Annihilation works and lives up to its hype but may not live up to predecessors like Solaris or Peter Watt’s brilliant, bizarre novel Blindsight. I say “may not” because Annihilation is a simpler book, which I say descriptively rather than derogatorily, written in an easy-to-understand style that isn’t as demanding as Blindsight. Because the protagonist of Annihilation knows very little, she doesn’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to explain what is happening to her. Most of the characters in Blindsight speak in sentences like this: “The geometry—it’s not so symmetrical. Looks almost like the Phaistos Disk.” The what disk? And the chapters skip confusingly around.
Blindsight is much harder SF, but the last third, like the novel as a whole, is as good as any fiction I’ve read, ever. It is a book that needs to be started again from the beginning to be understood, which is both a strength and weakness. One could say that Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written—I don’t think so, despite the commonness of the view—but it is also not for everyone or even most people.
Annihilation and Blindsight should be compared because they share an important theme: what happens when we can’t trust our own senses. Annihilation is scary not just because it’s about exploring the unknown but because the protagonist can’t trust memory, which can be directly manipulated in the novel. In a world without reliable memory it becomes impossible to know what you know or don’t. There is no real way to make sense of human life or to receive meaningful feedback from the environment.
This isn’t a totally new fear—Lovecraft’s stories often involve cosmic horror overcoming the senses of humans and causing madness in them, such that they can no longer rationally evaluate what they see and process with their senses. Descartes asked how we know what we know and how we can trust it in 1641’s First Meditation. The difference between then and the near future is the possibility of being able to systematically alter memories. Contemporary science fiction (and, increasingly, science), however, points out that we’re getting much closer to the point at which direct brain or sensory manipulation could be used to make it impossible to trust one’s senses. That sort of thing existing as a fantastical horror scenario is very different from knowing that it could be done to you and, almost as bad, you might not even know.
The narrator’s epistemological gaps are wide. She says: “We had also been assured that it was safe to live off the land if necessary.” Who had done the assuring? When? Why? The party reaches “the camp” and “set about replacing obsolete or damaged equipment.” What equipment is gone and what remains? The narrator doesn’t say. She hears “a lot, powerful moaning at dusk,” but no one tries to figure out what it is. Blindsight is a voyage of discovery; Annihilation is a voyage of strange passivity.
The part of the brain that deals with curiosity seems to have disappeared, and a few pages later the narrator says as much: that “Curiosity could be a powerful distraction.” For someone exploring the unknown, however, curiosity is a motivator, not a distraction. The term “unreliable narrator” is common, but it doesn’t describe Annihilation’s narrator, who better be termed “wildly delusional.” She seems not to search for explanations when the explanation might save her life and its lack might kill her. At times she is anti-rationalist:
I found the psychologist’s faith in measurements and her rationalization for the tower’s absence from maps oddly. . . endearing? Perhaps she meant only to reassure us, but I would like to believe she was trying to reassure herself. Her position, to lead and possibly to know more than us, must have been difficult and lonely.
Almost no one could know less than the narrator. She knows nothing at the beginning of the novel: of one of her party, she says “I think we all believed she came from some kind of management background.” I’d want to know more about someone I hired to edit proposals, let alone someone I’m accompanying into an unknown area long cut off from the rest of the world and human society. She realizes that “we might now be living in a kind of nightmare,” and that sense never goes away. Neither do questions about the narrator’s reliability; towards the end of the novel, she says:
It may be clear by now that I am not always good at telling people things they feel they have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details about the brightness. My reason for this is, again, the hope that any reader’s initial opinion in judging my objectivity might not be influenced by these details.
Worries about “objectivity” are standard fare in novels. The quality of the writing in Annihilation, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, is average, but the novel remains fun, even if the narrator’s ineptness is not to my taste. That the ineptness may be an artifact of whoever sent her is scarier than the things she sees, or think she sees, in Area X.