AUTHORITY by Jeff Vandermeer — a Review

AUTHORITY is the second book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (the first, ANNIHILATION was reviewed here.). AUTHORITY refocuses the weirdness not on Area X, but on the Southern Reach, the highly classified and highly dysfunctional government agency charged with investigating the area. In ANNIHILATION, readers received glimpses of failure and confusion. In AUTHORITY, readers learn just how broken the agency–and those who work within it–are.

What should be a cutting edge agency staffed with the best and the brightest has become a stagnant backwater filled with parasites and killers. If it sounds like I’m drawing parallels between the Southern Reach and Area X, you’re right. And these parallels pepper AUTHORITY. Whereas ANNIHILATION told the story of the Biologist by bouncing between her past and present, AUTHORITY tells the story of Control in the same manner. Whereas expedition members are irrevocably damaged by Area X, never to again reemerge as their original selves, so too does the Southern Reach infect and break its staff. Just as the Biologist discovered Area X was nothing like she had been prepared for and that she was the victim of countless lies and manipulations, so too does Control discover this about the Southern Reach.

It’s a shame then that Control is the newly appointed head of the Southern Reach. Control has been tasked with not only fixing the Southern Reach, but also determining exactly what happened to the previous Director. Like the Biologist’s struggle, Control works not only to uncover what has been concealed, but to make sense of something that can likely never be understood, managed, or contained: Area X.

Area X continues to be this looming presence that confounds, warps, and infects–not only Control, but those around him at the Southern Reach. Will he fix the agency, or is it beyond repair? Is his career in the same state? Is he?

Whereas ANNIHILATION was a story of a beautiful, if dangerous and strange, wilderness, AUTHORITY is the story of a dangerous and strange bureaucracy. Strangled by cover stories and smothered by levels of classification, one quickly realizes that it is facing a losing battle against Area X. And so AUTHORITY carries over the tragic, strange tones of ANNIHILATION. By the end of the book, readers will experience the same sort of dreamy terror found in ANNIHILATION.

Ultimately, I think that is what makes AUTHORITY so successful. It begins in a very different place than ANNIHILATION, and yet with page after page, the sense of weird, of dread, of claustrophobia increases. It’s unsettling in a way that might make readers recall Kafka…only with Area X.

VanderMeer continues to shine as well. His writing is subtle and careful, but as the story progresses, it starts to loop inward, recalling information and twisting it, revealing more. These elements come faster and faster, until the loop becomes a downward spiral, heading for a tragic end. And yet, I couldn’t stop reading. Like Area X, VanderMeer draws me in, and I can’t escape. I can’t wait for book 3, ACCEPTANCE, due out in September.