"Okay, then. Tell me about the thistles."
"The thistles?" Her expressive eyebrows told him what she thought of the question.
"Yes. You were quite specific about the thistles. Why?" It still perplexed him, the amount of detail there about thistles, in an interview from the prior week, when she'd arrived at the Southern Reach. It made him think again of hypnotic cues. It made him think of words being used as a protective thicket.
The biologist shrugged. "I don't know."
He read from the transcript: "'The thistles there have a lavender bloom and grow in the transitional space between the forest and the swamp. You cannot avoid them. They attract a variety of insects and the buzzing and the brightness that surrounds them suffuses Area X with a sense of industry, almost like a human city.' And it goes on, although I won't." (galley pages 22-23)
When I wrote my review of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, the first volume in The Southern Reach trilogy, back in February, I used the descriptor "transitional" to describe the events and themes of that volume. "Transitional," albeit in a different sense, also can be employed to describe the middle volume, Authority, as the events within are shown in a state of flux that harkens back to the first volume while adding layers of depth to it. Yet despite these similarities, Authority is a different beast from Annihilation, a story that contains its own mysteries and weirdness.
Authority is set a few months after the few days' events of Annihilation. The new director of the Southern Reach, John Rodriguez or "Control," as he prefers to be called, finds himself at the heart of a new mystery as the "survivors" of the "twelfth" expedition have recently recrossed the border of the mysterious, vaguely nefariously Area X and have been held the past couple of weeks in isolation. He spends the next few weeks reviewing the data collected on that expedition as well as those taken from previous experiments and expeditions and what he discovers begins to unsettle him. Near the heart of it lies the returned members of the most recent expedition and what one of them says, or rather avoids saying, drives him to investigate further, uncovering certain truths that had been buried for three decades.
The premise, when stated in those terms, might seem to be familiar to those well-read in thrillers and espionage stories, but VanderMeer's intricate plot, buttressed by its economical and yet evocative prose, confounds those expectations. What Control discovers is not so much new revelations but instead new, haunting mysteries; the picture becomes murkier instead of clearer, yet not quite without a sense that resolution may lie around the corner. Each little piece of data contained in the Southern Reach file, each little oddity (such as an old, apparently failed experiment with white rabbits), they all somehow connect with each other, creating a complex ecosystem of creatures and creators, of words and images, that transition from one to the other, thus constructing a whole that is more varied than any of its constituent parts.
Whereas Annihilation focuses primarily on an external human vs. (weird) nature, Authority internalizes that conflict, expressing it as much through the mass of conflicting data and bureaucratic infighting as through the unnatural flora and fauna detailed within those reports. In this sense, Authority is a complement to Annihilation while also simultaneously serving as a contrast in characters and situations. The ecosystem interactions of Annihilation are furthered with that ultimate invasive species, humanity, is factored in. The very title, Authority, in this regard is almost ironic, a statement of sorts regarding the illusory sense of possession of a nature that shows its threatening, incomprehensible elements in shorter yet perhaps even more impactful ways than its predecessor.
Authority's plot is more expansive than the narrower, more confined action of Annihilation and its action is expressed in a different fashion, yet it is no less exciting. I found myself reading each paragraph slower than is my wont, savoring the connections that I perceived between certain events and characters. By novel's end, the action had risen to a fitting and yet frustrating conclusion. Frustrating not because it ended abruptly, but because of a natural desire to know more about the mysteries that Control had become to unravel. There are very few flaws here. If anything, perhaps Control's character could have been explored in even more detail, as this could have made the "control" aspect even more fitting, but for the most part, the characterizations were well-done and their motivations fit nicely with the narrative. The themes in particular here, continuations of those from Annihilation, were explored excellently. The end result was a very good novel that builds upon the strengths of its predecessor and leaves the reader excited about the upcoming September release of the concluding volume, Acceptance. Highly recommended.