Authority

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Southern Reach (#2)

Published: 2014

I read it: February 2015

authority

When Annihilation wrapped up, it seemed like the story could go anywhere. Yet it was so solid a book that it could almost work as a standalone novel, already a direct descendant of Lovecraft’s story/novella “At the Mountains of Madness” and fully realized as such, despite its many unresolved mysteries.

The excitement of Authority gets quickly underway when it offers up a new character and a new setting. John “Control” Rodriguez steps up with no knowledge of Area X, taking on a new assignment as the director of the Southern Reach, a dilapidated organization with thinning ranks and no new leads. The goal is nebulous and it’s kind of a crap job: figure out what the hell is up with Area X, after a stack of failed (and often harrowing) expeditions into its interior.

The Southern Reach is tangible in its decay, from the mildewy feeling to the nasty green carpet, to the humid marsh that sits outside the complex. This isn’t your sterile high-tech secret government location, where the dudes from Men in Black caress slick weaponry. The organization seems to be hanging on by a thread, and Control is less than welcome as he tries to get along with the assistant director, the adamant Grace, as well as a couple veteran scientists.

The feelings of abandonment that give texture to the Southern Reach as both a location and an organization reflect similar feelings in the life of Control (a moniker the character prefers to call himself). Whereas in the first book we only knew the biologist at arm’s length, never even learning her name, we get a lot of insight into Control’s past and why he ended up on the assignment. He’s not all that great at his job but he keeps trying to do better, with both future and past staring him down. He is as lost as the reader most of the time.

For the mysteries continue to pile up, with the same sense of unsettling dread. The title of the book is twisted into a parody, in a nice parallel to the protagonist’s chosen name. Who is the ultimate authority in the story? Increasingly, it looks like only Area X (or whatever is within it) could lay claim. One character mentions “our banal, murderous imagination” in an offhand way, and this seems to sum up the human desire to know and contain, as well as the often desperate actions taken while doing so. The book taps into the banality of evil, but also the banality of authority.

Things are unraveling. This volume is more meditative than the fast-paced Annihilation, and also longer. But it was no less rich, and now we’re in deep with the characters, grasping at solid land before the waves come to wash us away.

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