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a black and white outline illustration of a lighthouse on a beach with a house below

The twelfth expedition into Area X consists of four women: an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist. They are exploring Area X, an area in the southern coast severed off from the rest of the world.

This story is told from the biologist's point of view.


The four women discover something. A large structure of stone steps leads down into the earth multiple stories. The biologist calls it "the Tower" while the others call it the "tunnel." As they explore, they discover words written on the walls in something like lichen or fungi. The words furtively releases spores, which the biologist inhales.

I leaned in closer, like a fool, like someone who had not had months of survival training or ever studied biology. Someone tricked into thinking that words should be read.

I was unlucky—or was I lucky? Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the W chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out. I pulled back, but I thought I had felt something enter my nose, experienced a pinprick of escalation in the smell of rotting honey.

The spores have created what she calls a "brightness" inside the biologist and she learns she is immune to the hypnosis that the psychologist wields against them.

The psychologist says strange things, but they go to bed.

The psychologist's habit of allowing a slim smile to cross her face at inappropriate times made me want to slap her.

In the morning, the anthropologist is gone and the psychologist is injured. The psychologist says that the anthropologist was returning back to the border early. Later, they go back to the tower to explore. The psychologist stands watch as the surveyor and the biologist carefully navigate the stairs.

The biologist discovers that the tower is not made of coquina and stone but is a living entity, something that is breathing. They discover the anthropologist's body and the evidence of the psychologist's presence. "The Crawler" was the creature the biologist decided was writing the words and killed the anthropologist. When they return to the surface, the psychologist is gone.

The first thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall ... the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat... and they were not made of stone but of living tissue... The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.

The biologist goes to the lighthouse after seeing a flash of light and discovers a trapdoor at the top that leads to a room full of journals, far too many to be from only 11 previous expeditions. She reads them, and discovers her husband's.

I was looking at a pile of papers with hundreds of journals on top of it—just like the ones we had been issued to record our observations of Area X. Each with a job title written on the front. Each, as it turned out, filled with writing. Many, many more than could possibly have been filed by only twelve expeditions.

Can you really imagine that it was like in those first moments, peering down into that dark space, and seeing that? Perhaps you can. Perhaps you're staring at it right now.

After leaving the lighthouse, the biologist discovers the psychologist, who has thrown herself off from the top. She's dying. The biologist questions her and the psychologist gives little answer, but she does tell that the biologist looked like she was on fire.

"You were a flame, scorching my gaze. A flame drifting across the salt flats, through the ruined village. A slow-burning flame, a will-o'-the-wisp, floating across the marsh and the dunes, floating and floating, like nothing human but something free and floating..."

From the shift of her tone, I recognized that even now she was trying to hypnotize me.

As the biologist is walking back to base camp, she is chased by the moaning creature and sees its face. Its lifeless mask resembles the psychologist of the previous expedition, the one her husband went on.

When the biologist returns to base camp, the surveyor shoots her. Using newly heightened senses from the brightness, she is able to shoot the surveyor in the head.

The pain in my left side seemed at first as if someone kept opening me up with a butcher knife and sewing me back together. But it quickly subsided to a kind of roiling ache, the bullet wounds reduced through some cellular conspiracy to a sensation like the slow squirming inside me of tiny animals.

The biologist descends into the Tower and encounters the Crawler. She endures unimaginable pain as she is excavated by the Crawler in every facet of her existence. But the Crawler does not consume her. She escapes and returns to the lighthouse to finish her journal, the text you're reading. She vows to set out for the island, where her husband may be.

A raging waterfall crashed down on my mind, but the water was comprised of fingers, a hundred fingers, probing and pressing down into the skin of my neck, and then punching up through the bone of the back of my skull and into my brain... and then the pressure eased even though the impression of unlimited force did not let up and for a time, still drowning, an icy calm came over me, and through the calm bled a kind of monumental blue-green light. I smelled a burning inside my own head and there came a moment when I screamed, my skull crushed to dust and reassembled, mote by mote.

our thoughts


The prose in this book is so precise. The book is less than 200 pages long, but its prose is succinct and beautiful. Words are positioned for maximum effect. It manifests in the way that the audiobook is read, too, because the readers get to emphasize what is already emphasized in the text itself. There are many lines' performance we remember vividly. One of the quotes below is one of them (the one with the "snap"), and we hope that the way that the text is presented makes it as beautiful as the way the audiobook presented it.

The precision is apparent in the descriptions, too. The setting is northern Florida, and the wildlife and landscape are described with great care. The birds, insects, plants, and other animals are given significant attention and are placed within their environment so carefully. It's really inspiring as writers of both prose and poetry.

the biologist's autism

We, autistic, relate heavily to the biologist. Whether Jeff intentionally wrote her as autistic is beside the point; her sense of isolation and separation from other people is a palpable theme from the beginning of the book through the end. She is described as self-contained and reserved, aware of her lack of connection with others. We hope this doesn't come across as sad because we mean it as it is without judgment, just as she recommends her husband do the same. She's independent and carves her own eccentric path out of doing what she thinks is best.

We saw a talk once that described autistic people as "being unable to recognize humans as special objects." It's a gross way of conceptualizing autistic people in general, but sometimes the metaphor makes sense individually. It wasn't that the biologist failed in some way, but her attentions to the environment meant as much or more to her than the people. The biologist appears more empathic toward Area X than she is for her fellow expedition members.


Some of that distance may have been reinforced through hypnosis because, at this point in the series, the purposes and mechanisms through which the government operates is deliberately murky. The central drama is the difference between the goals of the mission vs. the goals of the biologist as a human being, which are influenced by her autism.


