Tag Archives: authority

Review: Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

Undeniably one of speculative fiction’s “events” of 2014, The Southern Reach trilogy comes to (strangling) fruition with the publication of Acceptance (FSG Originals, September 2014). (“Strangling” because of the strange text explorers find in Area X’s most remote environs, “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Get it? Oh, never mind.)

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

The speculative fiction community has rapturously received The Southern Reach trilogy, due perhaps, in part, to Jeff VanderMeer’s obvious literary ambitions. This ain’t your granddad’s science fiction; Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance are well-written (and slickly packaged) commentaries on the developing global environmental crisis, as well as examinations of the nature of “weird fiction” itself. The Southern Reach has enjoyed more muted success beyond its genre. The reviewer for The New York Times (definitely not a cutting-edge resource for speculative fiction news) was decidedly mixed in his reaction to Annihilation. 

Full disclosure: I thoroughly enjoyed Annihilation and, having now completed the trilogy, consider it the best entry in the series. Annihilation seemed, at least in comparison to its successors, to be the most “distilled” essence of what VanderMeer was trying to accomplish. I suspect this is due in part to the origins of the story (it came to VanderMeer in a dream), but it is also related to the structure of the story: If Annihilation serves as the “setup,” and the establishment of the mystery of Area X, then Authority is the “bridge” to Acceptance, the “resolution” to the story. I use quotes here because, of course, resolution is a relative term. Given the constraints of the genre, as well as simple good storytelling sense, VanderMeer was forced to walk the line between spelling out his vision for readers and providing them no answer at all. Some readers will be disappointed that VanderMeer hews more to the latter than the former.

Of course, all of this goes to show the ways in which the separate volumes in a trilogy (or series) ultimately become subsumed into the larger story. Would Acceptance stand on its own? I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having first read Annihilation and Authority. Acceptance follows in the wake of its preceding “chapters.” Even were it not the concluding volume in what amounts to a serial novel, though, Acceptance isn’t quite up to snuff, at least when compared to Annihilation, but it’s certainly head-and-shoulders above most other entries in the genre.

VanderMeer reading at Free Library of Philadelphia.

VanderMeer reading at Free Library of Philadelphia.

Acceptance alternates perspectives between Ghost Bird (the Area X produced doppelganger of the biologist from Annihilation), Saul (the lighthouse keeper), and Gloria, the former director of the Southern Reach–related to the reader in the second person, an effectively unsettling decision on VanderMeer’s part. The threads of the story bring together different timelines (pre-Area X, post-Authority, etc.), further disorienting the reader. Ultimately, the effect is to mask the nature of Area X to the reader, who will be busy trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. But VanderMeer uses the technique to build tension, too, moving the story forward, keeping the reader guessing, if not always successfully–after all, the reader knows how Gloria’s story will end, and, to some degree, Saul’s. Of course, it’s the “why” and the “how” the reader is chasing here, not the “what.”

VanderMeer employs in Acceptance the same recursive, elliptical syntax he began building toward in Annihilation and Authority. His sentences uncoil outward, clause upon a clause, lending them a strangely hypnotic quality well-suited to the subject matter. There are times when VanderMeer’s flow works against him. For instance, some of the sections discussing Gloria’s involvement with the Southern Reach, and her bureaucratic in-fighting with Lowry, can tend toward tedium, but, as with his examination of institutional decrepitude in Authority, that may well be the point. VanderMeer’s prose demands patience of the reader.

That patience may or may not be rewarded in the book’s conclusion. How satisfactory a reader will find the ending of Acceptance is, of course, a matter of personal taste. That said, it’s safe to say that readers who expect definitive answers or resolution from their narratives are better off steering clear of The Southern Reach. Answers of a sort are given, and the fates of characters decided. Word is VanderMeer may further develop the ending with a follow-up novella.

The Southern Reach is successful both because of its actual achievements, which are sometimes limited, and its ambitions, which push forward the boundaries of speculative fiction as a genre. Readers still on the fence in regards to whether or not they should read the trilogy are advised to consider how patient they are and to what degree they require definitive endings; VanderMeer asks much but dispenses little. That said, there are great things to be found in Area X, especially in Annihilation and Acceptance. A highly accomplished, if flawed, series that is recommended to most speculative fiction readers, especially those who appreciate atmosphere and character over plot.

