Family Reads: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

 Welcome to Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live around the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: Ahh, she’s not Mom! I’m pleased to introduce my sister, who chose this month’s read, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I’d read about Annihilation online, but it didn’t spike my interest too much (though I liked the cover). After my sister suggested it for Family Reads, however, I realized at under 200 pages it would be a great book for April’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon, so I was happy to give it a go. 

Sister: While I was at work a few months ago (I work in a bookstore), Annihilation‘s spine first caught my eye. The back description also intrigued me. When Reno asked if I wanted to collaborate on her blog, I thought this would be a good book for discussion.

We both gave this book 3.5 stars – however, this changed by the end of the discussion! We tackled many of the questions a reader might ask about the story. Annihilation leaves plenty to speculation. I’ve written the first bit of the post in the usual conversational style, but the rest takes the form of a Q and A. Some of the questions we explored in depth, others we just tossed out. Props to Sister for generating most of this discussion. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). I’ve read Authority but Sister hadn’t – we reference that book but without spoilers. Here’s our discussion on the writing style, the biologist, and the many mysteries of Area X.

Before she died, the psychologist said I had changed, and I think she meant I had changed sides. It isn’t true – I don’t even know if there are sides, or what that might mean – but it could be true. I see now that I could be persuaded. (93%)

On answers: 

Reno: Does it bother you that there aren’t many answers in this book? Does it usually bother you when there aren’t answers in a story?
Sister: No, but it usually does. I think it’s because of the writing style. Normally, I’d be getting ticked off, keeping track of what’s this and what’s that and you didn’t explain that bit and that doesn’t make sense, but with this book, I just went along with it. My reaction was, “Huh. Okay then.”
Reno: Yeah, you just roll with it. One of my early impressions of the book was that it felt like a video game. Like I was the biologist exploring the world and trying to figure it out, and you have to explore a lot before you can find answers.
Sister: And you may or may not find answers, but you’re not too heartbroken because it was more about the exploration. I’m not even expecting many answers in the second and third books, but I’d like to know A) how Area X came to be and B) why they tell so many lies about it.
Reno:  I’d like to know about how the border works. I think that would explain a lot about Area X.

On the tension created by the biologist:

Sister: I felt really anxious and tense while reading, but when I look back I don’t feel like the writing itself was anything intense. It’s just “This happened, then this happened”. I think part of the reason I was so anxious was because of the biologist was so tempered.
Reno: She wasn’t freaking out, but I was on her behalf.
Sister: Right, VanderMeer didn’t write specifically to create a suspenseful thriller but the way the biologist reacted, all rational and calm, made it that way.
Reno: The biologist herself is the creepy one half the time.
Sister: Yeah, for example, why is she glowing? [We discuss the scene after the biologist leaves the psychologist and enters the forest, and agree that it was especially freaky because of the biologist’s nonchalant manner.]
Sister: The annihilation scene with the psychologist is also like this.
Reno: Ah, I searched for discussion questions and there was one about that scene. Someone suggested the psychologist was trying to annihilate herself, because she was so freaked out by the biologist.
Sister: Oooh.
Reno: The most logical reason is that the psychologist was trying to get the biologist to ‘annihilate’, but still…
Sister: Well, the psychologist is losing it a bit, but I think the biologist was glowing before she noticed and that’s why the psychologist thought she was a flame. The tension created through the biologist really pulled me through the story. I whipped through sections because I was having such an intense reaction to them, but I don’t think it had anything to do with the writing. I think it was because of how the narrator reacted, or didn’t react.

On discussion improving the story:

Sister: It’s not a hard read. You could get through without any critical thinking, or you could choose to put a lot into it and get something totally different, which I think is kind of cool. You could go with the flow or question everything. Which I guess you could say about any book…but for example, you don’t need to question The Hunger Games. Everything’s pretty well laid out. With this book there are no answers.
Reno: You can dig into it however you like.
Sister: Right, there aren’t any answers and you don’t know if anyone is sane or accurately perceiving the reality they’re in.
Reno: I’m enjoying the book a lot more now in retrospect with our discussion. I don’t think I’ve ever theorized so much over a story. This discussion can go any way you like – choose yes or no, choose yes or no. It’s like a growing tree. Before I was in the camp of “You can just breeze through it” but now I see there are so many intriguing things to consider.

