book review: authority

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 341 pp.
Published May 6, 2014

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 civilization--has been a 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.

John Rodríguez (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.

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.

For those who adored the existential despair of Annihilation, the first in VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, prepare yourselves for slow-burn horror in a vastly different setting. Where Annihilation left the mysterious confines of Area X only through the use of flashbacks, the sequel takes place almost entirely beyond its borders—although, the definition of "border" comes into question as the story unfolds. The Southern Reach, a shadowy government organization tasked with cataloging and battling Area X, should feel uncomfortably recognizable to readers. Its lumbering bureaucracy resembles a hellish, militaristic DMV. Upper-level management, like the assistant director Grace Stevenson, jealously guards control over petty fiefdoms; what few workers of consequence remain cling to disparate details like precious secrets, though their meaning and value is rarely clear.

Transporting the story from a psychedelic utopia to the banal, grey halls of government infuses Authority with an astonishing humor absent from its predecessor. Control looks on the strange circumstances with a cynic's gaze; as the truth only convolutes what he perceives as reality, his tone rises in mania. Just as with Annihilation we must evaluate the phenomenon of Area X through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Where the first book provided enough dark wonder on its own, and did so in a novella-length story, the drab setting and doubled page count provides ample room for the black humor Control brings to Authority.

VanderMeer expands the mystery of Area X, but readers hungering for more solid leads won't find themselves entirely bereft by the sequel's conclusion. The questions he answers are small, at times only deepening our understand of what we don't know about the anomaly. As Control battles against the assistant director's antagonism and the clothes-rending vagueness of his faceless superior, frustration builds. For much of Authority the anxiety wrought centers on helplessness and a growing sense of being trapped in a system designed to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

When the madness of Area X finally trickles through, then crashes down onto the Southern Reach, there can be no escaping the eldritch terror contained within. Coddled by the apparent ineptitude of government administration, Area X's expanding power and intrusion on normality becomes a caustic reminder to characters and readers alike: whatever force drives its existence lies beyond human comprehension or control, tearing at our reality until the ability and desire to fight it both fall away.

Describing Authority is much more difficult than categorizing its predecessor. It contains scraps of parody, spy thrillers, existential horror, and old-fashioned mystery. Considered separately such components sound as though they cannot coexist yet, like the forces driving Area X and the horrors contained within, Authority gathers together a melange of elements which amount to much more than the sum of their parts when working in concert. What begins as a tonally dissonant continuation sprawls into a chilling expansion of the worrisome mythology of Area X, setting the stage perfectly for the third and final book.


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