At first, only I saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. [loc.54]
First in a trilogy (all due for publication in 2014), Annihilation is a short novel which raises more questions than it answers. An expedition, the twelfth in a series, is sent into the mysterious Area X -- possibly a transformed wilderness, possibly an incursion of another world into the human world. The previous eleven expeditions have each taken a different approach: all failed, and some of the explorers died by murder or suicide. Those that did return came back changed. Among the survivors of the previous expedition was the husband of Annihilation's biologist protagonist.
The current expedition consists of four women: a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist. (There was supposed to be a fifth member, a linguist, but she fled at the last moment.) None of the women are named ("Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were" [loc.87]) and their appearances are not described. Yet they have distinct characters. The biologist is an introvert, preferring to avoid human contact: her relationship with her husband seems to have consisted of him seeing something in her that was not there. The anthropologist is the blandest, and possibly most likeable, member of the expedition. The surveyor seems to be ex-military (raising the question of her true purpose): and the psychologist has a secret agenda.
The four are equipped with strange devices which will, apparently, light up if there's a need to retreat to a safe place. They don't know what the devices measure. They don't know details of the previous expeditions, or why they have been sent into Area X when so many others have failed to uncover its secrets. Meanwhile, with "no cell or satellite phones, no computers, no camcorders, no complex measuring instruments" [loc.66] they are utterly separate from the rest of the world, reliant solely upon one another.
The landscape in which they find themselves -- after a brief, blurry transition through the border -- is desolate, uninhabited save by animals and birds. There's something strange about the dolphins in the creek: something unsettling about the unseen, moaning beast in the reeds. And there's the tower, which does not rise up but extends down into the ground. (There's a lighthouse in plain view, apparently marking a boundary of Area X: but that is never referred to as a tower.)
It's hard to convey the eerieness of this setting, or the sense of isolation. There's a Lovecraftian feel to the tower and its mysteries, but the expedition -- and the 'real' world they've left behind -- is more reminiscent of Kafka than of genre. The biologist's distrust of and disconnection from her fellow scientists is probably what allows her to survive for longer than others: it's by no means clear that she will unravel the mysteries of Area X. Her fascination with unused spaces -- empty lots, transitional environments, 'tangled gardens and fallow fields' -- may help her understand the wasteland through which she moves: but it is unclear whether anything in her experience will grant understanding of what she finds in the tower.