Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review for Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer

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Product Details

"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; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third expedition 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 weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition. The 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, record all observations of their surroundings and of one anotioner, and, above all, 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, I once again utilized Amazon to search for and purchase a book. This one carried a 4 out of 5 star review, over the course of 460 reviews. Pretty good, right? So, I bought this book without actually reading a user review. Now, I admit that sometimes people give unfair review of literature. Sometimes a book doesn't read like they would like. Or it ends in a way they don't like. Sometimes, books are too simple. Or too difficult. So, I usually avoid reading the actual reviews because I don't want a few people to taint the book or give something away. One of these days, I am going to learn to not go on the average Stars awarded and read a random set of reviews. It seems to me that if you look at the first reviews, they are always stellar. It's almost like the writer's family and friends write the first reviews. Only later do you start seeing the more realistic reviews.

Ok, so I say all that and haven't talked about the book.

I read the description above and thought it sounded interesting. I noted that having an all female cast would be...different....for me. But, I was open to new experiences. I can't recall the last time I read a first-person narrative of a female. I have read several books, namely "Titan" where the lead character is a female.  This book certainly sounded like it comes from the "big dumb ship" idea, where characters are introduced to an entirely new (at least temporary) environment in which they know nothing about. For some reason, that type of literature always appeals to me, as I try to figure out what they are seeing before they realize just what it is.

Regarding the POV of a woman heroine....if some of the lines were left out of the book, you would never know it was a woman. In fact, it reads just like a male. The character is flat. She exhibits little to no emotion, even in her back-story about her dead husband. She is very calculative and scientific. I felt that her personality was force-fed to me. I had to be convinced on who she was at times and this was done through back-story and not during the action of the book.

This book certainly started off just as I expected, with the 4 women explorers traipsing around an unknown environment. They had been given little to no information on what the other expeditions had seen or experienced. They were given very basic understanding of the environment in which previous expeditions had already encountered, leading me to question "why." The easiest assumption is that this is some sort of government experiment.

The explorers encounter many things they do understand, such as ruins of towns and typical flora and fauna. We are never told WHY they encounter such things, and if they matter. Just that they are there and are not entirely important. Though, readers like me will realize that very little is every written that doesn't matter, so we file it away. Soon they begin to encounter things they do not understand. These things are outlandish and strange and totally incomprehensible to the explorers. They do their best to explain it their limited ability, like a toddler explaining long division. Shortly after encountering some inexplicable findings (for the explorers), we discover that the explorers are all victims to deep hypnosis. Because we are limited by the main character's understanding, we are left with the impression that this was done in order to ensure mission success, but also left with the deep question that all of the unexplained MAY BE explainable, just incomprehensible to the heroine due to the mental conditioning. Surely, however, all things will come to light.

Sprinkled into the heroine's narrative are seemingly out-of-place recollections. Again, a reader is left with the impression that these must somehow figure into the plot. For example, we wonder if, through these recollections, we will ever find out what happened to the other expeditions. After all, the back cover talks about a whole expedition dying from cancer, but no more is ever offered in the book OTHER than simply stating they died from cancer. In the end, these flashbacks offer no real information other than very basic knowledge of the heroine's husbands demise.

The books spirals into the surreal. By the end of the book, the heroine is experiencing things she doesn't even begin to comprehend, both about herself, the past expeditions, and her surroundings. It was like trying to understand a raving lunatic on acid explaining the colors she sees. I kept trying to read her description of things and think: "Oh, she is explaining a deer. She just saw a deer for the first time and didn't have the vocabulary to explain it." Except that she is trying to explain monsters.

By the end of the book, I found myself wondering just what I was reading. Everything that had been written up until that point was in question. To me, the entire book read like someone's far-fetched dream. A dream that made sense while asleep, and then they tried to wake up and write it all down and remember the exactness of it, it didn't make much sense. Like, how could THIS be if THAT happened? Only few things were in focus and the rest of the details were hazy and unclear.

If you are like me, you will read down to the last page hoping that someone will explain things. I honestly got down to the next to last page, and as I flipped it over, I thought it would be a single paragraph that said something like:

"They were all dead and in purgatory." or "They were abducted by aliens and selectively memory wiped and being watched for their interactions with a seemingly foreign environment." 

Alas, the book just ended.

Whenever reading a book, you have some basis and boundaries of realism. By the end of this book, you are unsure of anything real. There were no real boundaries set. Nothing was sure to have happened or to exist.  Does Area X even exist? Does the heroine exist and if any of this story is being told from a sane person's point of view. Insanity is certainly hinted at strongly in this book. Most importantly, what was the reason for the expedition? 

So, if you go read the reviews, you will see much of the same. It is 208 pages meant to confuse you, keep you guessing, and make you purchase another book. I don't mind those, usually, but I like to know where we are headed. I am sure that by the end of the 3rd book, we will know what happened to her and her husband. We will know what the "crawler" is. We will know WHY the government sent all the expeditions. We will understand what Area X is. I can't help but think this is a scenario where a writer went into this knowing he wanted to sell 3 different books, but only had the ideas for 1, so he strung together some stuff to bait people to keep buying.  I had to work my noodle a whole lot and produced nothing. While entertaining, I was not entertained. Does that make sense? No? Then you understand how I feel.