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AUTHORITY
By JEFF VANDERMEER (FSG; 2014)

The second book in Jeff Vandermeerís Southern Reach trilogy, and a novel that follows the standard etiquette of most middle entries in a trilogy, from THE TWO TOWERS to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. This means itís highly contemplative and unsettled in nature, lacking the excitement of the first entry and the closure of the third.

     In AUTHORITY weíre introduced to Control, a government orderly whoís appointed to run the Southern Reach by his mysterious overseers, whose ranks include his own mother, a high ranking CIA agent. The Southern Reach is a government agency set up to monitor Area X, a mysterious tropical region in which twelve Southern Reach-manned expeditions have foundered.

     The twelfth expedition was chronicled in the trilogyís previous volume ANNIHILATION, which proves a problem here, as a large portion of AUTHORITY involves Controlís fumbling attempts at figuring out what occurred on that twelfth expedition, which we of course already know. Needless to say, this doesnít exactly make for exciting reading.

     Controlís investigation centers on the biologist, the protagonist of the previous volume. Her answers to his questions about what occurred during the expedition, and why she was found in a vacant lot, are maddeningly vague. Other problems facing Control include his fraught relationship with his mother, a dynamic that only grows more unsettled during his time at the Southern Reach, and the fact that the border of Area X appears to be advancing, as is evident in the odd and inexplicable changes in Controlís surroundings--and also his mental state, which undergoes nearly as many disturbing alterations as the world around him.

     Along the way we learn more about Area X than we did in ANNIHILATION, such as the fact that its miraculous properties were evident long before the occurrence of the catalyzing event that allegedly tainted the area. Area X eventually undergoes a not-entirely-unexpected transformation that further disturbs Controlís equilibrium, and precipitates the open-ended finale.

     The prose here is erudite and scientific, much like that of the first-person ANNIHILATION, with the dark, hallucinatory aura of that novel transposed virtually intact. Whatís missing is the tightly wound narrative and fecund imagination of the earlier novel, replaced with a rambling and unfocused character study thatís twice as long. This doesnít make AUTHORITY a bad novel, but it does make for one that doesnít live up to the high standards set by its predecessor. Hopefully the third volume ACCEPTANCE will be stronger.  

     

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