Following the troubled twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the second book of the Southern Reach trilogy raises the stakes with the introduction of John Rodriguez, the government agency’s new head. He finds the Southern Reach in complete disarray. Area X, the strange terrain beyond the invisible border, remains a mystery. But, as instructed by a higher authority known as ‘The Voice’, the self-styled Control must ‘put his house in order’.
From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the mysteries of Area X begin to reveal themselves – and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he has promised to serve.
Undermined and under pressure to make sense of what happened to the twelfth expedition, Rodriguez retreats into his past in a search for answers. Yet the more he uncovers, the more he risks, for the secrets of the Southern Reach are more sinister than anyone could have known.
Even the blurb above contains some spoilers for the first novel I reviewed on this blog, Annihilation, a creeping horror novel of the strange and uncanny that really showed off VanderMeer’s talents for the weird. As such, this review will contain more, and I urge you to read Annihilation before this review.
Authority is a very different kind of book to Annihilation in many ways, but its organic, creeping, unknown and unknowable horror is a shared feature; VanderMeer transports it from the physical to the intellectual and emotional realm, putting it at one remove from Rodriguez, who is trying to analyse Area X from outside rather than explore it from within. Rodriguez is, as in any good spy novel whether an action thriller or a gritty intricate espionage piece, dropped in to head Area X as a temporary director to replace the one who joined the twelfth expedition as a psychiatrist, without adequate support or information; what he is given proves misleading and more than he bargained for, as the novel goes on. It’s as much this Kafkaesque bureaucratic quagmire, fighting colleagues on all sides and trying to guess their loyalties even while dealing with the existential threat of Area X, that makes this novel a horror story par excellence; every character is believable, someone you might meet in an office block, someone you might run into at work, and yet arching over all of this is the utterly alien.
VanderMeer builds both elements up simultaneously, and tangles them increasingly together; the assistant director, Grace, is blocking Rodriguez as much because of office politics as any affinity to Area X, while the seemingly-helpful Whitby has more on his mind that just undercutting Grace. Every character has these two layers except Rodriguez, who is therefore lost in trying to navigate his way between them; increasingly Authority follows a rudderless, purposeless protagonist going through the motions for their own sake having lost sight – if he ever had it – of what he is doing in the first place.
Authority is also a novel I feel comfortable putting into the Queering the Genre project, for one line if nothing else. Rodriguez, considering the series of eleventh and the (only) twelfth expeditions into Area X, all gender-segregated into male or female, wonders “What about someone who didn’t identify as male or female?” (page 115). In one line, VanderMeer acknowledges the reality of non-binary individuals in his America, their employability by the government and their role as prominent individuals in a number of fields; despite not then having any (visibly) non-binary characters in the narrative, this line addresses and acknowledges their existence and situates this as a world welcoming of them. That he also includes a section on Grace’s personal life, which reveals in passing that she has had relationships with women in the past as a fact not judged by the narrative or Rodriguez, is another brilliant, small and simple moment by which Authority acknowledges and recognises the queer community.
In the end, Authority is a book that doesn’t stand alone, but when read alongside Annihilation and presumably Acceptance shows the breadth of the command Jeff VanderMeer has of the Weird and the uncanny; a truly creepy novel that won’t let you go.