Book Review: ‘Authority’ by Jeff Vandermeer

authority jeff vandermeer

Narrowing the Aperture:

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation was a carefully crafted experience of horror. The second book in ‘The Southern Reach’ trilogy, Authority, while still heavily psychological, takes a different approach. It holds up one of the themes of Annihilation (the question of how much of your actions/motives are truly sourced in your own will) and spins out a tale that focuses almost exclusively on it.

In the first book of the series, Vandermeer plays around with the idea of hypnosis, how it can alter our perception of reality, direct our actions, and regulate mood. In Authority, the author offers the idea of parenthood as a sort of universal hypnosis, one that the overwhelming majority of individuals throughout history have experienced. Such a hypnosis is much more sinister, more invasive than the traditional sort, which requires one to more or less volunteer their mind for suggestion. Though the influence is in degrees, a parent will always leave traces of themselves in their children, shrapnel so embedded that one might not even be aware of it.

Something of the Oedipal Here:

The main character, code named Control, constantly struggles with the knowledge that much of who he is can be traced back to his mother, though her physical presence in his life was always cursory and fleeting. And his authority is tied to her, not only in the more tangible sense of her having secured his current position for him, but in how his view of her has sculpted his self-identity. He seems helpless at times, wondering how real the authority is that he purportedly has as the director of the secretive organization called Southern Reach. Where does his authority begin? How much of it is still umbilically tied to his mother. Or to his father or grandfather, as they too held much sway over his formative years.

Much More a Niche Read than the Previous One:

While the writing is still constructed with a surgical skill, the story itself might be less absorbing for some. The first book had the broad scope of horror to work with, able to attract many among those with a taste for the unknown and a proclivity toward spending a suspenseful few hours staring at ink. Authority is much more specialized, a sub-genre within a sub-genre.

Also, if you are looking for answers (sort of spoiler alert) as to what Area X is and why it is there and who made it and what the hell does it/they want…you don’t get any. Area X is much more a catalyst than a mystery to be solved. The books in this trilogy are not for bringing the reader closure, but more for demonstrating various aspects of human psychology when placed in situations that are wholly uncanny. Area X is simply a mark on the map, albeit an esoteric one with an uncertain past and future. As such, the stories are not about it, but about the minds of those who come into contact with it, and how they deal with the unknown in relationship to their complex psyches.

In this, Vandermeer provokes an certain response in the reader, a recognition of these unsettling aspects of the human experience. How our uncertainty, past, and fears are unavoidable. He reminds us that there is much more to anything than that which we see on the surface.

Rating: 4 out of 5