«

»

Aug 08

Book Review: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

What’s It About

This is second novel in the Southern Reach trilogy and follows directly on from the events of Annihilation.  All you need to know is that a new head has been appointed to lead the Southern Reach (the pseudo government entity that keeps a check on Area X).  His name is John Rodriguez (aka Control) and what he’s about to discover is that the Southern Reach is as disturbing a place as the phenomena it’s supposedly evaluating.

Representative Paragraph

This will make more sense if you’ve read Annihilation.  So… off you go…

The surveyor had been found at her house, sitting in a chair on the back patio. The anthropologist had been found by her husband, knocking on the back door of his medical practice. The biologist had been found in an overgrown lot several blocks from her house, staring at a crumbling brick wall. Just like the members of the prior expedition, none of them had any recollection of how they had made their way back across the invisible border, out of Area X. None of them knew how they had evaded the blockades and fences and other impediments the military had thrown up around the border. None of them knew what had happened to the fourth member of their expedition—the psychologist, who had, in fact, also been the director of the Southern Reach and overridden all objections to lead them, incognito. None of them seemed to have much recollection of anything at all.

Should I Read It?

YES!  But read Annihilation first.  Like now!

Commentary

What I want to do, rather than ramble on about themes and character development, is explain how quickly Authority got under my sturdy, thick skin.  I remember Annihilation having a similar effect, but I’d read that months ago and Authority is a very different book.  It’s told in third person, rather than first person, the setting is the Southern Reach, not Area X and it introduces a bunch of new characters with most of the focus on John Rodriguez, the new boss of SR.  The novel is told through his eyes.  And yet even with these numerous differences, Acceptance just like Annihilation freaked me the fuck out.

We might be viewing Southern Reach through the perspective of the guy in charge, but John Rodriguez provides zero comfort.  You get the immediate impression that previous experiences have hollowed him out.  There’s a reason for this.  A twisted relationship with his mother and grandfather who also happens to be in the Business (covert intelligence aka spying) and a mission a few years earlier that went horribly wrong.  Rodriguez is a man who has severe trust issues and who has never truly been in control of anything in his life.  Coming to Southern Reach only emphasises how little power he has, even though, nominally, he’s the boss.  As the novel progresses, the nickname, Control, increasingly becomes a tragic joke than reflective of his position.

Rodriguez has been asked to head SR to discover what went wrong with the 12th expedition and why the previous head of the Southern Reach – the Psychologist from Annihilation­ – decided to break protocol and enter Area X.  The staff of the Southern Reach are deliberately obstructive, especially the assistant director whose loyalty to the previous director means that Rodriguez is the enemy in her eyes.  This does make for some humorous office politics, but also underlines the novel’s themes about power and control.

But all this talk about themes and characters and plot is a delaying tactic on my part.  Because when you cut away all the smart, intelligent stuff that Vandermeer is doing, what’s left is a book steeped in the unknowable, the transcendent and the freaky.

The found footage plot device grabbed horror by the throat when it was first introduced, to mainstream success, in 1999 (The Blair Witch Project).  Around the same time, Mark Z Danielewski published the House of Leaves.  I avoided reading it for a several years because the weird typography intimidated me.  Thankfully Kirstyn McDermott recommended it for the Writer and the Critic podcast.  Danielewski’s found footage approach to the haunted house story is genuinely unsettling.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of it when John Rodriguez is invited to review videotape of the first expedition.

This is the moment I’ve held back.  This one scene, set halfway through the novel.  Rodriguez sitting in a room, alone, watching a video of “more than one hundred and fifty fragments, most of the surviving footage lasting between ten seconds and two minutes.”  It’s a video that comes with a recommendation… or warning… that you not watch for more than one hour at a time.

Vandermeer has led the reader up to this moment.  Although there have been no scenes of outright horror, the atmosphere Vandermeer creates in those early chapters, as Rodriguez attempts to navigate the quirks and weirdness of Southern Reach, is redolent with uneasiness.  There’s something wrong with the people who work and administer and manage the Southern Reach.  Something fundamental.  And yet Rodriguez can’t put a finger on it, possibly because he’s broken as well.

So when we sit in that room with Rodriguez and watch that video we’re open to suggestion.  A better person than me could deconstruct Vandermeer’s prose when describing what Rodriguez sees and explain why it’s so effective.  Rodriguez’s reaction to seeing the video is to vomit his lunch.  My reaction was nowhere near as extreme, but I was still unnerved.

While not a particularly long novel,  Authority is a slow born.  There are no easy answers, in fact just more and more questions and the feeling of constantly treading water of circling the drain until madness well and truly sets in.  And yet, the ongoing frustration at the lack of answers is key to this novel’s brilliance.  While Rodriguez and the assistant director argue over the minutiae of office politics, you can’t help but feel that their delaying the inevitable, the point at which they – and the reader – are going to recognise that the Southern Reach is a sham and that Area X is something impossible to evaluate and can never be tamed.

I finished Authority and took a deep cleansing breath, only to realise there’s another book to go.

2 comments

1 ping

  1. Chris

    Nice review…again, wish I’d read this before the novel. For some reason I get stodged in Vandermeer’s prose (which is pretty amazing given how much I enjoy CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series) and fail to appreciate the horror. Your writing reminds me what a creepy scene the footage viewing is. And the scene in “the attic” at Southern Reach is pretty unsettling too.

    I have the third novel on order…maybe I’ll hold off until you review it…

  2. Mondyboy

    Yeah the scene in the attic is also fantastic.

    I’ll be reviewing the third novel next. Spoilers – I liked it. Again, it’s different to the other two and in many respects more accessible (which is odd given it is book three). It fills in lots of gaps and actually provides satisfying answers to what Area X is and how it came about. (Though if you’re expecting a huge chunk of exposition explaining it all, you’ll be disappointed).

    Oh, and thanks for the feedback.

  1. So, who should have won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel » The Hysterical Hamster

    […] Annihilation/Authority/Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals; Fourth Estate; HarperCollins Canada) […]

Leave a Reply