Friday, July 8, 2016

Southern Reach Trilogy: AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer


This was a polarizing installment of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and for very valid reasons. I heard such praises about this trilogy for a while, and I was very happy buying the complete series in one swoop last year. When I finally decided to start reading, I was incredibly intrigued by the atmosphere and premise of it especially with the first book Annihilation which definitely gave me some Lost-esque vibes. That being said, this next book Authority was nothing like its predecessor. There is a disparity between their length, content, tone, and overall approach to the narrative. 

Annihilation introduced us to a first-person perspective from the character of a biologist whose name was purposefully withheld. She was a member of the four-women twelfth expedition sent to the pristine wilderness of mystery known only as Area X. That first book focused on her insights about the inexplicable events happening in that remote location, as well as memories and recollections about her past with a husband who was a previous member of the eleventh expedition. The biologist had always been a loner and I rooted for her survival and remained quite invested in her personal story because something about her reminded me of my own solitude, and hers was even more heightened by the fact that she's trapped in a land that may or may not be sentient--or actively trying to either kill her, or change her into something else. With roughly only 200+ pages, the suspense was compact and precise in Annihilation. It had me glued right to the very end even if it was an ambiguous resolution.

A few people whose reviews I follow on Goodreads don't even like the first book, and therefore had no plans to go through the trilogy altogether. I was not like them. I had enjoyed Annihilation a lot because to me it was a creepy, unforgettable and well-written science fiction tale that was at times very worrying and intense; there are moments in that book I did feel essentially lost and abandoned much like its POV narrator. When I got to Authority, however, the abrupt tonal shift was rather disruptive, but I was an optimist so I didn't mind and tried my best to keep up. It was actually easy, most notably because the second installment started with a snail's pace and with double the length of its predecessor.

The biologist from the first book was still here but she was now a secondary character in hindsight, and the POV is switched to the third-person limited to the thoughts and actions of a man named John Rodriguez who fancies himself with the nickname 'Control'. He was a former counterintelligence operative and he was feeling rather out-of-place in his new work environment as the new Director for the Southern Reach Facility which is the one in charge of trying to untangle the secrets and mysteries of Area X. Much like with Annihilation, readers get to follow the story through a character's POV but while the biologist's accounts demonstrate a sense of urgency and danger where she has to be constantly on guard, the second book tried to capture that same thing--only that it just didn't work.

This wasn't a bad book; it couldn't be considering what the critics and fans have been saying about it. However, the parts that make up the sum do leave a lot to be desired. The execution of the narrative is faulty, riddled with pages upon pages of exposition concerning office politics between John "Control" Rodriguez and the assistant director Grace. Other times it meanders on small revelations regarding how Southern Reach operates and facilitates, and certain facts about the circumstances surrounding the expeditions to Area X were presented. In doing so, however, I feel as if it robbed some of Annihilation's impact to me as a reader. When all is said and done, I think I much rather prefer the not-knowing at this point because the first book was something I thoroughly got immersed in. In this book, I got to find out that there have already been more than 12 expeditions, and that the director of SR herself was the psychologist from the first book--and she may even know the lighthouse keeper from that mystery photo that the biologist found. 

At first, finding out these things were great because at least they answered the questions I may have had after finishing Annihilation. And yet as soon as I finished this book and got to go over my overall experience about reading it--those revelations seem hollow to me now. As much as Authority strived to illuminate the lies and conspiracies; about what was going on behind the scenes concerning the Southern Reach and its purpose of study with Area X, it also made me realize that whatever is happening behind the scenes WASN'T WORTH KNOWING. Ultimately, it was pretty bland and confusing! The author seemed to purposefully kept it just as ambiguous as the last time only that it's something he can only successfully pull off once in the first installment. In this book, the trick felt entirely cheap. I really can't help but feel this was all a strategy to make the reader want to read the next book, not really to satisfy the curiosity but more so to appease whatever lingering irritation he or she may have formed after being given such a half-baked resolution.

That's exactly how I felt after finishing Authority. I read reviews about this being a slow-burning spy story, and I conditioned myself for that and I was pretty interested about it being just that. However, I seemed to have overestimated my own expectations because as soon as I was somewhere around the two-hundred seventy-plus pages, I ended up staring blankly at a paragraph I was reading going, "Wait, so that happened because of this? And this other thing is now about to happen because of that other thing--and what were those again exactly? Is that this?" I swear that I myself can't even follow my train of thought as I read. It became a challenging mental feat to demystify myself and stay on track, and not even in the fun way that I usually like when I read literature.

As for the character I'm supposed to care about, the POV character of Control started personable enough but as soon as he started believing he was being hypnotized/brainwashed all this time, he becomes even more of an unreliable narrator. And this epiphany doesn't even happen until two-hundred plus pages! That means I endured reading through a supposedly slow-burning espionage tale whose direction seemed rather pointless especially with that pay-off at the end that happened without the kind of build-up that was supposed to act as its foundation and prepare the reader for it in some way. There was no said build-up leading to that moment, and even if there was, the author wrote far too many expositions and tons of passages of Control just reminiscing or analyzing his life and choices that I must have missed it. Looking back at all of this now, I barely remember what happened except the last sixty pages or so where finally, FINALLY some action does take place.

I don't even trust myself to rate this book objectively, but I'm giving it a six out of ten anyway because I still like the plot of this trilogy, and those action-oriented pages at the end did get me excited for a while. That being said, Authority as the second installment of the series did not live up to the established atmosphere and enigma that Annihilation was able to do, and something that kept me on my toes. I also wished this prequel was shorter and more succinct. Do I really have to know so much detail about his office politics and findings in the facility when it was revealed later on that his memories may have been implanted, and that he was never completely in control of his mental faculties since this book started? I don't even know what else to say anymore. I'm just thoroughly disappointed, but since I made a commitment to finish the trilogy, I'll be reading the last installment Acceptance. Hopefully, this series will wrap up better than its middle arc.


RECOMMENDED FOR POSTERITY: 6/10

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