My Friday reads this week isn’t one of our books. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer is published by 4th Estate (and they’re to be congratulated for producing a book that looks every bit as gorgeous and mysterious as you’d want given what’s inside).
Jeff was a writer who I’d heard a lot about, an editor and anthologist whose work I was very familiar with, but also an author of novels I’d never actually managed to get round to reading. That has now changed with Annihilation. And how. I can’t wait to read the sequels, Authority and Acceptance and will be tracking down Tor UK’s new editions of his back list in May.
I first heard about Annihilation in a brief exchange of Facebook messages with Jeff. It sounded so intriguing, he’d clearly invested so much in it that I was certain I wanted to read it. And as soon as I read the first couple of pages how glad I was.
The blurb suggested a strong vibe of the Strugatskys’ Zone, of M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract (both very, very strong recommendations for me) and the setting for Jeff’s book does bear some similarities with those infamous reaches of uncertainty but Annihilation is set in very much its own zone of discomfort and wonder. We follow a nameless (this is important) group of explorers into a mysterious zone that a nameless government has closed off. A previous eleven expeditions have gone into this zone and strange and distressing things happened to them. But the key to this adventure is not knowing. The expedition have no idea what to expect, they are heading deep into Rumsfeld territory, a land of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. There are abandoned campsites and overwhelmed buildings and other structures in this wilderness but there is also an extraordinary, beautiful and no less dangerous profusion of flora and fauna there, some of it familiar, some unfamiliar, all of it described in ways to make you look at it anew.
The mystery and the growing sense of dread that you stumble into as you are led into this world by this tricksy narrative is underpinned by some stunning descriptive writing (descriptive of both the mundane and the bizarre) but what really pulls you in are the wonderfully drawn (yet somehow still private and unknown) characters, the four members of this expedition and those that speak to them from inside the mystery or from the past. Our narrator is The Biologist, fresh from the traumatic end of her marriage, nursing the formative experience of a childhood bonding with another very different wilderness and now facing up to a truly life changing experience. Her hurt, her confidence, her sadness, her courage, her love are all utterly palpable and nameless though she might be (this is important), she humanises the book in the most profound way.
No one knows what is happening in Annihilation. What is the Tower? Who or what wrote the words? What do they mean? What happened to the others? The government might well know more than they’re letting on but no-one, character, reader really knows. It’s not that sort of book. Is this SF? Are there aliens at work? Is it fantasy? Is it horror? I don’t know and I don’t really want to know because the true danger here, the true wonder, the true truth is mystery and how we deal with it, what it does to us.
Jeff Vandermeer is a subtle, clever, observant, enchanting and brutal writer. He is oh so very willing to mess with you and scare you and bewilder you but he cares about what you get from his writing, in some way you feel he cares about you even as he pulls you into his mysterious game. He’s the best possible company to take you through a book.
And he has a new and committed fan; me.