I just finished reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Authority, the second book in his SOUTHERN REACH trilogy. When I reviewed the first book, Annihilation, Kat (our tyrannical managing editor, in case you didn’t know) butted into my review because she didn’t like what I originally wrote and she made me change it. I’m expecting her to do the same thing here, so if you see any bold red text, that will be her. She likes to talk in bold red.
Ack! See, I knew it!
Well, Bill, I know that if I leave you to yourself, you’re just going to say something vague and unhelpful like “That was strange, you should read it.”
No… I was going to say “That was weird and creepy, you should read it!”
And that’s exactly why I’m here. Why don’t you start by BRIEFLY reminding our readers what the first book, Annihilation was about.
Fine, fine. I can do that. Here goes: In Annihilation the reader got to travel along (via a first-person POV) with the twelfth exploratory expedition into Area X, a region of the U.S. that was mysteriously cut off from the rest of civilization several decades ago via a strange barrier that has only one entry/exit. None of the prior expeditions ended well, and neither does the twelfth, which discovers amidst the pristine wilderness (cleaned completely of any taint of prior human existence — no toxic metals, no pollution) an underground structure they eventually descend into. Have I mentioned the expedition does not end well?
Yes, you said that already. Now give us a spoiler free introduction to book two, Authority.
Authority picks up soon after the end of Annihilation. Our POV guide in that first book was the biologist (each of the four women were known solely by professional title) and in VanderMeer’s follow-up, she, along with the anthropologist and the surveyor, have somehow made their way unnoticed back into the world from Area X and had been picked up by the organization in charge of investigating the mystery — the Southern Reach. None of the three have any memory of how they got to where they were found, or of what happened to the psychologist, laying one mystery atop another. Somebody has to figure out how these three women got out of Area X with nobody seeing them (despite the massive round-the-clock surveillance of the border — with cool lasers even!), what happened to the fourth member of the team and, oh yeah, what the hell is going on that a portion of our world is being wholly reshaped.
Enter Control. Known as a “fixer” in the larger agency the Southern Reach sits within, Control (a childhood nickname he has taken to heart) is sent in as the new Director to clean things up and start getting usable information about Area X. He employs several methods to do so. One is a series of interviews with the biologist, finally given a name in this book. Two is going through the reports of the prior Director and of the previous expeditions. And three is getting hands-on in the Southern Reach organization — taking his own trip to the Area X entrance, seeing the lab and samples room, and meeting with the scientists. None of this is made easier by a demoralized staff, a resentful Assistant Director, and an interrogation subject that seems to have had her memory wiped. Or by the pressure of his boss (known only as the Voice) who is a tad bit demanding or his mother, a star agent in the agency who told poor Control this assignment was his “last chance” to prove himself.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot because one, it should just be left for the reader to enjoy without even minor spoilers and two, much of what is revealed in Authority casts a whole new light upon the events of Annihilation, and lest anyone reading this has yet to read the first book, I don’t want to ruin that effect. So here endeth the synopsis.
Good job. I read Authority, too and, like Annihilation, I thought it was just as compelling, yet in a slightly different way. Both are essentially horror novels. Not violent or gory, but terrorizing.
Yes, there’s a masterful sense of dread that utterly permeates the novel. At the core of the dread, of course, is Area X, akin to a virulent illness that struck an isolated area but which everyone fears might leak through the containment area. If it hasn’t already. That fear is what lends a taste of menace to every small detail regarding possible vectors. What about that plant in the old Director’s office? Why did the author just describe the front lawn — is there something I should see there? What about that smeared mosquito on the windshield, why bother with such a tiny detail? What is that strange smell that keeps cropping up; is it really just a cleaning solution? Should the border guards really be eating those white rabbits? Why are birds mentioned so often? Should I pay more attention to that ant crawling on that woman’s neck? Why does that dead mosquito now have mold on it? What about the water stains on the ceiling tiles? Time and time again, a mundane detail of setting is lent a patina of horror merely due to context.
Even the worn green carpet scared me.
Yeah, shades of Charlotte Gilman Perkins “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Are you interrupting?
