Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the sequel to Annihilation in name and follows on directly after the twelfth expedition in the first book.  But if you’re (reasonably so) expecting a continuation of the biologist’s story, you’d be sorely mistaken. Reading this book straight after its predecessor could give you whiplash considering the change in environment. It goes from a weird adventure through a deadly ecosystem to a weird office bureaucracy. From being immersed in Area X to only getting tantalisingly close to the border.

The book follows the new Director of the Southern Reach who is optimistically called Control. His main task is to find out what happened to the latest expedition and report back to his handler. It becomes clear almost immediately that the facility is on its last legs; almost if not every department is being run by a skeleton crew who all seem to be varying degrees of peculiar, a side effect surely of working on such an odd assignment. The latest expedition is back – or more accurately, the biologist returns out of Area X, suddenly appearing in an empty car park.

Control spends the majority of the book trying to understand and control (sorry) the Southern Reach. Unfortunately, from the get go, he is challenged by the openly hostile Assistant Director and has to deal with bizarre staff like Whitby who seems to have gone slightly insane from his time there. With literally no one around to help and his handler ‘the Voice’ demanding results, Control retreats into his own little bubble and focuses on the biologist.

The interviews he has with the biologist are far and away the best parts of the book. She gives cryptic answers to almost every question which intrigues Control and the reader since in Annihilation she was entirely forthright and pragmatic. I think it’s natural that I gravitated towards these sections since we spend the entire last book in the biologist’s head, forming an attachment to her and these interviews are all that are offered.

“A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle.”

Unfortunately, they are only one section of quite a long book. Authority is twice as long as Annihilation, coming in at around 400 pages and I was fully aware of the length while reading. The book gets SO mundane for large chunks at a time. And not in a mundane fiction (Wayfarers, Autumn etc) but just red tape and office politics and brick wall after brick wall. Annihilation is perfectly paced, a short book that never lets up so when the sequel is 200 extra words of dragged out plot points, it is acutely obvious.

However, VanderMeer does keep up the ‘weird fiction’ theme, which actually is quite impressive considering an office isn’t exactly the weirdest setting. The book is interspersed with odd goings on every so often. Control’s paranoia slowly develops as he gets stuck into his investigation of the Southern Reach – he’s having odd dreams, there’s this mysterious (but familiar to the reader) sentence painted on a hidden wall in his office, there’s a phone with a seemingly invincible plant growing out of it in his desk and he’s being followed maybe. And there’s this one moment that absolutely blows anything from the first book out of the water. It’s so bizarrely creepy, I’m a little worried about how VanderMeer even conceived it. I won’t say any more but those who have read the book know what I’m talking about.

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never could be writhe”

In standard Southern Reach fashion, for every question answered, ten more are asked – it follows Annihilation in that it’s not for a person who wants answers to everything going on. Some may be answered, some may be left for the third book and some are just left dangling for the reader to mull upon. I found Control to be a far less interesting MC than the biologist was. I wonder if that is the point since we learn far more about his life and childhood and he really can just be summed up as ‘bland’. Maybe the point is show what a normal, generic person would react to the various stimuli of the Southern Reach. Maybe I’m grasping for straws, looking for an explanation where there is none.

Authority is about the building of dread – the slow accretion of things going just a little but wrong. About men and women already so broken by the past that they appear collectively blind (or wilfully ignorant) to the rot spreading around them. Until a moment comes that changes their world that they and we never see coming. This is where the true skill of VanderMeer is shown. Like the characters, we’re so caught up in the monotony of Control’s day to day that we accept all the little terrible things happening around him until it all gets turned upside down.

