Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Veniss Underground

Jeff Vandermeer

His first novel. Interesting, fast moving, inventive, grotesque. Well worth reading, although lower in quality than both Finch and City of Saints and Madmen. It’s directly science fiction which doesn’t actually mean much sylistically. In principle things are more physically possible

This point is useful to demolish the whole assumptions of a separation between science fiction and fantasy, ’backward looking’ and ’forward looking’, possible and impossible. In some positions that type of binary makes sense, and if we’re talking about Tolkien or his endless clones it makes sense on some level to distinguish a type of wide-trend focused writing from the story of epic adventure with all its romanticized view of the aristocracy. But of course those lines aren’t at all clear or inrevitable in practice, and generally serve mostly as a kind of self-righteous attitude by science fiction only fans that live in ignorance of the strongest voice in modern fantasy. This description, I should add, applies to me up until about a year and a half ago.

In any case, knowing that this is a VanderMeer novel tells me vastly more it than knowing that it’s set in the future. There’s a similar type of grim creativity at work, and a directly comparable focus on portraying a whole wide-functioning culture. What we’re persented at here more than in City of Saints and Mademn is a social enviornment already in the process of disintegration, suffering from collapse of central authority and a general process of anarchy. The main plot concerns the protagonist (eventuallly revealed as such) working to stop a mad scientist crimelord from his effort to replace humanity in the successive battle of the city. He’s foiled, but the larger issues of the society remain beyond direct counteracting, in a state of technological fervent and communal erosion.

It’s not a weakly dying polity, and it doesn’t by any means make for a feeble narrative. Very well written, standout setup for characters and a very inventing backdrop. One surprising element in the story was that the mad scientist crimelord wasn’t shown as a campy or deliberately ironic figure. Instead he was written quite seriously, and by the end of the story he’s done enough damage and demonstrated enough sadistic combinations of art, slavery and living creatures to serve as a quite viable antagonist.

Worse than: City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer
Better than: Dune by Frank Herbert. Not a judgement most genre fans would share, I believe, but such is my view. Bettter characterization, certanly, and if one looks at the worldbuilding line by line I see it as having a lot more creativity and overall sense of credibility. In no small part because it’s not coded as sylistically fantasy like Herbert’s is. And of course one could make the case tht without Dune’s success there wouldn’t have been the pattern of elaborate worldbuilding in speculative fiction so that it enabled VanderMeer’s later creativity. Even if that’s true however it makes Herbert influential, not necesarily good.

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