Friday, 20 January 2017

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer

When I read Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, I was thoroughly and pleasantly surprised. An author I hadn't read yet, with a book that good? Creepy and literary, not giving answers and yet not frustrating me with the refusal? That's a good start.

Now I've read the second book (picked up at the library book sale this past autumn), and it's almost a complete genre change in the same world - where the first was very remote and about direct experience, the second is about mediated experience, the experts on the outside who have never had first-hand exposure. And it's kind of a spy novel.

We do get more answers - sort of, since in all the years after the arrival of Area X, no one has satisfactorily explained why it came, who made it, or what it's doing to the expeditions that go past its borders. We do, however, get some answers about the lighthouse, the expeditions, why the characters in the first book are simply referred to by their functions, and some light is shed on some of the interpersonal behaviour we witnessed.

Have I mentioned that I really, thoroughly enjoyed this? It kept all the creepy thrills of the first book, added in some homage to SF classics, and turned its attention to espionage.

The new main character has a name! But he prefers to go by a title, Control, which he instructs the staff at the Southern Reach station in charge of both protecting Area X from people and people from Area X to call him. It's a little disconcerting when you find out that this was his own idea, to be called that, and like the first book, you quickly become convinced that the characters you're travelling along with are not all that emotionally stable.

This is not really altered when you meet the resentful assistant director of Southern Reach, sure her boss is going to come back from the last expedition (and there's a small reveal about the numbering of the expeditions that I just loved, since it again moves the ground under your feet just enough to make everything a bit surreal.) Or the scientists, who seem to be in various stages of losing it.

The ex-director's office is a mess, papers everywhere, a strange plant that seems to be unkillable locked in a dark desk drawer with the corpse of a mouse, and words written on the wall that readers will recognize from Annihilation. But not glowing this time.

Control tries to get on top of a situation that is deteriorating, having to deal with office politics even as there are alarming signs from within Area X, which increasingly seems to be an homage to Roadside Picnic, although maybe with different complications.

We also throw in an extended interrogation with the biologist from the first book, and her conviction that she is not really herself.

I don't want to give any more away, but after a first book that delighted me, this even more firmly cemented Vandermeer in my literary affections.


  1. Excellent review, Megan. I really liked this book too. It has an indefinable element that I think readers either fully embrace or just don't get. The tension in the story increases by layers and the the more that is revealed, the less you feel you really know. I think these books are a masterful example of telling a story without giving all the answers, yet still leaving the reader fully satisfied by the experience.

    1. Yeah, I agree. If people need to have all the answers, they might get frustrated - but I felt like he gave a lot of answers in this, even if they weren't always overt.