I’d have preferred more adventure in Area X, more discovery of what it is but that’s a low hanging fruit storyline. Re-treading the first book would have been the easy sequel, instead he switched it up to follow the human side of Area X. Even if I didn’t enjoy it as much, I can respect the decision. For those who liked the ‘what the fuck’ weird, insidious feeling you got reading Annihilation then you’ll like Authority. If you like the adventure, the discovery of a new ecosystem, this book is not going to gel with you.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation was my first foray into the new weird genre and man, it was a deep end if there is one. The premise is basic enough: There is a mysterious, untouched coastline somewhere in the US that, years ago, had suddenly and inexplicably become host to a bizarre new ecosystem. It is quarantined and referred to as Area X by the Southern Reach, a secretive government agency. All the prior expeditions sent into Area X resulted in disasters – the explorers committed mass suicide, killed each other, developed fatal cancers. The twelfth expedition consists of four women – a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a biologist (the main character). The biologist is an intriguing character; she’s described as being very distant from others, most comfortable when analysing microorganisms on the coast of Ireland, far away from human contact. She is remarkedly pragmatic when confronted with the unknown and comes off as a little alien herself:

“A religious or superstitious person, someone who believed in angels or in demons, might see it differently. Almost anyone else might see it differently. But I am not those people, I am just the biologist; I don’t require any of this to have a deeper meaning.”

VanderMeer doesn’t ease the reader in but instead starts to throw questions into the air almost immediately. After less than 24 hours the team is disagreeing about basic discoveries. Is this tunnel going underground we found important? Is it a tunnel or a shaft? Or a tunnel? Should we continue on to lighthouse stay here? Why is the tunnel not on the map?

The biologist soon realises that the secret government agency has ulterior motives (shocker!) and that their leader, the psychologist has her own goals. It soon becomes clear that the mission is a farce – equipment is all broken or anachronistic, their extensive astronaut-like training is irrelevant and they are not even fully in control of themselves.

Everything VanderMeer does is carefully added to keep everything bizarre – without names and with their fields of expertise made irrelevant almost instantly after entering Area X, the team is defined only by their bare emotions (the surveyor is aggressive, the psychologist is peculiar, the biologist is curious, the anthropologist is anxious). The expedition team are made to bring outdated technology They are told this to help to keep outside influences out but is it really? Hypnosis stops the team leaving and soon the reader comes to realise maybe the experiment isn’t to see what Area X is but to see how the women react when immersed in bizarre stimuli.

I’ve mentioned hypnosis a few times and I think that its inclusion is really the only real weakness in the novel. VanderMeer relies on the concept of hypnosis quite strongly and in this weird, fantastical environment it’s the almost mind control powers that come off as least believable. Characters forget entire days due to it, they fall into comatose positions, their minds easily malleable from just a single word. I don’t know if hypnosis is actually that powerful in real life but it ruined the immersion just for a moment.

When I first picked up Annihilation I was mildly surprised at how short it was. But the length works in its favour; it doesn’t let up for a moment. The story is constantly being pushed forward, there’s no time to ponder each new revelation as another is thrown at the reader. VanderMeer could have easily filled it out to 400 pages by pausing the story and including backstory on the biologist, on Area X or starting it earlier in the timeline. But he chooses not to. He chooses to start as they enter the area and gives little to no explanations about what is going on. The reader is at an equal loss for knowledge as the biologist – or even more so considering she herself is such an enigma.

It constantly keeps the reader on their toes with a consistently eerie mood throughout. Every page is full of mystery – cryptic writing on the walls of the tunnel with run on sentences that rival dickens, a deep voice coming from somewhere in the swamp, plants that appear to contain human matter within them. I was never really able to feel relaxed throughout but like the biologist who just keeps trucking through, what else can she do, I just keep reading – both of us expecting that eventually everything will be explained.

But that’s the crux of the book. There are few answers. If you’re the type of reader who likes their mysteries explained by the end Sherlock Holmes style, you’re going to be unsatisfied with this. That doesn’t mean to say it’s a bad ending, it’s not, it’s excellent. It’s ambiguous, open to interpretation, just explained enough (that is to say, barely at all) and almost forcing me to start its sequel, Authority.