Questions for consideration:

  • Why was this expedition so small? Why wouldn’t you take a medic?
  • Who killed the anthropologist? 
    • Reno: I think…the psychologist did.
    • Sister: Right? But at the very end of the book, when the biologist looks in the surveyor’s journal, she sees the surveyor wrote ‘I took care of the anthropologist.’
    • Reno: And the biologist killed the surveyor…That’s when I really started to think the biologist wasn’t stable. I do not want to be around her. I had mixed thoughts about the surveyor.
    • Sister: She seemed pretty rude sometimes.
    • Reno: And sometimes I thought she was the most normal one. If she killed the anthropologist, she did so for a valid, good reason.
    • Sister: But then why did the psychologist say she killed the anthropologist?
  • Why are the expedition members all women?
  • Where is Area X in the world?
    • Reno: Southern United States. Somewhere kind of swampy, like Florida (is Florida swampy?) Where there are lots of crocodiles. What do you think?
    • Sister: South America, because of parallels with the Amazon and so many unknowns. The lighthouse photo shows it was civilized before… Whatever happened – they got absorbed or reincarnated or turned into weird things or something.
  • How did Area X originate?
    • Sister: I think the air is super contaminated and everyone’s hallucinating but that’s not as fun a story.
    • Reno: One explanation is mentioned in Authority that I hadn’t thought of, and I was disappointed because I didn’t want it to be that (though other readers might like that theory). I want it to be like where you find out it’s all been caused by humans messing up an experiment or something like that.
    • Sister: But I don’t want it to be bland and boring like the Mazerunner, where it’s very obvious and purposeful.
    • Reno: Yeah, I just want them to have been doing experiments or something like that. My initial thought was that it was some sort of controlled experiment – let’s give them all drugs and see what happens, but it quickly becomes clear it’s not a controlled environment.
  • How does the border work?
    • Sister: Super curious about the border.
    • Reno: Me too, one of my biggest questions.
    • Sister: Why do you need to be hypnotized? 
    • Reno: Do you even need to be, or are they just saying that?
    • Sister: Right! Is it like North and South Korea where you just go through a door and you’re in a different place, or is it actually some crazy experience that you need to be sedated for.
  • Is it a tunnel or a tower? Is it alive?
    • Sister: Tunnels to me don’t go straight down…they go through.
    • Reno: I see what you mean, yes.
    • Sister: To me calling it a tunnel was weird.
    • Reno: Ah, you biologist over there.
    • Sister: Eh, calling it a tower was also a little strange. I’d call it a hole.
    • Reno: Hahaha, let’s go explore this big hole over there!
    • Sister: That’s what it is! How about if it’s alive?
    • Reno: That was creepy. And the biologist was like “I’ll just keep going, then.” 
    • Sister: Part of me wonders if the tunnel was actually alive, or if she was just spooked and that was her own heart and she tried to rationalize it away – “No, I’m fine, that’s the tower’s heartbeat, not mine.”
    • Reno: Ooh. I always just thought it was alive. I’m terrible with unreliable narrators because I believe everything they say, even when I know I shouldn’t.
  • What’s up with the Crawler?
    • Reno: We’ve gotten this far and we haven’t mentioned the Crawler. It was a big part of the book for awhile then it…wasn’t?
    • Sister: Right, then it wasn’t. I’m somehow not even that curious about it. The way it’s written, I just accept it as part of Area X.
  • Why choose the biologist?
    • Reno: Something else we haven’t talked about is the biologist’s back story.
    • Sister: She was kind of unstable before…
    • Reno: You wonder why they picked her.
    • Sister: She touches on that at one point – that maybe it has to do with her husband (sure, or it’s because you’re a little crazy.)
    • Reno: They only choose four people; why choose one that’s a little off?
    • Sister: And that leads to more questions. Assuming this is set on earth, where are they picking people from? Nearby Area X or all over the world? How are they picked? Is Southern Reach a global government? Anyway. The biologist might be a little insane, but she’s very smart, rational and observant. She’s very sciency, observation and explanation based. 
    • Reno: She says she feels some things, but she rarely reacts (for example, with the Crawler or in the forest.) I wouldn’t do anything she does. Is she brave?
