Author: Drew Karpyshyn
Publication Date: November 2012
Timeline Placement: c. 3,641 BBY (with flashbacks to 3,667–3,666 BBY)
Series: The Old Republic
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide; the third expedition in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.
The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers―they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding―but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.
[Continuity Note: There’s a weird chronology flub right off the bat here. In a rare bit of inter-textual TOR-era continuity, Annihilation is more or less a sequel to The Lost Suns, which clearly dates itself as occurring ten years after the Treaty of Coruscant, setting it in 3,643 BBY. Annihilation itself contains numerous references that place it forty years after the beginning of the Great War in 3,681. There is also more than one mention of the events of The Lost Suns taking place two or “almost two” years earlier. So taking the text at face value, Annihilation should be set in 3,641 BBY. However, according to the official timeline, it takes place during the following year.
[Author Drew Karpyshyn originated the 3,640 BBY date in a tweet, and it was later confirmed in The Essential Reader’s Companion, a reference book written by current Lucasfilm Story Group member Pablo Hidalgo. However, in the same tweet Karpyshyn also says that Theron Shan is thirty years old.
[The flashbacks in Annihilation establish that Theron was born the year after the Battle of Alderaan. According to The Journal of Master Gnost-Dural, the Battle of Alderaan took place four years after the Battle of Bothawui, the timeline video for which is dated at eighteen years before the Treaty of Coruscant. The Treaty of Coruscant is cited by multiple sources, including The Essential Reader’s Companion and The Old Republic Encyclopedia, as occurring in 3,653 BBY. Tracing this convoluted chain of dates backward, we can peg Theron Shan’s birth year as 3,666 BBY, making him twenty-six at the time of Annihilation if indeed it takes place in 3,640 BBY.
[Basically this has been a long-winded way of mathematically proving that the dates in Karpyshyn’s tweet are unreliable. Going by the actual text of the novel, Annihilation must take place in 3,641 BBY (making Theron only twenty-five during its events, too old to lie to himself and call it honor), regardless of what the official timeline says. Also remember how multiple stories were written under the mistaken assumption that the Treaty of Coruscant took place thirty years before the game rather than ten. The chronology of the TOR tie-ins is just a mess all around.]
Annihilation picks up in the aftermath of the base game of The Old Republic but before the expansions: the Sith Emperor is dead, Darth Malgus is dead, Imperial Intelligence has been disbanded, the war is back on and the Republic is winning. I feel so sorry for anyone trying to get a comprehensible story by reading along with Del Rey’s novel timeline or even just the TOR series. “There was a whole novel about Malgus, then he died between books? We never see the Sith Emperor again after Revan? What the hell is happening? Did I miss something here?”
We spend the first fifty pages of the book watching Theron Shan dick around playing guardian angel and trying to save Teff’ith, the Twi’lek woman he sort of befriended in The Lost Suns, from a gangland hit without her knowing he was there. In the process he inadvertently sabotages a Republic Strategic Information Service (SIS) operation, leading his boss to consign him to desk duty as punishment. He’s soon back in the field, however, when Jace Malcom, the newly appointed Supreme Commander of the Republic armed forces, personally requests him for a special assignment based on the strength of an analytics report Theron wrote while on probation.
Seeing Theron’s last name, Jace asks Theron’s boss, the Director of SIS, if Theron is related to Jedi Grand Master Satele Shan. The Director informs him that Satele is Theron’s mother, leading Jace to remember the time he boned Satele twenty-six years ago and realize that he must be Theron’s dad.
It’s around this point that we’re introduced to Master Gnost-Dural, the Kel Dor Jedi who narrated the Old Republic Timeline videos and is voiced by the inestimable Lance Henriksen. He is also the second best character in the book. The best character is Davidge, the Sith Empire’s Minister of Logistics, who appears in two scenes and tries in vain to explain the value of spreadsheets to the Dark Council. He’s like “Guys, we’re way overbudget for the month, we seriously need to cut back on spending” and the Sith are like “But the power of the dark side!” and blow up a planet.
It turns out that Gnost-Dural’s former Padawan, a Falleen named Kana Tarrid, attempted to infiltrate the Sith much like Ulic Qel-Droma did way back when, but she fell to the dark side and became Darth Malgus’s apprentice, taking the name Darth Karrid. Now she controls the Ascendant Spear, the most powerful ship in the Sith fleet and the last surviving superweapon developed by Darth Mekhis in The Lost Suns. Though Darth Karrid is a creepy lizard broad, we’re forced to endure several male characters musing about how turned-on she would make them if only half of her face wasn’t covered in mechanical appliances and USB ports that she uses to control the Ascendant Spear by jacking into it like a Na’vi.
