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Veniss Underground

Jeff VanderMeer

Prime Books

US Trade Paperback

ISBN 1-894-48564-5

Publication Date: 04-01-2003

188 Pages; $15.00

Date Reviewed: 03-19-03  

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2003



Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy

11-23-02, 03-26-03, 06-12-03, 08-22-03

Every scientific revolution gets its vanguard SF novel. For the Information revolution, it was William Gibson's 'Neuromancer'. For the quantum revolution, it's M. John Harrison's 'Light'. For the biotech revolution, it's Jeff Vandermeer's 'Veniss Underground'. Vandermeer's vision of a world transformed by biotech is dense and beautifully written. Most importantly, like Gibson and Harrison, he connects the technology intensely with the individual. At the end of the day, any technology becomes a technology by virtue of its use by and impact on people. Without that human connection, all you've got is another book of popular science, perhaps informative but not essential. Vandermeer writes with a passion that is positively pathological, nearly Gothic. It's the same set of emotions that sent Heathcliff out on the moors and drove Orpheus into the underworld. It's that spark of passion and art that illuminates the very deep darkness of 'Veniss Underground' from within.

Though it takes as its inception point the revolution made possible by current advances in biotech, 'Veniss Underground' is not so much concerned with science as with setting. Vandermeer is not writing a screed about the perils of unchecked progress. Instead, he's creating a detailed, painterly setting for a passion play about creation, love and sacrifice. Though set in our future, the feel of 'Veniss Underground' is akin to fantasies such as 'Gormenghast'. Reading this novel, one immerses one's self in lovely language that turns out to be describing horrific imagery. It's a very peculiar strategy that pays off for the reader prepared to experience the extremes that Vandermeer is capable of creating. More than many writers, Vandermeer seems to plunge so deeply into his own unconsciousness that he gets beneath it and finds the common darkness that underlies us all.

Vandermeer's story is told from three points of view; that of Nicholas, a failed artist, his sister, Nicola, the dependable, employed programmer, and finally that of Shadrach, who might have been in the employ of the mysterious Quin, who runs Quin's Shanghai Circus. Vandermeer's reference to the works of Edward R. Whittemore is more an exercise in good taste than in following the leader. 'Veniss Underground' has little to do with Whittemore's groundbreaking fiction other than a passing reference to one of the more horrific passages in the Whittemore work. Still, it's a good indicator of quality.

Vandermeer's vision is of a world overrun with a riot of living biological trash. This may not be new, but the passion of his prose, the painterly quality of his writing bring this idea to a level not yet achieved. For readers who like their world dark, dense and populated with all manners of monster, 'Veniss Underground' is a true treat. This is a wet future, like that portrayed in the bowels of the derelict ship in the movie 'Alien'. Vandermeer's imagination is more than up to the task of envisioning things not seen in mind of most mortal men.

But the author isn't just offering the readers an updated bit of splatter. The plot evolves as Nicholas seeks Quin, then Nicola seeks Nicholas, and finally, Shadrach seeks them both. But within this simple framework, Vandermeer fashions a journey that is ripe with allusion, echoes and allegory. Greek myth, Judeo-Christian mythology, Joseph Conrad and more are bio-engineered by Vandermeer into something strange and wonderful. He keeps the characters weird enough to be believable in his contorted world but human enough so that they still seem to inhabit the same skin as you and I.

Though the world that Vandermeer portrays is rather dark, his book is not uniformly so. 'Veniss Underground' is shot through with just the right amount of laugh-out-loud humor. The author plays well off the absurdity of the world he has created. Most importantly, the payoff in this novel is superb. All too often science fiction writers fashion journeys for characters we like through well-imagined landscapes only to end up telling the reader not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Vandermeer's man behind the curtain is well worth the wait, and preceded by a delightful creation, the Gollux, that is every bit as appealing as Dennis Hopper's capering character from 'Apocalypse Now'. If this novel is getting a lot of movies mentioned in the review, it's only because the novel plays out like a film inside the reader's head. It's vivid and intense.

'Veniss Underground' does contain some scenes of true horror, and it will appeal to fans of all the speculative fiction sub-genres -- science fiction, fantasy and horror. It will also appeal to the lovers of visionary fiction such as 'Light' and 'Neuromancer'. There's the same sense of self-possession in the writing and prose. You'll want to re-read Vandermeer's poetic passages, and the final voyage to see Quin is something many readers will want to linger over. Though it's written with the same artistic flourishes and quality that one finds in the best Gothic Victorian novels, it's edgy and modern. 'Veniss Underground' demonstrates that Vandermeer is much more than a quirky sideshow in speculative fiction. He's certainly a main attraction in the SF circus.