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Authority by Jeff VanderMeerFour stars
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The second volume of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy plunges readers even more deeply into paranoia and disorientation than the first. It's all playing out as if Franz Kafka and David Lynch had decided to collaborate on The X-Files, only to receive the following story notes from H.P. Lovecraft: "Needs more madness." Where Annihilation took place entirely within the borders of Area X — the cordoned-off section of coastal landscape whose entire ecosystem has undergone inexplicable and subtly monstrous change following an event of unknown origin 30 years in the past — Authority unfolds outside in the real world, a place quickly proving no less menacing and alien.

It's a world where code names and call signs — the protagonist, John Rodriguez, is known throughout as "Control" — replace individual identity, and always serve to remind you you're part of a vast machine that owes you nothing for your service. In Authority, we learn a bit more about the near-future setting. Presumably, this is the USA, but we get the idea it may no longer be named that. The only governing body ever mentioned is something with the monolithic and Orwellian name of "Central." To Control, Area X seems less threatening than the shadowy organization investigating it, or the faceless superiors who have sent him there.

Following a dozen disastrous expeditions into Area X, the Southern Reach, the agency established to investigate it, is in wild disarray. Control, a former domestic terrorism operative, is sent there as a fixer. The assignment is ostensibly straightforward: find out what went wrong and why, and get the Reach back on course. One of Control's very first discoveries is that the actual number of expeditions far exceeds the reported dozen. This will not be a simple exercise in bureaucratic house cleaning.

Like any organization whose sole purpose is dealing in secrets, the Southern Reach has evolved its own insular and paranoid culture, and Control is seen as a meddling outsider. The assistant director, Grace, cooperates with him with a kind of cordial hostility that makes her disdain clear. And she has a strangely personal devotion to the missing director, whom we learn led the expedition chronicled in Annihilation as its psychologist. The director's obsession with Area X, which led at one point to an unauthorized solo crossing into its borders, earned her a harsh reprimand from above — and yet they kept her on. Moreover, the few other staff members Control interacts with are, to put it politely, not the greatest specimens of psychological health one could hope to meet. Part of the danger of the unknown and unexplained is that it draws deeply obsessive and driven people. But the director may have had additional, personal reasons for her behavior that she never let on.

A story like this requires that at least some resolutions to its endless parade of eerie and chilling mysteries are forthcoming. (The failure to offer audiences such fair payoff for their investment in the story was a major criticism of The X-Files in its latter seasons.) Vandermeer deftly offers answers of the kind that open new questions. As a result, Authority is longer than Annihilation, and its protagonist, Control, has backstory — arguably, maybe a little too much — and depth of motivation, all of which were elusive in the mostly blank-slate characters we were offered in the previous book. Authority thus pulls off the tremendously impressive feat of placing its readers in the same haunted emotional landscape as Annihilation, while avoiding, from a stylistic and narrative standpoint, merely rehashing what has come before.

It's in its most subtle moments that VanderMeer's storytelling digs its claws into you. One is so subtle it's a masterstroke: that from literally the book's opening pages, we are aware of at least one deeply disturbing fact that neither Control or any other character knows. But VanderMeer never states it outright, never makes an issue of it, and calmly presses on with his story, trusting in our knowledge of the first book to make the necessary connection and shudder at the realization it provides. From there, we are propelled along an undercurrent of unease into deeper and more sinister waters. This kind of storytelling is difficult to pull off, but this is how the Southern Reach trilogy does it: by establishing a mystery that invites us in rather than holding us at arm's length. It doesn't need to resort to tired gimmicks or plot contrivance to frighten or unnerve us. It simply gives us what information it has, and guides us along our own journey into what bad dreams may come. And bad dreams are so much more rewarding when you earn them.

Followed by Acceptance.