Veniss Underground, Jeff Vandermeer

Prime Books, 2003, 207 pages, US$15.00 tpb, ISBN 1-894815-64-5

I’m not a big fan of fantasy. I’m not too fond of gratuitously-grotesque fiction. I can handle weird stuff (whether it’s the old weird or the new one), but I like my weirdness funny, not grim. Cordwainer Smith, you say? I reply Bah. In short, I’m not the target audience for Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground, a dark fantasy book borrowing equally from SF and horror, a nightmare trip through a far-future city that owes as much to Gregor Mendel than to Hieronymus Bosch.

But the novel (and Vandermeer himself) kept getting such rave reviews in the specialized SF&F community that trying to ignore the novel was getting to be actively embarrassing. So when I found myself at the 2004 Boston Worldcon with twenty dollars, the new trade paperback edition of Veniss Underground and Vandermeer nearby, well, it all happened very quickly. “I hope you like the book” said Vandermeer after autographing my copy. Well, he wasn’t alone in sharing the sentiment.

But I do, fortunately. I even do like Veniss Underground quite a bit, considering that I’m not an ideal target audience for it. It’s well-written, has plenty of good moments and enough spectacular images to satisfy even one of the most reluctant hard-SF fan in the crowd.

Divided in three sections, Veniss Underground evolves and unfolds gradually, only revealing its true dramatic arc in the third section. At first, we get to meet Nicholas, an artist with good intentions but a rotten streak of luck. He slums in the garbage zone, and he is only too willing to tell us a story in exchange for water, food or drugs. His story is, all things considered, ordinary. A quest for a criminal overlord (or is it a genius scientist?), as Nicholas’ last chance at putting his life back together.

But the story doesn’t go where you think it’s going. Soon enough, you become Nicola, Nicholas’ sister, an upper-class programmer who lives high above the city of Veniss. (You become her because you are the protagonist of part two, much as Nicholas narrated part one and part three is told via a third-person point-of-view) Her brother gone, Nicola finds herself the recipient of a curious gift, a genetically-modified meerkat only too willing to be her servant. But where is her brother? Could her meerkat be part of the answer… or the root of the problem?

But wait again; before you even think you know where this is going, we settle in our final protagonist: Policeman Shadrach, who will have to venture underground (deep underground) to rescue what he loves and destroy what he hates. As he climbs deeper down, Veniss becomes poorer, stranger, crueler. This voyage to the heart of darkness won’t be easy… nor without consequences. What he finds down there could have repercussions for the entire human race.

And that’s the book in a nutshell. But what this plot summary can’t tell you is the way it’s all shown to you. Vandermeer isn’t your usual SF&F-as-entertainment punk who only wants to tell stories. No; he’s a real writer, and this love for good writing shows throughout the entire book. Savvy structure, tons of allusions to classic literature and fine descriptive passages should please even picky readers. Those looking for a story aren’t as richly rewarded, but there’s a strong (if simple) plotline running throughout the entire novel, one that delivers a satisfying resolution to boot.

But resolution isn’t everything, and so it’s the nightmarish imagery of the book that is likely to resonate with readers long after the final page. The trip through a magnificent organ bank (and a less-magnificent organ pile). The way to go to the last underground level. The final confrontation between hero and villain. The mixture of SF, horror and fantasy.

No, I’m not the ideal target audience for this book. As a die-hard partisan of genre restrictions and a Hard-SF reader convinced about the primacy of plot over style, I didn’t go bonkers over Veniss Underground like so many of my fellow reviewers. But I liked it well enough to consider it time and money well-spent. As a piece of twenty-first-century imaginative literature, there’s even something to be said about the way Vandermeer borrows from multiple genres in order to tell the story he wants without necessarily fitting it in a particular niche like would have been the case thirty years ago. (Usually in SF; I’ll try to say something more about this purification of the “science-fiction” label in a latter review, preferably as a companion to the “domination of fantasy isn’t a bad thing” argument) Good work, Mr. Vandermeer. Yes, I liked your book. Am even looking forward to your next novel.

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