On August 24, 2015, I posted a review of all three of Jeff Vandermeer’s books in the Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation – Authority – Acceptance You can read it by clicking on the book titles.
I had heard rumors, as early as 2015, that the first book in this series was going to be filmed and that Natalie Portman had agreed to be the Biologist in the film. I recently saw the teaser trailer and the film trailer for Annihilation and decided that I should read the book again before the film releases in February.
If you have not read this book and want or are planning to, I suggest you stop reading here. Warning: spoiler alerts ahead. Seriously, if you intend to remain blissfully ignorant before reading the novel or going to the movie, this post is not for you. I am not going to dissect the entire novel. Instead I am focusing on things that piqued my interest.
The novel is narrated by the Biologist. That is the only name that you are given in the book. There is also a Psychologist, who is also the expeditions leader, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. There is mention of a linguist who doesn’t actually go on the expedition although the Biologist wishes she had her skill set when exploring the tower.
The first sentence of the novel is as follows: “The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.”
It is one of those sentences that make you say to yourself, wait a minute. How does a tower plunge? That is one of things that make this book so great. Those tiny little details of information that illustrate how not quite right this place is. It gives one a sense of foreboding. You know things are not going to end well for everyone on the expedition.
The Biologist travels to Area X because of her husband. He was a medic on the eleventh expedition. He came back from it; but, he had cancer and didn’t live very long after his return. What we learn of the Biologist’s marriage and relationship with her husband are often in the form of flashbacks and through exerts of his journal from his expedition.
There are hints throughout the book that the Psychologist has ulterior motives for coming on the expedition, although you never quite find out what they are. You learn a lot more about the Psychologist and her motivations in the second book of the trilogy, Authority. At first you are given a sense that her orders may have been different from the group and later this is confirmed by discoveries in the lighthouse. As to the motives of the Surveyor and the Anthropologist, you aren’t given that information. To be honest, I don’t think that it matters.
A paper could be written on the light house alone. For example light houses are considered to be symbols of light and safety. But the light house in the novel has a much darker purpose and history. One of the most beautiful and disturbing images of it is as a reliquary. The light house holds the journals (“a pile twelve feet high and sixteen feet wide”) from countless previous expeditions. In other words, way more than five. The light house is the site of stand offs and last stands. It also seems to be part of the journey that the crawler must make. My theory is that the tower and light house are connected.
The Tower seems to be a new structure. Not part of the original town site. It seemed to be part of the events that created Area X. So if this is new is the Crawler? When the Biologist has her experience with the crawler and later leaves the tunnel she glances back at the crawler one last time. Inside the crawler is the lighthouse keeper from a picture in the lighthouse. Is he a participant or a prisoner?
Hypnotism plays a role in this novel. In order to cross the barrier between our world and Area X the Psychologist hypnotized everyone. Later in the novel when the Biologist has become infected by something in the tower and is changing, she is immune to the effects of hypnotic suggestion. The first time that the Biologist is truly aware of hypnotism being used on the expedition participants is after diner the night after they enter the tower for the first time.
“We knew that the psychologist’s role was to provide balance and calm in a situation that might be stressful, and that part of this role included hypnotic suggestion. I could not blame her for performing that role. But to see it laid out so nakedly troubled me. It is one thing to think you might be receiving hypnotic suggestion and quite another to experience it as an observer. What level of control could she exert over us?”
The level of control that the Psychologist could exert over everyone was high. The Biologist found a sheet of paper with hypnotic suggestions written on it in the Psychologists pocket after her death. “The word ‘Annihilation’ was followed by ‘help induce immediate suicide.'”
Some questions I have about the novel are listed in the previous paragraphs. I have also listed out several questions to start conversations here. Do you feel like the author provided you enough information about Area X or the participants of the exhibition? How far would you go to see someone you loved again? What purpose does the lighthouse play in this novel? What purpose does the tower? Who or what do you think is the crawler? What are your thoughts on hypnotism? What parts did you find interesting or want to talk about?
I would really like to encourage conversations about this book. Please post your insights and theories of this novel as a comment or contact me through my contact page. I look forward to having new ideas and thoughts to discuss about Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer.