Authority by Jeff VandermeerBy Jeff Vandermeer (FSG; 2014)

The second book in Jeff Vandermeer’s 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 it’s highly contemplative and unsettled in nature, lacking the excitement of the first entry and the closure of the third.

In AUTHORITY we’re introduced to Control, a government orderly who’s 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 trilogy’s previous volume ANNIHILATION, which proves a problem here, as a large portion of AUTHORITY involves Control’s fumbling attempts at figuring out what occurred on that twelfth expedition, which we of course already know. Needless to say, this doesn’t exactly make for exciting reading.

Control’s 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 Control’s 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 Control’s 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. What’s missing is the tightly wound narrative and fecund imagination of the earlier novel, replaced with a rambling and unfocused character study that’s twice as long. This doesn’t make AUTHORITY a bad novel, but it does make for one that doesn’t live up to the high standards set by its predecessor. Hopefully the third volume ACCEPTANCE will be stronger.