Feb. 4th marked the release of Tallahassee-based author Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)
, the first volume of his planned Southern Reach Trilogy. The trilogy has already been optioned for a film by Paramount. That formula — planned trilogy, pre-release film option — just screams paint-by-numbers young-adult dystopian quest, or mindless "adult" political thriller.
But Annihilation is none of those things. Instead, it’s challenging, surrealist science fiction in the Philip K. Dick mold, the story of a team of scientists (all ominously unnamed) who venture into Area X, a strangely contaminated zone from which 11 previous expeditions have failed to return intact. You’ll probably recognize Area X, on some level — it’s characterized by its extravagantly strange flora and fauna, and Vandermeer has acknowledged that the environments in many of his other works are inspired by Florida’s sheer excess of life.
Vandermeer is a semi-leader of the movement known as the New Weird, a non-genre that straddles the lines between fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. His previous works can be described as varieties of strange, haunting, and poetic, with a healthy dose of science-fantasy allegory thrown in for good measure. Vandermeer has built worlds including Veniss, a nightmare of war and recycled corpses, and Ambergris, a city where mushroom-men haunt the darkness and the citizens celebrate an annual Freshwater Squid festival – which Vandermeer claims was inspired by the real-life squid festival in Sebring, Florida
. Although maybe check your sources on that.
It’s fascinating to see Vandermeer’s work slowly reconcile itself with the mainstream. One of his early works, The Situation
, describes an utterly otherworldly workplace where an ominous boss in the form of a bear with a space helmet lords it over an office whose workers use cockroaches to spy on each other as they try to undermine and manipulate the creation of a new kind of fish intended to teach children. Annihilation may get weird, but at least it’s set on a recognizable Earth, and its characters are human – at least at the start.
Look for this one to show up on many, many year-end lists for Florida, and the entire country.