Exploring Area X: A Journey Into the Sublime
When the film adaptation of Annihilation came out in 2018, I was beyond excited, and not just because Natalie Portman was playing the leading lady. I can vividly remember watching it in my office on my iPad while I was attempting (and failing) to multitask on some other projects, but needless to say, I quickly got swept away in the beauty and terror of Area X and called off all bets on accomplishing anything else that night.
I’ve been recommending the movie to people since I saw it—despite not having, until recently, read the book—because it has one of my favorite scenes in the horror genre to date: that goddamned screaming boar. Let me tell you, folks, when it opened its mouth and replayed a human scream, I about jumped out of my skin and died right then and there. Honestly, I can’t remember something that has ever unnerved me like that did, and soon after that, Area X, and everything that lived and happened inside of it, became an absolute nightmare (in the best way possible) for me.
It’s since been two years since I’ve watched the movie, which was enough time for me to have some distance and feel like I could read the book and rediscover the plot, which was great because the book and the film are quite different—and that is truly a compliment to them both because I thoroughly enjoyed each story line, even if the book will always be better. Also, Annihilation was my first Jeff Vandermeer book aside from his craft book Wonderbook (can you believe it?) and I’m happy to say that I’m an absolute fan now, and that I can’t wait to read more of both the Southern Reach series but also books like Dead Astronauts as well.
Now I tend to be really, really picky with my science fiction, and while I typically like it with a fair amount of horror throughout, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to sub-genres that explore the new weird coupled with these almost dystopian, alien landscapes that redefine the relationship we with have with our bodies. Annihilation was this literal and metaphorical exploration into our understanding of self, reality, morals, and our faith, and it made me question a lot of things personally as I read the book, which is what I think good speculative fiction does; it forces us to take a step back and reevaluate ourselves. When you couple that train of thought with the idea that the characters aren’t given names but rather jobs, it’s easy to (1) assume the position as a reader and become the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and the psychologist or (2) place anyone we know as a placeholder for those people i.e. our friends, family, loved ones, etc. At times, I really felt like the fourth wall was gone (even though that wasn’t something that narratively happened with the POV) and that I was walking through the barrier and uncovering clues, too.
Without giving too much away, I enjoyed that this novel tackled issues regarding the beautiful grotesque as well as danced with the philosophical notion of the sublime and how I/we as a society define it. The suspense and tension in the book was palpable and while it’s this slow, horrifying burn in regard to pacing, there’s this feeling that something or someone is never too far away from inserting chaos into the moment…and I loved that. The will she/won’t she descend into the tower, the uncanny creatures that walked and stalked them throughout, the hypnotic suggestions and the brightening of our bodies…it was all so vivid and hallucinogenic and trippy that as I continued to read, I truly felt like I was privy to witness something miraculous and horrible and…beautiful.
At it’s core, I think Annihilation is about self-discovery through new interpretations of god/s and it’s a real treat to read something that feels ugly and scary and authentic in all of those explorations as someone grapples with what’s happening to them, around them, and within them.
This is an easy 5 stars for me, and I can’t believe it’s taken me until now to ready this beautiful, beautiful book.