Hypnosis was removed from the movie. Considering the difference in the movie's themes and goals, we think that makes sense. Instead of the characters grappling with the way information has been given to them like the book, the characters grapple with the environment, and it is the environment that must be subdued in order for the movie to end. In the books, however, the biologist struggles against the effects of hypnosis and the people who conditioned her.


After the surveyor and the biologist discover the anthropologist's body, the biologist is primarily concerned with the psychologist and how she must have coerced the anthropologist into stepping forward and trying to take the sample. Her horror is not at the Crawler as it turned around and absolutely destroyed the anthropologist in an unimaginably terrible way, but in the horror of the anthropologist being hypnotized into moving forward. The biologist claims that this makes the psychologist more of a killer than the Crawler, which she perceives to be a natural being that isn't capable of murder in the same way a human is. Even later when she discovers what the Crawler actually looks like (or, what she's able to articulate), she still doesn't see it as a human and thus capable of the same.

The motivations of the government and their use of hypnosis get discussed very heavily in the next book. It isn't until the third book that we really get the crux of what was done to the expedition members.

is the biologist romantic?

When we talk about Dead Space with 27, our partner system, we work within the framing of the general narrative which is "guy goes to hell." This is a subversion of that trope. Unlike Isaac Clarke in hell surrounded by horrible monsters who he fears and hates in pursuit of a girlfriend who is desperate to see him ("guy goes to hell to save his beloved"), the biologist is surrounded by horrible monsters who she doesn't blame and her husband is a beacon but not a destination in and of itself ("woman goes to hell and becomes part of it, and she had a husband").

Dead Space is romantic. Annihilation is, too. There is tenderness and admiration, devotion and dedication, but the biologist avoids the word "love." In Dead Space, there isn't really that level of splitting hairs: Isaac is assumed to love Nicole and there is no refutation. He is there to save Nicole. The biologist's husband's participation is not the biologist's motivation for being in Area X.


At the end, when she goes to find her husband, it is not to save him with the expectation that he will be there. It is to connect with the ghost of him. Isaac does the same thing, only in denial that he is interacting with a ghost.

There is some element of an unreliable narrator. Maybe if the narrator was a different character, she would be using words like "love," she would be more likely to be actively searching for her husband. But she doesn't.

spoilers At one point she says explicitly that Area X broke her husband because it gave him a gift he did not know what to do with: an unending individual solitude. She wonders whether that would have broken her too, and she goes to Area X to find out about herself.
the sermon

The biologist says that, at the time, linguist had seemed an expendable role to not go on the mission with them. We see immediately with the introduction of the words that a linguist could have been useful. Probably. Once the words are introduced, the biologist thinks about the linguist only once, and in passing. The relationship the words have to the biologist are through the lens of biology. She is confused and in awe of them because they are fantastically unreal in their origin and structure, not necessarily the meaning of the apocalyptic sermon.

                black and white outline of a nautilus shell


The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.

opening line

The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation, it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

Nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective—even in a vacuum, even if all that possessed the brain was a self-immolating desire for the truth.

Everything had been fine just a second before. Why would anything be different now?

As I came close, did it surprise me that I could understand the language the words were written in? Yes. Did it fill me with a kind of elation and dread intertwined? Yes. I tried to suppress the thousand new questions rising up inside of me. In as calm a voice as I could manage, aware of the importance of that moment, I read from the beginning, aloud: "Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms ..."

Then the darkness took it.

the first instance of the words

There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you.

As we descended into the tower, I felt again, for the first time in a long time, the flush of discovery I had experienced as a child. But I also kept waiting for the snap.

Bodies were one thing; no amount of training could prepare you for encountering a monster.

Human lives had poured into this place over time, volunteered to become party to exile and worse. Under everything lay the ghastly presence of countless desperate struggles. Why did they keep sending us? Why did we keep going? So many lies, so little ability to face the truth. Area X broke minds, I felt, even though it hadn't yet broken mine.

spoilers, suicide

The word "Annihilation" was followed by "help induce immediate suicide."

We had all been given self-destruct buttons, but the only one who could push them was dead.

But soon enough I banished this nonsense; some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer too long.

You understand, I could no more have turned back than have gone back in time. My free will was compromised, if only by the severe temptation of the unknown. To have quit that place, to have returned to the surface, without rounding that corner... my imagination would have tormented me forever. In that moment, I had convinced myself I would rather die knowing... something, anything.

pen illustration of pointed chambered shell


the biologist

12th expedition

an illustration of a fig branch with a caterpillar and fig and a large moth
  • biologist studying transitional ecosystems
  • intense and passionate
  • empathic to environments
  • stubborn and self-reliant
  • despises anthropomorphizing animals
  • married to the medic of the 11th expedition
  • inhales the spores of the words in the tower & discovers a new brightness inside her
  • watches the psychologist die
  • kills the surveyor
  • finds her husband's journal
  • leaves her journal as a goodbye as she heads for the island
an illustration of a fig branch with a caterpillar and fig and a large moth
the psychologist

12th expedition

  • psychologist hired by the southern reach
  • trained the expedition members
  • focused and intent
  • smiles in a cruel/pained way
  • hypnotizes the rest of the expedition members
  • kills the anthropologist by hypnotizing her to go and interact with the crawler
  • sneaks off to the lighthouse
  • jumps off the top of the lighthouse when she sees the biologist coming toward her engulfed in flames
  • dies after the fall
the anthropologist

12th expedition

  • wary and cautious
  • killed by the crawler
the surveyor

12th expedition

  • brave and stubborn
  • can handle guns well
  • suspicious of the biologist and others
  • killed by the biologist
the linguist

did not go on the 12th expedition

the biologist's husband

medic of the 11th expedition

  • calls the biologist "ghost bird"
  • spoilers
    • returned home after leaving area x inexplicably
    • died of cancer months later

    image credits

    plant, animal, and landscape illustrations by heritage type free vintage illustrations