Authority – by Jeff VanderMeer

Soon after finishing Annihilation, I went and reached for the second book of VanderMeer’s trilogy – not just because I had included it in my monthly plan, but because I had to find out what else the author had in mind. With this I am not saying I expected any form of clarification to the first novel’s outcome – instead, I was looking forward to see how its madness could be expanded even further. If you’ve read the book, you know my hopes were going to be satisfied in a very literal way.

Title: Authority

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication Date: 4 May 2014

Genre: Science Fiction Novel

Stand Alone or Series: Second Book of the Southern Reach Trilogy

Synopsis: John “Control” Rodriguez has just been appointed as the new director of the Southern Reach, the government agency in charge of all operations pertaining Area X. He’s taking over after the disappearance of his predecessor – who, we find out, was the psychologist we’d already met in Annihilation – and he’s welcomed at his new job by a frankly disquieting atmosphere: the facility is pervaded by a rotting smell, his assistant seems to resent his presence and to believe that the former director could reappear any time, not to mention the fact he’s constantly receiving orders by an impersonal handler only known as “the Voice”.

Among the several findings and sources he’s supposed to make sense of – which include a seemingly immortal plant with its roots wrapped around a very dead mouse, wall scribbles that elude any interpretation, and footage of some old attempts to study the area and its border – he’s faced with the task of questioning the survivors of the previous mission. While there is still no sign of the psychologist, in fact, the other three women have seemingly resurfaced from Area X, even though their behaviour is erratic and their reports unhelpful. Due to a misunderstanding, the anthropologist and the surveyor are soon sent away, however Control has the chance to debrief the biologist, who insists she’s not the same person and would rather be called Ghost Bird.

As his inquiry proceeds, the mystery only seems to thicken. Events take a dramatic turn when the influece of Area X starts showing its signs well past its usual border – no less than in the Souther Reach facility.

Analysis: While Annihilation was framed as the biologist’s direct report, Authority is written in third person, from the point of view of Control. It follows a similar strucure, with a number of flashbacks inserted in an otherwise linear main plot. The prose is rich with a highly symbolic vocabulary, that evoke the themes of the novel even beyond its immediate meaning; numerous words and images, for instance, are constantly hinting at the opposing concepts of purity and decay, suggesting a hidden message that will only become apparent much later.

The novel expands on the main themes of Annihilation, that are now addressed in a different context. If the first book made us question our concept of rationality and identity through the experience of a protagonist entirely immersed in a disconcerting landscape, here we move to a supposedly controlled, undestandable setting, that is nevertheless drifting more and more towards the absurd. The main character being nicknamed “Control” comes across as definitely ironic as he discovers he’s been conditioned and manipulated all along ; this is not however just a consideration on his personal predicament, but a metaphor of how our human belief to be in charge of our destiny and to have mastery over nature is ultimately a ruse.

Talking about nature – its representation as both terrifying and innocent is even more remarkable in this second book; even though the phenomena in Area X appear more and more threatening and disconcerting, the characters can’t help but describe it as pure and pristine, immaculate in comparison to the creeping decadence that is affecting their attempt to keep it at bay.

In the end, we understand that the very title Authority encapsulates the ambivalent deception explored in the novel: in fact on the one hand we see a literal human authority trying to keep Area X under its control, while on the other hand we end up realising how nature – beautiful, horrifying, vengeful and innocent – has the ultimate power over our puny destinies, over our pathetic attempts to rationalise the unfathomable.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Authority is very deserving sequel to Annihilation, perhaps less shocking as the reader is by now already familiar with its themes and style, but nevertheless brilliant for the same reasons that made the first book remarkable. If you have enjoyed Annihilation, you should by all means read this book as well. If you haven’t started the trilogy yet, well, now it is not too late.

Content Warning: Death, violence, illness, body horror.

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