Apr 102015
 

Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerAnnihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Synopsis: An expedition of four unnamed women explores a strange “Area X” that is cut off from the rest of the world and rife with paranormal activity.

Book Review: This book is cross between Myst and Lost, with some Cabin in the Woods thrown in. So you’d think it would be great, right? But something about it just didn’t click for me. I’m still not sure exactly why. The writing is strong. The mood is perfect, you get the feeling of isolation and creepiness dripping off every page. And you can really see Area X in your mind as you’re reading, it’s very vivid. But for all that, I can’t quite figure out why I’m reading the story.

As far as I can tell, this is an exploration of the isolation of being an introvert, and of the barriers we put between ourselves to keep us emotionally safe. And it’s about the helplessness and futility of being a small human in a natural world that doesn’t care if humanity exists or not. And it’s about the quest for ego-annihilation (as the title implies) that seems to be the focus of popular Eastern religions. My favorite scene was one where the protagonist runs into a former-human (I can’t call it an actually person anymore) who has achieved this – perfect sublimation in divine work. The loss of the self in the ecstasy of service to the divine. And we realize that this is not a human, this is something that lacks what we would consider “conscious awareness,” it is an eternal whacked-out heroin high. It is a demonstration that what many protestant sects think of as Heaven is not a place that contains any minds we care to preserve, and I personally find it horrific.

But… that’s just one scene. And as amazing as it is, a single scene doesn’t make a novel. And as strong as the Myst-like mood of isolation and exploration is, a mood doesn’t make a novel either. Honestly, Myst is preferable, because there you get all sorts of cool puzzles along with the mood, and you get to uncover the complex backstory on your own. I kept trying to figure out what Jeff was trying to say, and I couldn’t find it. Maybe he isn’t sure himself?

I think it’s possible that his thesis is presented over the trilogy, and you have to read all three books together to understand it. But in that case, why the hell did he release what should be a single novel broken up in three books? They were all released within a few months, and they’re all fairly short, there’s nothing stopping him from doing so. There were a couple sections of Annihilation that were extremely inessential. The action scene with the giant snake served no purpose and bored me. It makes me feel like he’s trying to pull a fast one, getting three book sales out of a single novel by splitting it up and padding them out a bit. I may very well love the trilogy (I do intend to continue it), but I resent paying full price three times for what is a single book.

Perhaps most to the point though – this book didn’t have an emotional impact on me. Therefore it will likely be quickly forgotten. Myst did the isolated island mood so well I made an emotional connection to the story. Lost did the same thing with flashbacks, Echopraxia did it outstandingly with existential horror. Annihilation dabbled with all those things, but never made an emotional impact. Maybe I will love the trilogy when I finish it. But, for readers like myself, this book on its own is Not Recommended. BUT – see the next section.

Book Club Review: This is easily in the top 1% of books for book clubs. First – it is short. That makes it easy to read and encourages participation. Secondly, its lack of commitment to any explicit message – while simultaneously sounding like its putting forth something profound – means that absolutely everyone who read the book saw something different in it. It was like a reflection of what the reader desired the story to be about. There were even two directly conflicting views, where one reader saw it as a call to return to nature and stop imposing our isolating and destructive ways on the world, and another reader saw it as a warning about how nature doesn’t care for us and will swallow us up if we don’t defend ourselves against it. Every single reader had something to say, either important or personal or both, about what they’d read. We had a record turnout and no one simply kept quiet.

The unexplained nature of the paranormal aspects also meant that there was a lot of theorizing and guessing about the nature of Area X, the Southern Reach institute, and what exactly was going on. And most interestingly, the reactions to the book ran the full gamut from Loved It to Hated It, with a lot of people in the middle who loved some parts and hated others. This book WILL get you talking. For Book Club Reading – Strongly Recommended.

