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Andrew Liptak on Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation

AnnihilationA couple of years ago, I took a course called Gothic Horror. Before that point, I'd never been all that interested in the genre, and I had been annoyed that I wasn't able to get into the Science Fiction literature course offered around the same time.

The course turned my thinking around, however, and I was now introduced to authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and reintroduced to ones such as Edgar Allan Poe, whom I'd loved as a child. Since then, I've become far more interested in such weird stories, and in researching SF history, I've come to really enjoy a range of authors, especially the ones from C.L. Moore, Francis Stevens and Robert E. Howard. The Weird sort of stories seem to have fallen out of favor as the pulps did, and it hasn't been until recently that such stories have been coming back in a big way. Jeff VanderMeer's latest novel, Annihilation (2014) is the sort of novel that continues this new explosion.

It's a weird (and Weird) short novel. Four women compose an expedition into Area X. The region has been cut off from the rest of civilization for decades, and theirs is the Twelfth Expedition. The remaining expeditions, when they returned, returned broken, sick or damaged. Their mission was to observe what was happening in Area X, and to avoid contamination. As they explore Area X, it's clear that there's more than meets the eye.

If pressed for an immediate impression of the book, and I'd come up with the word 'dread'. It's implicit in the setup: most of the expeditions perished in Area X or sometime after they returned. VanderMeer pulls us along slowly with vivid descriptions of the landscape as the team works their way to their campsite and as they encounter various strange things about the area. There's a tower that's not quite a tower, animals that seem to watch their movements with an uncanny gaze, and a lighthouse that's the scene of some sort of battle.

Answers aren't exactly forthcoming from our narrator, who's contaminated early on, but it's through her contact with something in Area X in which we get some horrifying thoughts: the boundary that encompasses the region is growing each year, populated by ... something. VanderMeer's reluctance to provide the reader with any sort of concrete answer is in and of itself an element that adds to the creeping dread. As he holds you in suspense, he populates the story with fantastic (and I mean that in the literal sense) elements that add to the atmosphere until you feel trapped by the strangeness. By the time one reaches the end of the book, everything for the Biologist, our lead, unnamed character, has changed and you realize that the world has gone from one that appears normal at the beginning to one that's off-kilter from our own.

There's hints at what might have happened: an intrusion of something alien (not necessarily extraterrestrial) into this world, one that's slowly forcing a change to all who come into contact with it. The Southern Reach Agency which deployed the expeditions, are clearly worried: the Area X is growing, and they're reluctant to give their own expeditions any more answers than the reader gets, and the possibility that they're either placating the Area with sacrifices or simply using them as unwitting test subjects is floated.

To me, this is the best sort of horror: an unwilling transformation, a trope that VanderMeer's world is uniquely suited to exploit. As the Biologist is contaminated, she realizes that it's transforming her, and it might completely alter her perceptions of the world around her. It's the loss of agency that's of paramount concern and most horrifying. Predominantly, it's not Area X that's of the most concern, it's from her Expedition leader (and by extension, the Southern Reach Agency) who has means to control her team members, even compelling them to commit suicide.

To this end, Annihilation does its job wonderfully: it's a deeply unsettling, vivid and wonderful portrait of a world that's undergoing an incredible change. Already, I'm looking forward to jumping into Authority and Acceptance, if anything, to get another scrap of information to what might have happened in Area X. This novel ranks with the best of the Weird stories out there.

Andrew Liptak is a regular contributor to io9, Armchair General, Lightspeed, Kirkus and many others. He is the co-editor of the upcoming War Stories anthology of original fiction, and the author of new history of science fiction, coming 2015 from Jurassic London.

You can yell at him about fiction (be it Weird, science or any other) at @AndrewLiptak.