Wednesday Word of the Week from Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

Book Cover of Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation

Word of the Week 9: Midden

Welcome to Wednesday Word of the Week, a hump-day cyber celebration of  felicitous word choice selected from my current reading. Today’s word comes from a 2014 science fiction thriller, Jeff Vandermeer‘s Annihilation.

Unlike earlier Word-of-the-Week posts here, the choice of “midden” was easy. There was no challenge of elimination from among a host of superb choices as in Lawrence Durrel’s Justine, reviewed here in 2015. Indeed, a salient feature of the novel is its unadorned and direct language and syntax. How the author produced a story of such palpable unease, psychological depth, and lingering suspense without resorting to linguistic fireworks underscores the power of clear, concise writing.

The first volume of Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation follows an expedition of four nameless female scientists: a biologist (the narrator); a psychologist (the leader of the group); a surveyor; and an anthropologist as they venture into Area X, a pristine Edenic landscape cut off from civilization for decades. Ostensibly the twelfth such group, their mission is to observe their surroundings (and each others’ responses to them); map the terrain;  take samples; and … avoid contamination. Knowing that each expedition before theirs has met with calamity, a feeling of suspicious disquiet rather than camaraderie infuses the members.

I’ve often complained to my husband (a science fiction scholar and enthusiast) that one element of the genre that leaves me cold is its detached characterization. Because the best science fiction often deals with big ideas, world-building, and extrapolations on technology,  the characters that inhabit its highly imaginative scenarios seem less developed and engaging to me than those found, for example, in literary fiction. This book, however, left me pondering my bias.

As for setting, Area X is richly drawn, replete with a mysterious “tower” buried in the ground; an abandoned village; a lighthouse that shows signs of a terrible struggle; a moaning creature in the night; and a treacherous botanic force manifested in a living script on the walls of the tower. The biologist’s flashbacks provide further metaphorical elements: a neglected swimming pool taken over by nature; a tide pool; a vacant lot flush with forms of life; the mysterious and unspecified border. Throughout, the sense of an encroaching and indifferent Nature dispels any romantic notions about wild places that readers may bring with them.

Annihilation is not simply a weird adventure story, however. As hinted at above, a real strength lies in the author’s handling of psychological states—what one reviewer called “the strangeness within us.” No one can be trusted; the characters’ motivations are unclear; and even the sense of a shared humanity unravels as the environment relentlessly pursues its own mysterious transitions. The result? A “claustrophobic dread” that builds from the very first page.

As for today’s word (definition revealed below), as I have before I must admit to resorting to the dictionary. The lines refer to the biologist’s discovery of a hidden cache of  journals in the lighthouse.

No, what had me gasping for breath, what felt like a punch in the stomach as I dropped to my knees, was the huge mound that dominated the space, a kind of insane midden. 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.

I highly recommend this book. Quick paced and lucid, it’s one that seduces you into reading more than you’ve intended in one sitting. You can read an excerpt of the first chapter HERE.

And as for “midden,” did you know this word? Here is the definition, which  could be easily guessed from the context of the paragraph.

Midden: dunghill; refuse heap; a small pile (as of seeds, bones, or leaves) as gathered by a rodent.

What words have you come across lately that have thrilled you? I’d love to know.

4 thoughts on “Wednesday Word of the Week from Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

  1. Science fiction is not a genre I read either. Those I have read I have generally enjoyed but I never purchase one or choose it to read. I put it down to preferring the reality of the moment but perhaps it is characterisation ( I’ll have to read some and check.) I have heard the word midden but will admit I guessed at a definition (which turns out to be incorrect) so am grateful for this post.

    1. I read some SF when I was younger but it is my husband Tom who got me more into it. Our spare bedroom serves as his science fiction library, and I am editing his huge book on “science fiction as the mythology of the future” right now. He always give me a rundown of what he is reading, and Annihilation sounded like a quick and interesting read, which it was. Like you, I thought midden had a totally different meaning–something to do with ships. What was I thinking of???

  2. Seems an interesting novel, Jeanne, although my shelves are heaving and can’t take any more.
    Yes, I was familiar with that word in the sense of an old-fashioned toilet where, instead of going into a deep pit or being flushed away, the effluent is in a shallow pit and covered over with soil. Since I have a special interest in toilets (!) and can easily get into conversation about them, I was rather excited when a friend told me her grandmother used to have a midden (outside the house, obviously). Not sure how it would work with your Arizona temperatures though.

    1. Why am I not surprised you would know this word, Anne?! As for your interest in toilets it may have something to do with the psychologist in you 🙂 In the early years of my marriage to my professor, he would frequently point out the “anal retentive” or “anal expulsive” tendencies of our various offspring. Fascinating, though, about toilets. One does wonder how our ancestors could stand the stench. Of course, here it is pretty bad in the summer. The last thing you want to do is use a porta-potty! I could easily have a longer chat about this too. Humans are in general interested in all things scatological!

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