The 2015 winner of the Nebula award, a prestigious science fiction award voted on by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, is Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer, and it is an amazing read! Even if you don’t think you like science fiction, you may find yourself enthralled by this page-turner of a novel.
The book is set in a near future earth, where an expedition is being sent into Area X, a part of North Carolina which is blocked off from the rest of the country due to some undescribed event that changed the flora and fauna and the very earth and sea of the place. A shadowy organization, the Southern Reach, has been sending expeditions of explorers into this area for some time, with terrible results. This book is about the experiences of the members of (what they think is) the 12th expedition. The people from the 11th expedition appeared at their homes mysteriously, with no memory of how they left Area X and very changed personalities; all of them died of cancer within six months after returning. None of the other expeditions had any survivors.
I’m reluctant to say much about the plot, because half the fun of the book is making discoveries as our protagonist, described only as the Biologist (the other members of her expedition are the Anthropologist, the Surveyor and the sinister Psychologist), does. As she and her group explore tunnel (or perhaps a tower buried underground) with living writing on its walls, everything they encounter brings up more questions, not only about Area X and what might have happened there, what might still be happening there, but also about the nature of these expeditions and the disturbing things the Southern Reach has been doing to the people who have undertaken these explorations.
The book has a powerful sense of place, though it’s no place you’d want to be for very long. The plants and animals, the deserted village, the lighthouse which seems to have been used as a fortress as well, all come alive vividly enough to haunt your dreams.
The Biologist is a somewhat unreliable narrator, dropping hints early on about what happened to this expedition and leaving out significant blocks of information about her background and her connection to the 11th expedition until fairly late in the book, but these omissions and additions just add to the tension and mystery, pulling the reader deeper and deeper into the strange world where nothing is as it seems and revelation after revelation shakes your sense of what is going on and what might happen next.
This book is atmospheric and disturbing, but absolutely un-put-down-able. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America knew what they were doing when they chose this as the best Speculative Fiction novel published in 2014. Do yourself a favor and enter the weird world of Area X in Annihilation.