A section of the Florida coast has suddenly, inextricably reverted back to nature. All traces of human life have begun to degrade, and the region — now behind a shimmering border of unknown origin — is only accessible via a hole of indeterminate size and stability.
A government agency known as the Southern Reach has been sending in expeditions to determine the cause and properties of the phenomenon. Each expedition has failed, plagued by disappearances, deaths, cancers, and mental trauma. We pick up with the Twelfth Expedition, comprised of four women known only by their functions: the Biologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Psychologist. What they encounter inside the phenomenon (known as Area X) can only be described as weird.
That’s the beginning of Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy by author Jeff VanderMeer. The trilogy is stranger and more unsettling than can be conveyed in those two introductory paragraphs. VanderMeer is a writer of weird fiction, picking up the mantle left by authors like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
It’s hard to pigeonhole the trilogy into a particular genre. It’s science fiction, I suppose, but only in that it’s fiction that involves science. I’ve heard it described as “bio-horror,” which sort of fits, since it deals a lot with bizarre and macabre elements of biology: animals that appear to be plants. Plants in the shape of humans. Weird chimeras of unknown origin.
VanderMeer has crafted a world that’s so fully-realized that leaving the book feels like waking up from a dream. It’s been two months since I put down the last book, and I still find my thoughts drifting back to it.
The lighthouse. The brightness. The strange fate of Saul Evans.
There’s a movie adaptation of Annihilation coming out starring Natalie Portman, and I probably won’t see it.
It’s not that I don’t want to. I loved every page of the Southern Reach trilogy. But it was also the most unnerving, dread-inducing, existentially horrific book I’ve ever been unable to put down. VanderMeer is an expert at creating a tone of mystery permeated by fear and dread. There were parts that made me nauseous. There were parts that made me short of breath. I have no desire to see those things brought to life on-screen.
There’s also my fear that the trilogy can’t be properly adapted into film. So much of Annihilation takes place in The Biologist’s head, and so much of it involves being able to make connections between words and phrases and thoughts in the character’s interior life. For a book so thoroughly about the nature of communication, something’s bound to get lost in translation.
Finally — and this is even though Jeff VanderMeer himself has given the movie his seal of approval — the movie was written based on the first book alone, ignoring the second two in the trilogy. The trilogy was released over the course of an 8-month period, and functions as a cohesive whole. The first book is informed by the second and third, so creating a standalone work without understanding the latter two makes it a different thing than the books. I suspect it will be more of a tonal successor than a strict adaptation.
I loved the Southern Reach trilogy, but I also don’t know if I can recommend it outright. As with any media, I think it’s wise to consider how it will affect you: Will I be a better person for reading this? Will reading this be time well spent? How will this affect my spiritual life?
Had I known how disturbing the book would be, I’m not sure I would’ve chosen to continue reading it. On the other hand, had I predicted the richness of the experience, I don’t know if I could have chosen to do otherwise.