Annihilation, the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s biopocalypse trilogy, followed a scientific expedition to the mysterious Area X, a verdant but villainous landscape surrounded by a foglike force field. Whatever’s going on in Area X is bad — so bad that most of the researchers sent there have never returned.
In VanderMeer’s second installment, Authority, the action’s outside Area X. John Rodriguez (a.k.a. Control) is the new director of the Southern Reach, the organization tasked with investigating Area X. Let’s just say the Southern Reach won’t soon be on any ”best places to work” lists. Control’s staff? They’re addled at best, mutinous at worst. His predecessor? She might actually have gotten sucked into her job. And then there’s his day-to-day, which centers on waging passive-aggressive office warfare against the deputy director, trolling reports for clues to his predecessor’s disappearance, and conducting interviews with the biologist, the sullen researcher whose expedition to Area X was the focus of book 1.
If Annihilation was about topography and the biologist’s search for meaning amid the dunes and groves of Area X, Authority is about terroir — the subtle ways soil and other substrates change what they create, from wines to vegetables to…people. Yes, people. Something’s not quite right with the biologist, it turns out. It would be easy to read VanderMeer’s fiction as ecological allegory — humans pollute, the earth fights back — but the psychodrama of the biologist figuring out what she’s become, and Control figuring out what that means, elevates the series beyond bio-thriller to something truly compelling. B+