Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
I had been planning to eke out my reading of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy over three months but, after the comments on my post about the first volume (see here), I couldn’t wait – for a variety of reasons.
- I was hooked, of course.
- Commenters said that the second volume wasn’t as strong as the first – I wanted to check that for myself.
- What’s with the rabbits!
I deliberately didn’t read the blurbs of the second and third volumes, so would come to them fresh. However, given that Annihilation introduced us to the Garden of Eden-like Area X and maintained the secrets of its genesis (pun intended) throughout – there are only really two directions that a sequel can go in:
- To send in another expedtition. This is what happened in sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2010, and more recently in The Echo – James Smythe’s brilliant follow-up to The Explorer (which I reviewed here and here); or
- The sequel can eschew sending another expedition which may suffer the same fate, and try to work things out from outside the anomaly.
I had expected a variation on the former – it’s the usual approach, but instead Vandermeer has given us option two.
If you’re planning to read these books, this is where you should leave…
The Southern Reach, the agency which guards and researches Area X, is in disarray after the return of the 12th Expedition chronicled in Annihilation. The director has gone, the returnees are uncommunicative, the demoralised staff fear for their jobs. The government authorities send in a fixer, John Rodriguez, who has the childhood nickname of ‘Control’ to sort it out, he is to report to his anonymous boss only known as ‘The Voice’.
Control arrives to find that everyone is against him – well what did you expect?! None more so than the assistant director. She is naturally protective of the director, whom we find out in the opening pages had overridden all protocols to go on that last expedition herself. She was the psychologist, and she was the one who didn’t return. Control is thrust into an office full of the former director’s papers, scribbles, notes, theories and a rather familiar quotation written on the wall behind a door. He soon finds that everyone in the organisation too has an axe to grind and each has secrets, lots of them.
Then there is the biologist, the narrator of Annihilation. Control has to find a way to get through her barriers, to unleash her memories about what happened in Area X and in a series of interviews he starts to build up some rapport. Along the way we start to build up a picture of Control the man too, through flashbacks to his childhood. With his wild Grandpa and secret agent mother he was perhaps bound to fall into a similar line of business, for they groomed him to fit.
Although I really enjoyed Authority I did have some problems with parts of it which I’ll come to in a minute.
Firstly I have to comment on ‘Control’. I suspect the author’s choice of nickname for Rodriguez was because of the literal meaning of the word – and the subtext throughout of who (or what) is controlling whom, but I enjoyed thinking of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s boss ‘Control’ every time I saw it. It seems I can’t help but spot possible influences in these books – Control’s childhood seems rather close in a way to that of Jeff Lindsay’s avenging anti-hero Dexter in that he is channelled into becoming what he is and then controlled all the way…
Then there is an image that got stuck in my head and won’t let go… In the BBC children’s series M.I.High – about school-kid secret agents who are fighting the (James Bond) SPECTRE-like organisation SKULL led by The Grand Master, who has not a white cat on his lap like Blofeld but a white rabbit – called Flopsy no less! (right) This has double significance, because of a) the rabbits on the cover – yes, we do find out why they were there, and b) because we never see The Grand Master’s face, we only hear his ‘Voice’.
All this is leading me towards saying that Authority is significantly different in style to Annihilation, and it is not the same dystopian eco-thriller that the first volume was. Authority is all about internal espionage and Control in this book is much closer to Le Carré’s George Smiley and his mission to find the mole than the X-Files‘ Fox Mulder. That’s OK – it worked for the most part, but the frequent intrusion of Control’s mother into things seemed unnecessary (again, it reminded me of M.I.High where young agent Blane’s mother is a double-agent working for the baddies!) How I wished he could cut those apron-strings that seemed to tie him like a puppet to her sooner rather than later.
There is a sense of world-weariness to Authority – we mustn’t forget that the expedition in the first volume was actually the twelfth, so really Annihilation could be viewed to start at my option 1 above as a sequel to an unwritten prequel if you see what I mean. Control’s ‘Smiley-like’ investigations into the Southern Reach, an organisation that had been forced, by the nature of the secrets it was guarding, to be inward-looking and ended up spiralling in on itself aren’t necessarily the stuff of great drama. I believe that many clues have been laid though, and we do finally get some action as the ending set us up for a great final act. (8/10)
From eco-thriller to spy-thriller to … what?
Will they find out the secrets of Area X?
Will they be able to ‘accept’ what they find?
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré, paperback.