The second outing of the Southern Reach trilogy moves us to the Southern Reach itself, a sort of corporate environment in which our sort of hero John Rodriguez is starting his new job as Director – the previous Director, we learn, formed part of the expedition we read about in Annihilation. John is also known as Control – but this is a word that has been used to mock John in the past so it is not an unambiguous term, although he is the one who introduces himself as Control to his new colleagues, not all of whom embrace him with open arms.
In the beginning what we have here is someone investigating just what happened during the course of Annihilation (three of the survivors have been found and are available to be interviewed) at the same time as they try and get their feet under the table (and assert control – there’s that word again) at a new job. The way in which John (Control) is forced to butt heads with his deputy director are the first significant indicators of what a different book Authority is from its predecessor.
There are interrogations, of sorts, between Control and the Biologist, for example, and highly charged conversations with Grace, the deputy director who holds her previous Director in high esteem. The investigation quickly shifts to focus upon the previous Director and theories (about Area X, what it represents, what is happening out there) come to be refracted through the old Director’s vision and plans. We also hear from the Voice, a Saw-like persona on the end of a telephone line that Control has to keep checking in with (and again, their exchanges are among the most compelling aspects of the book). VanderMeer is also extremely strong on set pieces – so whether it’s Danielewski like footage of white rabbits being herded into Area X or the dramatic return of a character thought lost towards the climax (we’re trying not to give away any spoilers) – there is much here that will stick in your mind for weeks after you’ve finished reading.
For much of the book, Authority reads like a juxtaposition between, say, Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came to the End (in that it seems to revel in the tiny deaths of office life, the death by a thousand papercuts familiar to anyone who has to endure such environments on a daily basis) and the otherworldly accretion of ever so slightly off detail that you found in House of Leaves. And then (of course) everything goes to hell. The people (whose daily, normal lives Control observes with a guarded jealousy at various points in the novel) who live near Area X without having seen what’s on the other side of the barrier (as we have) fear it more; and their fear is given plenty of opportunities to ratchet up as the novel progresses. And there are sights that are so tangible (the feel of an animal beneath Control’s fingertips for instance) that will have you closing the book and doing something else for a bit. Washing your hands maybe.
The key thing you want to know though, if you’ve read Annihilation, is: has VanderMeer dropped the ball or does Authority do the job that the second book in any trilogy needs to do (make you want to carry on reading)? The answer to that is a very definite yes. September can’t come early enough for us.
Any Cop?: We can now say that two out of three books in the Southern Reach trilogy are well worth reading. We’ll let you know about the third book a little later in the year…