Puppy Note: Before the Sad Puppy shit storm, there was some talk that Annihilation (or the Southern Reach Trilogy) had a good shot at the Hugos. It made the Nebula nominations. I’m curious to see if it would have made it in the top 5 if not for the Sad Puppies. I don’t think this is a book that the Sad Puppies would like. It contains only one gunfight, and far too much angst and disillusionment for their taste. But I do think it should be pointed out that this was a book that – individually – I don’t find particularly compelling. It was only when I started discussing it with others that the whole hidden dimension of “revealing a different thing about each reader by what it said to them” was made manifest, which made my total enjoyment of the reading MUCH greater than it had been. Certainly greater than it is for most books. This sort of “gathering together and discussing books” is what WorldCon is about. It’s why we enjoy the con, and it’s why some books that aren’t a great rollercoaster ride when read solo can make it to the top of lists when a bunch of readers start talking about them. I think a Sad Puppy would be utterly baffled as to how Annihilation made it onto an award short-list. Yet it is pretty obvious to anyone who wants their books to contain stuff they can talk about with others. I wouldn’t vote for it to win, but I can totally see why it’s a contender.

And again, I urge everyone to get into some sort of book club if they can, they’re great fun!

  10 Responses to “SF/F Review – Annihilation”

  1. “Puppy Note: Before the Sad Puppy shit storm, there was some talk that Annihilation (or the Southern Reach Trilogy) had a good shot at the Hugos. It made the Nebula nominations. I’m curious to see if it would have made it in the top 5 if not for the Sad Puppies. I don’t think this is a book that the Sad Puppies would like. It contains only one gunfight, and far too much angst and disillusionment for their taste.”

    Regarding the Sad Puppies Slate. One of the sides in this Hugo bunfight would be making their decision on an award for this book based on the ethnicity, politics and sexual orientation of the author, and they would vigorously and mercilessly attack anyone whose opinion differed from theirs as to the worthiness of the author based on the ethnicity/politics/orientation spectrum. Usually without reading the book, if it came from the wrong kind of author.

    The other side would read the book, and then decide on an award based on if they liked the book or not.

    Herein lies the core of the “Sad Puppy shit storm”. See if you can guess which side is which.

    • The funny thing is, as far as I can tell the Sad Puppies are the ones basing their decision on politics, most of them without having read most of the works. And the usual WorldCon Goer is the one that read every work they voted for (and a lot that they didn’t vote for) and then decided based on whether they liked them or not.

      May I ask where you got your information from? Because I suspect you have been sold a bill of goods. Allow me to quote my friend Aaron:

      “A majority of the Hugo voters are liberal, but that bias is dwarfed by their bias in favor of great stories. And so outspoken conservative writers routinely get nominated for and win Hugos when their work merits it. The person who was been nominated for Hugo Awards for fiction more than anyone else (and he won a bunch) is Mike Resnick, well known among fans as being a strong conservative. Hell, the main organizer of this year’s “Sad Puppies” campaign [Brad Torgersen] was nominated for a Hugo three years ago and came in second place, before this movement started.

      The only evidence of a liberal takeover in this article is Larry Correia saying there was a whisper campaign against him when he was nominated. That’s pretty flimsy evidence of liberals dominating the awards, when (a) somehow he got nominated, even though he was known as a conservative and a gun dealer, (b) the guy is extremely brash, so it’s hard to separate out who was against him because of his politics and who was against him because they think he’s a jerk, and (c) he lost in a very tough category to four excellent authors, at least some of whom he freely admits are better writers than he is.”

      • “May I ask where you got your information from? Because I suspect you have been sold a bill of goods.”

        Have you read Scalzi’s blog and twitter feed? Laura Mixon? K. Tempestuous I Hate White People? Literally anything at all on TOR.com? Remember when people started getting kicked out of SFWA a few years ago?

        I don’t know how many times I have to attempt to communicate this point to you, but let’s try one more time: I do my own reading. I’m a big boy, have been reading SF/F since your mum was a little kid. Nobody tells me stuff. I don’t take marching orders. I simply form my own decisions based on the bad behavior of others I see all over the place. And there’s plenty of it to chose from.

        Seen Arthur Chu’s twitter feed? Check it out, he’s on your side. Frothing race hate, delivered at 150db. I’m thinking you might want to consider cutting him loose before he gets any on ya.

