LitStack Recs: Annihilation & The Firefox Book

Jeff VanderMeer

I’m going to do something kind of out of the box and recommend the first book of a trilogy before reading the entire series.  But on the strength of the first volume, I’m pretty darned sure that the entire series is going to be very strong, so perhaps we can take this journey together.  So, for your consideration, this week I’d like to recommend the first book in the “Southern Reach Trilogy”: Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (the other two books are Authority and Acceptance – so get your library requests in now!).

First off, let me say that Jeff VanderMeer is weird.  Oh, he might be absolutely “normal” in real life (full disclosure – I know next to nothing about him), but as a writer, he comes up with some of the freakiest things.  Wonderful things.  Incredible things.  And freaky weird.

But Annihilation is not another City of Saints and Madmen and the world is not the city of Ambergris.  The story is very focused and the world is very familiar – it’s our world, and a not so far-out version of our world.  The characters are quite “normal” in an abnormal – but not outlandishly abnormal – situation.  That’s part of what makes this book so chilling, because there is so much we do recognize.

Here’s the brief outline:  a four person expedition has passed through the Border into the mysterious Area X to continue investigations built on prior expeditions’ progress, and to document and report on what they find.  These four women, known only as the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist (a linguist reportedly turned back at the last minute), don’t really know what to expect from the environment or from each other.  The story, told through the eyes of the biologist, is a combination of the familiar and the bizarre; we are given little knowledge of what has brought her to this point, but comprehension unfolds slowly and meticulously, with a building tension that is simply amazing.

Usually when you read a story told from a specific point of view it’s easy to get lost in posturing, as if the author feels like a profile needs to be defined or sympathies need to be established.  Not so with Annihilation.  We do get to know the biologist, but it feels like discovery rather than explication.  And she’s not really an admirable character, not in the classic sense at least, so there’s scant sense of aligning with her deeply at the onset just because she’s been positioned as the “main” character.  But being inside her head as we learn her motivations, and seeing how she responds to Area X and the discoveries made there, is incredibly compelling.  In the process, the mystery deepens.

It’s a read that tells us little at the onset, but opens into both huge mysteries and intimate confessionals, and it works on absolutely every level.  That’s awfully hard to do while still keeping the reader in the midst of the unknown, but VanderMeer does it flawlessly.  I mean, how often is it that the quietest moments are the ones that feel the most threatening?  Marvelous.

After reading Annihilation, I’m really looking forward to the next two books in the Southern Reach Trilogy.  I have a strong suspicion that if you follow my recommendation and read Annihilation for yourself, that you’ll be looking forward to the next two volumes, as well.

—Sharon Browning

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