Reviewed by Peggy Kassees
That which we don’t acknowledge can destroy us – or remake us.
In the 1960’s, I remember watching a late night black and white re-run of a 1951 movie, “The Thing,” starring James Arness. It was about an alien being come from space who terrorizes a military outpost. I was terrified – the only thing stopping me from having nightmares was my dad – he could save the world, as far as I was concerned. I remember him laughing when the alien proved to be a plant. “Well they got that right, Peggy. It’s not going to be something from space that gets mankind, it’ll be something small.” Then he lowered his voice and said – “Better beware, there’s a fungus amongus.” VanderMeer exposes the fungus amongus.
Jeff VanderMeer creates a terrifying world with an economy of language and description that paints more than speaks. I began reading Annihilation while sitting on the front porch of my son’s house south of Crawfordville. Sounds of insects, amphibians, and an owl or two, combined with rustling pine needles, and a night so dark and heavy with humidity, that the air coated my skin. Fear pulsed through my veins. The only light in sight came from a tiny lamp clipped to my book. Was not long before I went inside. Found I was spending more time checking what might be in the bushes and nearby swamp, thanks to Vandermeer, than reading. That’s the kind of book the author writes. Intense. Thoughtful. And scary as all get out!
Start with Area X – an amorphous area of land along the Forgotten Coast of North Florida. Add the topographical features that already exist, then throw in Vandermeer’s imagination, and you have an exquisite tale guaranteed to make a person think twice before entering the wilds of Saint Marks or forests of Apalachicola.
Area X has only one entrance, which is heavily guarded by a branch of the government called Southern Reach. The Southern Reach determines who and when teams infiltrate the area for research. Four women, known only by their occupation, make up the 12th team: a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist. The reader learns that no one knows everything that has been found in Area X, and this is not the 12th team. There are secrets within secrets, because no one wants to share all that they know. We experience Area X through the eyes of the biologist, a woman who divulges her life piecemeal through the book, but never her name. She is, as are the other women, a tool. An implement used by VanderMeer and the Southern Reach.
As the reader experiences the incongruences that make up this region, we are drawn in and sucked down into VanderMeer’s world, into the tower that is not a tower, with writing on the walls made of phosphorescent plants, into the reeds that are now home to an indefinable monstrosity, to the vision of a dolphin with a far too human eye, and the diminishing of the investigating team until all we see is – well – fear, and the knowledge at the end of the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy, that Area X is not finished, and the fat lady may never sing.
I have started reading and listening to “Authority,” the second book in VanderMeer’s Trilogy, and sense this is every bit as good as “Annihilation.” Run to your local bookstore, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, wherever you like to pick up your books. go on Amazon.com. Listen to “Annihilation” on Audible. This book is a Southern classic. I hope the studios that have a movie option on VanderMeer’s books, do make a movie of it. I’ll be there, watching through my fingers, holding my breath, and shoving back the scream building in my throat – just like when reading the book.
Jeff VanderMeer is a three-time winner, thirteen-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award. His Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, the world's first full-color, image-based writing guide, is now out from Abrams Image. His Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance), will be published by FSG, HarperCollins Canada, and The Fourth Estate (UK) in 2014, as well as 12 other countries. The film rights have been optioned by Scott Rudin Productions, and Paramount Pictures. Prior novels include the Ambergris Cycle (City of Saints & Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch) and Veniss Underground. His short fiction has appeared in American Fantastic Tales (Library of America), Conjunctions, and many others. He writes nonfiction for The Washington Post, the LA Times, The Guardian, and many others. He has lectured at MIT and the Library of Congress and helps run the Shared Worlds teen SF/Fantasy writing camp out of Wofford College. With his wife Ann he has coedited several iconic anthologies, most recently The Time Traveler's Almanac and The Weird. You can contact him at vandermeercreative.com.
Jeff VanderMeer lives in North Florida with his wife, Ann.