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Authority: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy) Paperback – May 6, 2014
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John Rodriquez, head of the secret agency Southern Reach, is charged with exploring Area X, a remote area sequestered from civilization, as his team exposes disturbing truths about the area, with far-reaching consequences for himself and his agency.
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We all know that fully imagined characters are essential to any captivating yarn—but in this second installment, there is way too much background story, and most of it has no bearing at all on the sci-fi theme. It's as if the author took the concept of "character back story" to such an extreme that it crowds out the actual story we want to read. On top of it all, every bit of these tedious passages is crammed full of unnecessary metaphors likening even the most prosaic locations and objects to... something or other.
So what do these backstory-rich characters do in the story? For about three quarters of the book, they engage in the kind of internecine rivalries that you can witness in most office environments or government agencies. Is reading about the passive-aggressive scrimmages between IRS employees your idea of a thrill? Then maybe you'll enjoy this. If you're here for the continuation of the story begun in "Annihilation," you may feel an urge to just give up. I for one skipped extensive swathes of the middle parts of "Authority" and never felt I missed anything essential—even once I started reading the third and final part of this trilogy, "Acceptance." That tells you just how much the greater part of this book advances the plot.
Things pick up a bit toward the final quarter of the book, with the startling suddenness of being woken from a nap by a paddle smacked on your backside. It's a bit jarring, but you feel grateful for the change. Not that you get any answers about Area X or any of the other enigmas introduced in the first book. Well, okay, maybe one, kind of sort of. But not really. Anyway, if you made it this far, you might as well start reading "Acceptance," which is a far better book. Setting you up for the finale is about all "Authority" accomplishes. It's a shame there's no CliffsNotes for it; what's in it that you need to know to enjoy the third part of the trilogy would fit on far fewer pages.
In Annihilation, we followed a single character ("the biologist") through Area X, a pristine wilderness separated from the rest of the country by a barrier with a nature we never really understand (perhaps because even people in the world of the story don't fully understand it, either). In this book, we focus on a different character, John (who insists on being called "Control," which sounds rather silly, but later in the book he begins to question the choice of this nickname and what it implies about him and his mission). He has been sent to be the director of the Southern Reach area (basically an installation/organization that protects and defends the Area X border) after the previous director (who was a character in book one) has disappeared. He encounters a lot of hostilities from the assistant director (Grace) and a lot of odd characters among his new subordinates/coworkers. Although in fairness, you would have to be eccentric to accept a position at a place like Southern Reach and stay there for any length of time.
My favorite parts of the book are when Control is gathering information. Whether that is watching videos from expeditions to Area X, or going through items and papers from the Director's office (which is now his office), or interviewing the biologist from the previous expedition, or taking a tour of the scientific research facilities and trying to make sense of all the weirdness -- these were the bits of the story I was most interested in. And when the story was heavy with those bits of information, I read with complete attention, often late at night, and didn't want to put the book down. Those parts carried me through the other parts, too, in a sense.
But then, there were the other parts, when Control went home from work. Or flashbacks to his past (perhaps triggered by the fact that he spent some of his childhood in the area nearby). I just don't have the same level of interest in reading about getting drunk at bars, memories of past one-night stands, etc.
The biologist in Annihilation had a lot of flashbacks, too. But they were more interesting to me. They gave the reader a sense of why someone would agree to go on what could very well be a suicide mission. The biologist was a flawed person and the flashbacks and personal thoughts helped us see her flaws, helped us understand her better. I never really felt the same connection with Control. He had a flaw that Grace confronts him with and that flaw has definitely shaped his career. So in a sense, some of the background information helps us explain how he got where he is. But, when he was in a position to take the job or not, it wasn't the same as the biologist deciding to go on the expedition. It might well have been a dead end, career-wise, but that's not the same as risking one's life. And thus, I just wasn't as interested in his past. I didn't find him as compelling.
If these books are meant to be character studies, well, they certainly achieve that aim. Control is a complex character and he is sympathetic (and not just because he is the reader's proxy in an unfamiliar situation). You do get the sense that he wants to solve mysteries associated with Area X and Southern Reach, itself. And since you, as the reader, want those answers as well, you are rooting for him.
I have some issues with Control's mother, as a character. She is some sort of secret agent who can't ever talk about her position but seems to be rather high up at a place called "Central," which seems to have authority over Southern Reach facilities and personnel. She is able to pull strings to get Control the Director's position at Southern Reach. Or something. But she also goes out in the field on missions a lot, or something. It just seems to be inconsistent with the things I know (or think I know) about the way government agencies work. The director and higher-ups in the CIA don't go undercover. Those are desk/meeting types of jobs. And CIA officials, I would assume, don't appoint their children to important posts. I think there are laws against that.
There were not necessarily a lot of answers in Annihilation. You get a few in Authority, but there are also new questions raised. I was satisfied with the balance here. There's still one book left (I'm already partway through it), after all.
Random other notes: This is basically set in our world; Area X and its border are the only unnatural things. So not a lot of worldbuilding has to be done for outside the Southern Reach facility. The writing style is quite good. I never felt like I missed anything or had to go back and reread it, so I got through the book quickly. (I actually liked the writing style so much I put a bunch of Mr. Vandermeer's other books on my wish list, even though they stray a bit from my usual fare.) The mysteries of Area X and surrounding the biologist as well as the former director are compelling. At first I thought the side characters (scientists, etc.) were just strange, but you learn by the end of the book that they have reasons for being that way, and I ended up thinking their quirks were well done. So there is still a lot to like here. But it is also a different book from Annihilation. (On the other hand, I'm not sure a different expedition getting lost in Area X would have made a good sequel, so maybe this is where the series HAD to go.)
In the end, I did enjoy this enough to immediately continue on to book 3.
The last 40 pages had me almost interested enough to read the third book. It almost made me forget about the first 300 pages of this book. But one glance at the reviews of the third book tells me I am in store for another big let down if I am stupid enough to buy the third book. I think I am mainly leaving this review to remind myself that I shouldn’t drop $9.99 on the last book in the series. And if you have not yet laid your hard earned cash on the table for this book, dear reader, I highly recommend you keep that cash in your wallet.