When does nature become unnatural? That is the question posed by author Jeff Vandermeer in Annihilation, the first installment of a proposed trilogy (entitled Southern Reach), all three parts to be published in 2014. In brief, the story involves a team of four (a biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor) who set out into an area known as Area X. The area is abandoned and cut off from the rest of civilization. They are the 12th expedition. The other expeditions have been fraught with disappearances, suicides, aggressive cancers, and mental trauma.

It is clear that there is an alien presence within Area X that is aggressively changing the eco-system and all those who venture within its boundaries. However, the details of how and who is causing these alterations remain a mystery even at the end of this novel. Told from the exclusive perspective of the protagonist (simply called the “Biologist”), Vandermeer patiently unfolds the plot, meticulously revealing key points at a measured pace that generates suspense and awe.

Vandermeer’s writing is smooth and gentle, there is an even pulse throughout with dramatic moments usually left off the page, needed the Biologist (the reader) to piece together the truth from the clues left behind, like some mystery or detective novel. There is also palpable albeit subtle horror in the knowledge that the Biologist is slowly but surely becoming something other than human.

Critics have compared Annihilation favourably to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Margaret Atwood. There is a deep sense of an other-worldly, invading force (in this case, fungi!) impacting the environment and turning nature against mankind in ways human beings have never experienced before. It is so easy to get lost in Area X and for me personally, the story ended much too soon. In that respect, I am looking forward to “Authority” and “Acceptance,” scheduled for May and September respectively.