        “And the usual WorldCon Goer is the one that read every work they voted for (and a lot that they didn’t vote for) and then decided based on whether they liked them or not.”

        Explain Redshirts. I read it. It wasn’t awesome. Old Man’s War was good, Redshits, nuh uh. Or the dinosaur thing. Or thirty years of unreadable message fic that constantly wins, year after year. I use the Hugos as a “do not bother” list. I re-check once in a while just to be sure nothing changed, and pretty much nothing has. Until this year. Now I’m happy to read all of them that I haven’t already read.

        “The only evidence of a liberal takeover in this article is Larry Correia saying there was a whisper campaign against him when he was nominated.”

        If you honestly think that’s true, which I doubt, then you simply haven’t been paying attention. At all.

        Furthermore, it wasn’t a whisper campaign. It was a very loud, very public, very objectionable display of open hatred for a man based on nothing more than his SUPPOSED politics, and it was waged by people who proudly proclaimed that they had never and WOULD NEVER read anything written by Larry Correia or anyone like him.

        The whole point of the Sad Puppies thing, from Correia’s perspective as he has repeatedly stated, was to get non-SJW approved stuff nominated and watch the world-wide head explosion and firestorm of sick hatred.

        Job done. And well done, three years running. That was the whole purpose. Next year I expect will be about gettin’ some payback.

        Now, as to why you resolutely refuse to see this giant moose head on the dining room table, I really can’t say. Possibly you’ve got a vested interest in denying the obvious and blatant facts, or possibly you live in a rabbit hole somewhere and see the world through a soda straw.

        At least that’s how it looks to me, just reading what you’ve written here.

        • > Have you read Scalzi’s blog and twitter feed?

          Not much, but off and on, yeah. I love his blog stuff!

          > Laura Mixon? K. Tempestuous I Hate White People? Literally anything at all on TOR.com?

          Nope, don’t follow any of those.

          > Remember when people started getting kicked out of SFWA a few years ago?

          Again, where are you getting your information from? The only person kicked out of SFWA recently was Vox Day, who is only the second person in the history of the SFWA to have been kicked out. And he deserved the hell out of it. That was such a no-brainer that for anyone to complain about it marks that person as either completely unaware of what was happening, or an unrepentant troll.

          The fact that you said “Remember when people started getting kicked out of SFWA” makes me EXTREMELY suspicious that you don’t actually have any idea what is going on in the community, and you get all your information from outside sources with a HUGE ideological axe to grind.

          > Seen Arthur Chu’s twitter feed?

          Only bits and pieces. I am not an Arthur Chu fan. I don’t think he’s as bad as you’re portraying him, but he certainly has his head up his ass. What does Arthur Chu have to do with WorldCon? If you dislike Chu then attacking WorldCon is a bit like someone who hates Castro invading Ukraine.

          > Explain Redshirts. I read it. It wasn’t awesome. Old Man’s War was good, Redshits, nuh uh.

          Ha! :) I think we are getting into simple difference in taste now. I explain Redshits by pointing out that it was *fucking awesome*!! I voted for it because it was the best of the choice that year, and because it was a blast to read. Jesus, it was straight-up Star Trek fanfic! With modern humor inserted! What more could you want? And the parts that made you think (and thus made it actually worth a Hugo) were all appended to the end, so you could simply ignore them if that’s not your cup of tea.

          Old Man’s War, OTOH, was dreadful. I had to force my way through it, which I only did because so many people said it was great and I kept expecting it to get good. Bored out of my mind all the way through, and the only thing I remember from it nowadays is the original concept (which was cool!) and the mental break the protagonist had while stomping the Lilliputian-esque aliens, which was neat.

          Could the fact that we feel oppositely about two books by the same man, both of which LOTS of people have said are good, maybe be a clue that differences in taste can explain why you don’t like a lot of Hugo winners? Rather than hidden political agendas?

          While we’re discussing taste, I’m curious – what did you think of Altered Carbon?

          > Or the dinosaur thing.

