Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation Wins Nebula: Instant Analysis
Congratulations to VanderMeer. I’ve been an avid VanderMeer fan for more than a decade, and City of Saints and Madmen is my favorite fantasy novel from the 2000s. That novel is an experimental masterpiece, a collection of four linked novellas that takes place in Ambergris, a fantastically weird city that may (or may not) be overrun by a race of mysterious mushroom creatures. It’s a fabulous mash-up of Pynchon-esque conspiracy, Kafka-esque weirdness, David Foster Wallace-style textual shenanigans (footnotes and what not), and high fantasy imagination. It’s certainly not a novel for everyone, and I never imagined that VanderMeer would pass over from the fringe to the mainstream. VanderMeer had always been too weird to be popular, too obtuse to be widely read, and it’s fascinating that he managed to evolve his style into something as accessible as Annihilation.
VanderMeer continued his Ambergris trilogy with the brilliant Shriek, a dual-layered pseudo-memoir about an art-dealer in Ambergris and his investigation of the mushroom men, and then wrapped it all up with Finch, a pseudo-noir that explained the mysteries of the mushroom race. The explanations are never as good as the mysteries, and VanderMeer is at his best when he’s delivering the what-the-hell-is-going-on ambiguity of City of Saints and Madmen. No book this side of The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe or House of Leaves by Mark Z. Williamson does a better job of puzzling and intriguing the reader, and if you’re willing to take that journey with VanderMeer, you’ve got nothing but pure baffled enjoyment in front of you.
It’s that kind of absolute strangeness that flows through Annihilation. While VanderMeer has backed off some of his stylistic weirdness in this volume, he amps up the mystery, horror, and psychological intrigue. In this novel, a team is sent by the government to explore Area X, a patch of America that has gone entirely wonky. Aliens? Horrors? Government conspiracy? Drugs? Failed expedition after failed expedition hasn’t gotten to the bottom of what exactly is happening. Annihilation gives us a new expedition into Area X, and with it a descent into madness and mystery.
I don’t like Annihilation as much as VanderMeer’s other work. I’m reminded of what Cormac McCarthy did in his The Border Trilogy: he backed off some of his weirdness as a writer to make his work more accessible to readers. That’s worked extremely well in Annihilation, and it’s a great place to start for new VanderMeer readers. It’s the new audience that VanderMeer has attracted which has likely driven Annihilation to Nebula victory.
I’d still recommend City of Saints and Madmen over this. I even taught that novel in a 600 level Post-Modern literature seminar a few years ago. I also like Veniss Underground a great deal, although that novel is probably even fragmented and difficult than City of Saints and Madmen.
So why did Annihilation win the Nebula? It was one of the most celebrated genre novels of the year, showing up on critics year-end lists almost as often as Ancillary Sword. It did a great business, seeming to outsell Leckie (7,000 Goodreads ratings for Ancillary Sword as of 6/6/15) by a wide margin (23,000 Goodread ratings for Annihilation as of 6/6/15). VanderMeer was widely heralded this year in mainstream venues such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Annihilation is also a quick read, and works well as a stand-alone horror novel.
Lastly, VanderMeer has been an incredibly hardworking author over the last decade. He helped co-edit (with his wife) one of the best anthologies in recent memory, the massive and definitive The Weird. He’s also put his time in the trenches, even writing a Predator tie in novel (Predator: South China Seas, which is pretty good) and a Halo novella (forgettable). Despite boiling the pot to pay his bills, he’s someone who’s plugged away at his craft, publishing uncompromising and difficult works that had a limited audience. As he’s stepped into the mainstream, he’s done that with grace and success. The SFWA is a group of writers, and I they valued the writerly-ness of VanderMeer. I know I do: VanderMeer is one of the most unique and original authors working in the SF/Fantasy/Horror space. He deserves whatever honors he can get.
In my prediction work on Chaos Horizon, I had VanderMeer as the front runner most of the year. I moved VanderMeer up to the #1 spot in my November 2014 prediction, and kept him there until my Nebula Prediction formula kicked him down to #4. While that is certainly disappointing, the formula did give VanderMeer a 16.8% chance to win, only 3% behind Leckie’s formula leading 19.4%. To tighten up my formula, I’ll need to add indicators punishing (which would have moved Addison into the lead) and rewarding a high number of Goodreads ratings. It’s actually better for Chaos Horizon when the formula doesn’t work, particularly in these early years. This allows me to make corrections, and to make my predictions better in the future.