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Authority: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy, 2) Paperback – May 6, 2014
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In Authority, the New York Times bestselling second volume of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, Area X's most disturbing questions are answered . . . but the answers are far from reassuring.
After thirty years, the only human engagement with Area X―a seemingly malevolent landscape surrounded by an invisible border and mysteriously wiped clean of all signs of civilization―has been a series of expeditions overseen by a government agency so secret it has almost been forgotten: the Southern Reach. Following the tumultuous twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the agency is in complete disarray.
John Rodrigues (aka "Control") is the Southern Reach's newly appointed head. Working with a distrustful but desperate team, a series of frustrating interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, Control begins to penetrate the secrets of Area X. But with each discovery he must confront disturbing truths about himself and the agency he's pledged to serve.
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“Authority isn't a book that just picks up where the last one left off. Instead, it's packed full of new pleasures, not only new characters and settings but whole new kinds of writing. If Annihilation is an expedition novel painted with a thick coat of weird, then Authority is a spy novel given the same dark lacquer . . . Which makes me desperate to know what the third book is going to be like--whether it will be some mixture of the two, Jurassic Park meets James Bond, or some third thing entirely.” ―Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
“The great thing about Annihilation is the strange, elusive, and paranoid world that it creates. The great thing about Authority is the way it takes the premises that we think we know about that world and turns them inside out, destabilizing everything in a way that makes it even more strange and elusive, and makes us the ones who feel paranoid. A stunning book, followed by a second stunning book that makes you rethink the first.” ―Brian Evenson, author of Last Days with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“A clear triumph for VanderMeer, who after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal.” ―Lydia Millet, Los Angeles Times with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“Unsettling and un-put-downable--like an old-fashioned adventure story, only weirder, beautifully written, and not at all old-fashioned.” ―Karen Joy Fowler, BookPage with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“Chilling.” ―Julie Bosman, The New York Times with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“Ingenious.” ―Laura Miller, Salon with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“Enthralling.” ―Tara Wanda Merrigan, GQ with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“Fans of the Lost TV series . . . this one is for you.” ―Molly Driscoll, The Christian Science Monitor
“[Annihilation] will make you believe in the power of science mysteries again.” ―Annalee Newitz, io9 with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“Successfully creepy.” ―Sara Sklaroff, The Washington Post with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“Fascinating.” ―John Domini, Miami Herald with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“[Annihilation] teases and terrifies and fascinates.” ―Kevin Nguyen, Grantland with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“Dazzling.” ―Peter Straub, author of Lost Boy, Lost Girl with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
“Haunted and haunting.” ―Kelly Link, author of Magic for Beginners with praise for THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY
- Publisher : FSG Originals; First Edition (May 6, 2014)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0374104107
- ISBN-13 : 978-0374104108
- Item Weight : 8.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5 x 0.9 x 7.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #22,418 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #285 in Exploration Science Fiction
- #617 in Psychological Fiction (Books)
- #2,076 in Literary Fiction (Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Reviewed in the United States on June 22, 2019
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Authority, the second book in the series, 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 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, 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.
As for why I loved it—oh, so many reasons. First and foremost is the 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 potted 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 liquid? 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.
Beyond what emanates from Area X’s existence, 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?
And of course, the 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.
Beyond the atmosphere, I also loved the many resonances that echo throughout the novel. The white rabbits for instance, used in an experiment years ago and 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?). Or the aforementioned birds: 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 as well, 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.
I could go on; there are many such examples. But I won’t. 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 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 in the trilogy), 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.
(first appeared on fantasyliterature.com)
In Annihilation, we followed a single character ("the biologist") through Area X, a pristine wilderness separated from the rest of the country by a barrier with a nature we never really understand (perhaps because even people in the world of the story don't fully understand it, either). In this book, we focus on a different character, John (who insists on being called "Control," which sounds rather silly, but later in the book he begins to question the choice of this nickname and what it implies about him and his mission). He has been sent to be the director of the Southern Reach area (basically an installation/organization that protects and defends the Area X border) after the previous director (who was a character in book one) has disappeared. He encounters a lot of hostilities from the assistant director (Grace) and a lot of odd characters among his new subordinates/coworkers. Although in fairness, you would have to be eccentric to accept a position at a place like Southern Reach and stay there for any length of time.
My favorite parts of the book are when Control is gathering information. Whether that is watching videos from expeditions to Area X, or going through items and papers from the Director's office (which is now his office), or interviewing the biologist from the previous expedition, or taking a tour of the scientific research facilities and trying to make sense of all the weirdness -- these were the bits of the story I was most interested in. And when the story was heavy with those bits of information, I read with complete attention, often late at night, and didn't want to put the book down. Those parts carried me through the other parts, too, in a sense.
But then, there were the other parts, when Control went home from work. Or flashbacks to his past (perhaps triggered by the fact that he spent some of his childhood in the area nearby). I just don't have the same level of interest in reading about getting drunk at bars, memories of past one-night stands, etc.
The biologist in Annihilation had a lot of flashbacks, too. But they were more interesting to me. They gave the reader a sense of why someone would agree to go on what could very well be a suicide mission. The biologist was a flawed person and the flashbacks and personal thoughts helped us see her flaws, helped us understand her better. I never really felt the same connection with Control. He had a flaw that Grace confronts him with and that flaw has definitely shaped his career. So in a sense, some of the background information helps us explain how he got where he is. But, when he was in a position to take the job or not, it wasn't the same as the biologist deciding to go on the expedition. It might well have been a dead end, career-wise, but that's not the same as risking one's life. And thus, I just wasn't as interested in his past. I didn't find him as compelling.
