Review: Authority (Book 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
ISBN: 9781443428415
Harper Collins (US: Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
May 2014

I’m going to note up front that this review is potentially spoilery: a function of my being much more interested in discussing themes and structural concerns than providing a synopsis at the moment. If you’re reading this because you’re simply on the fence about buying the book: buy the book. Annihilation and Authority are fascinating, engrossing, deliciously complex, internally conversant and cross-conversant narratives, and lend themselves extremely well to prolonged examination and exegesis. Which I’ll be doing a little of here, covering only a handful of the elements I am tempted to cover, and in reasonably circumscribed fashion or we’d be here for the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation’s length.

Assuming that those of you reading this have already read the review I did of Annihilation (it’s here if you haven’t read it yet), you will be familiar with my contention that the first book in the sequence concerned itself with the key concepts of most of VanderMeer’s work: perception, transmutation, and revelation. This is also true of Authority. However, Authority concerns itself more directly with two very specific functions of those concepts in its narrative course:

Those two principal foci are terroir (of cultivation, transformation, seeding, and change—of being affected by environment and altered by it), and immersion (of being subsumed, inculcated, devoured by, and drowning in what changes one). The two concepts are married, interweaving, and conversing with each other much as the storylines, characters, and trajectories of Annihilation and Authority do: in complex dance and incestuous pattern.

Indeed, the trilogy, from the two parts of it seen thus far, does not appear to be a set of separate books. But, rather, the trilogy is a function of recursive, gradually widening gyres of symbology, character exploration, and a complex, segmented (but contiguous) look at immersion in the most primal sense of having no control and losing oneself in and to something else—of the active nature of being transformed, and observing it occur within oneself and others. And where that might have been experienced in reasonably restrained or focused scope in Annihilation, it’s explored in (seemingly, though deceptively so) wider scope in Authority.

Not least of all because the book’s primary setting of the Southern Reach—of which Control, our protagonist, is given control over at the start of the book—is a deceptively wide-ranging setting. In actuality the Southern Reach is a cloying labyrinth of departments and internal power struggles. These factors exacerbated by the fact that the organization has been bleeding staff over the years since its inception as Area X has been deemed, more and more gradually, a military matter rather than a scientific one. Which has left the Southern Reach complex a decaying maze of immense proportions; one has from it the sense of at once echoing chambers and walls ever too close and air too stale. (There is also a particular scent afflicting the Southern Reach which will be familiar in its description to those of you who have read Annihilation, and gives an immediate understanding of what is going on there.)

The illusion of wider scope is further enacted by the use of Control’s former home town, and current residence, of Hedley, as a secondary setting. As well as explorations of border areas near Area X, and the grounds around the Southern Reach. But all of these are, like the Southern Reach itself, deceptively wide and actually quite narrow in scope (a cage in which Control has free roam, but a cage nonetheless), and also in a state of flux. There is Hedley as it currently is, and Hedley as it was when Control knew it growing up; Area X’s borders are ever uncertain, the definition of “border” itself unsure and mutable; and even the grounds around the Southern Reach are both reminiscent of Area X and of the Biologist’s own remembered environments of study prior to her coming to work for the Southern Reach.

In terms of environment, as well as character, Authority is replete with mirrored or mirroring elements. Principal among them the function of past and present as overlaid or repeating continuum (as also explored in Annihilation, and an ongoing theme of the series), identity as well as physical state as mutable or temporary, and parallels in characterization that inform one of the book’s strongest threads in terms of push/pull between characters who are in multiple respects mirrors and analogues of each other.

But the mirroring effect, and its usages, are not limited just to Authority’s contents. Both Annihilation and Authority are in many respects, very close mirrors of each other (as one might expect from a reading of Authority as a widening gyre of Annihilation). But where Annihilation was content to render its narrative in subtext, Authority does so via supersaturation. We are all but drowning in sensory detail and doled out information in the second book, much as Control is. Where, in Annihilation, the Biologist was a sparse cypher-like character, even to herself until her gradual revelation of and acceptance of her past (especially as through the assumption of identity via association and identification with role), in Authority Control is far more defined for us (with his own assumption of identity via choice of role—and choice it is, rather than external, if apt and ultimately assimilated, ascription of nomenclature as in the Biologist’s case—a manner of distancing from others and from himself).

Control is a character who absolutely knows himself, and though the parcelling out of information about his past is done in relatively comparable pacing to that of the Biologist’s in Annihilation, the difference is that where the Biologist was learning about herself while exploring her past, Control understands, completely, his nature and how his life has informed who he is. And where the Biologist had to come to own her past, Control’s past and everything caught up in it completely informs his progression through the narrative.

