Review: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals, 2014)
Rewind a little… A couple of months back I reviewed Annihilation, a book which came out of nowhere and scrambled my psyche into an unrecognisable configuration. Told as a series of journal entries, a literary documentary, it followed a team of four individuals into Area X, an inexplicable patch of land on America’s coast surrounded by a force field of sorts. Entering Area X is a trial, only possible through hypnosis. Surviving there is a struggle against both the environment and your own slowly suffocating sanity. Exiting is a delayed death sentence. The hallucinatory qualities of the novel, particularly the unease created through being narrated in the first person by an increasingly unsure and unhinged biologist brought to mind the very best masters of the stranger realms of fiction.
Cut to Authority. We’re once again safely outside Area X and plunged into the inner workings of Southern Reach, the government organisation responsible for monitoring the alien zone and dispatching expeditions. The biologist from the previous expedition is locked in a cell and undergoing examination after examination. Her former leader, the sinister psychologist, was none other than Southern Reach’s director travelling incognito in search of unnameable ghosts. Arriving to fill her shoes is a man naming himself, somewhat amusingly, Control. In his way stands the former director’s assistant Grace, ready to launch every obstacle she can into his path for reasons not explored until later in the story.
Authority starts off from a much more conventional narrative standpoint than its predecessor. Outside Area X there is at least some degree of normalcy but let’s face it, life on the border of a geographical/dimensional anomaly is never going to be what you expect. And of course the strangeness starts creeping in before you know it. Control’s bizarre insistence on his nickname and the conversations with his own controller put things off-kilter from the get-go. Then there is the former director’s office, housing surprises in every nook and cranny.
Where Annihilation went for full-bore mindfuckery straight off the bat, Authority chooses to bide its time and build an ever-mounting sense of dread and insecurity. Every interaction between people is shrouded in layers of hidden meaning, no-one speaks straight and even the simplest language serves only to further confuse issues. And it’s not just about the people. It seems that the warped reality of Area X is infecting the Southern Reach itself and there is a moment towards the climax which had me checking over my shoulder and scratching non-existent itches.
Given the high standard set by the first in the Southern Reach trilogy (the final installment lands in September) it’s a huge relief that Authority manages to not only keep up the pace but also raise the stakes even higher. Serving up more of the same would have been easy for VanderMeer but would have felt too claustrophobic, just too much. Taking the action back to the Reach and utterly switching styles was the perfect move, allowing us to examine his still-growing mythos from a fresh angle. Here’s hoping that part three lives up to my now insanely high expectations. I’m already preparing a dimly-lit room full of creepy ambient noise for the event…