The Short Version: In the wake of the disastrous twelfth expedition into Area X (recounted in Annihilation) John Rodriguez – aka Control – has come in to clean up the Southern Reach. But as he begins to sift through the mess left by the previous director, an unsettling realization begins to bubble up: maybe this mess can’t be cleaned up at all…
The Review: Okay. Okay okay okay. Elevator pitch: where Annihilation was Lovecraftian wilderness adventure, this is le Carré-meets-The Thing. AND IT IS AWESOME.
Allow me to explain. It has been said that Jeff approached the trilogy as three stops on a widening lens – the first book is the super-narrow focus, which then zooms out to a wider frame for book two (and presumably again for book three, although who knows). This is entirely accurate – but it misses the explanation that, not unlike his Ambergris trilogy, each book ends up stylistically different as well. Annihilation was first-person, almost journalistic – like bursts of ‘confessionals’ on a reality show. Authority is third-person, with a looming sinister something in the background… and shot on the dilapidated sets of a forgotten 70s spy/horror film.
Not surprisingly, Vandermeer uses the zoom-out to provide information we didn’t have before. Some of it is minor-shading stuff, like details about what the members of twelfth expedition actually looked like. A lot of it, though, is huge – like, “completely throws the first book into a new perspective” huge. Naturally, it’s hard to talk about it without spoilers and so I’ll leave it there – but the revelations are doled out with perfect pacing, dropping the reader’s jaw on a regular basis and revving up the engine towards the ending.
Aesthetically, I keep coming back to the idea of this novel as the ’70s novel, for some reason. I was not alive during the ’70s (sorry) so this is purely based on the novels and films I’ve consumed from that time period – and, on that basis, it makes sense. Let’s start with “Control” – an homage to le Carré (Rodriguez even alludes to it early in the books) that puts an informed reader into the mindset of, well, a shady government agency. Instead of a mole at the top of the Circus, though, we’re dealing with… well, something way weirder. And the weird comes in like it does with The Thing or SyFy’s current Helix (I only make that reference for atmosphere, not for content) – you get the sense that it’s not just the light above Control’s desk that flickers but probably every third light has that weird fluorescent shudder. And the hallways stretch on forever. And the carpet and paint jobs are probably untouched from whenever they were installed, which was (according to the rough timeline of the novel and assuming we’re in the ‘present day’) probably about 35-40 years ago.
This is all to say: the atmosphere is creepy. Both in a “oooooo spooky!” way and in a clandestine, be careful because someone might be listening way. An early scene in which Control finds a hilarious number of bugs in his office (I’m sorry if that’s considered a spoiler…) strikes this balance perfectly: you’re creeped out by the office itself, creeped out by the sense of being spied on, and there’s also that third thing… that ‘something weird’ that hovers above it all like fog that won’t quite descend into town.
Jeff continues to play at bigger themes in these books, too. Let’s take the names for example. We’re not given any names or descriptions in Annihilation, other than that the four expedition members are female – and thus we get to create them for ourselves. In this book, characters are given names and descriptions – but there is a lingering sense that these are facades. They are costumes. They are not quite who these people are. Control is a nickname – what does it say about John? Grace makes a wry comment when he introduces himself as Control about how he should call her “Patience” – names are only as strong as what we imbue them with. The same goes for Area X, the border, etc. There’s a lot of talk here about our inarticulacy, our inability to accurate compass let alone describe things. We saw it with the Crawler and with the tower in book one – and now we see that it’s not just the truly weird but really everything that we encounter, including one another, that turns on how we choose to describe or name it. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet – but what you see as a tunnel might be a tower to someone else. A barrier might be a roadmap. A doorway might not be something you can pass through at all.
It’s really stunning, thoughtful stuff – and the fact that the novel delivers on the high-concept level as well as on the visceral, turn-the-pages-fast-as-you-can story level is proof in the pudding of Jeff’s exceptional talent firing on all cylinders.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Back, for a moment, to my earlier point about avoiding spoilers. The only thing I will say is this: you do, in fact, get answers here. So often these days, we get wary of these big mysteries because we don’t want to get suckered into another LOST. We don’t want to be left frustrated at the end of the series (however long it may be) because too many questions were raised without satisfying resolutions. This is clearly not the case with the Southern Reach Trilogy: Authority answers plenty of questions raised both by Annihilation and by its own contents. It also successfully raises new questions, keeps a couple of major ones open, and propels the reader forward with a sense of… I suppose trust is the right word. We believe that Vandermeer is guiding us towards… something. We certainly don’t know what, but you finish this book with the belief that there will be resolution. There will be a kind of satisfaction. I have absolutely no idea what that’s going to look like – but I couldn’t be more excited for Acceptance.