Destroying the Spear is the goal of Operation End Game, the secret mission for which Jace Malcom has recruited both Theron and Gnost-Dural. Theron, Gnost-Dural, Jace Malcom, and Theron’s boss have a Long Halloween-esque strategy meeting where they hammer out their plan to take down the Gotham mob by stealing a black cipher, a very rare Sith encryption device. Drew Karpyshyn has such a poor grasp of character voice that the dialogue of all four men in this scene is indistinguishable and could be spoken by any of them. After the party breaks up Jace invites Theron over to his place to get wasted, then tells him, “Surprise, you have a father, and it’s me!” But Theron is just like “I hate you, Dad!” and storms out.
Theron gets in touch with Teff’ith and she promises to use her underworld contacts to get him and Gnost-Dural onto the Sith world of Ziost if he stops stalking her and saving her life all the time. They arrive on the planet and rendezvous with the ZLF, the Ziost Liberation Front, who give them the supplies they need to make their theft of the black cipher look like a failed assassination attempt on the Minister of Logistics so the Sith don’t realize the cipher is missing and change the codes.
While Gnost-Dural takes out the guards and plants the diversionary bomb, Theron infiltrates the minister’s office. He is unable to crack the minister’s safe before a security detail arrives, however, and resigns himself to dying in his own explosion. But just then Gnost-Dural, having realized that Theron wasn’t going to make it to the rendezvous in time, shows up and saves the day. They get the cipher and jump off the roof of the building just as everything explodes.
After they return from Ziost, Theron gets a note from his mom to come visit so he sneaks around back and climbs up the side of her house to break in through a window, where he finds Satele Shan waiting for him like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Theron is like “Mom, why didn’t you ever tell me that Jace Malcom was my father, even though you abandoned me as an infant and have never in my life acknowledged me as your son?” Satele tells him that the horrors of war had turned Jace’s heart to the dark side and she didn’t want to expose Theron to that environment. Does she not realize that falling to the dark side is exclusively a Force thing or is this scene just dumb? The decision is left up to you, the reader.
Using the black cipher, Jace Malcom learns about an impending attack on the planet Duro, but decides to let it play out so as not to tip off the Imperials and risk losing a chance to destroy the Ascendant Spear. Oh no, I guess he really was on the dark side all along. This strategic pragmatism doesn’t sit right with an amoral, cold-hearted intelligence operative like Theron Shan, however, so he and Gnost-Dural decide to take matters into their own hands.
Teff’ith uses her underworld contacts to help them infiltrate the space station where the Spear is docked for shore leave, because even fascist wizards need some R&R. Theron sends Teff’ith to Coruscant to tell his mother about their plan, which involves somehow tricking Darth Karrid into sending the Spear to Duro so the Republic can somehow both destroy it and save the planet at the same time. Meanwhile Gnost-Dural infiltrates the Spear and confronts his former Padawan. Because of the cybernetic Force bond required to control the ship, however, Darth Karrid has allowed her lightsaber skills to atrophy, so Gnost-Dural faces off against her two apprentices instead.
It was at this point in the novel that I became aware of something odd. When Master Gnost-Dural stepped into the lion’s den, armed only with some undefined plan to save a planet through trickery, there was actual tension in the scene. As he faced off against three Sith Lords, deep in heart of a ship powered by the dark side, with a platoon of Sith soldiers cutting their way into the room, I found myself caring whether or not Gnost-Dural would survive the encounter. I’m not sure if this was due to how the character was written or just because I’d been imagining all his lines spoken in Lance Henriksen’s voice, but it was so shocking to experience an actual emotion while reading this book that I thought it was worth mentioning.
Let’s be honest, though, it was probably because of Lance Henriksen.
Anyway the Sith troopers break down the door and shoot Gnost-Dural with fifty thousand stun blasts and he is captured. Darth Karrid strips all his clothes off for some reason and straps him to The Machine from The Princess Bride, where he is tortured with the ultimate suffering.
Elsewhere, Theron has also managed to infiltrate the Ascendant Spear and is hard at work hacking its motherboard so he can bypass its firewalls and plant viruses in its mainframe, or some other computer lingo. It’s really hot in the room he’s working from, though, so he strips down to his boxers, then has to abandon his clothes and run around the ship in his underwear when the Sith discover him.
Gnost-Dural pretends to break under torture and says that he was sent to prevent Karrid from taking the Spear to Duro, where the Republic is lying in wait to ambush the Sith fleet that is lying in wait to ambush the planet. Karrid falls for this deception immediately and takes the Spear to Duro, where she discovers Jace Malcom and Satele Shan, having been tipped off by Teff’ith, commanding a Republic fleet that is making short work of the Imperial forces. The Republic ships are no match for the speed and firepower of the Ascendant Spear, but Theron’s viruses have sabotaged enough of the Spear‘s systems to buy time.
