Jeff Vandermeer: Authority

by tigermanifesto

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Authority, the second volume of the Southern Reach Trilogy, transposes the paranoid ecological sci-fi of the first book, Annihilation, from the eerily unspoiled wilderness zone of Area X to…the narrow halls of an office building. Control, the protagonist, enters into the story through the backdoor as a character tasked with making a full reckoning of Area X and the events of the first book. His direct obstacles are not inscrutable terrain and uncanny beings but rather the machinations of a more sinister being still: self-interested bureaucracy.

Control is a cloak-and-dagger type, the inheritor of a spy family legacy who feels the weight of his family disappointment and, more acutely, his mother’s domination. Assigned the role of director at the Southern Reach, the increasingly derelict organization investigating Area X, he hopes to extract information from Ghost Bird. The latter, apparently identical to the biologist of the first book, proves evasive, though she presents only one of many difficulties for Control. Another is the obstinacy of the assistant director, and yet another is the disembodied oversight of the Voice, a supervisor from Central who might claim to be helpful but seems just the opposite. These characters form just the top layer of the dense thicket of hierarchies and relations that comprise the Southern Reach, snaring intellectuals and producing an institutional memory that is corrupt to its foundations.

Vandermeer’s story progresses in sync with Control’s investigations, delivering information to the reader in a fragmented but slowly cohering way. The book has a perceptive grasp of human foibles, particularly the way that conversations and words can conceal as much as they reveal. Every piece of evidence works not as a link in a rational chain or golden road to the truth, as in the old hardboiled novels, but rather as an isolated fragment that can feed wrong connections and false conclusions. Opacity––the sheer difficulty of knowing––is one of the book’s major fascinations, and the fact that characters fasten onto certainty despite having an incomplete picture is presented as their downfall.

At a certain point, the boundaries between Area X and the Southern Reach appear to shift, and the slow-simmering tensions and contradictions the book has been constructing all pull apart in satisfying sequences. We’re reacquainted with how horrific and beautiful Vandermeer’s prose can be, after sitting through the more prosaic-yet-effective flashbacks and investigations that form the majority of the book.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that Authority is so different from the first book, if only because it has so little of the surreal and uncanny that marked the first as so singular. Perhaps, no matter how well it stands as a self-contained book, it will always be marked by the awkwardness of the middle volume. Still, its prose and construction are fantastic and the ending, while necessarily leaving the story incomplete, leaves the reader at a crisis point that leads directly (hopefully) into the conclusion of the story. In short, Authority picks up the pieces from the first book and fitfully sorts through them, trying to reckon with the chaos but ultimately unable to. It’s a fine book in its own right and, hopefully, will tie together an overall excellent trilogy.

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