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April 28, 2014 / schulerbooks

Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer

9780374104108

Call him Control. It’s not his real name, of course, but it’s what his weird, spookshow family has always called him. Almost as it he’s some kind of experiment, rather than their own flesh and blood.

And maybe that’s why he’s here, in this place, at this time.

They call it the Southern Reach. It’s an agency of the US Goverment, committed to overseeing the lost zone known as Area X. And, as such, it’s the last stop in our reality before something truly disturbing.

Something insidiously corrupting that’s taken a lot of lives, so far — one doomed expedition at a time.

Control’s job should be simple. He needs to take charge of the Southern Reach, and bring some kind of order to the organization after the most recent foray left a disastrous void in its ranks. It seems the former Director decided to masquerade as a Psychiatrist and accompany Expedition 12, though why she chose to do this is completely unknown.

And that’s not the only thing that’s a glaring unknown, here.

All Control has to go on is what she left in her office, as well as what her former assistant — now his — may know, though she’s not being very helpful. But he also has access to something special, in the form of whatever he can piece together from someone who may be the last survivor.

Even though the Biologist now claims she’s not the Biologist, whatever that may mean…

As the days pass by, and the meetings become more snide and toxic, Control slowly realizes he’s losing his namesake over the Southern Reach. There’s a secret, here, but no one seems to want to help him find it directly, only ever hinting at its ever-pliable edges. And that wouldn’t be so bad if he had more time to figure it all out, but he may not have much time at all.

Because Area X may not be willing to wait…

The first installment in the Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation, was a revelatory work: a short, sharp shock of a book that seemed equal parts Lovecraft and Eliade.  It was the sort of book that made one feel as though some eldritch encounter was in the offing through the simple act of picking it up, and seems tipped to become a modern Weird Fiction masterpiece — worthy to sit alongside the likes of House of Leaves.

And that makes it really hard to understand why Authority is such a dreary let-down in comparison. The feel of personal horror and cosmic discovery (and vice versa) are gone, replaced with darkly surreal politics in a government agency tipping towards chaos and disaster, one tense and hostile meeting at a time. And while one suspects Vandermeer could have made something truly unnerving out of that, the dread quickly turns to boredom, and the genuinely disturbing moments are too few and far between to make the read anything but a slog.

(Would it have been a better read if it had been told in first person, like Annihilation was? Perhaps. But you go to the review with the book you have, not the book you would have wanted.)

Still, the promise of the next book — Acceptance, due out in September — would lead me to recommend this bridge novel, if only because I have faith that Vandermeer can still bring this horror home. I would be lying if I said I was as certain of that after Authority, but after what an amazing piece of genius Annihilation was I’m willing to give him another chance.

If you like weird fiction, you should too — just don’t expect to be knocked senseless by this one.

Authority drops in May, and should be available at all Schuler Books and Music locations. It is currently available for preorder through our website.

– Jim Tremlett, Eastwood

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