Given the upcoming release (now obviously belated, because I’m lazy I guess) of the Annihilation movie, I’ve been on a spree… reading the whole trilogy. Mostly because my intuition told me that the movie is going to take a little bit of information from all three of them (partially right, 10 points to Ravenclaw!), but also because I felt like the first book was like a grid and that the second and the third will fill in the gaps, or at least some of them, and give me some perspective into Area X. I would suggest reading them continuously, as you will have a much better understanding of what’s actually going on. VanderMeer likes to play with names and plot twists. So here we go discussing Authority (Southern Reach #2) by Jeff VanderMeer.
Beware, spoilers ahead!
You’re wondering what’s going on in this book? We find out that the previous director of the mysterious Southern Reach organization actually went incognito with the 12th expedition, as the psychologist (so that’s why she was so spooky and unreadable!), and never returned. A wannabe secret spy, who seems to have committed a serious mishap and was pushed back to desk work, calls himself Control and is the new director of the organization. At 30 something and what seems to be a history of dealing with terrorism Control gets the job but very little information about the project and what Area X is actually about. He’s left to figure it out for himself while some people in the Southern Reach harbor a strong hostility towards him.
“Because our minds process information almost solely through analogy and categorization, we are often defeated when presented with something that fits no category and lies outside of the realm of our analogies.”
The anthropologist, the surveyor and the biologist have returned in an unknown way from Area X and claimed to have little or no memory of what actually happened throughout their expedition. But the big question is whether they are their own, real selves or just copies sent from Area X?
After a quick analysis, Control decides the biologist knows more than what she’s saying and decides to press the matter – oh, and for the first time (to my knowledge) we actually get a physical description of the biologist; I found this mostly entertaining, because even without a clear visual image in the first book I ended up imaging her in a certain way because of her manner of speaking or because of her decision-making technique.
Control is pretty much our main character in this one, if you ask me. He makes it his duty to uncover what really happened to the members of the 12th expedition while also assessing the Southern Reach – which incidentally seems to have lost control (irony much Mr VanderMeer?) over whatever is happening in Area X and where the expeditions are headed, their efficacy.
“A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle.”
As a character, Control reminded me a little bit of the protagonist from Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, going into Innsmouth to investigate only to discover that people are actually turning into weird sea creatures/human hybrids. So if you’re a Lovecraft’s fan keep that in mind. What’s more, Control hit me as the messed up type. He doesn’t know what he’s doing (sometimes I ask myself if anybody does, really), he’s sort of acting on whims sometimes, but most of his behavior and issues will be explained through some flashbacks and through his relationship with several other characters. As one might expect, given the immensity and other-worldliness (word of the day?) of Area X, his insecurities tend to grow exponentially when uncovering a new piece of the puzzle.
I must say this is more slow-paced than the first volume, I believe also due to the fact that the action is not really happening in Area X. Personally I kept waiting for Area X to come into picture and maybe that’s something that made the book seem a little bit slower than the other one. In the first 100 and something pages it’s mostly about the first days of work for Control, how he’s being briefed about what’s going on and also certain things he discovers for himself, more or less accidentally. All this slow build-up helps fill the gaps for the characters and at the same time for the readers, answering some (not all) of the questions raised in the first installment, but at the same time I understand why some might think of it as a slow process.
This book, again, like its predecessor, made me go through several emotions and states of mind which singled it out for me. You know that feeling you get when you know something that others don’t, or maybe you’re just more aware of how that certain information might affect people, and it puts miles between you and those other people? That’s one of the feelings. Each character was somehow living in his/her own bubble, perceiving maybe just fragments of the so-called reality, while ignoring other aspects that maybe other characters would find essential. Another thing that I’ve noticed is that Control’s curiosity tends to resemble the biologist’s curiosity from the first book, again, making the reader slowly embrace that curiosity and make it one’s own.
The events and the characters’ reactions strengthen some of the feelings I’ve had since the first book: this is a story where we learn how small mankind is when facing out-of-this-world problems, how difficult it is for us to accept a reality that goes beyond our senses, a reality in which we have to use our imagination in order to understand where our problems come from. It also made me think of empathy, or rather the lack of it we so seldom see towards our own kind and also towards other species; how we would much rather label something or someone as soon as we have our first contact than actually dig deeper and try to at least imagine, on some level, what a certain situation is about.
As its predecessor we have again a slowly seething horror that’s building the tension, making you uncomfortable, until it reaches a certain peak. It reminded me of a game of hide and seek, a game between the ‘authorities’ in the book.
What I must say is that you need a certain mood in order to read this series. I’m sure it will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely an experience that I wouldn’t miss. Sometimes you will think someone’s playing mind-games or hypnotizing you, as it’s quite twisted in some ways, and while it will answer some pending questions it will also raise new ones and leave others unanswered. If you’ve read it let me know what your experience with ‘Authority’ was!