Annihilation, the first book in the celebrated Southern Reach trilogy, was a tight and focused novel that I skipped through very quickly. It was a deliciously creepy affair that made my skin crawl and raised a million questions about Area X. I was therefore hopeful of more of the same from the sequel.
Authority develops the story further, but this time from outside the pristine wilderness of Area X. In fact, the whole book is an entirely different affair. Rather than explore Area X from within, Vandermeer chose to examine the politics of the Southern Reach, the organisation established to monitor and understand the strange wilderness anomaly. We are introduced to John Rodriguez, “Control”, the new director of the Southern Reach.
Control (an affectation of a name worn without embarrassment since childhood) takes up his role in an effort to understand what happened to the expedition outlined in Annihilation, and what it means for Area X and the wider world. He has been sent there by Central, the mysterious group who manage the Southern Reach. His contact at Central is a shadowy figure known as the Voice, and much of the novel drops clues about who the Voice is and what they want.
Control must use his position wisely. He must find ways to get the other staff on board with his investigations, in particular the assistant director, Grace, who is disinclined to help him. The motley crew of other scientists are also to be used to his advantage, and Control has varying levels of success in endearing himself to them. But without their help, he will be unlikely to understand what really happenend on the fateful last mission.
The key aspect of this story is Control’s interviewing of the biologist, the primary character of the previous novel and sole survivor of her mission. The biologist is a difficult, clever woman and plays games with Control, frustrating the efforts of his investigation. We also discover that not everything is as it seems: perhaps Control doesn’t have the agency of his own investigation after all.
There is not much in this book about the mystery of Area X. As a story it’s more concerned with Control, both as a character and a concept. It’s only towards the end of the novel that we once again get to explore the oddness of the unknown wilderness, and it was this part that I most enjoyed. In fact, I got through the last couple of chapters very quickly and by then I felt that the story had picked up enough for me to finally complete it.
Authority seems to be akin to the “difficult second album”. It’s nowhere near as enjoyable as the first book. The trouble is that so much of the novel is devoted to Control as a character, and there’s not enough insight into the other people around him. For a single character to carry a story in this way, it’s essential for the reader to find him compelling. While I recognise that Vandermeer has used this story as a great character study of Control, the problem for me was that I couldn’t connect with Control in any meaningful way. In this case it made the whole experience of reading Authority very slow.
I took over two months to finish reading this book, which is perhaps the best indication of my thoughts about it. I only finished it because of my completer nature about serials. I’m still intrigued to finish the trilogy with the last book, Acceptance.
Although I think Authority is an interesting book in the series, I wouldn’t recommend it as essential reading.