Jeff VanderMeer


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Annihilation Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 37-page guide for “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 5 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Purity of Nature Versus the Dirtiness of Society and The Coexistence of Mundanity and Mystery.

Annihilation is a science fiction novel written by Jeff VanderMeer and published in 2014. The first book of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it won the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for best novel and the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novel. A film based on the novel was released in 2018. For its incorporation of various literary elements, the novel has also been categorized as thriller, suspense, horror, science fantasy, and “weird fiction.”

Plot Summary 

The 12th expedition into a wild habitat called Area X consists of four women: an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and a biologist. Their task is to explore Area X and document their findings in journals and other materials. The psychologist leads the group, while the biologist narrates the story in the first person. The novel depicts the events of the expedition while also providing backstory for the life of the biologist before she volunteered for the expedition. Her husband was a member of the 11th expedition to Area X; he returned under mysterious circumstances, acting strangely, and died soon after.

At the beginning of the novel, the expedition has come upon a structure in the ground that the biologist sees as a tower but the rest of the crew sees as a tunnel. The structure is not on any of the maps the team members have with them, and they decide to explore it. Inside, the biologist finds words written on the wall in a mysterious organic substance. While inspecting the words, she inhales some spores released by the substance. The biologist conceals this event from the others. She later discovers that the psychologist has been hypnotizing the team members; inhaling the spores has made the biologist immune to this hypnosis.

The morning after the team explores the tunnel, the anthropologist is missing from base camp. While the psychologist tells the surveyor and biologist that the anthropologist chose to leave Area X the night before, the surveyor and biologist find the body of the anthropologist deep inside the tower structure. When they resurface, the psychologist is nowhere to be seen.

The biologist sees light emanating from a lighthouse in the distance and goes there in search of answers and the psychologist. There, she finds an archive of journals from previous expeditions, including one written by her husband, and thus learns that there have been many more expeditions than she has been told. She finds the psychologist nearly dead in the sand beneath the lighthouse. The psychologist tells her she jumped after being cornered by a strange creature. After the biologist extracts some answers from the psychologist, the psychologist dies. The biologist returns to base camp, where she is shot in the shoulder by the surveyor. Due to the effects of inhaling the spores in the tower, the biologist recovers enough to shoot and kill the surveyor.

The biologist examines moss and animal samples she has collected and discovers that they contain human cells. She reads more of her husband’s journal and learns that he and the surveyor of his expedition saw doppelgangers of themselves descending into the tunnel. They then abandoned the mission and went separate ways, her husband revealing he planned to travel by boat to an island.

The biologist descends into the tower one last time. There, she confronts a mysterious creature she has named the Crawler. After she reemerges from the encounter, she is left with many more questions. The novel ends with the biologist announcing her intention to remain behind in Area X rather than return home, driven by the knowledge that her husband might perhaps still be alive and by the pull of Area X.

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Chapter 1