Annihilation was a wonderfully sinister bit of sci-fi horror and managed to get under my skin with almost surgical precision. It seemed quite stand alone and the sequel Authority ends up answering a few questions I’m not sure needed answers. Authority is a good book in its own right, but when compared to the haunting majesty of Annihilation it can’t help but feel a little lacking.
Authority shifts from the eerie first person narrative of the Biologist, to a third person narrative following John, the son of a senior intelligence operative, who chooses to go by the name Control. Control is sent to become the director of Southern Reach, the organisation which studies the mysterious and dangerous Area X, as well as manages the expeditions, such as the one we saw in Annihilation. Southern Reach is in a state of relative disrepair, underfunded and hounded by rumours and hearsay. Control must find out the secrets of Southern Reach, as well as perhaps Area X itself.
This is a very different book to its predecessor in almost every way. Where Annihilation horrified in a Lovecraftian sense, with a sense of the terrible and unknowable alien, Authority borrows more from Kafka, in bureaucracy and an odd feeling of people pursuing mundanity fervently despite the strangeness of their surroundings. The psychological impact of working near Area X is the main focus as we see several characters fundamentally damaged in a variety of ways. Authority is a fair bit longer than Annihilation and does have a little flab towards the middle. That said, Southern Reach is an interesting setting and VanderMeer conjures it well.
I have to say I missed the intimacy of the Biologist’s narration. We’re held at a remove from Control and he’s difficult to warm to or even become particularly interested by. Control is our audience cipher, so is perhaps not a particularly complex character in his own right. The characters surrounding him are brilliantly and vividly drawn, such as the hostile interim director who Control replaces, or a nervy scientist who has been far more affected by the omnipresent horror of Area X than he lets on. VanderMeer seems to have a knack for strong development of a small group of characters; the cast is slightly larger than Annihilation’s four, but not by much and they are given the same level of attention and detail.
Authority is a weird book and an odd direction to take for the series. I mostly liked it, but it felt slightly overlong. It does establish the final book to go to an interesting place however, and I look forward to reading the final of the trilogy, Acceptance.