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341 pages, Paperback
First published May 6, 2014
The Floor beneath his shoes was grimy, almost sticky. The fluorescent lights above flickered at irregular intervals, and the tables and chairs seemed like something out of a high school cafeteria. He could smell the sour metal tang of a low quality cleaning agent, almost like rotting honey. The room did not inspire confidence in the Southern Reach.
About thirty-two years ago, along a remote southern stretch known by some as the "forgotten coast," an Event had occurred that began to transform the landscape and simultaneously caused an invisible border or wall to appear.Into this Area X the Biologist from the first book ventured, looking for answers about what happened to her Husband, who was part of a previous expedition. What she found was pristine nature, strange creatures, and an even stranger subterranean "tower" habitated by a strange creature that wrote bizarre prose on the wall:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives...By the end the rest of the Biologist's team has died or been killed and she sets off to an island described in a journal by her husband she found, along with journals of countless (many more that were reported) expeditions.
While Control came with whispers about being part of a kind of invisible dynasty, which naturally bred resentment, there was no denying that fact, even if, up close, the dyansty was more like a devolving franchise.Control had developed a reputation as being a fixer after blowing several field assignments, one of which ended with an innocent person's death due to Control. His mother, high up in Central (Southern Reach's parent organization), placed him in his new position to get Southern Reach straightened up and figure out just what was going on in Area X.
But if he was here to assess and restore, he needed a better idea of how badly it had all slipped-and as some sociopath at another station had once said, "The fish rots from the head." Fish rotted all over, cell corruption being nonhierarchical and not caste driven, but point taken.Turns out the former director was in fact the Psychologist that accompanied the Biologist on her expedition. Her disappearance, along with the reappearance of the rest of the expedition, has thrown Southern Reach into some disarray. The existing assistant director has no love for him, resenting his presence and carrying a torch for the previous director, insisting she will return. As an organization the Southern Reach had become calcified, operating almost on inertia:
It [the carpet] was as worn down as the Southern Reach, as the agency moved along its appointed grooves on this fun-house ride that was called Area X.With budget and staff being cut ("..soon enough they might have a situation where subdepartments consisted of one person writing themselves up for offenses, giving themselves raises and bonuses, celebrating their own birthdays with custom-made Southern Reach-shaped carrot cakes.") as the powers that be lost interest in Area X (whose borders had remained fixed since the event), and as little to nothing new had been discovered about Area X, the employees clung to the familiar, fighting to maintain their niche within the organization. Instead of boldly pursuing the nature of Area X, decades of failure, death, and budget cuts had sapped whatever vital energy might have once resided in the agency, an Agency that just might be the only thing standing between humanity and something vastly more powerful and alien than we could imagine:
Idly, he wondered what they called it-whoever or whatever had created that pristine bubble that had killed so many people. Maybe they called it a holiday retreat. Maybe they called it a beachhead. Maybe "they" were so incomprehensible that he'd never understand what they called it, or why."This book comes down to a bureaucratic mystery. Control has somehow figure out not only what is going on in Area X (a job made difficult by the previous director's... unorthodox data storage methods), but also wrest control from the assistant director all while caught up in factional conflict taking place higher up in Central:
He had a vision, again, of Grace[the assistant director] spiriting away the biologist, of multiple mutual attempted destructions, until somewhere up in the clouds, atop two vast and blood-drenched escalators, they continued to do battle years from now.Where the first book took place exclusively in Area X with some flashbacks, this book mostly takes place in the Southern Reach complex with some flashbacks about Control's relationship with his family. What I found striking about this book, compared to the first one, is just how different the settings were: Area X's pristine wilderness to Southern Reach's suffocating, decaying offices, both inimicalable to human life.
It [naturey area near a town] wasn't true wilderness, was comfortingly close to civilization, but existed just enough apart to create a boundary. This was what most people wanted: to be close to but not part of. They didn't want the fearful unknown of a "pristine wilderness." They didn't want a soulless artificial life, either.Both Control and the Biologist faced a mystery, but on different sides of the boundary: what was the nature of Area X and how does it impact humans. When the boundary arose during the event, thousands died, nature was restored to a pristine state, free of human contamination. Some expeditions were wiped out, others returned unharmed, and others, like the one the Biologist's husband was a part of, returned as cancer stricken zombies.
Because as far as he was concerned, the agency was fucked and he was now an undercover agent in the field, entering hostile territory.The tension between Control, his handlers at Central, and the existing bureaucracy (not to mention the inherent strangeness of Area X) create a very creepy, paranoid atmosphere that slowly seeps into the reader's awareness until it bursts forth in an eruption of craziness at the end, setting the stage for what could be a damn awesome conclusion.
Now it [the Director's old phone Control had chucked into the words after mysteriously finding it with his stuff] looked more like something alive that it had before. It looked like something that had gone exploring or burrowing and come back to report in.-You are never sure just what world this takes place in. There are theories about the multi-verse bandied about, but no specific, identifiable names are given; no national governments are mentioned, no countries are named. What does appear to be the case, though, is this world is majorly screwed up. "The TV was on low, showing the aftermath of massive floods and a school massacre in between commercials for a big basketball series."
Under the phone, thankfully, was a note from the landlord. In a quivering scrawl she had written, "The lawn man found this yesterday. Please dispose of phones in the garbage if you are done with them."
He tossed it into the bushes.