Book review of Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
There are no spoilers in this review.
I had heard a great deal about Annihilation and was very curious to read it. In some ways, the book really delivered. But in others, it fell disappointingly short, particularly the audiobook version. In the end, it wound up being a 4 because of the writing quality. However, when it was over I felt a bit disappointed, that it had the bones to be a 5-star story but somehow missed the mark.
To start with the positive, I thought that overall the writing in this book was very high. I really enjoyed Mr. VanderMeer's description of settings, and the use of introspection on the part of the main character, the biologist. I found the overall concept was really interesting as well. This is a first-contact story, in which the four main characters, all women, were known only as "the biologist," "the psychologist," "the archeologist," and "the surveyor," are sent to investigate a place called "Area X," which only the U.S. government knows about and that has been exhibiting paranormal phenomena for many years.
The current four-woman team is the twelfth expedition into Area X (which I thought was a rather lame play off of Area 51) to explore the goings-on there. The previous expeditions, by and large, have all met a variety of untimely demises, whether group suicide, killing each other, or mysteriously returning to the outside world as shells of their former selves before dying of cancer a few months later. To be honest I found the basic premise of the book ridiculous, namely that the government would choose to send in only tiny teams of people into an area they knew might be harboring some form of extraterrestrial life. But overall, I thought the book did an excellent job setting the scene and getting the reader curious about what was happening inside Area X, and what would happen to this particular expedition.
However, I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and unfortunately, this turned out to be a big part of what didn't work for me. I'm still new to audiobooks, having only listened to Wil Wheaton's narration of Ready Player One before this one. I really enjoyed the audio version of RPO, and so was eagerly anticipating Carolyn McCormick's reading of Annihilation. She had narrated the Hunger Games series, and so had great credentials. But whether it was the sound of her voice or the way she read the story, by the time I was halfway through the book I found the narration really getting on my nerves.
I was also bothered by the frequent interruption of the plot, particularly in the second half, with flashbacks or long introspective asides. Initially, I found the flashbacks non-intrusive and providing helpful context for how the main character got herself involved in the expedition. But over time they provided less and less useful information and just got in the way of the story. I would have skimmed over them had I been reading. Similarly, the main character engaged in near-continuous introspection. At first it was interesting, but later on, when things started happening it seemed an unrealistic way to react and also slowed things down.
Finally, I found the climax to be a bit, well, anticlimactic. It was still cool and brought to mind a couple of my favorite books, Contact and Roadside Picnic. But the subtle ending of Contact didn't deliver the goods for a lot of people (although it did for me) but I had a similar reaction to the ending of this book.
I'm probably being a bit harsh, but it's because my gut tells me this book had the potential to be awesome, but somehow didn't hit the home run I was looking for. But it was very interesting and engaging story overall, and for much of the book, the writing was excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie because I have a feeling it may be one of those relatively rare cases where the movie turns out better than the book.
So I saw the movie, and suffice it to say that my hopes that it would be better than the book were not unmet. While the book lost its way in the second half, the movie lost its way even earlier. For one, it added a bunch of action scenes that were out-of-place with the story's essence as a cerebral thriller. It took out some of the stuff I found intriguing about the psychologist's character, and most critically, it altered the ending in a way that actually made it even more anticlimactic than in the book. So while I recommend the book, I'd pass on the movie, which I'd only give 2 out of 5 stars.
Science fiction writer