There’s a good reason why, in Canada, we have a genre called “wilderness Gothic”. These are the early novels about Canada, exemplified by works such as Wacousta, where the outside environment, the wilderness, is a character, an evil presence, something to be kept well away.
Contrary to the American attitude towards wilderness, which is one of control and conquest, colonists to Canada (at least in the 18th and 19th centuries) saw the large, unending forests as frightful, unknowable areas inhabited by “wild men” (Indians, of course, always represented as borderline barbaric, half-animals, half-humans) who knew but did not divulge their secrets.
In a way, Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, is a reinterpretation of the wilderness gothic genre for a science-fiction audience. It’s about a wild space, called Area X, that has been cut off from the rest of the world for 30 years. Nobody really knows why it happened or what Area X wants or does, especially not the secret organization responsible for its management and study, called the Southern Reach.
In this first book, we follow the biologist of the twelfth expedition (there have been many previous expeditions, with different levels of success or unsuccess) as she experiences Area X and uncovers its mysteries and secrets. The very beginning of the novel expresses something akin to the fear of being engulfed by the wilderness that was such a common topic in early Canadian fiction:
Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.
It’s difficult to pin down Annihilation on its own. I’ve read reviews that decry the scientific voice of the narrator, but I thought it was perfectly in character: the biologist was asked to observe and record her reactions, and she does so from the point of view of, well, a biologist. Her character is more interested in ecosystems than she is in people. She may not be easily relatable, but her attempt at a detached voice makes her struggle all the more heart-wrenching.
The novel is part scientific account, part wilderness gothic, part environmental criticism, part descent into madness narrative. As the story advances, more and more questions are raised–and none are really answered.
This book is one of the most interesting, terrifying, weird and original works of fiction I’ve read in quite a while. It doesn’t have the page turner quality of The Martian, but at 200 pages is a quick read. I even put off watching House of Cards to finish this damn book, to give you an idea.
Annihilation flirts with the uncanny in a way I have never experienced. Reading it was like looking at the world through a broken kaleidoscope: experiences are stretched and refracted, ideas and objects never quite stable, always on the edge between reality and imagination. Is what you’re seeing, hearing, touching real? Is your capacity to understand, to react, to decide being manipulated by some outside force?
And what is it with all the animals with strangely human eyes?