Note: For those of you who are interested in “what it all means,” I recommend checking out this thread on Reddit. (Includes spoilers.) A friend tells me that, during a signing, he discussed the thread with VanderMeer, who said it “has some good ideas in it.” I have my own intuitive, uninformed theory; DM me on Twitter if you’re interested.

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Jeff VanderMeer at FLP

Area X penetrated Philadelphia on the evening of Thursday, September 25. Author Jeff VanderMeer ushered in a night of the uncanny at the Free Library of Philadelphia, abetted by Geekadelphia, and an owl (the latter provided courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences).

The slideshow included photographs taken by VanderMeer, as well as promotional and fan art.

The slideshow included photographs taken by VanderMeer, as well as promotional and fan art.

I’ve gushed at length about VanderMeer’s recent novels, Annihilation and Authority, going to far as to collect links related to the former. (As of this writing, I’m one-third of the way through the last novel in the trilogy, Acceptance.) I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear VanderMeer speak in person. (And he signed my copy of Annihilation.)

VanderMeer did a short reading from Acceptance, from a portion I have not yet read. I considered bumrushing the podium and knocking the book from his hands, but decided that would be impolite. Fortunately, he read a few pages that weren’t too spoilery (confirmed for me by a friend who was also in attendance). VanderMeer’s tone and the pacing of his speech was flat, without inflection, hypnotic. Combined with his style, heavy with clauses, it reminded me of the surge and retreat of surf beating upon a shore. Hearing VanderMeer read from Acceptance was helpful for me; I’ve been having difficulty “getting into” this last book, and his reading made his style more accessible to me.

Chris Urie and VanderMeer discussed the novels.

Chris Urie and VanderMeer discussed the novels.

VanderMeer noted that the Southern Reach trilogy is his second attempt to write about Florida. He first wrote about the “Sebring Squid Festival,” a faux-journalistic account of a fictional festival set in a real Florida town. This story caused him no end of headaches: Packages of dried squid sent to him in the mail; notes from angry marine biologists; an offer from a BBC representative to talk about the squid for a documentary; and a voicemail from a fisherman who claimed to have caught one of the squid in Louisiana. After that call, unsure how the fisherman got his number, and given that the squid he describes is not real, VanderMeer decided to pursue a more fantastical approach.

VanderMeer discussed the novels at length with a representative from Geekadelphia. It’s clear that nature, and humanity’s relationship to it, is one of VanderMeer’s concerns. He lamented the state of environmental education (in the United States), noting that American children are “developmentally challenged” in regards to their connection with nature. He pointed to his essay “Bear versus Texting Man: Our Spectacular Disconnection,” in which no publisher showed any interest; it was “too depressing.” Much of the novels were informed by his hikes throughout northern Florida, where he encountered the boar (noted in Annihilation). A slideshow running in the background included pictures VanderMeer took during his hikes.

Arizona & I.

Arizona & I.

One of the major themes of the novels is the encounter of individuals with institutions, and the conflict that ensues, “Lord of the Flies with middle management,” he called it. VanderMeer, in his previous work, which he can’t discuss (creepy), actually found a dead mouse and dead plant in a desk drawer, wondering if they were left as some kind of message. Likewise, the smashed mosquito that Control encounters in Authority was drawn from VanderMeer’s own experiences. So, too, was the character of Whitby. One of VanderMeer’s colleagues would, from time to time, approach him and ask, “Do you want to see a strange room?” His answer was always “no,” both because he wanted to continue to be employed, but also because his “writer’s brain” didn’t want to know what was in the room–he wanted to fill it in later. Edit: VanderMeer memorably described the character Whitby as “the Smeagol of the Southern Reach.”

She was spooked, and kept trying to fly away, so I was a *little* nervous.

She was spooked, and kept trying to fly away, so I was a *little* nervous.

Afterwards, there was a question and answer period with the audience. We then headed upstairs to get pictures with the owl! Why the owl, you might wonder. Its presence was informed by the character of the Biologist (“Ghost Bird”), who has an attachment to the creature. Given the novels’ focus on nature, it made sense, once it was suggested, to have the owl (“Arizona”) present. (FYI: Barn owls can live up to 15 years.)

A good evening with an author who is having great success this year.

