Saturday 22 December 2007

Review: Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

This review is of the Tor 2004 edition which also includes a novella set in the same world, Balzac's War. It is a first novel by an established short-story writer.

Veniss Underground is a dark and grim fantasy set in a dystopian future; one in which Artificial Intelligences had previously taken control only to be overthrown by a human revolt. People now live in scattered cities, each enclosed within a massive wall and surrounded by wasteland. The city of the title, Veniss (nothing to do with Venice), does not just exist above ground but has thirty levels below of steadily increasing degradation. Escape from the underground is tightly controlled and possible only by means of a lottery.

Veniss above ground is in no great shape either. Contact has been lost with planets formerly colonised, and the space ships no longer call. The city is in a slow, inevitable decline, with the administration struggling to keep its basic services functioning. Policing has been outsourced to private security firms, which have divided the city up into zones with checkpoints on the boundaries. Life is decadent for the privileged, dangerous for the rest.

There are four principal human characters in the story (plus a non-human one). Shadrach Begolem is a lottery-winner from underground and now a "fixer" for the mysterious and apparently all-powerful Quin, a genetic engineer who has created intelligent life forms, most notably giant meerkats able to speak (one of which is the non-human character). The other two are twins, Nicholas and Nicola; the former a failed artist, the latter a computer software expert helping to keep the city functioning, and Shadrach's former lover.

The viewpoint shifts between the characters: at first, Nicholas tells the story in the first person. Then the focus switches to Nicola, whose story is told in the second person. The final – and longest – part of the tale is told from Shadrach's viewpoint, in the third person. This sounds confusing but in fact works well and does not break the flow of the story: for those interested in writing as well as reading, it makes for an interesting case study.

The plot is complex, but after initially focusing on the relationships between the characters, it switches to Shadrach's attempts to find Nicola, believed missing in the underground. This is a place of gothic horror; of organ banks and grossly deformed creatures created in Quin's experiments. Some of the descriptive passages are so gruesome that they proved a bit much for your reviewer's delicate sensibilities, so were skimmed over. Despite this, there was no danger of my giving up on the story, as it was gripping enough to hold my attention to the end. It is, I suspect, a story and a world likely to stick in my mind. I was reminded a little of Cordwainer Smith, although the tone is more Bladerunner.

Veniss Underground finishes with an Afterword, a combination of a short story which gives some pre-history, and some notes in the author's voice.

The novella, Balzac's War, is set much later, in a city which had been formerly abandoned and becomes the scene of a climactic battle between the remnants of humanity and large, intelligent, genetically-engineered animals. Again, the tone is dark, grim, gruesome and dystopic.

I normally dislike the kind of stories in this book, but the author's writing is good enough to keep me reading; he has the ability to make me interested in the characters, and care about what happens to them.

1 comment:

Carl V. Anderson said...

In my limited exposure to Vandermeer's work (the novel Finch and a handful of short stories) I have found an author who is not afraid to buck the norm but does so in a way that makes for interesting storytelling, engaging characterization, and ideas that buzz in your head long after you've closed the pages. Although his writing is very dissimilar from that of Cordwainer Smith, I see a similar spirit of inventiveness in the two men. I'll be looking for a copy of this one.