After thirty years, the only human engagement with Area X—a seemingly malevolent landscape surrounded by an invisible border and mysteriously wiped clean of all signs of civilisation—has been as series of expeditions overseen by a government agency so secret it has almost been forgotten: the Southern Reach. Following the tumultuous twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the agency is in complete disarray.

“Grace, why are none of you comfortable using the words alien or extraterrestrial to talk about Area X?” He wasn’t comfortable with them, either. Sometimes, since he’d been briefed on the truth, he’d felt a great, empty chasm opening up inside of him, filled with his own screams and yelps of disbelief. But he’d never tell. He had a face for playing poker; he’d been told this by lovers and by relatives, even by strangers. About six feet tall. Impassive. The compact, muscular build of an athlete; he could run for miles and not feel it. He took pride in a good diet and enough exercise, although he did like whiskey.

John Rodrigues (aka “Control”) is the Southern Reach’s newly appointed head. Working with a distrustful but desperate team, a series of frustrating interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, Control begins to penetrate the secrets of Area X. But with each discovery he must confront disturbing truths about himself and the agency he’s pledged to serve.

That no two wines can be exactly the same because no combination of elements can be exactly the same. That certain varietals cannot occur in certain places. But it requires a deep understanding of a region to reach conclusions.”

“And this isn’t being done already?” Whitby shrugged.

“Some of it. Some of it. Just not all of it considered together, in my opinion. I feel there is an overemphasis on the lighthouse, the tower, base camp—those discrete elements that could be said to jut out of the landscape—while the landscape itself is largely ignored. As is the idea that Area X could have formed nowhere else … although that theory would be highly speculative and perhaps based mostly on my own observations.”

Control nodded, unable now to shake a sturdy skepticism. Would terroir really be more useful than another approach? If something far beyond the experience of human beings had decided to embark upon a purpose that it did not intend to allow humans to recognize or understand, then terroir would simply be a kind of autopsy, a kind of admission of the limitations of human systems. You could map the entirety of a process—or, say, a beachhead or an invasion—only after it had happened, and still not know the who or the why .

In Authority, the second volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Area X’s most disturbing questions are answered… but the answers are far from reassuring.

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“We went through all this with the last expedition. They endured nine months of questions, and yet we never found out anything. And the whole time they were dying. How would that make you feel?” Long months of disorientation, and then their deaths from a particularly malign form of cancer.

Authority is a very different book from Annihilation; it’s more of a (fascinating) turn in the story than a direct continuation of it. As you mentioned to me, it’s not Annihilation 2—which is interesting, because it’s very easy to imagine what Annihilation 2 would have looked like: There’s another expedition into Area X, in which the scientists find out what happened to the previous expedition and encounter fresh terrors of their own, which in turn lets the reader learn more about Area X and how it works. Instead, Authority focuses on the Southern Reach, the agency responsible for managing Area X, which has an interesting effect of both expanding the story’s scope and blocking off certain parts of it; Area X is in some ways even harder to comprehend for the agency than it is for the expeditions it sends.

As we find out in Authority, even after thirty years not much progress has been made through the expeditions. They keep changing the metrics of the expeditions, they keep recording data, but they’re not much closer than they once were. What do you do when you encounter something inexplicable that has no real interest in communicating with you?

The tide had begun to come in. The light was dull and flat and gray. Again. The wind had become harsh. Out at sea, there was nothing to indicate human beings existed except for the rising and falling figure of the biologist, and a deep vein of black smoke opening up into the sky from some vessel so far out at sea that it wasn’t visible even with the binoculars.

You can read Authority and then read Annihilation with no real loss of mystery or tension. Different secrets are revealed in each.