Authority continues the story of The Southern Reach after part 1, Annihilation. This time, we follow a man known mostly as ‘Control’, but this must be a joke because being “in control” is the last thing he is. Control is the new director of the Southern Reach, sent in after the disastrous 12th expedition into Area X to fix the institute. To weed out the bad parts.
Authority moves away from book 1 to new characters and new locations, but the sense of mystery and paranoia remains. Is it just as good as book 1? Almost. We move out of Area X and follow our main protagonist Control while he walks the corridors of the Southern Reach’s office building. The strangeness of Area X seems to have radiated into the very organization that tries to understand it.
Control is sent into the Southern Reach to make sense of its organization, but the more he tries to get a handle on what went wrong in the institute and the more he learns about Area X, the more he sinks into a mire of confusion. He drowns in it, he loses his rudders and tries to swim through all the impossible facts. Not only this, but the Southern Reach employees resent his presence and actively work against him. It is an office nightmare.
I burned through this book at high speed, pulled along by Vandermeer’s great prose and tantalizing sense of mystery that he evokes. The characters here are strange cases, including Ghost Bird as a returnee of the 12th expedition, and the whole setup of the big Southern Reach office and the secrets going on inside it… it reminded me of The X-Files with agent Mulder digging through paperwork on strange alien secrets. The office building itself is a character on its own, with dated technology, a downsized staff and a smell of rot and honey.
Both Annihilation and Authority make you feel like you are stuck in a nightmare, but in different ways. Where Annihilation felt like being on an alien planet with Lovecraftian elements (like his story The Colour Out of Space), Authority feels more like the Philip K. Dick brand of losing yourself in endless layers of reality and paranoia.
Halfway through the book, I felt something was missing. A big revelation or a deeply mysterious event or anything, something that would compete with book 1, but that didn’t really happen. Now, something big does happen at the end, but I wish it happened sooner to spice up the story. Authority is partly a book about people that talk about whatever happened in the previous book, but doesn’t have equal power for itself to stand on. This makes the book feel a bit bloated and hitting with a smaller fist.
Still, Authority also adds a lot to the Southern Reach series. It deepens the mysteries considerably by showing the degenerated state of the organization, and it introduces some fascinating new characters.