And yet, despite being so deeply immersed in Control’s world, and seeming to, at least at first, have a window into all the answers required to discover the nature of Area X via that, the impression is false, for Control as it is for us. The mystery of Area X (above and beyond what we know of its transformative nature, and its warping of what we might properly refer to as the outside, or normative real) is maintained in both books. And though we learn much about what has occurred in Area X and the surrounding area in both the first and second volumes of the sequence, and from decidedly different angles (one immersive, the other from the distance of purportedly removed observation—though those lines blur as the second book progresses), we, in truth, learn very little beyond the basics.

What we glean from the experiences and discoveries of the two protagonists, the Biologist, or Ghost Bird, in Annihilation, and Control, or John, in Authority, is bits and pieces of a pattern we don’t yet have the context to see the shape or outline of. We have what the Southern Reach shares with the Biologist and what she discovers for herself in the first book. And we have what the Southern Reach, and Central (to whom the Southern Reach answers), shares with Control (and what he discovers for himself) in the second book.

But there is so much more lingering beyond the edges of that that we have only base glimpses of. There is the understanding of the restoration or renaturalization of the world Area X has taken over and/or consumed. There is the then further evolution, or othering, or transformations, enacted by Area X. There is the understanding of infection and the transference of Area X to the world outside through conveyed signals or contamination, be that electronic, linguistic, or biological. And there is the notion that Area X is both an active and reactive force (an idea which we’ll pick up again later).

But whatever else we know, or don’t know, about Area X, we know that it affects change via interaction. And that that change is central to the Southern Reach sequence as a whole (or at least potentially so in its final installment), and that transmutation and alteration is key to understanding the world of the books. Whether that focus or alteration be transformative, an act of reclamation, or a more literal transmutation—largely physical, in some respects recognizable, in others dreamlike in their allusions to the incomprehensible and too far Other to ever truly understand.

And that dreamlike quality is, in a very literal context, picked up on in Control’s recurring dream of water, and of either diving into it, or of being immersed in it (mirroring, in some ways, the Biologist’s fascination with various bodies of water and the creatures that occupy them)—of occupying two very different states; one human, one seemingly, or potentially, not. It is yet another instance of change, of the dichotomy of perceived self and altered self that sometimes in the course of both books manifests itself in metaphorical terms (usually as perceived via delving into and evaluating/re-evaluating one’s past) and sometimes in more literal terms via transmutation.

But above and beyond the transmutations experienced by secondary characters in both books, and the transmutations experienced by the loci in both books (as observed by the Biologist in Area X in the first, and more directly seen as seeping into the outside world by Control and other characters in the second), the central transmutations are focused on the protagonists of the two volumes:

The first transformations in Annihilation, as experienced by the Biologist, Ghost Bird, were treated as a form of becoming. Her direct transformation by virtue of infection and subsequent, gradual alteration (a theme later picked up on in Authority in the understanding of how terroir affects, or effects, the spread of Area X—gives it root in this, the by opposing example, normal world—via seeding of characters with contact or proximity infection, the gestation of altering affects, and the eventual burgeoning of Area X through characters as gateway) was but one aspect of her transformation. The exegesis of her past was another: the sense of recovering and claiming for herself her identity both in and beyond being the “Biologist.”

The transformations experienced by Control in Authority are similar if taken as a whole, but appear initially to exist in contrast to the Biologist’s journey in Annihilation and more in line with the rest of the events occurring in Authority. As with many elements of The Southern Reach trilogy, these initial understandings are deceptive. Much of Authority’s narrative course paints Control as experiencing a form of dissolution: a loss of control for a protagonist who has taken for his own the moniker of “Control,” and everything that comes with that. And while this dissolution continues, the effect is layered, occurring first through the perhaps, and perhaps not, “horrors” of Area X at work in the Southern Reach.

(Certainly what occurs via contact with Area X, or via progressive removes of contact, and the affect it/that has on those who experience prolonged or localized exposure, and are subsumed by it, is, to us, monstrous. But I am wary of making the argument for Area X as antagonist, if, indeed the books have one at all. That principal loss of control does not belong to Control alone, and that function of being unable to combat what is occurring seems the real antagonist of the piece, if only by virtue of being a source of fear. And, yet, there are arguments within the book that could counteract the notion of Area X as antagonist—not least of all the conclusion of Authority, and the bridge that closing section creates for the forthcoming third installment of the trilogy, Acceptance—specifically as it relates to the reversal of Control’s digression, and his coming into his own, as discussed below.)

