Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer

AuthorityHmm. This book. I was prepared to be all sorts of excited about it, but my reaction when I realized this was next in the queue to be reviewed (to wit: “Ugh, that book?”) shows approximately my level of actual excitement at reading the thing.

Authority is one of those novels that I probably would have put down “except”. In this case, “except” was a… let’s call it an unplanned and very depressing vacation, and let’s call Authority a terrible book to read during such a vacation, especially when surrounded by lots of other books that could be read. But I didn’t have the brain power to pick a different one, so this was it.

So… yeah. In my review of the first book in this series, Annihilation, I mentioned that I had a lot of questions and no answers and I hoped the other two books would give me some of those answers. On the plus side, this book is chock full of answers. So many answers. I kind of hate answers now.

This is possibly by design, as the book is almost a love letter to bureaucracy. The story takes place just after the events of the first book, but from the point of view of the Southern Reach rather than its scientists. After the very strange return of the first book’s scientists, the Southern Reach wants its own answers, so they send in a new guy to take over the office and get them. But you soon come to find out that the new guy is more or less terrible at his job, that he has no idea what’s going on, that no one else has any idea what’s going on, that Area X probably doesn’t know what’s going on, and that nonetheless there are people to report to and paperwork to file. Exciting?

The interesting bits of the story are our new guy’s interactions with the returned biologist, who is acting oddly even for the Southern Reach and who creates the few intriguing questions this novel contains. I wanted to know so much more about her story and so much less about basically anyone else, but no, of course I can’t get the answers I want out of this series. Siiiiiiigh.

The answers we do get are less exciting, as they largely pertain to the overall scope of the Southern Reach and to the running of the outpost and to the history of new guy who I sooooo didn’t care about.

And yet, I do still want to read the third book in this series, which I think is largely attributable to VanderMeer’s writing, which is lush and poetic and lovely even when it’s actively not be used to tell me anything of value. So rude. I did cheat and check the description of the next book, and it does not seem to have anything to do with bureaucracy, so I will probably, some day, eventually, get it from the library and move on with my life. If it’s more like the first book than the second, it’ll probably be worth it.

Recommendation: I hate to say skip it, but I really probably would unless you’re reading the whole trilogy in one sitting. And definitely don’t read it if you haven’t read Annihilation.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

AnnihilationI was talking with a friend a while back about The Name of the Wind and how I just want to know what happens with the spiders, dang it, and it’s really frustrating when nothing happens over the course of a 700-page novel and how I’m really just not going to read the rest of the series because if you can’t be arsed to answer some basic questions in your first book why do I care about the rest? (See also: Wizard’s First Rule, which I apparently read before the blog, which… wow, that’s a long time ago.)

But apparently it’s okay to do the same thing in a 200-page novel because I have questions that need answered (shut up that’s perfectly acceptable grammar in Ohio) and I am going to read the rest of this series and get those answers and it will all be shorter than one epic fantasy novel.

I am pretty sure there are exactly zero answers in this novel, for serious. You start off not knowing anything, and you end up knowing some things, but none of those things are things I had questions about and most of them only lead to new questions.

This novel is about a lady biologist whom we only know as the biologist because that’s how these people roll, and she’s hanging out with other ladies, specifically an anthropologist and a psychologist and a surveyor and not a linguist because she left the expedition practically before it started. Said expedition is into a place called Area X that exists… somewhere… possibly reality, possibly not at all reality, I have no idea. And it’s the twelfth expedition into Area X, most of the rest of the expeditions having gone horribly wrong.

The story is told as a series of journal entries, so we learn about Area X more or less concurrently with the biologist, though some entries are long enough for her to be like, if only I had known what would happen next. We also get a bit of her backstory — why she’s on this mission, why she’s a biologist — but not enough to identify her in a lineup of biologists.

Everything is very very vague in this book, and it is absolutely fascinating. The characters are there doing things, but those things really don’t matter so much; the important thing is this Area X and what happened to it and why people are exploring it and what its buried secrets are.

The center of the story is this so-called “tower” that almost ruined me — the biologist calls it a tower even though it’s an underground building sticking up not even a foot above the ground, and everyone else calls it a tunnel even though it’s pretty obviously a winding staircase, which is not to me a tunnel. This nomenclature thing is a brain exploder, for sure. Anyway, inside the tower/tunnel/staircase there are strange words “written” on the wall in some sort of biological organism, and the story is largely about the biologist’s quest to find out how these words got here and what wrote them and what might be hanging out farther down the staircase.

As she’s finding out the answers to these questions (okay, I guess some of HER questions get answered), we learn more about the history of Area X and the expeditions in the form of tantalizing details and then a small info dump, but it is obvious that there’s so much more than meets the eye (sometimes literally) and I really really really want to know what the heck is going on with this place and I am eager to dive into the next book whenever my library deigns to get it cataloged and on the holds shelf for me!

Recommendation: For reading when you don’t mind being frustrated by a severe lack of detail, and maybe when you have the other two books on hand because waiting is hard!

Rating: 8/10