Review: Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

There is a scene late in Authority (FSG Originals, May 2014) in which one character explains to another the manic gyrations of a beetle the two them are observing: The pesticide with which the insect came into contact is suffocating it, causing it to stumble about in panic. It’s dying. The character ends the beetle’s suffering by crushing it beneath her heel. That scene is an apt metaphor for the experience of reading Authority: The reader is the bug writhing in the shadow of Jeff VanderMeer’s foot.

Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the second book of VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. While not exactly essential to follow the story in Authority, it’s recommended that readers begin with Annihilation, published in February. And, although I hate to have to say it: Spoiler alert. Whoop, whoop, sirens go off.

Authority picks up less with where Annihilation lets off than it does more with a different thread. Here the story remains firmly outside of the mysterious “Area X,” into which readers ventured in Annihilation. The setting is Florida, in a containment zone that comprises and cushions Area X from its surrounding environs. The Southern Reach, an obscure government department attached to Homeland Security, presides over Area X, investigating in a desultory fashion. The Southern Reach has learned very little about Area X over the previous two decades, and is still smarting from the loss of its most recent expedition. The organization is rudderless, its director having joined the expedition as the team psychologist. It’s this situation that disgraced agent John Rodriguez, AKA “Control,” inherits as the new director of the Southern Reach, perhaps due to the influence of his mother. (Control has serious mommy issues.)

Control immediately begins investigating the latest expedition, his efforts focused on (surprise!) the biologist, who returned from Area X just before his arrival. Between interrogating the defiant biologist, who insists that she is not herself, despite having memories of her life before her time in Area X, the director engages in office politics with the Assistant Director, Grace, and encounters some of the oddities that Area X generates, for instance, a plant in his desk drawer, placed there by the previous director, that just won’t die. And, of course, there are the words scrawled in his closet: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Bad juju.

Don't you set foot in Area X. Don't you do it.

Don’t you set foot in Area X. Don’t you do it.

Ultimately, then, if Annihilation is something of a “journey into mystery,” Authority is more of a spy novel, albeit one that is a comedy of errors. Rodriguez’s choice of “Control” to serve as his handle is ironic; it’s clear that he’s out of his depth. The superior to whom Control reports, “the Voice,” ineptly screams obscenities at him. Control visits the gateway to Area X, but the guards inform him that the commanding officer has stepped out. Control vomits into a toilet after a confrontation with Grace. My guess is that, for all the surreal goings-on, this is a more accurate portrayal of the life of spies than readers have otherwise encountered.

Of course, it isn’t spycraft that interests VanderMeer, it’s “the Weird.” As with Annihilation, VanderMeer masterfully establishes an unsettling atmosphere. Nature itself seems to conspire against Control and his subordinates: The air is always muggy, and rains come and go every day. Then, too, there is the catalog of strangeness that builds up around any bureaucracy and in any office: The infighting, the awkward attempts at conviviality, the depressing tones of the carpets and trim, the smell of the wrong disinfectant. Area X is just miles away, and, after the scene in which Control watches footage of an experiment in which scientists forced rabbits across its border, the presence of that strange land looms like a threat.

Comparisons between Authority and Annihilation are inevitable. On the whole, Authority has been very well received, moreso than its predecessor. Still, individual taste being idiosyncratic, I have to admit that I liked Authority less than Annihilation. Part of it is temperament, of course; I liked being “on the ground” in Area X in Annihilation, and, as an office drone, some of the setting of Authority struck too close to home. In my opinion, though, Annihilation was the stronger of the two books because it was so compressed; VanderMeer distilled the Weird down to its very essence. Where Annihilation was tightly coiled, Authority meanders. It is a longer book, and, at times, seems to be unspooling: Scenes go on too long, or VanderMeer is more verbose than this reader would prefer. Because Control knows so little about Area X and even the Southern Reach, the narrative is told from his point of view, which involves a great deal of speculation. VanderMeer devotes considerable space to Control wondering along the lines of, “What is this? Could it be this? But then, it could also be this.” The sense of uncertainty is palpable, but it becomes a thicket through which the reader must force his or her way, and, at times, it becomes exhausting.

This is not to in any way suggest that Authority is not worth the reader’s time. Indeed, the second half of the book is briskly paced, and events unfold much faster than in previous chapters, to this reader’s delight. As with Annihilation, VanderMeer, with Authority, remains at the top of his game. If Annihilation is one of the best books of 2014–we’re halfway through, and I still maintain that it is–then Authority is a worthy successor. Highly recommended.