Last weekend was the Nebula Awards ceremony in Chicago. For those that have not yet heard, the Nebula Award for best Novel went to Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. Though this was not my pick, I have no issues with the award. I picked The Three Body Problem because it was, to me, classic science fiction. I have a bias toward classic science fiction. The Area X trilogy, of which Annihilation is the first book, is New Weird. It is a fusion of fantasy and horror. It’s not my typical cup of tea. But Annihilation was extremely well written and deserving of recognition. But the same is true of all the nominees this year. I think we as readers sometimes take for granted what an excellent time for science fiction and fantasy we live in. You can read my review of Annihilation if you’d like to know more of my thoughts on the 2014 Nebula Award winner for best novel.
That said, did I mention Jeff VanderMeer wrote a trilogy? And lucky me, I bought the entire set when I had the chance back in March. Yesterday I finished listening to the second book of the trilogy, Authority. Wow. Let me correct one thing from my review of Annihilation right now. In that review I called the characters archetypical and not very well-developed. I stand by that assessment, but now know it was done on purpose. Before I get into that a little more, here’s the publisher’s summary of book two.
For thirty years, a secret agency called the Southern Reach has monitored expeditions into Area X—a remote and lush terrain mysteriously sequestered from civilization. After the twelfth expedition, the Southern Reach is in disarray, and John Rodriguez (aka “Control”) is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and more than two hundred hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve.
I love to the point summaries that don’t tell the story to explain the purpose of the book. The paragraph above is indeed what Authority is about. It takes up where Annihilation left off. We leave Area X proper and take up residence at Southern Reach headquarters, with the people responsible for sending in the expeditions. It is a place both familiar and alien at the same time. It is a government agency suffering for lack of attention and funding as so many do. The best and brightest minds have left for better assignments, and the people who remain are insular, eclectic and down right odd. I soon realized when it comes to interpersonal interactions there is little more than just a border separating Area X from the Southern Reach. The new protagonist, John Rodriquez, is thrown into the Southern Reach with little idea what he’s getting into, or the fate that awaits him.
It is during the second book I came to realize the shallow character development of the first book was done purposefully. Without an omniscient narrator, and with the available narrator being unreliable, there was no way to inform the reader what happened to bring about the twelfth expedition into Area X. But in Authority, the files are open and the clues are available to anyone who has the time to read them; the intelligence to puzzle out those clues notwithstanding. It quickly becomes a first-rate mystery where everyone seems to have a past and most don’t want it known. Secrets abound. Everyone has a motive, some obvious and some not, and people are played like pawns on a chessboard. The real question quickly becomes, who is moving the pieces?
This is business as usual when your bosses all work for Central, the country’s domestic spy agency. Every day seems loaded with secrets, intrigue and mysteries. Things John Rodriquez as Control has to uncover if he’s to get to the bottom of the mystery that is Area X. But John is not sent to the Southern Reach by mistake. It’s his last chance to succeed, because like everyone else at the Southern Reach he is damaged goods. While there, he must contend with his own feelings of failure and inadequacy, and that doesn’t make his job any easier.
Authority is told exclusively by John from his point of view. He’s not necessarily unreliable, but he certainly hasn’t been told everything. I often found myself caught up in John’s issues as much as what was going on at Southern Reach. That’s actually one of the things I most liked about this trilogy. They are very personal, with the biologist in the first book and not with John. It’s like peeking in on other people’s lives and realizing they’re more screwed up than you are. It’s almost like Schadenfreude. It makes you feel like your problems aren’t so bad.
Like book one, there is an ending to this book, but not a conclusion. It’s become obvious to me these three books are carefully intertwined. The events in each book stand alone, but the events are only a part of the whole story. It’s like looking through a key hole. You know there’s an entire room on the other side, but you only get to see a small section of the far wall, or the chair positioned in front of the door. It’s hard to tell the color of anything without the lights on. That’s what the first two books are: key holes looking into a dark room. And to make matters worse, we don’t get to look through the keyhole ourselves. Someone else looks and describes what they see. If we are lucky, we might eventually get a vague idea of what the room is like, but the entire house remains a mystery, and in this case wrapped in an enigma.
Lastly, it’s become apparent in Authority there are things… meta… on which the author is commenting. I’ll hold off on saying anything more about those until I finish the trilogy, which should be in the next week. I started the third book last night. The last Hugo nominee will just have to wait. I’ve got to know what the hell is going on in Area X, and I want to find out what happens to these wonderfully broken people who’ve managed to drag me into their world gone insane.