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book review

Annihilation is a parable about what takes place in empty spaces.

In Area X, the mysterious coastal landscape where Jeff VanderMeer's new novel, Annihilation, is set, nothing is as it seems. Does that dolphin have a human eye? What is wrong with the creature that moans all night in the reeds? Why have the four women who have been sent here to explore the abandoned, overgrown and dangerous district – the twelfth expedition to do so, we're told – been so completely mislead about both what awaits them in Area X and the history of exploration in the region? And what's going on in that lighthouse by the sea?

By the time you finish this slender, brilliant novel, you will know the answers to none of these questions, but you will not mind. That's partly because Annihilation is the first volume in a trilogy that will be published in its entirety this year (the second and third books to come in May and September), so resolution will come quickly. But it's mostly because, while this is a philosophical novel that asks many, many more questions than it answers, it is so riveting, destabilizing and utterly strange that the new wonders it introduces compel you more than any simple answer could. That even goes for the blob-like creature in the tower who's making words from spore-like organisms on the wall of an almost endless descending staircase.

That thing is the Crawler, or so it is called by the nameless biologist who narrates the book. (She is accompanied by three other nameless professionals, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist.) After investigating the Crawler, she remains unsure about almost everything about it:

"So," she writes, "what did I know? What were the specific details? An … organism … was writing living words along the interior walls of the tower, and may have been doing so for a very long time. Whole ecosystems had been born and now flourished among the words, dependent on them, before dying off as the words faded. But this was a side effect of creating the right conditions, a viable habitat. It was important only in that the adaptations of the creatures living in the words could tell me something more about the tower. For example, the spores I had inhaled, which pointed to a truthful seeing."

This passage contains most of the novel's considerable strengths. It is elusive, almost confusing. It is written in the brittle, science-tinged prose that creates the book's particularly chilling atmosphere. It is wildly imaginative, vaguely mystical and it tells you nothing while seeming to tell you a great deal. Annihilation is a riddle, a skewed and misleading one. And as it draws you closer to the answer, the riddle contorts, and entirely new riddles present themselves.

To say anything more about the book's plot would be to ruin another of its considerable pleasures, for though you never really know what's happening, learning more about how little you know is half the fun. But there is something to say about the book's uncommon moral character.

While struggling to make sense of Area X, the biologist recalls again and again the mysteries of the world that have drawn her to her particular field: the overrun backyard and pool that she cultivated as a microcosmic biosphere when she was young, the empty lot near her house as an adult that teemed with life, the wondrous tidal pools she explored while doing field research, pools in which it seems as though anything could grow, anything could happen. "There were thousands of 'dead' spaces like the lot I had observed," she notes, "thousands of transitional environments that no one saw, that had been rendered invisible because they were not 'of use.'" The biologist is drawn to these spaces because of their possibility: needed by no one, they could become anything.

Area X perverts this idea, takes that scientific optimism to horrific extremes. And through that perversion, Annihilation becomes a parable about what takes root in the empty spaces in our world – and what awaits a society set on creating such spaces. But it's also a parable about what takes root in the empty spaces between people, in the moments of silence and absence that fill our relationships, as we learn through the biologist recounting the story of her relationship with her husband (to say more would be an inexcusable spoiler). VanderMeer's story is thrilling, confusing, disturbing. But its deepest terror lies in its exploration of the vacancies of the human heart, and the terror that can grow from the ways in which we are untrue to each other, and to ourselves.

That one could offer an entirely different reading of the book is testament to VanderMeer's skill. I am tempted to understand the novel as an entirely different kind of parable, one about the power of great art, which, like Area X, confounds us as it enlightens us. The biologist's observation about their unreliable map could just as easily be applied to her unreliable narration: "The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?" As the story unfolds in its second and third books, perhaps we will know more – what lies beyond our understanding might well be revealed. But don't be surprised if, as it always does, more knowledge brings less certainty.

Jared Bland is the editor of Globe Books.