One of the strongest impressions left by Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, first in the Area X: Southern Reach trilogy, is the numerous avenues possible to understanding the text. A psychological journey, treatise on subjectivity, metaphor for existence, or just plain Weird fiction—these are just a few of the major possibilities. (Minds more critical than mine will find other significant paths winding through the novel.) Continuing with the existential outlay, the second novel of the trilogy, Authority (2014), introduces the reader to an entirely new perspective on Area X, even as the subjectivity of perception digs its hooks deeper into the psyche of its characters.
In Authority, we get the main character’s name: John Rodriguez. But for the majority of novel he is called Control—ironic given he is not a dominating personality. Control begins the story taking over the recently vacated role of director at the Southern Reach. While getting to know his new work environment and colleagues, he is tasked with interviewing a recent returnee from Area X, a biologist. Her responses to his questions anything but coherent, Control’s understanding of Area X only becomes further clouded learning that the previous director disappeared under mysterious circumstances, possibly an illicit excursion into Area X. But capping off the growing paranoia at the new job is the fact Control is required to give a daily report through a special mobile phone to something he dubs the Voice. Seemingly on the edge of madness, the Voice makes odd demands, its emotional highs and lows erratic. The mundanity of his life outside work clashing ever harder with the strain and oddness brought of Area X at work eventually take their toll on Control. Something has to give.
If the psychological environment of Annihilation was closed and tight, then Authority’s is claustrophobic. Control, for as quotidian as he is initially portrayed, is slowly peeled away, revealing the thoughts and reasoning lurking, sometimes darting, behind his placid eyes. And so too are his colleagues’. Their roles in a top secret organization, in combination with the inexplicable phenomena of Area X, are the perfect petri dish for distrust and paranoia to grow. Suspicion a main character motivator, discovering a plant in his desk drawer is enough to set Control’s mind wandering potential corridors of explication. Control and his colleagues’ anxieties eventually coming to a head, there is a trigger moment (an extremely creepy moment without one hint of a monster) that forces the façade of control to come crumbling down. Paralleling the meltdowns in Annihilation, Control’s ultimate fate is one begging for the final volume in the Area X trilogy, Acceptance, to fully contextualize.
Authority, with its psychological exploration of the people employed at the Southern Reach, will probably not meet with the same response from genre fans who appreciated the exploration of Area X in Annihilation. Less exotic yet more refined in terms of the characters motivating the conception, VanderMeer sharpens his focus on the outlay of the trilogy, even as more mainstream readers will likely balk at the denser, more sophisticated character renderings. Regardless, the Area X depicted in Authority remains a mysterious region, and continues to play games with the characters, as much as readers’, minds...