Sorry, sorry. Please continue.
Anyway, This is the type of environmental horror that was present in Annihilation and I think it worked so well in Authority because of what we already know (and don’t know) about the ecology of Area X from the first book.
Exactly, we’re well primed already to be scared and anxious. Like those college kids who’ve already discovered the three dead bodies before they go into the basement/attic/woods.
But then, in Authority, VanderMeer adds another dimension of terror. He brings in a whole new cast of characters that all (every single one of them, I think) add to the tension and now we’ve got a story that’s filled with both environmental and psychological horror… At least, that’s how Control perceives it. As we discussed with Terry in our review of Annihilation, VanderMeer’s characters are sometimes unreliable…
I notice you’re calling it OUR review of Annihilation, now.
Anyway. You’re exactly right. There isn’t a wasted character in here and their new presence adds even more layers of tension and fear. The secrets within secrets, the agency factions, the pressure exerted on Control by Voice, his mother, his family legacy within the agency, all add to the tension so that if the reader isn’t questioning whether some detail is a sign of Area X’s reach, he/she is worrying if some detail is a sign of active obstruction — why does the old Director’s cell phone keep showing up, who is the Voice really, where does that ladder go, are those stains on the carpet coffee or blood, why is it so hard to find the janitor, who is planting bugs, who is ransacking an office, why is the Assistant Director so actively hostile, why did the old Director hide her notes. And the list of questions goes on and on as the suspicion grows, until one wonders, like Control, if they are adding a weight of importance to inconsequential actions and sights. Is it just paranoia?
It’s hard to know whether Control’s suspicions and anxiety are justified. We know that he’s been unsuccessful in every job he’s ever had, which makes me wonder how much credit to give his observations. Also, his aloof and secretive mother has manipulated him since he was a child, and she is currently managing his career. That doesn’t inspire confidence, either… But, how else to explain some of the weirdness he encounters? This tension — not knowing what to believe about Control’s perceptions — adds to the horror.
And of course, that horror also grows thanks to some old-style actual horror moments — grotesque images, strange words written in strange places, a Blair Witch-like video record, swinging light bulbs, weird noises, flickering fluorescents, nightmares, breathing in the dark. And more.
So creepy. Oh so creepy. Wonderfully, deliciously, constantly creepy.
When we reviewed Annihilation, we talked about how observant Vandermeer must be and how he so vividly describes the natural world. With Authority I was amazed at how his characters came alive — their facial expressions and hand gestures, the look in their eyes, their quirky mannerisms, the way they walk through doors. Even the office building where Control works is dramatically portrayed and almost becomes a character in its own right (who knows, maybe it actually is). Each of these little descriptions gives us so much atmosphere with so few words:
The elevators weren’t working and wouldn’t be fixed until an expert from the army base dropped by in a few days, so they took the stairs… The stairs awaited them at the corridor’s end, through wide swinging doors more appropriate for a slaughterhouse or emergency room. Whitby, out of character, felt compelled to burst through those double doors as if they were rock stars charging onto a stage… the staircase railing, under the shy lights, glittered with luminous rust spots…
That’s a great point, and a good example — the sense of corruption lent by things breaking down, the almost sentient nature of the stairs being described as “awaiting”, the more obvious horror aspects of the slaughterhouse or ER (both places of blood and noise and death), that idea of “performance” that fits in so well with all the references to masks and hidden identities, and then that fungi-like image and sense of corruption again with the rust. I mean, you could seriously do that kind of deep read for almost every paragraph in this book. I loved all these resonances that echo throughout the novel. The birds, for example: the several bird sightings, the biologist calling herself “ghost bird,” Control thinking he’d “fly free above the Southern Reach, swooping down from some remote perch to manage things,” an albatross. Or how about the white rabbits which were used in an experiment years ago and are still popping up. Besides the way they add to the pervading dread, what a perfect animal choice. You can’t think “white rabbit” without thinking of Alice’s introduction to Wonderland — a world of the strange and macabre. Or (though I suppose this might be age-dependent) of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, with its pills and chessboard and mother and fungus and mouse, all of which make an appearance in Authority (and maybe too a white knight and red queen?).
