As a teenager I used to plunder my father’s shelves of dog-eared paperbacks, kept in a dank, low-ceilinged basement room that also held a turntable, an out-of-tune piano and a distinct eau de mold. What excitement lurked in those browning pages with their brittle edges, whose pieces would chip off in my hands — science fiction and fantasy, mainly, with a smattering of mystery and P.G. Wodehouse and military biographies.
Reading Jeff Vandermeer’s novel “Annihilation” — the first in a trilogy, all to be released this year — I had the same sensation of dreadful, delicious anticipation I used to have as I cracked open one of the books in the basement. Mid-20th century English writer John Wyndham came to mind first, “The Trouble With Lichen” or “The Midwich Cuckoos” (the basis for two films, from 1960 and 1995, called “Village of the Damned”).
“Annihilation” has been touted as part H.P. Lovecraft and part Margaret Atwood, but Vandermeer’s calmly rational biologist narrator will read, to any Wyndham fan, as a direct descendant of the botanist narrator in the post-apocalyptic romance “The Day of the Triffids.” In Wyndham’s books the ominous takes many intriguing forms, from grotesque social orders to telepathy and man-made monsters; these variable demons are met with a likable, forthright narrative sensibility — friendly, upper-crust British rationalism suddenly faced with an insidious other, primeval, beastly and shockingly late for tea.
“Annihilation,” in which the educated and analytical similarly meets up with the inhuman, is a clear triumph for Vandermeer, who after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal.
That’s not to say his genre readers should turn away — on the contrary. The cleverness of “Annihilation” is that, like Wyndham’s stories, it’s both genre and general.
The novel’s plot runs roughly thus: A team of scientists, all women, is dispatched by an unspecified authority to explore a strange and derelict land, Area X, on a mission whose goals are uncertain. Members of at least 11 previous expeditions have died or disappeared in numerous, only partly understood ways. Inside what appears to be a sunken tower or tunnel — a deep, cylindrical hole in the ground — they discover a previously unknown organism that writes doomsday prophetic language on the moist walls of the tower using the “fruiting bodies” of a fungus — and seems to be murderous.
Then there’s the tunnel’s inverse landmark in Area X, an abandoned lighthouse, which houses a hoard of creepy leavings from explorers who have gone before. (The female/male imagery isn’t lost on even a less-than-astute reader, and yet neither is it quite the blunt instrument it may sound.)
Vandermeer has had a prolific dual career as a writer and editor of genre fiction sometimes called the “New Weird” — a startup genre that combines horror and fantasy and contains Goth and steampunk and noir stylings. For some time, writing and promoting the genre, he’s been preoccupied with fungi.
It turns out that so-called fungal fiction — speculative fiction involving intelligent and sometimes even godlike fungic creatures — is a category that borders on being its own subgenre. Fungal creatures play central roles in previous Vandermeer books — including “Shriek: An Afterword” and “Finch” — but these books, less well written and more entrenched in the clubby and self-referential genre world than the present trilogy, look like juvenilia by contrast.
In biological taxonomy, fungi make up a massive kingdom of species replete with unknowns. Out of millions of fungal species, only about 5% have been classified; these mysterious organisms, with their spore-based reproduction and parasitic life cycles, are little understood but known to feast off the dead and spread invisibly through the air — making them ripe targets for fantasy.
In “Annihilation,” our lucid yet chronically self-isolating biologist narrator has lost her estranged husband, a kind and lonely man alongside whom she lived for years in an unfulfilled and oddly yearning marriage. Indeed, she signed up for the mission partly because he asked her to search for him if he didn’t come back — on the previous expedition into Area X, from which he both did and did not return. Increasingly, as she watches her own research team disintegrate, she begins to hope he may not be truly dead.
As it must, being the first installment of three, “Annihilation” ends with a cliffhanger. In “Authority” and “Acceptance,” scheduled for May and September, we wish to discover what’s behind the prophetic tower/killer fungus and what happened to the expeditions that went before (some of which seem to have sent doppelgängers back to the real world).
But despite the obligatory unanswered questions, Book One stands on its own. The apparent tragedy and freakish ecology of Area X’s blight are quite fascinating, and the solitary voice of its post-humanist narrator is both deeply flawed and deeply trustworthy — a difficult and excellent balance in a novel whose world is built seamlessly and whose symbols are rich and dark.
Millet is the author, most recently, of “Magnificence” and the forthcoming young adult novel “Pills and Starships.”
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 195 pp., $13 paper