FSG Originals, 2014.
In the second installment of his “Southern Reach” trilogy, Jeff VanderMeer expands the madness beyond the barrier surrounding Area X.
Warning! If you haven’t read Annihilation, proceed with caution. There are plenty of spoilers from the previous book included here.
Okay, all safe? Then let’s go…
Authority picks up after the events of Annihilation, with the new director of the Southern Reach attempting to put together what happened to the 12th expedition into the mysterious Area X. Three of the expedition members have mysteriously shown up outside the barrier and are being interrogated by the Southern Reach, including the biologist narrator of the first book. Only the psychologist is missing, and she is revealed to have been the previous director of the Southern Reach.
Authority is told in third person, unlike Annihilation, following the new Director, nicknamed Control, as he attempts to piece together what happened in Area X, spars with assistant director Grace, who still waits for her former boss to return, and probes the biologist, now named “Ghost Bird” to further unlock the events surrounding the 12th expedition.
But just like Annihilation, everything starts decaying into Lovecraftian madness. Cut off from its supervisors at Central, the Southern Reach outpost has developed into it’s own strange ecosystem. The mysterious ravings the biologist documented in her journals are written on the walls of the Director’s office, and leading scientist Whitby is exploring strange theories about Area X. Control, the son (and grandson) of a spy finds he is losing memory of his actions after speaking to his boss, the mysterious, asexual Voice. And Ghost Bird’s interrogations get increasingly cryptic.
As the novel progresses, past and present begin to blur as the lines of reality (or unreality) continue to constrict around the Southern Reach. Like the previous Director, Control becomes increasingly obsessed with Area X, and his explorations around the Southern Reach start to mirror the expedition’s experiences in Area X. A visit to a secret cellar maintained by Whitby harks back to the descent into the geographic anomaly of Annihilation, with similarly apocalyptic results.
For me, Authority was the weakest of the trilogy. At twice the length of Annihilation and with less action, I sometimes found it a bit of a slog. But the ending came crashing down with a fury and brought all the threads together nicely for the final act. And even the weakest of the three is a hell of a ride.
The strength of the series so far is VanderMeer’s storytelling tricks that slowly reveal the strangeness and mysteries of Area X. The characters know nothing of what they are observing, and we are learning through their eyes. The varying narrative styles add to the mystery and discoveries. But every revelation introduces a dozen more questions, driving the reader towards the next book.
So despite learning the background of the psychologist and the fate of the biologist from Annihilation, as well as the history of the Southern Reach, the reader still doesn’t have any idea what the fuck is going on in Area X.