Back in February this year, even before I started reading Annihilation, the first in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, there was already something about this trilogy that put it high in my favour – all three books are published in 2014. If I’m not able to read a trilogy all in one go (impatience usually puts a stop to that), the next best thing is to read them with as little time as possible in between each book. That way I stand a chance of remembering more of the world that I’m about to re-enter. I left reading Authority, the middle book, until as close to the publication of the conclusion, Acceptance, as possible. With that finale published tomorrow (2 September), it seems a good time to remind you of book 2. There are inevitable spoilers for Annihilation below – there could be no Authority without the previous novel’s incredible, chilling events.
Control is the new Director of Southern Reach, the facility set up to examine, explore and, ultimately, to explain the phenomenon of Area X, a coastal area that was transformed and mysteriously barricaded at least thirty years before our story begins. Over those thirty years numerous expeditions (officially twelve but that is by no means a reliable number) have embarked from Southern Reach into Area X by way of its one inexplicable gateway. So few ever returned. All Control has to work with are fragments of video, a plant, the fears and superstitions of his Southern Reach team and one survivor – the Biologist of Annihilation. This enigmatic and strange woman gets under Control’s skin completely, obsessing him and perhaps distracting him for a time from the strangeness growing around him.
While Annihilation followed the Biologist’s expedition into the alarming wonder of Area X, Authority focuses entirely on Control during these first days of his directorship of Southern Reach. It is soon clear that he will have as much to do understanding his new colleagues as he will the mysteries of Area X itself. The Assistant Director, Grace, is hostile from the outset, mistrusting the man who moves into the office of his predecessor, a woman we soon learn was the Psychologist, the leader of the latest expedition, now vanished and a woman to whom Grace was devoted. But Grace’s animosity is almost nothing compared to the other strangeness that Control encounters within the offices, labs and rooms of Southern Reach, a strangeness that is exacerbated by the team’s theories about the force that created Area X as well as the video clips from past failed missions – and paranoia. And then, of course, there is the writing on the walls.
Although most of the events of Authority take place within Southern Reach and Area X is only remembered, the novel is no less creepy and chilling than its predecessor, Annihilation, which was entirely set in Area X. The tone, mood and imagery are extremely similar – there are familiar smells, there is an earthy botanic feel to the place, there is the same overpowering sense of claustrophobia. Everything is weird and almost designed to test Control’s sanity and, as the novel continues, the story becomes as much about Control’s past as it does about the mystery of Area X.
Much of Authority moves along at a leisurely pace, allowing the horror and madness of it all to accumulate slowly and powerfully. The dread builds. The atmosphere becomes increasingly intense and assaults all of Control’s senses. The final third of the novel changes everything completely – suddenly it all builds to a thrilling, surreal climax as Control is driven to action. There are answers to some of Annihilation‘s many questions (or, rather, there are suggestions of possible answers), such as why few people use their real names, and there are more clues to the past of Area X as well as the extent and purpose of its power (the rabbit story is absurd but harrowing). Authority is different from Annihilation, which remains my favourite of the two, but it complements it well. More than anything else Authority prepares us for the conclusion of Acceptance, not least with its cliffhanger ending.
Thanks to the extraordinary power and beauty of Jeff VanderMeer’s writing, I have been immersed in these volatile, living, breathing, nightmare worlds where Southern Reach is no more safe than the environment it seeks to explain. I cannot wait for Acceptance. I have to know.