Award-winning genre author Jeff VanderMeer is most known for his Ambergris-set fantasy novels and several short story collections, but he has created some truly transcendent fiction with the Southern Reach novel trilogy, particularly the second entry, Authority. Rather than just offering up one or two thought-shattering concepts, VanderMeer pulls out wild cards multiple times a chapter, creating heebie jeebies that echo on throughout the reader’s day.
Like, you’re absolutely positive you left the book closed in your bedroom, yet there it is on the kitchen counter…open…waiting.
Annihilation, the first book in the series, was an almost clinical first-person narrative about a team of scientists who are sent to study a completely inexplicable geographical anomaly called Area X, a place that has not been kind to past expeditions. (I’ll stay vague on major spoilers for both novels, don’t worry.) Things just don’t happen like they should in Area X, home to a smattering of landmark oddities such as a tunnel/tower and a lighthouse, the origins of both of which are sketchy and rooted in madness.
And if Annihilation is like Alien on wild, paranoia-fueling hallucinogens, then Authority is like Zodiac on wild, paranoia-fueling hallucinogens. The first book’s mysteries serve as the chiseled flourish on the Holy Grail of Information being sought out by the secretive organization Southern Reach and its new interim director, John “Control” Rodriguez. With a life guided by his estranged mother, herself always off on clandestine missions, Control is clearly not suited for his new assignment, cleaning up the mess created in the absence of the former director. It sounds exciting, as a reader, to know that this novel goes far deeper into events and names only hinted at before, but it comes with the cost of comfortable entertainment, as one disturbing sequence after another stretches reality’s borders beyond their limits.
Control is immediately at odds with another one of Southern Reach’s higher-ups, Grace, whose close relationship with the former director is the source of her antagonism. Control gets along fairly well with Mike Cheney, the genial but unnerving head of the science department, and Whitby Allen, whose everyman role within the Southern Reach belies his true nature. There are of course more characters, but their identities are best kept secret before reading. In any case, Control isn’t looking for either friends or enemies. He only wants facts, and he’s having a hard time finding them — and for good reason, because Southern Reach is not the kind of place where snooping is welcome.
At less than 200 pages, Annihilation is a swift trip through speculative biological horror, with hints of Lost and The Ruins. With a larger page count, Authority provides a more objective scope, at least initially, making it all the more effective once Area X’s history — learned through files, pictures, and a video — starts affecting Control’s mental health. While there are certainly moments that will shock readers in a visceral fashion, VanderMeer’s true accomplishment here is using the evolutionary power of words as a motif to drive these haunting ideas even deeper into the brain. It’s not a big twist or an action sequence you remember the most; it’s everything else. The agonizing yearning to connect all the dots. The impending doom anytime Control stumbles upon a clue that readers are already aware of. A little harmless mouse. Everything.
Certainly, one would think such a harrowing reading experience should be followed by a long stretch of nothing but gossip magazines and Archie comics, but FSG Originals has given VanderMeer the most reader-accommodating release dates I’ve ever heard of. Annihilation was published in February, while Authority hit stores a couple of weeks ago, and the third book, Acceptance is set to come out in September. Three books in eight months seems like some kind of a record. And then there’s a chance you might see this trilogy hitting the big screen in a couple of years, as the film rights were preemptively snatched up by Paramount last year.
Though the secretive nature of Authority‘s surprises renders any fact-heavy reviews inappropriate, let it be firmly written in stone — though it doesn’t feel like stone — that I cannot recommend this stellar series any more highly. September cannot get here quickly enough, but that’s probably a good thing, assuming I can Control myself.
Turn out all the lights and find Authority on Amazon here.