the Little Red Reviewer

Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer (Southern Reach #2)

Posted on: May 8, 2014

authorityAuthority by Jeff Vandermeer (Southern Reach #2)

published May 6 2014

where I got it: purchased new














WARNING: there are some minor spoilers here for the first book in the series, Annihilation.  If you have not read that book (but are planning to), you may want to skip this entire article.  If you’ve read just the first book in the series (or are planning to), check out this unbelievably awesome annotated excerpt from Annihilation, complete with cool pictures and commentary!

all warned?  let’s get to the review.


Reading the Southern Reach books is a little like a fantasy visit to Area X.  Each turn of the page is another step closer to the lighthouse, each rock turned over is another secret unearthed.  It’s a fantasy trip to Area X because I can close the book and believe I am safe.  It goes without saying, but you need to read these books in order. Annihilation will tell you what to look for in Authority. Although there is very little overlap in characters, you can’t skip any steps here. You need the warnings from the first book to know what tics to look for, what patterns to watch for in the second.


Tics and patterns are a little like moles and freckles on your skin.  I don’t worry about the moles and freckles that have always looked exactly the same. But the ones that change, the ones that don’t match the pattern, those are the ones to show the doctor.  Annihilation taught me what to look for. Authority allowed me to put what I’d learned into practice.  Annihilation was the warning, Authority is the beginnings of a diagnosis.


The story follows John Rodriguez,  the incoming  Director for the Southern Reach, the government agency that maintains Area X. He’s no stranger to agency work, as his mother is a high ranking spook handler, and she’s helped him out of a few more pickles than he’d like to admit.  As a child, John’s grandfather nicknamed him “Control”, and the name stuck. As he’s introduced to the staff members of the office building, he tells everyone to call him “Control”, and they do.

His mission at the Southern Reach sounds fairly simple – get the staff back on track with agency expectations, and interview/interrogate their guest/prisoner.  It’s not as easy as it sounds. The Assistant Director, Grace, feels Control is infringing upon her authority, and she tries to thwart his progress at every turn.  The other staff members he meets such as Whitby and Cheney are as equally unhelpful as they are weird. Files and reports are vague, incomplete, and nearly useless. Control has as many questions as you’d expect, and most of them are answered with “read the files”.  And the guest he is supposed to interview?  She’s none other than the Biologist from Annihilation.  If Control can’t get her to cooperate with the interviews, it’ll be yet another mission he’s failed, and even worse, she’ll be shipped off to Central, never to be seen by anyone again.


So each morning, in an attempt to keep his house in order, Control heads to his office.  His office that is still considered “the old director’s office”, as Grace refuses to believe the outgoing Director is dead.  Control finds strange things in her desk, photographs that should be in an evidence room somewhere, and a disturbing mural.  He paints over the mural.  Each day he meets with the biologist, and once Control starts having normal conversations with her instead of treating her like a freak, they develop a tenuous friendship. The Biologist is having memory problems, and part of Control’s job is to tease out those memories.  How was she able to leave Area X? What happened while she was there? When she returned, why was she found in an abandoned lot near her old home?


According to his handler, he’s not making fast enough progress. According to Grace, he’s disturbing the whole facility with his useless lines of questioning. Control is a fan of baby steps.  He prefers to take things slow, and gain trust and respect.  Why is everyone else in such a hurry?


The pacing of the book is on the slow side, and that was the only thing that really caught me off guard, because I tend to like stories that a little more fast paced.  Interspersed with scenes of Control having lunch with his co-workers, having awkward conversations with Grace, and trying to tease information out of the Biologist are very detailed flashbacks of Control’s youth, including his parents divorce, his father’s artwork, his mother’s secrecy and obsession with her job.  With his dysfunctional childhood, it’s no wonder he prefers to go by a nickname, rather than John.


I couldn’t stop thinking about Annihilation while reading Authority, trying to find the parallels, trying to figure out what the hell was going on, see a pattern. I noticed a parallel a few hours before John did, and I was pretty proud of him for figuring out that piece of the puzzle, and for taking it out of circulation. (The Biologist faced a similar obstacle, but she got around it in a reckless, almost accidental fashion.)  Around this point in the game, John’s life begins to spiral out of control, and I have to wonder if the downward spiral was natural, or if it was caused by him removing that particular puzzle piece/obstacle.


I knew that Authority was going to be very different from Annihilation, but I was still thrilled to see the Biologist again. She’s not quite herself in Authority, but it gave me an opportunity to see how she was getting on, if she was doing okay after Area X spat her back out. And again, Vandermeer is doing some interesting things with names.  Pay very close attention to who enjoys being called by their first (or last) name, and who prefers to use a title, or a nickname or no name at all.  In the final chapters of the book, who is on what list will tell you a secret, of sorts.


I also couldn’t help but wonder why and how Area X changes the people who enter it. Readings have been taken, and Area X is completely pristine. There are no traces at all found of human created toxins, not even any plastic.  Is this why expedition members aren’t allowed to bring any modern technology with them?  Not because the Southern Reach doesn’t want people tweeting photos of the lighthouse (and can you imagine if expeditions were live tweeted?), but because Area X simply will not tolerate any materials it deems toxic? Maybe Area X is just defending itself. The Biologist had a life changing event there.  She keeps trying to tell John that she’s not the same person that she was before, and there’s a disconnect, because they are speaking two different languages.  We are simply not equipped to hear whatever Area X is trying to tell us.


The Southern Reach is so damn particular about what people take with them into Area X. They don’t seem anywhere near as concerned with what people bring back with them.  That’s a mistake.


This is not the kind of novel that lends itself easily to phrases like “I loved it!” or “It was amazing!”. Oscillating between the surreally absurd and horrors you can only see out of the corner of your eye, this is the kind of novel that sinks into you slowly, calmly colonizes and infects you, nudges you towards an adaptation, and with every soulless marching step convinces you that everything is just fine the whole time.  The pacing, the dialog, the positioning and theme of the flashbacks, it’s a little hypnotizing when you sit and think about it.


5 Responses to "Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer (Southern Reach #2)"

Agreed. With all of it. Yep 😀


I am so very excited about picking up this book. Hypnotizing is a pretty good way to describe it, I thought parts of the first book were mesmerizing with the flashbacks to the past mixed with my own feelings of dread and melancholy. Throw in the visual descriptions of Area X and it’s practically dreamlike.


[…] Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer (Southern Reach #2) ( […]


Your closing #P (that’s a paragraph mark, not some silly Tweeter thingie) put me off. I didn’t read the first one, won’t read this one either, I think. It’s just me…


Completely understandable Richard, and it’s not just you. About half the people I’ve lent Vandermeer books to in the past have politely handed them back a week later and said they couldn’t get 20 pages into the damn thing.

if it counts for anything, the first book in the series is much easier to get into than the second.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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