“What’s the last thing you remember doing in Area X?”
The answer, unexpected, surged up toward him like a kind of attack as the light met the darkness: “Drowning. I was drowning.”
Authority (2014) is the second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy, and the story takes place after the events of Annihilation (2014). VanderMeer described the book as “an expedition into the Southern Reach“(Spiegelman, 2014); it is an expedition into the decaying organization that oversees the research and expeditions into Area X.
Authority is a good and interesting book; it’s both like and unlike Annihilation, which in this case is an ambiguous positive/negative position. Annihilation has a biologist as its POV character and is set in the “pristine nature” of the Area X, and VanderMeer is strong in writing about nature. In fact a big part of the appeal of Annihilation was the setting, the mesmerizing, mysterious nature with a sense of the unknown looming threat. Authority however has a government officer for the POV character, and is set mostly in the Southern Reach, which as mentioned earlier, is the department that is in charge of investigating and understanding what exactly happened or what is Area X. However there are more going on in Southern Reach than meets the eyes.
If the presence of the Ghost Bird‘s, the biologist from the first book, in the story can hook the reader in, Control’s story will soon take over. Control is the new director of the Southern Reach, and the story starts with his first day at work. But being set in a bureaucratic space does not necessarily mean there is less mystery, or weirdness. The reader is hooked as the confidential pieces of information about Area X and Southern Reach become known to Control, and patches of the mystery unravels as if only some lost pieces of a large puzzle are being found; it is satisfying yet not enough to even hint at what is at the center of the picture.
The story sheds some light on some aspects of the first book Annihilation, but at parts confounds us about what we think we know. We have experienced Area X first hand in Annihilation, but what one might have inferred about it is not fully confirmed. In other words the mystery surrounding the people is somewhat resolved, but the mystery about the Area X is not, which makes sense since as humans our understanding of the universe, or even the planet surrounding us is merely limited to our experience as humans. But Area X is not simply like universe or the nature that surrounds us; no one really knows or understands it or its intentions, and it has not revealed its full hand yet.
He kept in mind the note from another analyst that no other expedition had encountered what he was about to see. Among those that had come back, at least.
And there is more to why I love the story; VanderMeer uses a narrative technique that I really enjoy. There is a strong presence of an absent character throughout the story. The heavy shadow of the previous director adds a lot to the story, to a point that this character takes a central place. We get to learn about her from whatever and whoever is left behind. The former director had been in the Southern Reach long enough for her presence to be felt everywhere, especially we learn a lot about her through the other employee’s in the Southern Reach. But I felt there was a need for clearance about some of the character’s allegiances towards the end of the story, and I hope that there are more answers in the third book.
Another thing that I love about the book, that I think makes it even a good read for people who might be leery of speculative fiction is the good mixture of humanly elements with speculative ones. Annihilation did a wonderful job with the descriptions of the Biologist’s life before the expedition, her childhood and her relation with her husband; Authority delves into a similar side of Control’s memories and life. However the human aspect in these books is not only limited to the character’s background and their family, or love relations, it is also in the character’s interactions with each other. The characters are facing a horrific mystery but they remain people; they are vulnerable and struggling like many humans would. They are not untouchable single minded characters that are solely focused on solving the speculative element.
(I cut a part of the beginning of the next excerpt for so not to spoil.)
” … and there is something inside of me I don’t understand. There’s a kind of … brightness…inside.”
Nothing in the medical updates, except an elevated temperature.
“That’s called life,” Control said.
She didn’t laugh at that, but said, quietly, “I don’t think so.”
If she had a “brightness” inside of her, then there was a corresponding darkness inside of him.
Now to the negatives; which I have to emphasize are the personal opinion of mine and also might be the result of English being my second language. My problem was mostly with some of the descriptions. At parts the phrases used to describe things are difficult to understand due to selection of words and length of sentences. I regret not having marked a couple of the instances to mention and demonstrate where I struggled with the words.
The other criticism I have is that after shit hits the fan the book plunges into a slow and descriptive narrative for maybe 15 to 20 pages. I feel like this is a criticism I hate to give for many good books might contain similar pacing, but at least for me as a reader grown up and shaped in our times it is difficult to read 20 pages devoted to description of landscape right after something very important has happened. I feel like those pages might have been the darling that VanderMeer couldn’t kill, and I appreciate not killing one’s darlings for the sake of the reader that at best won’t understand the underlying value the book has for the writer. But communication is always a two sided thing and a reader still retains the right to criticism no matter what.
In the end I have to say I really enjoyed reading this book. I had not read any reviews, I don’t really read reviews on books, not at least beforehand. But I had heard from a friend that the book did not do as good as Annihilation. However I feel that even if the book is not on par with Annihilation it is still a very good book, one of the better books I’ve read this year. I will be reading a different book as a pallet cleanser, but I cannot wait to start reading Acceptance (2014).