|Bantam Spectra, 288 pages|
|A review by William Thompson
You'll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn
In Veniss Underground Jeff VanderMeer voyages a long distance from the locales of Ambergris, both temporally and in vision. In tone and monstrosity more closely approximating Miéville's New Crobuzon, though written prior (1998-99) and almost entirely set within a science-fictional realm, this becomes a descent into a Dantean Hell right out of the nightmare imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch. In addition, it poses as an allusory homage to Edward Whittemore, freely appropriating the conceit of Quin's Shanghai Circus, and completely re-inventing it in a surreal bookscape I suspect Whittemore would have appreciated.
Set within some far distant dystopian future in which human habitation has been confined to isolated and walled city-states, and the natural environment utterly destroyed, life begins in artificial vats, conception created in the imagination of genetic bioneers, birth an expression of the Living Arts. No longer limited to creating inanimate objects with mere paint and brushes, the artists of this world fashion their work instead out of the genetic clay of flesh and bio-mechanics. And of all the Living Artists, none is more mysterious, or spoken of in furtive undertones, than Quin. Rumored to be able to create life out of almost anything, and in forms unimaginable, his presence, if unseen, is "as insidious as the chemical-loaded air come off the sea -- invisible yet everywhere." "Quin makes critters. He makes critters that once existed but don't now... or critters that never existed except in myth, flat media, or holos... or critters that just never existed at all until Quin created them..." Though his creations are far too exotic for any but the wealthy, it is whispered that he doesn't traffic for money, but only favors. Even the exact location of his Shanghai Circus is a mystery, hidden somewhere deep within the city. And best not to go seeking without an invitation.
In the chaotic aftermath of the solimind civil war, the city has come to be popularly known as Veniss, "like an adder's hiss, deadly and unpredictable." Its government has fractured, split into semi-autonomous neighborhoods, each with its own security force and checkpoints. The police have gone freelance, selling protection to the highest bidder. Yet an invisible order appears to hold sway, symbolized by the shining skyscrapers punctuating the skyline, rearing hundreds of stories above the less privileged, home to corporations and technocrats who are veiled from view behind holo-screen windows, where intimacy can be plumbed with hologram lovers and the free market is programmed. Yet in a society socially engineered and micro-managed, life still goes on pretty much as it has before: people congregate in the cafes along the Canal District, ordering plates of pseudo-whale or sunfish, sipping alcoholic beverages distilled from seaweed, or just looking out over water rippled with rust-red currents. Holographs provide ambience, as well as faux sunsets, "so you don't have to see the glow of pollution, the haze of smog-shit-muck." Along the walkways one can watch the "Giants of Bioindustry and the Arts" stroll by, or find "anything -- mechanicals and Living Art and sensual pleasures that will leave you quivering and unconscious." Amidst the crowds can be spied the occasional meerkat or blue ganesha going about their daily rounds, alongside other extinct and mythological marvels, all now sentient servants to humanity, and further proof of the enlightened achievement of the Living Arts. And every one is a Quin creation.
But beneath the city's surface, in the down below, exists a darker metropolis, an industrial foundry from the past that, almost forgotten, continues to fuel the city above, the dwelling place of a hidden populace. Beneath the mines, the refuse -- both human and material -- the underground railways and factories, exists Quin's domain, a surreal creation of cyclopean vision and dementia that possesses a single glimpse upon divinity, or perhaps mankind's best effort at mimesis. A narrative voyage of myth into the dark underbelly of the city above, a journey through buried corridors echoing Dante or even more Ovid's Orphean descent, Veniss Underground becomes a cautionary fable that questions, through fantastic reflection, not only a possible human future, but the underlying urge towards creation that has distinguished humanity until, what would once have seemed almost god-like powers -- cloning, cybernetics and genetic engineering -- are now within our reach. And as we approach our new-found god-hood, or perhaps its imitation, divinity maybe only a construct of our own imagination and desires, what separates deity from diabolic, clarity (or control) from chaos?
In posing these queries, the author displays his usual bold and imaginative skill, creating a narrative world lush yet spare in detail. It is in description, in imagery, this lean novel most often excels, in VanderMeer's deft ability to capture through brief illustrative portraits what others would require pages to express. Informed by vision, rather than character-driven, his protagonists, by comparison, are more support than lead, acting out their allotted roles, significant most for what they represent than their singular portrayal and needs, or the human sympathy extended each. There is a knit cohesion close in service to the novel's overall themes, an unfolding symbolism and allegory that is ultimately let loose during the final chapters, unleashing a Babel of imagery recalling the febrile panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights. And the themes of the narrative, dramatically yet cleverly revealed, could not be more earnest or timely. Already recognized as one of fantasy's more creative talents, Veniss Underground will only further Jeff VanderMeer's growing reputation for innovative and imaginative fiction.
Note: readers should be aware that there exists a limited hardbound edition of this novel published by Night Shade Books. Along with beautiful cover art contributed by New Orleans artist Myrtle Vondamitz, this edition includes a thirteen page afterword entitled "Precursors and Epiphanies" that is in part short story, in part authorial confession. The narrative portion offers a concise and poignant glimpse of events that precede the novel, protean in vision and hauntingly expressed, a mystery within the mysteries of what is to follow (or in this case, precede). One of VanderMeer's best short works, it is only available in this edition, and lends further mystery and insight to the larger work, as does the author's words about the novel which follows, presenting an intimate view into the narrative's creation. Anyone interested in the author's work, which represents the best fantastic literature has to offer, will certainly wish to obtain a copy.
William Thompson is a regular contributor to SF Site and Interzone magazine. His reviews have also appeared in Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. In addition to his own writing, he possesses an MLS degree in Special Collections, and serves as an advisor to the Lilly Library for their collection of fantasy and science fiction. He is currently working with scifi/fantasy bibliographer Hal Hall, at the Cushing Collection at Texas A&M on the Moorcock manuscripts, and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl.
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