Authority by Jeff VanderMeer, a review of sorts

Authority is a very difficult book to review. The more I read of the Southern Reach trilogy, the more I feel they should have released one omnibus edition to begin with instead of three smaller installments over the course of several months. I’m done with Authority but the book doesn’t feel finished. Asking me to review Authority is like asking me to review a book I’m not done reading yet.

To refresh, Authority is the second book in the Southern Reach trilogy, following the events of Annihilation. As with all reviews on later installments, expect spoilers for Annihilation. Although, to be fair, the “spoilers” I’ll be talking about are still very confusing and nebulous for people who have read the book, because the Southern Reach trilogy is all about the element of mystery. And I don’t mean the standard Agatha Christie mystery structure where you’re trying to discover the key piece of information to solve the puzzle. With the Southern Reach books everything is about the unknown. You don’t know if you can trust the information the biologist is observing in Area X in the first book, you don’t know if you can trust the information Control is relating about his conversations with people and the data they’ve picked up. You don’t know if Area X is an alien force, if it’s sentient plant life or even if it’s just a regular forest that everyone is hallucinating about.

As such, there’s not a lot to spoil. I can outline the overall plot and what events happen when and what Control discovers, but I’m not sure what any of that information means, whether or not it’s worth anything. If you go into Authority expecting Area X and the events of Annihilation to become more clear, you’re going to end up disappointed. There are no answers, and I’m not sure we ever should have expected answers.

That brings me back to the difficulty to review Authority. We now have two different perspectives about observing Area X and what it does: one from the biologist inside Area X and one from Control, the new director of the Southern Reach organization, after the biologist and other people “return” (if you recall, Annihilation ended with everyone seemingly dead or lost and the biologist walking purposefully away from the border. So… who are these people returning?) But even with these two perspectives, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with this information. I’m not done with this trilogy, and ergo not done with this overall experience VanderMeer is sending us on. I don’t think the trilogy is meant to have us figure out Area X and “solve” it, but until I read Acceptance, I can’t say for certain what VanderMeer is intending with this trilogy.

Did I like this book? I guess on a certain level I did. I love the premise of the trilogy, love the otherworldliness of Area X and not knowing what to believe. But the change of setting from Area X to the Southern Reach was not as compelling to me. I’m not saying it was a bad choice, I think the new perspective certainly was interesting, but in the end I preferred Annihilation. I understood (or felt that I understood) Annihilation more than I did Authority. I don’t know what the book is trying to tell me, I have no idea what actually HAPPENED in Authority. Maybe I’ll understand a bit more when I read Acceptance but maybe not. This trilogy is such a strange one, I’m unsure how to properly respond to it. The content and meaning behind the words seems to be as nebulous as Area X itself. What is important? Should I trust the observations dictated to me or are they contaminated or unintentional red herrings? I have no idea, and have a feeling I never will fully understand.