Theron frees Gnost-Dural from the ultimate suffering and together, both men wearing only their underwear, they defeat Darth Karrid’s apprentices and the Sith soldiers in what is the second least erotic fanservice I’ve ever read. Karrid herself is ensconced in an impregnable crystal shell from which she controls all of the Spear‘s systems, but for some reason she decides to exit her command pod, flail around and scream inarticulately, then go back into the pod and get back to work. As the pod closes behind her, however, Theron tosses in a grenade and she explodes.
Theron and Gnost-Dural escape, Jace Malcom blows up the Ascendant Spear, and as our heroes are brought aboard the Republic flagship, Teff’ith wryly observes, “You know you both naked, right?” Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.
Annihilation may be Drew Karpyshyn’s best Star Wars novel, simply by virtue of being merely mediocre instead of offensively terrible (yup, that includes the Darth Bane books—get mad, nerds). The same issues with his writing that existed in The Old Republic: Revan persist in this book, along with a few new ones, but at no point in Annihilation does he ruin any beloved characters in the service of trashing someone else’s much better story. Insert joke about how maybe Drew Karpyshyn should have written The Last Jedi.
I talked at length before about how flavorless and simplistic Karpyshyn’s writing style is, so I won’t dwell on it at length here, save to say that this is a book utterly without nuance or subtext. Writing simply is by no means an inherently bad thing of course; Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of literature used simple, minimalist prose to great effect, relying on the gravity of what he left unspoken to belie the straightforwardness of his language. With Karpyshyn’s writing, however, there is nothing below the waterline. What you see is what you get, and what you get is unsophisticated, uncomplicated, and unmemorable. Over the course of this novel’s 334 pages, Theron Shan learned nothing about himself (except who his father was, something that had no impact on his character or the plot) and I didn’t learn anything about him either; he just did some things, some stuff blew up, and then it was over.
What stuck out to me when reading Annihilation wasn’t so much the writing style itself as odd stylistic choices that the author made. A basic rule of thumb when writing dialogue, for example, is that there is seldom a need to use any dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked.” In cases where you want to show emphasis, you can opt for a punchier choice—”demanded,” “exclaimed,” “shouted,” “lied,” etc.—but it’s best to use these sparingly. These words call attention to themselves, and in the vast majority of circumstances where dialogue tags are appropriate, their only purpose is to tell the reader which character is speaking, not to distract from what’s being said.
Karpyshyn loves dialogue tags, however. The more varied tags he can use, the happier he is. Here are all the dialogue tags he uses across pages 184 and 185, during a simple conversation between Theron and Satele Shan:
Theron shot back
she told him
It’s incredibly distracting and lends to the unpolished, juvenile aesthetic of the text. It’s the kind of thing where you read it and you’re like “Oh yeah, I used to write like this . . . in assignments for my high school creative writing class.”
Karpyshyn also has a weird habit of putting paragraph breaks in the middle of a character’s dialogue. There’s nothing strictly wrong with how he does it, it’s formatted and punctuated correctly and all that, but it’s a very unusual and unnecessary stylistic choice that just confuses the reader about who’s speaking. There are no hard and fast rules in literature for when to begin a new paragraph, but when it comes to dialogue, unless they are denoting a point of special emphasis or a single character is speaking uninterrupted for an unusual length of time, like a protagonist in an Ayn Rand novel, an author will typically have a character begin and finish talking within a single paragraph. None of the book’s characters deliver any lengthy monologues, but Karpyshyn will frequently break a single character’s dialogue into two or more paragraphs for seemingly no reason, tricking you into thinking that a new character has started talking.
Also he reuses the unusual turn of phrase “infernal machine,” which he previously used in Revan in an unrelated context. Maybe he just really enjoyed that Indiana Jones game.
I have to give credit where credit is due, however, and remark on how relieved I was that the book never introduces any romantic tension between Theron and Teff’ith. I kept waiting for that shoe to drop every time she’d leave and then reenter the story and it never did. In fact the book’s epilogue establishes that they see one another as brother and sister. Not that that’s stopped Star Wars before, but the last thing this story needed was a flat, undeveloped romance between two flat, undeveloped characters.
Overall, Annihilation is no Revan. While it doesn’t make much of a case for its own existence, it also doesn’t outright refute it with every turn of the page. Plus Master Gnost-Dural was a pretty enjoyable character, fuck my better judgment.
I really want to give it a 3/5 for all the things it didn’t do wrong, but it still didn’t do all that much right. 2.5/5 Death Stars. Mostly harmless.
One thing that bothered me though was how they never explain that the reason it’s called Annihilation is because that’s the hypnotically implanted trigger word to induce the science expedition to immediately commit suicide.