I do far too many things on hope.
At some point last year I went to the film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I didn’t like it. I don’t remember all the specific reasons why I didn’t enjoy the movie, but I do remember feeling that the story presented in the movie was muted in some way, and that it was on the cusp of being an enjoyable story if only it had a little more some unknown ingredient. There was a hope that maybe the book would be better, because books have much more room to explore different things.
Somehow the book gets things even worse.
Annihilation is the story of four unnamed scientists that go into an mysterious area (known only by the silly moniker ‘Area X’) to try to better understand what is causing it. However, this is largely secondary to the story. The four characters could all have been garbage collectors for as much as it was relevant to the story (a flaw I also felt was present in the movie). Their journey into area X, as well as an understanding as to what exactly area X is, is also seemingly secondary to the primary story of the main character’s thoughts and her relationship to her husband who disappeared in a previous expedition into the same area. By the end of the story we know a whole lot about the character and her internal thoughts, but the story might as well have been taking place in a blank room.
My reoccurring question while reading this book was ‘wait a second, isn’t this book supposed to be science-fiction?’ If the book had any virtue at all it is that it made me think about genres, a topic that I often like to revisit. Before I read it, I would often see it in bookstores and found myself annoyed at the fact that it was never filed under science-fiction. More often and not I would find it under the general fiction section. This annoyed me greatly, largely because of the (entirely unwarranted) dismissive attitude people still have towards science-fiction and other forms of para-literature. Oddly enough, while reading it I came to agree with the idea that the book wasn’t science-fiction, or at least not principally. If you had to give the book only one label, that one that most accurately describes it surrealism. The book’s vague, murky narrative wherein the characters do not seem to know what is going on with any kind of confidence and nothing seems to be concretely described seems to lend it more to that surrealism than anything else.
12 thoughts on “Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer”
It is science fiction — do you want me to spoil it? I mean, it’s a very basic and standard SF premise which isn’t entirely clear in the first book.
And secondly, why is it “not being science fiction” an actual problem if it’s mysterious, involving, character-driven, relatively well-written?
There are sort of two issues at hand.
I think what I was trying to say is that the book promised science-fiction from the premise and then under delivered by a whole hell of a lot. I really believe that in terms of the style, it resembled works of surrealism more than science-fiction. And yes,there can be a whole lot of overlap between the two (like in one of my favorite novels, Dhalgren), but that is not what I got here. Sorry if this is starting to sound vague, but at this point I read the book some time ago and I am going from memory (I write these well in advanced).
But I also brought genre up because at the book stores I frequent, it’s not shelved with the other science-fiction books. I understand that there is a sort of politics to this, but I guess I am commenting on the confusion of it all. It does feel like someone (and to take the guilt away from the author, maybe its the bookstore in this case) is trying to have their cake and eat it too.
But frankly, I didn’t think it was mysterious, character driven, or terribly well written either. Considering I purchased the book wanting something that was science-fiction, was convinced to purchase this because of a science-fiction premise, and didn’t find it in the science-fiction section.
Ah, so it’s more your disappointment in it not being the type of SF you wanted…
I guess my issue is as follows — I find genre essentialism a major problem (as in, SF is this and completely not that). I, for example, focus almost entirely on the somewhat more experimental SF (so, the New Wave movement) — and SF encompasses such a vast territory now and in the past. And this fits within it…. in many ways, it is far more overtly SF than a lot that was published during the New Wave movement. Genre is such an amorphous and porous construct…. a lot fits….
Also, how was it not character-driven? It focused on the main character, he flashbacks, and her slow understanding of her trauma… this is sort of definition character-driven. Whether or not it was done successfully is another issue.
For me it was about a lack of action on the characters part. Ultimately the story was a person just thinking and reflecting, but we really didn’t see how any of this actually affected the character in terms of her actions.
EDIT: For some reason it is not letting me reply to your other comment in that thread, so let me do it here.
I agree that essentialism is a bad thing, but I don’t think there should be a definition so broad as to be too encompassing. I’ve heard arguments that things such as medieval philosophical Utopia’s should be considered sci-fi, and that for me broadens the definition too far. But definitions are not necessarily real things, and I can accept that they are different for different people.
Utopia isn’t considered medieval — Sir Thomas Moore is a Renaissance Humanist.
(I have a PhD in Medieval History)
But yes, I tend to agree that those early precedents aren’t SF. But a weird pocket universe in a contemporary novel probably is.
I wasn’t thinking of Utopia specifically, by the Utopias as a genre (“Citta Del Sole” was what I had in mind, but you are def right about neither of those being medieval. My bad). I’ve even heard the argument push back as far as Plato!
Huge fan of Citta Del Sole…. the street museums, the murals, fascinating stuff.
I tend to be of the mind that although “science” might not be a central component of ALL SF, it definitely help form a core around which genre conventions were formed. So yes, a lot of these earlier “precursors” might have inspired later authors, but are themselves not SF as a more modern conception of “science” is required.
I want to emphasize that I agree with the amorphous nature of genre that you mention. My main point is a simple one: that is more encompassing than often thought — and has been, especially in the 60s and 70s (again, my specific area of study). I am glad that VanderMeer can get a novel published that is more liminal and doesn’t fit so neatly in a category. Regardless of whether or not it’s completely successful. I found myself pulled in and fascinated — I have struggled mightily with some of his overdone earlier novels (Shriek: An Afterword for example) and thought this one was much more focused.
And I personally (this is preference), wasn’t terribly considered with whether or not the SF element was super clear or even explained. So much that I refused to read the sequels for fear of a hackneyed explanation! I spoiled myself with wikipedia summaries instead….
People read for different reasons, and I get that. But for my the explanation is *often* the element gives the science to a work of SF. I recognize that I have strange opinions about this, and that I sometimes see-saw between my own thoughts. There are some days that I feel that SF is largely a description of setting. This opinion angers people indeed.
I too am pretty glad that the genre expanded the way it did, although the 60s and 70s produced some of the works I liked most and least. I’ve not read any of his other novels, and I am not sure I am willing to commit to them. His writing style didn’t grab me, nor did his content. I may try the sequels to this, just for completions sake. But not anytime soon.