One knows that a concept or an idea has become firmly established as a trope once it becomes the butt of jokes and satire. This is what’s happened to the concept of the “shadowy government agency”. Once upon a time, the mere idea of secret agencies and men in black would have sent chills up and down a person’s spine at the mere thought. Nowadays, when one says “men in black” one is apt to imagine Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones chasing down aliens while making wisecracks along the way. Not to say that’s a bad thing, of course, but it just goes to show how some ideas that once elicited fear can have their sting taken out of them over the course of time.
However, there are some writers who can still take a trope like that and make it work in terms of horror – not in the way it used to be used, but by turning it inside out and making it seem stranger and more eerie than it ever did. That’s what Jeff VanderMeer does in the second book of his Southern Reach Trilogy, titled Authority.
Taking off after the events of the first book, Annihilation, Authority is told primarily from the point of view of Control, real name John Rodriguez, who’s been assigned to the Southern Reach by his bosses in order to figure out what’s really going on. However, he quickly realises that there are secrets within secrets, and that getting to the bottom of it all isn’t going to be easy – least of all when there are secrets buried within himself that he’d much rather leave alone.
Right from the start, Authority shows itself to be a very different beast from its predecessor, though they also share quite a few similarities. Both novels play on the fear of the unknown, but they do so in very different ways. In Annihilation, the “unknown” was the vast wilderness of Area X, of what lived in it, and what happened to it and to the other expeditions that had gone before. In Authority, on the other hand, the “unknown” manifests as the byzantine workings and dark corners of the Southern Reach, as well as Control’s strange past and the events that happen around him as he proceeds with his investigation. Also, much of the horror in Annihilation is external, something that happens to the biologist, whereas in Authority it’s internal, something Control experiences in his own head.
Since narrative style changes a lot about how the reader experiences the story, it’s interesting to note that the point-of-view narration used in the two books is very different, as well: Annihilation is told from first person point of view, while Authority is told from third person limited point of view. I find this shift interesting, especially given the nature of each book’s take on horror as mentioned above. One would think that Authority would be better served if it were narrated in first person: after all, a lot of it occurs inside Control’s head, and who better to talk about that sort of thing than Control himself? But using third person narrative style in Authority adds what I think is a necessary amount of distance. The reader wants to know what’s going on in Control’s head, of course, but knowing it too intimately also ruins the storyline, and what would otherwise be scary devolves into mere hysteria.
On the other hand, first person narrative style works well with the Biologist in Annihilation, because the intimacy of that narrative style creates a sense of incompleteness about the narrative, and therefore enhances the sense of fear one feels while reading the novel. The reader only experiences what the Biologist experiences, and since any experience of something the same magnitude as what happens in Annihilation must, necessarily, be incomplete, the reader is left to fill in the gaps with some truly horrifying imagery and ideas.
It is this ability to suit the type of narrative to the desired effect is one of the reasons why I think VanderMeer is an excellent writer of horror and weird fiction. He could have chosen to write Authority from the first person perspective, if only to keep it uniform with Annihilation, but instead chooses to tell the story in a way that creates the greatest amount of fear possible. As someone who prefers her horror to be more cerebral than visual, that’s something I can readily appreciate.
I also find the story itself intriguing in the way it turns the typical “shadowy government agency” trope inside out. Part of what makes shadow agencies so scary is that no one knows what goes on within them. They are opaque to the outsider, who only knows them as a looming threat that can do whatever it thinks necessary in order to protect what it needs to protect, to hide what it needs to hide. They are scary because no one can understand them beyond the influence they exert on the outside world.
But Control’s involvement shows the nature of a shadow agency from the inside out. He shows the decrepitude, the decay, and the destruction that occurs to such an agency from within. He shows that, even when the agency was new, it was already falling apart, because by its very nature such agencies are doomed from the very beginning. If they are not destroyed from without, they are destroyed from within, eaten alive by the secrets they try to keep. The keeping of secrets as large as the one the Southern Reach tries to keep is impossible, and it is a poison that, at the end of the novel, implodes the Southern Reach itself and effectively ends it.
This is, I think, quite scary, because this process isn’t limited to fiction: it’s something that can happen to any organisation, anywhere, at any time. While the view from the outside looking in can be terrifying, sometimes seeing things from the inside looking out can be just as frightening.
Intertwined with the above are Control’s own secrets – not least his involvement with the Southern Reach’s parent organisation, and the fact that he is a pawn of that organisation. Control is, himself, stuffed full of secrets, and when he gets to the bottom of those secrets he is shattered, and he has to pick up the pieces of himself again, to find himself again – much like Ghost Bird, in fact. This is just as scary as the gradual unraveling of the Southern Reach – scarier, maybe, in some respects, because Control’s fears, his “madness”, could easily be our own.
However, while I did enjoy reading Authority, and did think it was scary, it wasn’t without its problems. This book felt very much slower than the first one, and while I understand that that’s just the nature of the narrative being what it is, I do wish it had been a bit faster. It dragged something fierce in the middle portion, partly due, I think, to VanderMeer’s language. While I understand that the language was necessary to convey the strange, dreamlike nature of Control’s existence, I did find myself skimming over a lot of it and finding out that I hadn’t really missed anything by the time I got to the end of the novel. Some tightening up could have been accomplished there, I think, without sacrificing the nature and goal of the narrative.
Overall, Authority is very much in the spirit of its predecessor, albeit it does so from a different perspective. The connections between it and Annihilation might not be immediately apparent, but they become clear once one gets past the first chapter. It is also very much a scary read, though for different reasons than Annihilation. However, on the whole it feels like a weaker book than the first one, sagging as it does in the middle third. Hopefully, though, the third book will pick up the slack, and bring this series to an appropriately creepy conclusion.