|art by Jeremy Zerfoss|
I won't try to give you a "reviewer's review" because I know you're here for the mind control, so let me give you a synopsis with enough spoilers to pique an EMC fetishist's interest.
First, imagine H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith living today, in or near Florida. He's writing a fantasy/horror novel set in his neck of the woods - only it's not quite his neck of the woods, because in his story it's been invaded by, um, something from what might be another dimension. The Southern Reach, a mysterious organization that keeps sending expeditions into this place, calls it Area X. Half the people who go into it vanish or die, and the ones who make it out sometimes aren't quite themselves afterwards. And yet people keep going in.
Annihilation is concerned with the twelfth expedition. This time the Southern Reach has chosen four women identified only by their roles: the biologist, the psychologist, and two others (I'll bet you can already guess it's the psychologist who practices mind control, right?). The biologist is the narrator, and since she doesn't know why the Southern Reach picked an all-female team this go-around, we don't know either. It doesn't seem to matter much from a plot standpoint, although it did make me think of Tabico's Blue - and not just because of the gender makeup of the team.
Almost as soon as they hit base camp, the researchers discover a stone tunnel with a spiral staircase that leads down to some unknowable depth below the surface (Notice the spiral. If you read the book, notice all the spirals). When the team explores it, the biologist is quickly infected by some sort of alien spores (Yeah, it's that kind of book. Are you excited yet?) that render her immune to the psychologist's hypnosis. All four of them already knew the psychologist had used hypnosis to keep them calm while crossing the border into Area X, but the biologist is the first to realize how deep their team leader has sunk her claws into them.
Anyway, the Southern Reach knows a lot more about Area X than it lets on. Take the scene below, where the biologist pretends to be hypnotized along with the others so she can see what the psychologist is up to. You won't understand all of what happens here, but you're not supposed to. Not this early in the story. Just ask yourself why the psychologist has to command her team to keep seeing the structure as if it's made of shell and stone. If it's not made of shell and stone, then what is it really made of? Why don't they see it as it really is right from the beginning? And why doesn't the psychologist want them to see it as it really is?
If you're intrigued by the quote below, you can read the whole first chapter of the book over on io9.
Then she abruptly stood and said three words: "Consolidation of authority."
Immediately the surveyor and the anthropologist beside me went slack, their eyes unfocused. I was shocked, but I mimicked them, hoping that the psychologist had not noticed the lag. I felt no compulsion whatsoever, but clearly we had been preprogrammed to enter a hypnotic state in response to those words, uttered by the psychologist.
Her demeanor more assertive than just a moment before, the psychologist said, "You will retain a memory of having discussed several options with regard to the tunnel. You will find that you ultimately agreed with me about the best course of action, and that you felt quite confident about this course of action. You will experience a sensation of calm whenever you think about this decision, and you will remain calm once back inside the tunnel, although you will react to any stimuli as per your training. You will not take undue risks.
"You will continue to see a structure that is made of coquina and stone. You will trust your colleagues completely and feel a continued sense of fellowship with them. When you emerge from the structure, any time you see a bird in flight it will trigger a strong feeling that you are doing the right thing, that you are in the right place. When I snap my fingers, you will have no memory of this conversation, but will follow my directives. You will feel very tired and you will want to retire to your tents to get a good night's sleep before tomorrow's activities. You will not dream. You will not have nightmares."
I stared straight ahead as she said these words, and when she snapped her fingers I took my cue from the actions of the other two. I don't believe the psychologist suspected anything, and I retired to my tent just as the others retired to their tents.