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DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

TWO by JEFF VANDERMEER:
CITY OF SAINTS & MADMEN / VENISS UNDERGROUND

CITY OF SAINTS & MADMEN (May 2002)
By Jeff VanderMeer (deluxe hc)
Prime Books/ $40/ A Bunch of Pages
ISBN: 0966896882

cover Many of us feel that once VanderMeer gets over his squid fixation, he'll amount to something as a writer, but if we go on too much about how brilliant he is he'll never move on. Since this volume has already appeared on a number of "best of 2002" lists and been hailed by others you should already KNOW to read it. However, I did want to point out that there are two editions. One is a Wildside trade paperback that consists (I think, I haven't seen it) of the text of the four infamously entertaining Ambergris novellas ("Dradin, In Love," "Hogbottom Guide to Ambergris," "The Transformation of Martin Lake," and "Strange Case of X") and costs only $15 bucks American. The hardcover (the one I have) costs $25 more but has another book's worth of wacked-out material (including an encrypted story) and a lot of fancy-pants design and illustration. (Due to this d & i, it's hard to say exactly how many pages the book has unless you have at least fourth grade math skills and time on your hands. I have neither, but it looks to be more than 400 pages.) Thus it is a Real Value. It is also a Good Choice to take into your home bunker as it will fill many hallucinatory hours with snorts and giggles, hours that would have otherwise been spent untangling duct tape or counting your canned goods. -- Paula Guran (DarkEcho 03.20.03>

squid

VENISS UNDERGROUND (April 2003)
By Jeff VanderMeer
Nightshade/ 216 pages/ $40 (Signed Limited Edition)
ISBN: 1892389614

US Trade Paper
Prime/ 216 pages/ $15
ISBN: 1894815645

U.K. Trade Paper (Oct 2003)
TOR UK

cover VENISS UNDERGROUND starts in first person with Nicholas, an artist of the far-future (somewhere beyond the 27th century) city of Veniss. In "slang jockey" jargon he sketches a society -- ruined by pollution and disorder -- isolated into towering walled city-states separated by chemical mutant-inhabited wastelands. There is still stability in Veniss, but the gears and wheels, law and order of government are long gone. Nicholas, out of luck and funds, goes to Shadrach -- his sister's former lover -- for help. Shadrach works for the mysterious and powerful Quin, and Nicholas wants a piece of the action.

In Part Two, the narrator is Nicola who speaks in second person. Nicola is a programmer who works "manipulating reality into new configurations" with 50 to 100 year-old technologies, the remnants of a now reined-in AI system that once ruled the city. Barbarism is just beyond the metaphorical gates and what order still exists is due to such programmers who literally keep the trains running on time. The below ground levels are completely lost, above ground level split into districts governed by numerous authorities.

But VENISS UNDERGROUND is, above all, about its characters, not the sociology of a dying civilization or the hardware of its science. Above all, we learn more about Nicholas, who has disappeared. More about Nicola, who seeks her brother, and more of her past relationship with Shadrach, who loves her. We also realize that humanity is threatened by bioengineering much closer to doom than we (or it) had assumed.

Shadrach's viewpoint, in third person, finishes out the story. Nicola has, like Persephone, been taken to the underworld, but there is no Demeter to free her. Instead, Shadrach must descend into that world -- like Orpheus after Eurydice -- in order to save her. The lower levels are indeed a hell. Visually (and it's a very visual book, the fifth level should be portrayed by Alan M. Clark in Pain Doctors of Suture Self General mode and only Hieronymus Bosch himself could portray the lowest level of the underground. Dante couldn't handle it, even with the parachutes used to efficiently descend through the levels.

Ultimately, VENISS UNDERGROUND is a love story that is more gruesome fairy tale and fantastic allegory than it is science fiction. VanderMeer's vivid prose flows with literary allusion: cyberpunk, the Wizard of Oz, Alice through the looking glass; the use of James Thurber's Gollux is particularly clever and one can see Quin as parallel to his Duke of Coffin Castle -- terrifying and powerful, but also pitiable and helpless. But instead of a castle, there's rotting hulk of a leviathan full of chaos and traitors to order. Are we walking into the jaws of a monster or are we to be reminded of Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan": Non est potestas Super Terram quae Compatetur ei? (Job 41:24) Probably both, because there's an underlying metaphor of systems failing here as well.

Will amajor US publisher buy this book? If not, it's indicative of how the main body of sf (and fantasy for that matter) has gone back to being just another plastic-covered Sears sofa, much as it was in the seventies. (Hope you know who I'm paraphrasing.) VENISS UNDERGROUND is highly accessible, entertaining, yet thoughtful fiction that would appeal to a broad array of readers.

And there are no squid -- although you'll never again consider meerkats as cute little critters. -- Paula Guran (DarkEcho 03.20.03>

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