It is both Nebula Award and Hugo Award nomination season. I love this time of year. It gives me easy lists of books to listen too and review. Unfortunately the same forces behind gamersgate have also trolled the Hugo Awards this year. The award is like a people’s choice award, and it is vulnerable to vote campaigning. That is all I’ll say about it, except I will be at WorldCon this year and I will be voting appropriately. If you want to know more please follow John Scalzi’s blog Whatever, or read what George R.R. Martin has to say about it, or use this Google Search for other opinions. That controversy isn’t what I want to write about.
What I want to write about is the first book I’ve finished from the Nebula nominees. That book is Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: book one in his Southern Reach trilogy, which I scored for a single credit on Audible.com. 😀 I recently had a four hour drive (one way) for business, and the audio book for annihilation is just over six hours long. It was a perfect fit for a there and back again journey. I love getting through a book in a single day. 🙂 Before I begin my review, here is the publisher’s summary of the book.
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.
So let’s start with this simple observation. If you are the sort of reader who requires closure at the end of a book, you will be wholly unsatisfied with this book’s ending. It is not just that it is part one of three. From how part one is constructed, I suspect all three books will deal with different expeditions and discoveries about Area X, and the protagonist in Annihilation may not figure prominently in future books. They will stand alone. And it isn’t that there isn’t a resolution, a form of conclusion, made at the end of the story. There is. But this story falls into the sub-genre of Science Fiction named New Weird. That’s a hard sub-genre to describe. The genre is more about the atmosphere and the tenor of a story than its outcome. The story is experientially oriented, not objectively oriented. I can’t even say it is subjectively oriented as the narrators are quite often (always?) unreliable. What you get is the protagonist’s experience as they live the story, and you may or may not agree with their conclusions. The best comparison I can come up with for those unfamiliar with the sub-genre is The X Files show of the 1990s and early 2000s. New Weird tends to run darkly like The X Files, and what happens is never wholly explainable. There is plenty of mystery to go around and quite often a bit of scare to share – though it doesn’t often delve into outright horror. Betrayal is often perpetrated. New Weird strives to create an atmosphere of suspense and mystery that may end horribly or be no big deal. The point is the suspense, the racing heart, the turmoil of incomplete human perception – not the nausea inducing gruesomeness on which other sub-genres rely.
In this regard Jeff VanderMeer does an excellent job of keeping suspense an ever-present companion to the story. I suspect had I been reading this the old-fashioned way I’d have been ripping through the pages needing to know what happens, but dreading finding out. As it was, I anxiously waited for each reveal, while clutching the steering wheel and trying not to hold my breath. Yeah, it was that suspenseful in places. It was delicious.
Where this book seems to fall short is in character development. At just under 200 pages, even the protagonist was an archetype. The other three characters on the team are also fairly two-dimensional. It could be said the protagonist was as well, lacking depth and having an inner conflict that is never fully kindled. There was nothing particularly worthy of love or hate in these characters, though the surveyor came close. I did have a little sympathy for the protagonist.
That said, it really didn’t matter. In fact, the atmosphere of the story was probably better for having such easily recognizable characters with their predictable foibles. That freed me to concentrate on the prose, which was excellent. Words and descriptions flowed from the story and built a picture in my mind I can still see vividly. That’s not an easy feat when you are dealing with alien landscapes, strange creatures and otherworldly manifestations. I never once felt as if I didn’t know exactly what the protagonist was seeing, or how she was feeling about what she saw. Kudos to Jeff VanderMeer for being a master word smith.
If you are into New Weird, I highly recommend this book. If you think you might be into New Weird, this is a short, easy sample to taste test. If you like good prose, and are not opposed to suspense and a bit of tasteful gruesomeness, you will also enjoy this book. If you want concrete outcomes, stick to Space Opera. 😉