    • Sister: I wouldn’t say brave…maybe unafraid? Kind of stupid, or ignorant. 
    • Reno: And she’s never really been in trouble. Except with the Crawler, maybe, when she comes out glowing.
    • Sister: Another question – is the glowing from the spores or just from Area X in general? She says it’s the spores but…
    • Reno: I think she might know that’s not the best explanation but she doesn’t want to admit to herself what it might really be. I think it’s some way she’s reacting to Area X.
    • Sister: Did the biologist break her hypnotization or was she never hypnotized to begin with? 
    • Reno: Well, how did she go through the border?
    • Sister: I brushed it off to be drugs, haha.
    • Reno: She says it has to do with th spores buuuuut….
    • Sister: The psychologist alludes to the biologist being an issue, never giving her straight answers, etc. Maybe Southern Reach wasn’t banking on her being ‘unhypnotizable’ – or maybe they were…
  • Why was the biologist glowing?
  • Is everyone actually dead?
    • Reno: I thought of that movie Source Code, with Jake Gyllenhaal, in the beginning of the story. That maybe it was something like that.
    • Sister: I wonder if the biologist actually died after the surveyor shot her. The biologist just brushes off what happened, she doesn’t react much…
  • What really happened to her husband?
  • Why don’t they use names?
    • Reno: I think it’s a control thing by Southern Reach.
    • Sister: To remove personal attachment? That was a big deal for surveyor at the end. Her screaming at the biologist to tell her her name.
    • Reno:  And the biologist shot her. I was a little scared of the biologist then.
    • Sister: But the surveyor did shoot her first. In theory, the biologist shot back in self-defense but she was glowing. That would freak me out if I was the surveyor, too.
    • Reno: I feel bad for the surveyor. I got kind of a ‘true name’ vibe, like knowing it would unlock some power.
    • Sister: Or did the biologist not look like herself and the surveyor just wanted to confirm she was indeed the biologist?
  • How would you make this book into a movie?
    • Sister: Apparently it’s been optioned. I feel like a movie wouldn’t work because the story can be so different for each person.
    • Reno: Everyone has their own version of Area X.
    • Sister: The story is so heavily based on the internal narration of one person. How would you show everything so you know it’s just her perspective and not necessarily reality?
    • Reno: Yeah! A movie would, by nature, shut down so many of the questions we’ve been able to discuss here.
  • Does Southern Reach really know what happens in Area X
    • Sister: I thought Southern Reach could see what they were doing. They alluded to being removed from Area X if they wanted. Is it like a Hunger Games arena where everything is observed? Or is someone communicating with Southern Reach? (How?)
    •  Reno: I imagined Area X as a contaminated area of Earth. So, hypothetically you could fly over and peek in, but I then thought the border was too weird. Even if you looked you couldn’t see in….So the point is, yeah, how does Southern Reach know? Do they even know or are they just saying that to be comforting? Like that device that signals danger but never turns on.
  • Can you leave Area X?
    • Sister: Can you leave without Southern Reach’s help?
    • Reno: I don’t think Southern Reach matters. Maybe you could leave if Area X deemed it okay (Southern Reach can’t help.)
    • Sister: You think Area X is sentient?
    • Reno: Hah, yeah, I guess I do!
    • Sister: Ah, cool! I don’t think it’s sentient but I think you could enter and not be contaminated by whatever’s in the air, like you’re immune. But so far there hasn’t been anyone like that.
  • Why did the psychologist jump?
    • We discussed this question quite a bit, but mostly it was just us going back into the book to review what happened.
  • What’s up with the journals in the lighthouse?
    • How did they get there? Who’s collecting them? Not supposed to read each others…when did the biologist write this journal, anyhow? A few days after it all happened? She carefully constructs her narrative, deliberately withholding information until she decides it’s okay to share. She’s an aware unreliable narrator, which makes it even harder to believe what she says. She’s not reliably unreliable.

Lots to discuss! Sister and I both found talking about this book made it ‘better’. I even changed my GoodReads rating to 4 stars. Have you read Annihilation? What do you think of our theories? What are your theories? If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here.