While each book of the Southern Reach trilogy has its own feel, it’s hard to imagine anyone reading the first book and not pushing through all three to see how it ends (assuming they liked the first book). That said, while I view this as essentially one story split across three books, there’s enough unique in the approach of each to warrant separate reviews.
First, I’m a sucker for concepts like this. It’s simple and grabbed me immediately: Something weird has happened to a stretch of “forgotten coast” that the government is describing as an ecological disaster, but is far weirder than that. An organization called the Southern Reach sets up shop just outside the border of “Area X” to investigate. The first novel picks up about 30 years after the appearance of Area X, with the research team at the Southern Reach sending endless expeditions into the zone, but coming away with nothing to show but riddles, and for many of the expedition members, death.
Annihilation is told from the perspective of a biologist, part of an all-women team sent in as the “twelfth” expedition. None of the members of the team address each other by name, only by profession–the biologist, the surveyor, the psychologist. This detachment is meant to keep the group focused (and more easily malleable by the Southern Reach). The biologist serves as an interesting narrator, combining a cool, aloof attitude with passion for her work and fascination with the things she finds in Area X.
The story, told in the form of a journal kept by the biologist, details how things quickly go sideways for the team. To say more would be to enter spoiler territory and since all three books trade heavily on the mystery and enigma of Area X, it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.
Suffice to say that by the end of Annihilation, the biologist has seen and gone through a lot. She urges everyone reading the journal to make no attempt to follow her into Area X. The cliffhanger ending all but has TO BE CONTINUED… on the last page.
And it worked. I was intrigued by the mysteries presented and keen to learn more in Book 2. VanderMeer writes with what is at times an almost lyrical style, which complements the strangeness of the setting the story takes place in. There’s also the open question of whether the biologist is a reliable narrator, but no hand is revealed in Annihilation.
Here I can say I would recommend the trilogy to those who love mysteries, especially ones involving fantastic or weird places. For those who love mysteries and even more love to see them neatly solved by story’s end…maybe not so much.