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Originally published Friday, January 31, 2014 at 6:15 AM

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‘Annihilation’: explorers without identity or memory

Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, “Annihilation,” imagines an expedition into a terrifying land, led by an explorer who can’t remember her name or those of her fellow travelers. VanderMeer reads Feb. 3 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.


Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jeff VanderMeer

The author of “Annihilation” will read at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 3, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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What frightens you? According to many psychologists, our most widely shared phobia is the fear of falling. Jeff VanderMeer’s novel “Annihilation” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 112 pp., $12) taps into that bottomless terror with the giving way of everything its heroine tries to hold on to, including her sense of self.

Sent to investigate “Area X,” site of a mysterious disaster, a biologist who can’t recall her own name or the names of her colleagues narrates the disintegration of their expedition. Their leader uses hypnotic trigger phrases provided by their sponsor, a secretive organization known as the Southern Reach, first to take them across Area X’s border, then to direct their activities. But soon one member of the five-woman team disappears, and a second dies under circumstances implicating the leader.

Gradually, the narrator realizes she herself has been contaminated by spores inhaled as she examined a mosslike growth that spelled out gloomy poetry on the walls of a living shaft plunging deep into the earth. The biologist’s persistence in calling this shaft a tower, despite the fact that it rises only 8 inches above the ground, is one way VanderMeer shows the extent of her disorientation: up is down, in (toward the heart of the mystery) is out — toward the border between Area X and normalcy.

From the book’s very first paragraph VanderMeer conveys a strong sense of unease. The narrator’s expedition, the Southern Reach declares, is the 12th sent to Area X in the decades since it came into being, and previous expeditions’ rusting equipment remains in place to remind her and us of their failures. She tells us, “I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.” So we know a threat exists, though it’s unseen.

Progressing from mundane-though-creepy spider webs filled with “embalmed husks of insects”; through the “loamy smell ... with an underlying hint of rotting honey” emitted by the moss poems; to the disembodied face the biologist finds on her path, “a kind of tan mask made of skin, half-transparent, resembling in its way the discarded shell of a horseshoe crab,” VanderMeer ups the book’s eeriness quotient with the smoothest of skill, the subtlest of grace. His prose makes the horrific beautiful.

The novel’s only fault may be that of a missed opportunity. The theft of expedition members’ identities and their unsolicited doublings and erasures might resonate with some women’s fears of impregnation, and pregnancy could have been used as a metaphor for the cellular-level invasiveness the biologist encounters in Area X. Perhaps VanderMeer recoiled from that metaphor so he wouldn’t have to worry about getting some aspect of it wrong due to his lack of personal experience — he is, after all, a man. Or perhaps he thought the relationship between the two concepts was already sufficiently obvious.

“Annihilation” is the first novel in a projected trilogy. All three volumes are scheduled to be published this year, with the second, “Authority,” due out in May, and the third, “Acceptance,” in September. It’s a great scheme, allowing for publication of a longer work in total than is usually considered wieldy, while shortening the wait between installments. And this book, at least, stands on its own quite well.

Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Seattle Times.



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