Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 4
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Biologist, Anthropologist, Surveyor, Psychologist
You may have noticed that I like discussing adaptations. You may have also noticed that I’m an extraordinarily slow reader whose penchant for books has diminished in recent years. If you haven’t noticed, I certainly have. Lately, I’ve actively sought out a few books and their film or television counterparts to compare adaptations (something I’ll likely start writing about next month), and that seems to be useful motivation. The latest of these attempts at trying to re-familiarize myself with books is Annihilation, a 2014 sci-fi novel by Jeff VanderMeer.
The story is simple — four researchers set out into an ecosystem made up of strange mutations of familiar creatures known as Area X. They initially seek to study the region using each of their unique qualifications, but as the harsh environment, psychological stress, and suspicion of each other’s motives wear on them, they suddenly find themselves struggling to survive.
Like all of the characters in the book, the protagonist only goes by her title — the biologist. Area X is uniquely suited to her interests as she recalls her childhood, schooling, and work experiences as an ecologist while exploring the unique environment. Her inner monologue considers the strange phenomena in Area X with a calm, neutral tone that is horrified at times, but perpetually fascinated. She has a deeper reason for being here, though; her husband was on a previous expedition and died after returning from Area X. She recounts how distant he acted before his death, and in exploring Area X, she hopes to better understand what happened to him and why he agreed to go on this mission.
The other members of the biologist’s expedition include an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist, all of whom are distinct in their personalities, but never divulge their personal histories. The anthropologist is sensitive and goes first, disappearing in the middle of the night. The psychologist, the manipulative leader of the group, is set up early as an antagonist. Following the anthropologist’s disappearance, the other two turn on the psychologist and investigate on their own, learning that the anthropologist was killed by some strange creature while under the hypnotic suggestion of the psychologist. The surveyor, a militaristic type, becomes jumpy with the revelation that the bunch of them are slowly being mutated by the environment and that the people who sent them out here there have ulterior motives. She and the biologist get into a tiff, the biologist splitting off to pursue the psychologist and find answers. The biologist discovers the psychologist dying at the base of a lighthouse, the epicenter of Area X, and also discovers notebooks from previous missions. Upon her return, she kills the surveyor in a firefight.
Now alone, the biologist wanders Area X, trying to figure out what to do. Among the pile of notebooks, she discovered her late husband’s journal from his excursion into the region. While she avoids looking at it for some time, eventually she opens it and realizes that Area X is essentially a semi-sentient alien entity, capable of producing doppelgangers of those who enter it, as well as absorbing them into its own fabric. This plays upon the suspicions the biologist has had since entering the place, and coincides with her realizing how she can use her own rapidly mutating body to her advantage. She encounters the creature she calls the Crawler, the one which killed the anthropologist and wrote ominous scrawls on the walls of nearby ruins. Surviving her encounter, she realizes she is now a part of Area X, and sets out to find whatever remains in it of her husband.
Part Two: On Names
The plot of this novel is not its strongest point. Ultimately, it’s merely a “men on a mission” narrative where each of them is slowly picked off until only the protagonist remains. Even it seems to know this, for there’s little fanfare when a character dies and most of them are gone before the halfway point. The few that exist in the story are so detached from the protagonist that they’re little more than bodies to fill space.
I think that’s kind of the point.
The book is deliberate in never giving any names; the characters are identified only by simplified, lifeless titles that half of them never even fulfill. When the biologist comes across a name in a journal, she’s upset by it, having been so disconnected from names for so long. There’s a thread throughout the series of becoming one with nature — not in a peaceful way, but like an animal. The biologist is slowly consumed by Area X, mutated until she only knows instinct and drives forward, able to think, but only interested in survival. The novel wants to present its characters as lifeforms, not so different from the flowers and animals they exist alongside. The biologist notes this repeatedly, describing herself in terms of her physiology, even using the term “undomesticated” at one point. The dehumanization of the characters in the wake of the expanse of nature is prevalent in the cadence, descriptions, and interactions between the characters, even in their simplified personalities — and in their lack of names.
When a narrative chooses a clear consistent aesthetic choice like this, it begs the question of why. Giving your audience something to chew on as the story plays out is one thing, but if it’s more entertaining than the rest of the story or otherwise doesn’t fit, design choices like that will often be discarded in editing. It’s noteworthy, for instance, that the film adaptation opts to give the characters names.
The novel has a heavy psychological focus, carefully tracking the thought processes of its protagonist and how they perceive their surroundings. As the characters get deeper into Area X, their psyches begin to break down and they become driven by simple desires. They turn on each other, all proving to be far greater dangers to one another than any of the biohazards of the region. The most persistent theme in the story is that of the unstoppable growth of nature, and one could easily argue that the psychological jousting the characters engage in is an extension of this theme. Nature in fiction is often representative of our simplest emotions, particularly fear and love. Both metaphorical uses appear in the story and drive the protagonist — fear of the others in her group and what they could do to her, and love for her husband.
