Annihilation by Jeff VandermeerBy Jeff Vandermeer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2014)

The first volume of Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, and very likely the best of the three (it’s certainly superior to the overlong and meandering second volume AUTHORITY). It’s an unerringly inventive and atmospheric novel with an overpowering air of hallucinatory mystery complimented by a page-turning narrative drive, all contained in an economical 207 pages.

Inspired, evidently, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s ROADSIDE PICNIC (and/or the Andrei Tarkovsky helmed film adaptation STALKER), ANNIHILATION posits the existence of a mysterious tropical region known as Area X, which is closed off to human habitation by a government agency known as the Southern Reach. Several Southern Reach appointed scientific expeditions have been made into Area X, and all have ended in disaster. The latest such expedition, the twelfth, is about to commence.

The story is told in the form of diary entries by “the Biologist,” one of four women making up the twelfth expedition. Judiciously placed flashbacks reveal that the Biologist’s husband had accompanied the previous expedition as a medic, allowing her a first-hand glimpse of the changes wrought by Area X–which included amnesia, dramatic personality changes and cancer, from which the Biologist’s husband, and every other member of the eleventh expedition, eventually died.

The Biologist’s recollections are related in the type of frank and relentlessly erudite prose one would expect from a scientist. She makes for an extremely well-rounded protagonist, harboring an overpowering obsession with biological life forms and a rather wily personality, two qualities that prove advantageous in Area X.

I’ll refrain from revealing precisely what the Biologist and her companions find on their expedition. Suffice it to say they encounter an especially active form of fungi, some very odd graffiti, at least one otherworldly creature and actions that prove human nature is as volatile and unpredictable as anything to be found in Area X. The epic finale explains a fraction of the tantalizing mystery suffusing the nature and origins of Area X, with the greater portion of that mystery left to be explained (one assumes) in the Southern Reach Trilogy’s succeeding volumes.