Authority, the gripping second installment in Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, has a very different vibe than its predecessor, Annihilation. Where Annihilation took an expedition deep into the mysterious Area X, Authority shows us the bureaucratic apparatus aimed at studying it. And everything we know is turned sideways.
As readers of Annihilation will know, Area X is an ecologically cleansed southern region of the United States, sealed off by an unknown ... something. Now, in this second book, we explore the Southern Reach, an agency so secret it's almost forgotten, and the research facility aimed at studying the Event reveals further mysteries and secrets.
In Authority, we follow John Rodriguez, aka Control, as he arrives at the Southern Reach to replace the facility's director, the Psychologist from the 11th Expedition. He's inherited her position, as well as her staff, who have their own thoughts on how things should be run. Like any position where a new boss comes to town, Control finds an incredible amount of resistance from the Assistant Director, who's convinced that her old boss will show up, much like one of the Expedition's other members already has: The Biologist.
As Control begins to get up to speed on The Southern Reach's way of doing things and what they've uncovered already, it's clear that information isn't something that comes readily from the group. When Area X first formed, they threw everything they had at it, trying to discover what was going on, including strapping cameras to rabbits.
We learn a couple of things right off: there have been more than 11 expeditions into Area X, and that the first, thought to have come out unscathed, met a gristly end as well. They theorized that Area X might be two separate events and that it's containing something that's ready to emerge.
All the while, Control finds that the people staffing The Southern Reach are all slightly off. There's the obsessive Whitby, who's been with the program for a long time, and the mysterious Voice that's continually asking Control for updates. He's followed by undercover security (or is it just paranoia), and he's getting strange answers from The Biologist during her interrogation sessions.
The Southern Reach feels as though it's an overly paranoid and slightly-past-its-prime security and intelligence agency, sent out to investigate with little political will or backing from anyone. As a result, the organization has lingered and transformed on its own. There's a surreal quality to the Reach as Control works his way through the building as he tries to get his footing. Everyone is questionable when it comes to their motives, and the more he questions, fewer answers emerge. Vandermeer spends a loving amount of time on the personalities of each character, teasing their particular quirks out slowly and expertly builds the tension until the very end.
About twice as long as its predecessor, Authority proves to be a very different novel. Where Annihilation was told from the first person perspective of the Biologist, Authority jumps out to the third person for Control, telling a broader story that helps to put Annihilation into a bit more context, revealing that Annihilation is a good demonstration of an unreliable narrator — of course, how reliable can a narrator in a place such as Area X be? Control's finding that Southern Reach is its own tangle of ambition, power and paranoia is just as strange at times as the very territory they're tasked to study. Indeed, it seems as though he's sent to the decrepit organization to study the Southern Reach itself.
Vandermeer demonstrates that his weird storytelling doesn't just extend to the things seen (or not seen) in a weird location, but also to the mundane facets of life and work. Here in Authority, there is a preoccupation with the idea of contamination: objects have been brought back by survivors of the various expeditions, and Southern Reach has been in continual contact with the event since its inception. What happens to the scientists and project managers and directors who work so long figuring out something mysterious that they get caught up in the mystery themselves.
All of this comes together for Control over the course of the book and right up to a blazing finale, in which everything builds steam right up to the last page. Like Annihilation, this one is a difficult one to put down: it's the type of book that really gets into your head and won't let go until the end. Ultimately, Authority leaves just as many questions as Annihilation: What are the motives of the people above Control and Southern Reach? What happened to all the rabbits? Just what exactly is Area X, and why is it here? Authority nicely sets up for the final volume in the trilogy, Acceptance, which will hopefully let loose some answers.