Ctrl Alt Delete: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

In Annihilation, the first of three novels in the Southern Reach series by Jeff VanderMeer, a party of unidentified individuals ventured into Area X, where they discovered—amongst other appalling alterations to that lost landscape—a tunnel, or a tower, and descended into its demented depths.

What they saw there, what they felt—the writhing writing, the lighthouse keeper creature, the impossible passage it protected—I don’t expect to forget. Not now, not never. They have, however. They’ve forgotten the lot, not least how they ended up back in the land of the living.

Just like the members of the prior expedition, none of them had any recollection of how they had made their way back across the invisible border, out of Area X. None of them knew how they had evaded the blockades and fences and other impediments the military had thrown up around the border. None of them knew what had happened to the fourth member of their expedition—the psychologist, who had, in fact, also been the director of the Southern Reach and overridden all objections to lead them, incognito.

In this way, as if the knowledge is insignificant—it isn’t—the first of the unspeakable secrets behind the scenes of the Southern Reach is revealed. Authority, of course, has many more in store. It’s every inch as sinister and suggestive as its successful predecessor, in large part because of the dramatic departure it marks.

With the director of the eponymous organisation gone, if not forgotten—certainly not by her stalwart second in command, Grace, who in her heart of hearts believes her boss will be back, bringing a new understanding of the world in her wake—an interim leader is needed. Enter John Rodriguez, the son of an intelligence operative who got her boy the job.

That he calls himself Control after a malicious comment made by his gun-toting grandpa tells us all we need to know about this comprehensively confused fixer. Assuming his mission is to impose order upon this flailing organisation, he has his work cut out in any case, given that Grace sets herself against him from the first. She questions his suggestions, withholds essential information, accuses him of conduct unbecoming; she does everything she can do to undermine his authority, in short.

Truth be told, though, Grace is the least of Control’s concerns. Strange things keep happening to him, is the thing. One night, a squashed mosquito appears on his windscreen; he can’t explain how an object from beyond the border—an old, broken phone—came into his possession; he realises, finally, that he might be missing time—a suspicion confirmed when an entire evening seems to disappear.

Before he’d arrived, Control had imagined himself flying free above the Southern Reach, swooping down from some remote perch to manage things. That wasn’t going to happen. Already his wings were burning up and he felt more like some ponderous moaning creature trapped in the mire.

As his particular paranoia gathers, Control fixates upon the biologist whose journal entries we were privy to in Annihilation:

He couldn’t deny that the biologist had gotten lodged inside of his head: a faint pressure that made the path leading to the expedition wing narrower, the ceilings lower, the continuous seeking tongue of rough green carpet curling up around him. They were beginning to exist in some transitional space between interrogation and conversation, something for which he could not quite find a name.

The bond between them strengthens the more time they spend together, but Control “did not want to be connected to the people he had to question. He had to glide above. He had to choose when he swooped down, not be brought to earth by the will of another.” To wit, he denies the danger this woman who has been returned from Area X represents, reminding himself that “he was Control, and he was in control.”

Actually, about that…

Authority Jeff VanderMeer UK Cover

Typically, the middles of trilogies tend toward tedium, and though the office politics of Authority are in premise pedestrian, in execution they make for a marvellous manifestation of the same sense of impending dread that made Annihilation so special. In every other respect, however, the insidious second volume of the Southern Reach turns the series on its head, to unforgettable effect.

For one thing, we learned almost nothing about the Southern Reach in Annihilation, whereas here, the knowledge withheld from the biologist is made available to us by way of our new narrator, including insights that substantially recast the events of said text. By the same token, much of what we came to understand about Area X, if only tenuously, is unknowable to Control and his coworkers.

Annihilation also served to immerse us, completely and utterly, in that pristine wilderness, whilst Authority occupies the other end of the spectrum; we never set so much as a foot in it in book two. We’re kept out throughout, only ever encountering Area X vicariously—through, for instance, a video recovered from the very first expedition, and certain samples the Southern Reach’s scientists study.

(Which isn’t to say Authority is in the slightest light on unsettling sights. On the contrary, a truly terrible tableau hidden in the facility gets under the skin as much as anything Jeff VanderMeer has ever written in a long history of fucked-up fiction.)

In terms of its perspective on identity, too, Authority differs significantly from its predecessor. None of the characters in Annihilation had names, only roles—or perhaps purposes. Here, not only are our players named, they’re also detailed on a surprisingly personal level. In particular VanderMeer devotes quite a bit of time to Control’s backstory; fitting considering that Authority is the story of his progress, “structured and strung together not as the plaintive, halting start-stop of what-the-hell that it was, but instead as an analytical and nuanced ’journey’ that could only be interpreted as having a beginning and a middle pushing out toward a satisfying end.”

The effect of all this inversion is to put readers of the series in a position of power. We are inside and outside Area X; we exist both within and without the secretive Southern Reach. We know more than any of the narrative’s characters, with one potential exception—no, I’m not telling—meanwhile we’re familiar with them in a way they aren’t with one another. Frequently, it follows, we feel more in control of this story than its characters. Yet we aren’t, are we? Only Jeff VanderMeer has the answers. And he’s a hell of a hoarder, in that Authority asks at least as many questions as it eventually addresses.

After Annihilation, I honestly didn’t know where this trilogy would go. I certainly didn’t expect it to head here, but at the end of the day I’m damned glad it did. Authority deepens the mystery of Area X magnificently at the same time as showing us the other side of the story begun in book one.

With only Acceptance ahead, the final destination of this disquieting drive is in sight… and again, I don’t know what to expect when we get there. But that’s certainly no negative. Rather, as a reader, I’ve rarely been happier to sit back and play the passenger.

 

Authority is available May 6th from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and from Fourth Estate in the UK.


Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.

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