The second layer of dissolution experienced by Control (following a tidal progression of submersions and breachings back into, or at least outside of, being controlled and subsumed by outside forces), is a coming back to himself; a dissolution of external controls. It is a reclamation of his faculties post-hypnotic suggestions. Hypnotic suggestions not only mirroring, but directly related to, those experienced and overcome by the Biologist in Annihilation. And though the method of overcoming those hypnotic suggestions is not similar, the circumstances and experience is.

Control’s journey, like the Biologist’s in Annihilation, is transformative in a cathartic and revelatory sense. And though he is not affected by physical transformation as she is, the mirroring effect holds. A fact that is made especially interesting given where Control and the Biologist stand in relation to one another following the revelations concerning the Biologist herself (as present in the second book) at the close of Authority. Though perhaps not so much a revelation as a confirmation given both the whole of Annihilation and various elements presented over the course of Authority.

Those elements, and, indeed, all of the continuous repetition and recursive use of elements over the course of the books can at times be dizzying, given how deeply in conversation the two books are with one another. And that internally conversant structure is made all the more intriguing in Authority once a discussion of multiple versions of existence is introduced into the narrative (presented as an idea rather than a de facto statement of what is going on in the books), and Control’s contemplations of what alternate versions of himself might be doing, and or how they might be reacting, to the situations he is experiencing once we are deep into the book. Continued, in a slightly different form of mirroring effect, once Control begins running internal, potential conversations with his associates and subordinates in the Southern Reach. Potential, but not actualized, conversations which become less normalized after things begin to gradually fall apart within the Southern Reach and certain aspects of those conversations take on hallucinatory aspects and dissolve into dream metaphor, as though even Control’s inner and potential world cannot escape the transmutational grip of Area X and the influence it has spread over the Southern Reach.

That influence, as the book progresses, being the spreading/expansion of Area X itself (we had inklings of this—indeed were told this seemed to be the case—in Annihilation, but see the fruition of that potential in Authority).

Whether Area X is a conscious entity or not (and there are indications that it decidedly is, though “consciousness” in this case would be a term requiring alternate definition to ascribe the affect properly), Area X is decidedly a character in the novels. And whether that be true as a function of genius loci (a phrase which here can be used in many of its varying applications), or via the almost nodal intellects inherent in the copied people who return from the Southern Reach’s expeditions, Area X is certainly an active force in the novel: one more reactive in a physical sense (expanding when pressed, provoked, or invited), but decidedly proactive in other terms (its less tangible influences, and the alterations it affects both within its borders and as a means of expansion or intrusion outside of them).

Though the strongest case for Area X as persona may be the way in which all those who come into contact with it are infected by its language, its aspect of self, and the physical manifestations formed from those who have crossed into its borders (illusory and ultimately malleable though that term turns out to be) that it begets—the ones who return, but who we know from the events having transpired in Annihilation are not the true instances of the people who return. If, indeed, anyone ever truly returns from Area X.

In Annihilation, Area X was treated as both a colonizing and transformative force, and that effect is felt deeply in Authority. It is all but a presence within the walls of the Southern Reach, becoming literally so once the terroirs have born fruit and the gateways are opened.

Over the course of these two novels, Annihilation and Authority, we have seen a progression of understandings as to Area X, as experienced by different, yet ultimately analogous, protagonists. But Area X remains the most tangible presence in the novels, experienced as something at once Other and frighteningly familiar and relatable. Despite the presence of the Biologist, and later Control, as our windows into the narrative, I can’t help but think that the real protagonist of the books is Area X itself.

In that context, given the recursive way in which the narrative, and its various core foci, loop back on and feed on themselves, the entire act of attempting to view the structure and course of both books becomes a still more fascinating, if potentially maddening, exercise.

This aided by the fact that Authority’s narrative exists in the grip of lucid paranoia, steeped in complex counter-intelligence against and between various factions. Power struggles whose orbits turn out to be very small indeed, as several of the tangential mysteries surrounding Area X and the expeditions circle back on themselves and weave in all but Gordian fashion. And for all that we never truly understand the nature of the mystery behind Area X, as that’s not the focus of this book, the revelations those tangential answers provide do give us a different perspective with which to work as far as addressing that larger, central mystery.

In the end, we may never understand the mystery of Area X. Unless Acceptance provides the equivalent of a sundering blade for that Gordian knot of narrative mystery, I don’t think it’s likely. And, really, it’s not a necessity. The pleasures of wandering down the paranoid, convoluted pathways of the mysteries VanderMeer has woven with The Southern Reach Trilogy are entirely sufficient in themselves.

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2 Responses to Review: Authority (Book 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer

  1. Pingback: Review: Acceptance (Book 3 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer | Michael Matheson | A Dark and Terrible Beauty

  2. Sadly, unreadable review

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