Veniss Underground - Jeff Vandermeer

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Veniss Underground
Jeff Vandermeer
Pan MacMillan
ISBN: 1405032685 (Amazon link)

I think Jeff Vandermeer may be a genius. Or bordering on insane. Perhaps both.

He writes beautifully and with an amazing intensity, but I'm not sure it's good for him. Vandermeer seems to be intoxicated by words, to become drunk on sentences, and to positively revel in the power of words to tell stories; preferably really shocking stories that keep slapping you in the face to ensure you're paying them due attention. I really don't feel able to describe this book [1] - I just want to lend it to you as my good deed for the day.

Vandermeer sets his story in Veniss ("like an adder's hiss"), a far future, lawless city once known as Dayton Central, now swarming with biotechnology but still dominated by faceless big businesses corralled away and irrelevant in gleaming skyscrapers. This is cyberpunk rewritten - the criminal underworld is still where the real action is, and instead of decks, the hip young things have sentient Meerkats (Vandermeerkats!) or other bio-engineered creations courtesy of Quin's Shanghai Circus (nod to Whittemore).

Run Neuromancer's streets through a filter comprising DiFillipo, Mieville, Harrison, and of course Whittemore and the result might be something like Veniss. The story however, ends closer to Dante's Inferno, or the tale of Orpheus, for there is a literal underground to Veniss, a decayed, festering undercity seething with desperate lives and horrors. I'm not a fan of horror novels, but not through squeamishness - I've never really understood those put off fiction by grotesquerie, which has got to be one of the best tools in a writer's arsenal if used well. In particular I never really understood what was so awfully repulsive about Mieville's New Crobazun, which seems like a cozy, welcoming place compared to Vandermeer's particularly horrific setting - Dante's Inferno crossed with a concentration camp, illustrated by Hieronymous Bosch.

But of course Veniss isn't a nice place, and Veniss Underground isn't a nice tale; it's something far darker, with an infinite capacity for horror - a love story. It's told in three parts, each increasing in length and emotional impact; one book each for Nicolas, his twin Nicola, and Shadrach. Summing up the plot won't do much to convey the feel of things, but in short Nicolas is a down on his luck Living Artist - working with bio-engineered material, sculpting with living flesh. Nicolas' friend Shadrach is a charismatic escapee from the underground world, and his twin sister's ex-lover. Shadrach is connected to the mysterious and never seen Quin, the criminal mastermind and master Living Artist whose creations - Meerkats and elephant headed little Ganeshas - can be found throughout Veniss.

After losing what little he has of any worth, mainly his own artworks, in a burglary, Nicolas begs an introduction to Quin off Shadrach, seriously abusing their friendship. Nicolas doesn't realise the magnitude of the Faustian bargain he's asking for, and once sucked into Quin's world cannot escape. After he misses a lunch date, his respectable, sensible twin Nicola becomes worried. She is a programmer [2] trying to hold the decaying city together by sheer willpower and ruthlessly logical planning.

Nicola becomes worried about Nicolas, particularly when she finds his apartment empty, but doesn't panic until she locates a electronic trace of his credit - on the tenth level underground... In desperation, she seeks out Shadrach, her ex, to help track down Nicolas. As for Shadrach's tale? Ah, that would be telling, but his nightmarish, and often allegorical, journey back to the underground past in search of his lover and her twin is unforgettable. For all the visceral shock of the visuals, the real terror Shadrach has to face is much more familiar - and to tell you would be ruin one of the finest, most poignant moments in the book.

Veniss Underground is also about why mankind shouldn't be optimistic about bio-engineering, in this cautionary tale Vandermeer seems fascinated by the darker possibilities of playing god, reminding us that mankind includes Dr Mengele: "Creatures that scuttled on eight legs and had the features of delicately proportioned apes pinned to the scorpion's carapace. ... Some were just exhausted networks of veins, red and panting and in an agony that, for lack of a mouth, screamed from their every jerking movement." Man need not even intend to cause harm, Nicolas is haunted by his early experiments with living art, where simple incompetence and amateur tools produces pitiful twisted caricatures of kittens. Paralleling that theme is one about decay, corruption, the potential for failure present in all complex systems, including cities and living things, a theme used strikingly when Shadrach finally closes in on Quin near the end.

The plot is compelling, the characters memorable, their journeys fascinating, and the themes powerful, but the best thing about this book is the writing - Vandermeer loves words ("the slang jockey thing on paper") and it shows. Time and time again I had to re-read passages just to appreciate the words again.

Veniss Underground is lush, phantasmagorical, shocking, poignant and seriously impressive.

[1] Authors are always better at describing books anyway; I liked this blurb:
"Veniss Underground is an advance on most imaginative fiction in the same way that a sleek whale, diving into unlighted depths or surfacing with explosive joy, is an advance on a dish of fat dead worms." - Rhys Hughes

[2] As programmers like Nicola are respected and powerful my suspension of disbelief was shaken. I remembered that I was reading SF.

Posted: Tue - November 25, 2003 at 02:19 AM