I’d read the first part of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation, a while back. I didn’t get right to the next book and might have forgotten about it altogether had Ryan not jumped in recommending it because it was, as he put it, even stranger than the first book.
So, here we are with book two, Authority.
To recount, the series is set near a mysterious plot of land known as “Area X”. It’s a lot like the Bermuda Triangle in that most people and things that go in never come out again. The first book featured a quartet of women identified only by their profession (psychologist, biologist, surveyor, anthropologist), part of the twelfth expedition inside for a government agency known as the Southern Reach. At some point in the past, an invisible barrier had come down in what is now known as Area X for reasons unknown. People inside at the time disappeared. Anyone who approached from anything other than the “door” did so as well. As it is, most people who go in even through the door don’t come back, and if they do, something about the overgrown vegetation of Area X means they aren’t quite who they were when they left.
Authority picks up with the Southern Reach getting a new boss. His name is John Rodriguez, but he tells people to call him “Control,” in keeping with VanderMeer’s habit of giving people identities through professions rather than names, but the thing is, “Control” is about as far from what Rodriguez has as anything else. The assistant director, Grace, clearly hates him. Other employees he interacts with seem to be varying degrees of unhinged. His handlers include his own overbearing mother and an individual he knows only as the Voice. And his predecessor that he’s replacing? That would be the psychologist from the previous book.
Things get odd when the anthropologist, biologist, and surveyor of the last expedition somehow all materialize outside Area X. All three claim to have no memory of what happened, though the biologist seems to be hiding something. Will the psychologist/director also return? Will Control be able to figure anything out? And what is Area X anyway?
Anyone looking for a solution to that last question won’t find it here. VanderMeer is working a character study of Control, using his background and family history to explore a man equipped for espionage (usually of the desk jockey variety) being forced to understand something no one seems to have figured out while operating in an area of hostile office politics. Most of the characters seem to be at something of a loss as to what Area X is and what to do about it. Truth be told, the book is probably something of a spy novel, but the enemy here is an unknown something that may be able to simply wipe human civilzation off the face of the map. Whatever it is may be intelligent, but it doesn’t seem to be something that can be reasoned with at all.
If there are answers, VanderMeer is saving them for the last book, Acceptance. Given the rather oblique way characters communicate with each other, I’m not sure when or if I will move on to that one. Let’s say eight and a half rabbit experiments out of ten. It was good, but didn’t grab me the way some books do.