          Oh lord, this again? Addressed in my latest post – http://www.deathisbadblog.com/a-word-about-dinosaur-my-love/

          > It was a very loud, very public, very objectionable display of open hatred for a man based on nothing more than his SUPPOSED politics, and it was waged by people who proudly proclaimed that they had never and WOULD NEVER read anything written by Larry Correia or anyone like him.

          Can you point me to where this was? I’m serious here, because I’m interested. I’m sure there were a few people who said something like this, there do exist some extremists in the community, but I have a hard time believing it was widespread.
          And, of course, this would have to pre-date his attempts to destroy WorldCon because, duh, obviously people are going to hate the guy trying to destroy their decades-old convention, regardless of politics.

          >The whole point of the Sad Puppies thing, from Correia’s perspective as he has repeatedly stated, was to get non-SJW approved stuff nominated

          I find that odd, since, as mentioned above, Resnik won tons of Hugos and he’s very conservative. In fact, both Correia and Torgersen were nominated for Hugos before the Sad Puppies thing. Does this mean that they are secretly part of the SJW cabal? Or could it imply that non-SJW approved stuff actually gets nominated all the time?

          >Next year I expect will be about gettin’ some payback.

          For Justice, right? :)

  2. Just for reference — I personally found this an intense page-turner. I was very curious about the nature of Area X, the Southern Reach organization, the Biologist, and how it all linked together, and felt like I was led deeper and deeper into a mystery with many interlocking parts, where each new event made me want to know even more.

    I can see why it would not work for everyone. I think if this does work for you then it’s a very engrossing, “can’t put it down” sort of book. That was why I was frustrated by the fact that the Sad Puppies (arguably) pushed it off the shortlist — they say they’re all about entertainment and storytelling, and this was easily the most entertaining story I read in 2015.

    (P.S. the sequels had a lot of good qualities, but I didn’t like them as much as I liked Annihilation, so I doubt you’ll like them. Still might be worth trying Authority; if you don’t like Authority, don’t read Acceptance.)

    • Holy crap… you’re the Nostalgebraist that wrote Floornight, right? I just put that together! I’m not through it yet (I fell out during one of the update gaps, and now I want to go back and read it from the top again when I have a few free days), but I want to say that I loved what I read and I can’t wait to finish it! Thank you for putting that out!

      I think one of the things that jaded me about Annihilation is something that’s not fair because it’s not Annihilation’s fault – the track record of Lost (and similar TV shows such as X-Files and the new Battlestar Galactica). Those shows start the same way, with this awesome mystery and the promise of many interlocking parts that will be revealed over time. And every single time I got incredible emotionally involved, and then every single time I was let down because the writers didn’t ACTUALLY have a grand plan in mind, they were making it up as they go along (which is fine!) and couldn’t make it all come together in the end (which is not!). After enough disappointments like that I’ve become somewhat cynical of this sort of story structure.

      And….. it just occured to me that Floornight has the same structure, but I was loving it without any of that cynicism. Hm. Maybe there was something else then, that I can’t put my finger on?

      Anyway, I plan to at least read Authority and I’ll keep your advice in mind. Thanks!

      • Yep! I found your blog by self-Googling, as a matter of fact.

        I know the feeling you’re describing with stories that build up mysteries without being able to cash the checks they’re writing (I never watched Lost, but I had a similar experience with the Battlestar Galactica remake, which started out intriguing but just made me roll my eyes after a certain point). I think what kept me from feeling that way with Annihilation was a sense that Area X did have its own internal “logic” — even if I didn’t understand exactly why things were happening, they all had a consistent “feel,” rather than seeming contrived to maximally surprise or baffle the reader. But, of course, YMMV.

        I hope you enjoy the rest of Floornight. A lot of it was made up as I went along, but I tried to plan things out so that the made-up stuff formed part of a coherent whole, and I do think I made it come together in the end, at least to a first order approximation. (Also, I’m writing a new story called The Northern Caves, which you might also enjoy. It’s only ~10,000 words now so it’s easier to get into)

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