After the chills and thrills of Annihilation, published in February 2014, this second volume in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy—a science fiction/horror hybrid—is an altogether quieter affair.
It had to be once VanderMeer decided to change the venue from Area X to the Southern Reach HQ. Area X is a spooky no man’s land controlled by an unknown entity (aliens?); 1,500 people have died there since its emergence 30 years ago. The Southern Reach is the secret government agency monitoring it, so we get office politics. Its last director, leader of the expedition described in Annihilation, is missing, presumed dead. This volume is narrated by the newly installed acting director, John Rodriguez, who wants to be called Control. That’s ironic, for unlike le Carré’s same-named pooh-bah, this Control’s authority is tenuous. He owes the job to his mother, a powerful figure at Central, and the assistant director, Grace, is determined to undermine him. Moreover, after three decades of failing to solve the riddle of Area X, Southern Reach is a backwater and morale is low; Control’s mission is to shake things up. First he must get a handle on Area X. He interviews the biologist, a survivor of the last expedition and protagonist of Annihilation, but draws a blank. She is stubbornly tight-lipped. He visits the border, bathed in a strange light, and watches video from the doomed first expedition. He reports to the Voice, a person in Central whose gender is disguised by technology. There are some minor frissons, as when Control discovers an unhinged scientist creating a nightmarish mural, but these are slim pickings compared to the horrors of Annihilation (an essential introduction). Nor does he measure up to the biologist in complexity. His background (Honduran sculptor father, multiple postings, multiple girlfriends) seems cobbled together, and the espionage elements, lackluster. Toward the end, there will be a spectacular development, a late reward after all the shadowboxing.
Will VanderMeer rally for a grand slam finale? Stay tuned: The last volume is scheduled for September.