A ghastly moaning echoes over the swamps. Night herons shriek and caw in the dwindling light, and owls stare from the pines with knowing eyes. A tunnel - or is it a tower? - descends into the earth, and strange words are written in a filigree of tiny fungi upon its wall. This is the world of Annihilation, the recent book by Jeff VanderMeer that is so odd, and so compelling, that I’m scouring the internet for interviews with the author. (Click at your own risk... you too could end up with a strange craving for Finnish insectoid epistolary fiction. And perhaps spoilers as well.)
So, about 30 years ago, part of the southern coast disappeared behind a barrier of unknown origin. A series of expeditions has been mounted to try to understand Area X, as it’s called, but they’ve been less than successful - one ended in mass killing, while the members of another returned as blank shells of their former selves who soon died of cancer. The area seems to be purifying itself of any human influence - all chemical and environmental pollution is gone and the natural world has begun to flourish, along with some unusual new, um… additions.
This is the story of the twelfth expedition, composed of four women known only by their functions: the psychologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor and the biologist (a steely introvert who’s our main character). This perplexing and beautiful novel takes a science fiction premise, a dose of spy fiction, a bit of creepy horror, and infuses it all with a naturalist’s sensibility. It’s SF glimpsed through the field glasses of Muir or Darwin, full of evocative descriptions of birds and trees, water and wind - far removed from the cold vacuum of space opera or the brutalist cityscapes beloved of the cyberpunks and dystopians. If you like genre-bending, unusual fiction that’s very well-written, give this a try. And for more so-called “New Weird” authors and influences, try this list.