If these books are meant to be character studies, well, they certainly achieve that aim. Control is a complex character and he is sympathetic (and not just because he is the reader's proxy in an unfamiliar situation). You do get the sense that he wants to solve mysteries associated with Area X and Southern Reach, itself. And since you, as the reader, want those answers as well, you are rooting for him.
I have some issues with Control's mother, as a character. She is some sort of secret agent who can't ever talk about her position but seems to be rather high up at a place called "Central," which seems to have authority over Southern Reach facilities and personnel. She is able to pull strings to get Control the Director's position at Southern Reach. Or something. But she also goes out in the field on missions a lot, or something. It just seems to be inconsistent with the things I know (or think I know) about the way government agencies work. The director and higher-ups in the CIA don't go undercover. Those are desk/meeting types of jobs. And CIA officials, I would assume, don't appoint their children to important posts. I think there are laws against that.
There were not necessarily a lot of answers in Annihilation. You get a few in Authority, but there are also new questions raised. I was satisfied with the balance here. There's still one book left (I'm already partway through it), after all.
Random other notes: This is basically set in our world; Area X and its border are the only unnatural things. So not a lot of worldbuilding has to be done for outside the Southern Reach facility. The writing style is quite good. I never felt like I missed anything or had to go back and reread it, so I got through the book quickly. (I actually liked the writing style so much I put a bunch of Mr. Vandermeer's other books on my wish list, even though they stray a bit from my usual fare.) The mysteries of Area X and surrounding the biologist as well as the former director are compelling. At first I thought the side characters (scientists, etc.) were just strange, but you learn by the end of the book that they have reasons for being that way, and I ended up thinking their quirks were well done. So there is still a lot to like here. But it is also a different book from Annihilation. (On the other hand, I'm not sure a different expedition getting lost in Area X would have made a good sequel, so maybe this is where the series HAD to go.)
In the end, I did enjoy this enough to immediately continue on to book 3.
Had my doubts about the book near the end, but finished it and it made all the difference. The writing style is peaceful and also terrifying. I totally get what Vandermeer was doing with Control’s character and he does it so well. Thought the pacing was slow at times and the author brought up a lot of problems that didn’t need to be brought up or called attention to so heavily, but I feel like reading the third book might answer some more questions. It is description heavy and I wished there was more dialogue and interaction, but that is just a preference thing on my part. I liked it despite that, so it doesn’t take away stars for me.
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Here in lies my problem. If the reader has read Annihilation, then the reader already knows more than John. The reader has seen the lighthouse and the tower/tunnel. The reader knows how Area X can change people. The reader probably has a decent stab at guessing who (or what) Ghost Bird is. However, this is all new to Control and therefore must be explained to him at a painful pace.
The primary issue with Authority is its pacing. Although it does carry an echo of the first book's tension, it takes a long time to find its feet. Many of the twists mirror things that happened in Annihilation and so are easy to see coming, and its not until the climax that things become especially odd. It can still be creepy - incredibly so - but it largely felt a bit lifeless.
It also doesn't really give an concrete answers. While a few new connections are implied and a hypothesis about the nature of Area X is exposited, the novel is still very vague, steeped in metaphor and open to the reader's interpretation. It certainly won't appeal to everyone.
For obvious reasons, the book also contains a largely new cast and these are actually very well rounded. We get to know them all a bit better than the Biologist and her largely unnamed team and they are all certainly curious. From Grace's devotion to the former director to Whitby's increasing strangeness as the story progresses, they are certainly unforgettable. In fact, Control was the least interesting character for me. He's a bit of a blank slate and didn't really interest me as a protagonist until close to the end of the story.
Anyhow, that's about all I have to say. I will probably read Acceptance at some point for closure, but I hope that it's a stronger novel than this one.
We did learn a few choice nuggets of information, but not enough to support a second volume which was longer than the first but in which almost nothing actually happened. The first third or so was OK as Control tried to find his way through the mess of the Southern Reach and get some answers, but the answers he is searching for were not the answers that the reader is searching for, so actually I found that I didn't much care. Especially as he didn't really find much for the majority of the book. The middle sagged with almost nothing happening of any interest at all.
Towards the end there is an exciting event which appears to be the climax of the book, except it then continues on at a slow and boring pace for another long chapter which really threw me. In fact the pacing overall was really strange.
I didn't really understand Grace at all, what her motives were or her feelings on pretty much any matter, which made all Control's experiences with her seem very odd and hard to understand.
The writing was strange and stilted throughout which in the context of being in the "normal" world was just annoying.
Perhaps the final instalment can redeem the series for me, I'm certainly willing to give it a go.
"Voice", Control has been drafted into to Southern Reach to investigate Area X further in the absence of the missing Director and the aftermath of the ill fated twelfth expedition.
With "Control" coming in cold with very little background on Southern Reach, Area X and the twelfth expedition, we see almost through a newcomers eyes, in the way we as readers were that newcomer with Annihilation, the surrounding strangeness of Area X and it's localised impact within the government facility and the impact it is having on it's staff.
The tension in Authority does not come from exploring once again what Area X is exactly but in how Control struggles with the discoveries he slowly uncovers on this "safe" side of the border. Not just what he finds relating to Area X but also the friction with his often resentful (and at times down right unnerving) staff and the personal struggles within himself.
Very much the middle part of a trilogy, VanderMeer gives us enough breadcrumbs to see the wider idea what Area X possibly is without us ever really going there again and I expect this to be expanded on further in the final book. But in doing so he has also masterfully constructed a character study of a man on a journey to the middle of something he can't quite get grapple with or begin to understand.
The journey is certainly one you'll remember.
Authority is slower and bigger than Annihilation, with a larger cast of characters and more complexity in play than before. But it all works perfectly.