Sunday, April 02, 2006

Veniss Underground -- Jeff VanderMeer

Every year at AggieCon, Scott Cupp and Willie Siros talk me into buying some SF books they think I should read. This year, one of the books was Veniss Underground. I realize Jeff VanderMeer is a hot writer now, so I figured I'd give the book a try, even though there are a couple of things about it that put me off.

One thing was that the book is divided into three parts, and the first part is told in first person, the second in second person, and the third in (you guessed it) third person. Is that a little to cute for you?

Then you don't even want to hear the rest of what I have to say. If you're still reading, here's the second thing. Veniss Underground is the kind of book that inspires reviewers to say things like this: "T
here 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." That should give you a clue that this isn't some Doc Smith space opera we're talking about here.

Instead, what we have is a very literary SF novel about a far, far future where all things are possible and where people are "born" in vats and where just about any kind of manipulation of the fleshly material is possible. Animals like meercats can be given almost human intelligence, and creatures like "ganesh" are possible. The story very obviously plays on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but there's a lot more going on as a fellow named Shadrach goes far below the surface, through various levels of the underworld, to bring back a woman he loves. The imagery and descriptions and the writing itself are more important than the characters, almost more important than the story. If you like that sort of thing, then this is just the sort of thing you'd like. Small doses are recommended. This volume contains a novella and three short stories set in the same universe as the title novel. One of these days I'll probably read them, but it will be a while.

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