Four women embark on an expedition into a government restricted location called Area X. They are on a government mission to explore and document what they find. The four explorers have a range of skills; a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist, the expedition leader. The twist? This is the twelfth expedition the government have sent and in previous ones the explorers have met various grisly ends including killing each other or committing suicide. There is clearly something strange going on in this place. The border appeared thirty years ago after an “Event” occurred next to a military base. The people living in the local village all went missing but it was blamed on an environmental disaster caused by a military experiment.
To get to Area X you have to travel through some form of magical barrier but we never fully experience this as a reader. The story starts with the explorers hiking through the forest four days after the crossing with no recollection of how it happened. It’s a voluntary expedition and you have to ask yourself why anyone would want to volunteer. In the biologist’s case, as the narrator, we get insight into her solitary nature and the chance to explore this pristine ecosystem and escape civilisation. Having just lost her husband there is also a sense of not having anything else to lose.
“I told myself because my existence back in the world had become at least as empty as Area X. With nothing left to anchor me, I needed to be here”The Biologist
An interesting aspect is that the characters don’t have names and so the biologist is just referred to as the biologist. As a story technique, it reflects the fact that the names of the explorers are never revealed to each other with the explanation that “anything personal should be left behind”. It’s all part of the experiment the government is performing to uncover the secrets of Area X. As expected, the expedition disintegrates rapidly as whatever affected previous teams is now impacting them.
I really like the feel of this story, it’s melancholy and mournful in places, beautifully written and the plot slowly reveals itself as you uncover what is going on in Area X and what happened to the previous expeditions. Jeff Vandermeer discusses how the inspiration for the story was a dream in this interview in Lightspeed Magazine. There are two more volumes in the series known as the Southern Reach Trilogy; Authority and Acceptance. Annihilation was also made into a film written and directed by Alex Garland but the adaptation varies greatly from the book.
© The Outlands Review