I thought of John B. Watson’s experiment in which he classically conditioned fear of white rabbits in a baby named Little Albert. Every time a white rabbit popped up, I thought of Albert and had my own fear response.
That experiment is almost as chilling as this book. Sheesh. How about all the many, many references to failed communications: attempts that are incomplete or only half-understood, missed phone calls, scattered words overheard, files that are missing or incomplete, videos with gaps in them. The reader is faced with the same, not just through the character’s third person narrative but by the structure of the narrative as well, which moves back and forth in time, introduces the beginnings of conversations but skips over the ensuing dialogue. The reader again begins to feel like Control:
That kind of self-control had made him look not just at the words but at the pauses between them… The ghost was right there, in the transcripts… moving through the text. Things that showed themselves in the empty spaces… the undercurrents and hidden references.
Soon one begins to wonder if Area X is not merely an environmental event but a linguistic/mental one, or perhaps this is a self-imposed plague: “he used the internet solely for research and admin. He believed a kind of fragmentation had crept into people’s minds in the modern era.” Language — its limits, its biases — played a large role in Annihilation and it does here as well. What does it mean, for instance, beyond those references, that characters in book one are known by their jobs, and here one is known as “Control”? Does it matter that it was a name he was given? Or that he now chooses to use it? Does it say something about him or only seem to (there are lots of references to masks as well — are names merely one kind?). What does it mean that the biologist gives herself a new name? Or that the Assistant Director says Control should call her “Patience” rather than her real name, Grace.
And related to this is the use of hypnosis which we encounter here as well as in the first book. Characters may be being controlled (Controlled) by words in the form of hypnotic suggestions.
Wait, I had told you I couldn’t do this review for another week. Heyyyyy.
There are many such examples. Suffice to say an attentive reader will be greatly reward with this richly layered book.
VanderMeer shows a nice insight into regular ole mortal issues as well, whether it be office politics, humanity’s tendency when faced with something inexplicable to try and “blast it to hell,” the inertia of organizations and the way they break down as the people within them seek their own agendas and/or fail to communicate, people’s contrary desires with regard to true wilderness: [they] want to be close to but not part of. They didn’t want the fearful unknown of a ‘pristine wilderness.’ They didn’t want a soulless artificial life, either.” How the trappings of science, with its white coats and sparkling glassware and “cathedral” of a lab and bespectacled actors, often presents an exclusively rational and perpetually moving forward image that hides the truth that it can be as much a superstition or faith fumbling in the darkness toward some sort of answers. And then of course, there is the age-old insight into family, the way family molds us into who we are, whether we run toward or away from them.
The basic building blocks of the novel, as with the first book, are near-perfect: pace, characterization, structure, style, language (listen to the sound quality, for instance, of “the havoc of their passage). Plot-wise, those readers of book one desiring some answers will find many here. And most, if not all, the new mysteries set in place in Authority are resolved by the end, though of course leaving room for book three. Just as with Authority, I think this book could easily end as it does (though granted, many people might be ticked off it had).
I’d be ticked off. I was a little disappointed that we did not get to visit Area X this time. For that reason, Authority felt like a middle book to me — it is clearly setting up events for Acceptance, the final book of the trilogy. However, unlike many middle books, it has much more purpose than just getting all the important characters to Tarmon Gai’don. It shows us what’s happening on this side of Area X (which is almost as weird as what’s happening inside Area X) and now, more than ever, I desperately want to know what’s going on.
I loved Annihilation, as I said in our earlier review of it, but I love-loved Authority (at this rate, I may have to marry the third book), and with that final book coming in the fall, VanderMeer very well may end up with three titles on my Best of the Year list. A must-read. Hell, doing this review with you makes me want to read it again. So a must-read and a must-reread. How’s that for praise?
I guess that’s about as high as it gets!
By the way, I listened to Bronson Pinchot read the audio version which was produced by Blackstone Audio. I’ve gushed about Pinchot before — there’s nobody better in the audio business — and I was delighted to see his name on this book. As I expected, he gave a wonderful performance.