The novel Authority by Jeff VanderMeer is the second book of the Southern Reach Trilogy. My commentary on the first of the series, Annihilation, is here.
Though in many ways less compelling than the first novel in the series, this is a very creative book that takes all sorts of chances as it goes into unexpected directions. Where Annihilation was an atmospheric mix of science fiction and psychological horror, this book takes off in a completely different direction, as it is essentially a quirky science fiction based character study with healthy doses of humor in terms of tone and style.
Area X is a large swath of land that is mysteriously isolated by an invisible barrier, where bizarre, terrifying and deadly events take place. This story takes place almost entirely outside of this area and concerns itself with the government organization, called Southern Reach, tasked with investigating the strange phenomena. The main character is the new director of Southern Reach, a man nicknamed “Control.” As Control digs into the very bizarre phenomena of Area X, he discovers that the psychological effects that plague visitors to the area are beginning to affect Southern Reach personnel. As the story develops, the borders of Area X begin to expand and envelope Southern Reach headquarters.
Taking place shortly after the events of the first book, much of the narrative concerns itself with the interactions between Control and a duplicate of The Biologist, the main character from the first book. Somehow, a copy of the Biologist has been produced and has returned from Area X. The copied women is now known as "Ghost Bird”.
Control finds that he is very drawn to Ghost Bird’s fascinating character and background. VanderMeer is a very different writer who breaks rules. His uniqueness as an author is illustrated as he portrays this attraction in a nonromantic and nonsexual way. Thus avoiding an obvious cliché and forgoing a path that most others writers would have taken.
Another testament to VanderMeer’s quality as a writer is that, for one chapter and in a few other segments, the narrative veers in to the atmospheric psychological, science fiction and horror mix that characterized the previous book. He then elegantly transitions back out of this style.
Control is one of the more interesting and well-crafted characters that I have encountered in literature. On the surface, he is a new high-powered leader of a super serious and secret organization. His background is in dealing with terrorists and other national security threats, but when his inner self is revealed, he is shown to be a man wracked with insecurities and self-doubt. He also has a wry and ironic sense of humor. His relationship with his mother, also a government operative, as well as that with his deceased father, is examined in detail over the course of the narrative.
His portrayal is unique; at one point during a highly stressful meeting, Control imagines that he would like to be relaxing at home with his cat,
"A vision of his couch in his new home, of Chorry curled up on his lap, of music playing, of a book in hand. A better place than here."
Annihilation left a long series of unanswered questions and strange mysteries as to the nature of Area X and the operation of Southern Reach. Slowly, through the course of the narrative, some, but not all, of these blanks are filled in.
The themes of the first novel, climate change, the tendency for people to construct faulty thought paradigms and the inscrutability of reality are present here and are further developed. On the issues of faulty belief systems that people cling to and of their resulting harm, Control ponders one aspect of this that manifests itself in our modern world,
"Because more and more in the modern Internet era you came across isolated instances of a mind virus or worm: brains that self-washed, bathed in received ideologies that came down from on high, ideologies that could remain dormant or hidden for years, silent as death until they struck."
This book goes off in a completely different from the first in in the series terms of style, and it is still be successful as a testament to VanderMeer’s creativity and skill as a writer. Though a science fiction character study with strains of satire leaves us with a book that is a little less of a page-turner than the atmospheric psychological horror of the first novel, this book is a worthy piece of writing in its own right.
This novel does not work as standalone work, as it presupposes that the reader is familiar with the events of Annihilation. As an artistic and unique example of speculative fiction that is part of a larger whole, it is a very worthwhile sequel. I will be moving ahead to read the third and final book in the trilogy, Acceptance, right away.