS, and I feel a shift in the winds. Of course, only time will tell.


Be civil, be responsible and most of all be kind. I will not tolerate poor form. There will be no James Hooks here. We are all better than that.

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