I read the lack of names in the novel as a way to simplify the characters. Thematically, they are losing what little grasp of their unique identities they have in the environment, their essence being absorbed by Area X in more ways than one. However, it’s also likely a practical consideration; while the story delves into the protagonist’s life history, it only does so to provide context for the few trait she has — her love for nature, her inability to connect with people, and her desire to better understand her husband. Names are used to keep groups of people clear and give them a sense of personhood, but as the story cares to explore concepts largely disconnected from these, it has no real need for names. You see the same thing crop up in short stories or survival narratives with single protagonists. As the biologist says, names complicate things.
Part Three: Metaphors Everywhere!
I came away from the first few chapters of this book — even as early as the first chapter, if I’m being honest — with the uncomfortable sense that it wasn’t going to be very deep.
Let me explain. I’m a simple person who tends to need a lot of stimulus to get through a long experience. I don’t like films or books that have a single solid point that they draw to gradually. I’m impatient and distractable; I get anxious headaches when a film has something it wants to say but refuses to spit it out. This is part of why I like a fast pace and complexity to my stories. In recent years, I’ve found more ways to enjoy the content I consume, appreciating the cinematography and sound design for their aesthetic and structural values, and finding things to do during the lulls in a film that put me on-edge. If I’m watching something for entertainment purposes, I’ll occasionally skip through or mute musical numbers and tedious long takes. It’s not how the work was intended to be enjoyed, and I prefer not to do it of course, but sometimes it’s necessary. It’s that or put down the piece and never finish it.
Annihilation walks a fine edge for me. Its saving grace is its relatively short length (and that I happened to have time to listen to it). The story is structured much like a short story, and I have to wonder if it started that way at some point. The descriptions are lovely and I deeply appreciate the books efforts to visualize the rich environment of its setting through the biologist’s fascination with single mundane creatures like dragonflies and birds. Description of any one thing tends to have a nice pace, providing just enough information to give a clear picture of what is happening, but not overdoing it.
However, those descriptions make up a lot of the story. The flashbacks likewise feel somewhat redundant. While they expand upon the important aspects of the biologist’s personality, her personality is so thin at the start that the flashbacks frequently seem like they only emphasize what the audience already knows. The protagonist constantly monologues her feelings, as she hardly interacts with the other characters. While occasional excursions into a character’s thoughts are fine, especially if they advance the other aspects of the plot, I don’t particularly like the feeling of being trapped in a character’s head like that for long bouts of time. The biologist simply isn’t compelling enough to make it work.
Of course, the flashbacks are necessary in that they provide a change of location and setting. The plot of the story has a similar feel to the characterization of the novel; it progresses, and it’s not bad or anything, but it feels like it’s stretched further than necessary. Four characters go into a forest, they fight with one another, the last one discovers an alien. Fine short story, don’t you think?
It’s less compelling when that’s the bulk of the story for seven hours and two hundred pages. It’s not really a long book, but I stand by my comments about it feeling like an extended short story. Typically, one extends short stories if one thinks they can’t be told properly in a small span of time, or if they could be collected into a series of escapades of which the short story is just one. It might be bold of me to say, but I think anyone would be hard-pressed to defend the statement, “not a word could be removed” with regard to Annihilation. A lot could be cut without losing the core of the story.
Typically, in narratives where a group of characters slowly dwindles down to the protagonist, the characters who die have some sort of symbolic purpose or their deaths come at crucial junctions within the story. The Cabin in the Woods apes the common horror movie teenager archetypes and uses their use as tropes extensively within its narrative. While not a horror story, Annihilation uses a similar concept, but it forgoes the utility of the format in favor of unclear ends. The characters die early and there is little interaction prior that serves to make the deaths especially meaningful. The characters don’t really converse, they just exchange orders and sound bites.
There is metaphorical meaning in how the characters die — the anthropologist through fear, the psychologist through hubris, and the surveyor through suspicion — but the metaphorical significance of the characters and their actions struggles to mesh with the circumstances written. More than anything, I feel that the deaths are meant to be realistic and dramatic to serve the setting and ensure the plot crawls forward
Other bits of literary significance within the story hold up better — themes like death and rebirth, change, reluctance to change, futility, obsession, and cancer all come through repeatedly in the descriptions and inner monologue of the protagonist. These aren’t bad elements on their own. Some, like change, are even complex and easily merit several books’ worth of discussion. But representational meaning can’t justify a narrative on its own. Stories come in parts, and those parts have to intertwine or else they weaken the integrity of the piece as a whole.
I like Annihilation. It’s a simple but effective story told in an interesting format, and it does some clever things with its concept. It’s far from perfect, though. The story has substantial themes and aesthetics, but where it shines in those areas, it falters in its characters and plot. Its length is its biggest flaw, though not a fatal one by any means. Just know that if the opening of the book doesn’t grab you, a summary might be more effective.