Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Jeff VanderMeer - Veniss Underground

Let me tell you about the city…

I don’t think that I’ve ever been this floored by a novel (A Storm of Swords at least had the dignity to come with a warning label in the form of the prior two volumes). VanderMeer is an author whose name seems to be pretty universally revered, when recognized, amongst SFF fans. For what feels like months, I’ve been looking for A City of Saints and Madmen. After having my search thwarted by every bookstore in Long Island, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, I finally found Veniss Underground in a college bookstore just before giving up hope. I had never heard of it, but by then I was willing to try anything with VanderMeer’s name, or a close approximation of it, on the spine.

The book was, as can be inferred by the first sentence, stunning. It’s set far in the future, in a time when earth’s various cities have become high tech city states. For a time, Veniss enjoyed a golden age, but, for causes unspecified, the city’s government came crashing down. In its absence, the various districts of the city have become independent in their own right, and the city’s underground is spilling into daylight. Though he is only visible for a brief time, Quin is the catalyst of the entire book. It is his influence that sets every one of the characters on their path.

The glory of the book doesn’t come from the plot. It’s in the prose and characters that the magic is truly found. Experimental techniques such as second person and its kind are viewed with – not undeserved – hesitation by most readers. It takes a book like this to remind us that it isn’t the techniques that are bad, just their continual misapplication. The writing here is filled with great phrases, yet remains clear throughout. Allusions to other literary works fill the story, Dante’s Inferno and countless other classics and myths prominent among them.

The book is structured in three parts of increasing length, one from each of the character’s perspectives. Different parts are each written in a totally different viewpoint style and vary considerably in atmosphere. The first of these is told by Nicholas. Despite being the reason that the rest of the characters are dragged down into the underworld, Nicholas’s screen time is quite brief. His chapters are written from a selfish first person perspective, and, as a failed artist and “slang jockey” are littered with turns of phrase that vary from insightful (The city is sharp, the city is a cliché performed with cardboard and painted sparkly colors to disguise the empty center – the hole), to amusing (replacing IE with Eye E, for instance), to downright pretentious (wait, listen: the end of the world is night; that’s mine, a single-cell haiku).

The second part of the book is told from Nicola’s perspective. Prose here is written in a second person, present tense style. This not only sucks you in beautifully, after a few seconds of adjustment, but also provides some of the best writing:

You. Were. Always. Two. As one: Nicola and Nicholas, merging into the collective memory together, so that in the beginning of a sentence spoken by your brother you knew the shadow of its end and mouthed the words before he said them.

The third part of the book is told from Shadrach, Nicola’s former lover. His style is told in a more detached third person perspective. Here, the eye grabbing writing is pushed farther back, to allow the outside world to shine through more clearly. For a few instants this transition seems like a shame, but the prodigal strangeness of the underworld makes up for it with ease. Shadrach’s section forms the largest portion of the book and from him we learn the most about Veniss, and about all of the characters. Prior misconceptions are set to rights, and there are two moments of brilliance that can best be described as the structural equivalent of a plot twist.

The underworld is strange in a way that few other fantasies have ever managed to be. It can, perhaps be compared to Mieville for sheer inventiveness, but the comparison comes more from the authors’ titanic imaginations than any true similarity. As the quest continues, and Shadrach descends from level to level, the strangeness becomes ever more profound. There are scenes of horror here, and scenes of wonder, and all of them are perfectly envisioned and conveyed.

Also contained in the volume are three short stories and a novella, all set within the Veniss milieu. The short stories are all interesting, but none approach the level of the preceding novel. The greatest of them is the third, A Heart For Lucretia. Its interesting structure, and bizarre chain of events, is captivating, yet the entire thing felt like it was perpetually on the edge of greatness, unable to cross over within its limited length.

The novella, Balzac’s War, is the best of the extra content. Like the shorts, it takes place far after the main story, and is centered on a war between humanity and the flesh dogs. The story begins with a brief scene, then jumps a large number of years. The reasons for that never become wholly apparent, but the story has strong characters and is highly unsettling nonetheless.

Veniss Underground is a story that draws you in and does not let you go, filled with memorable characters and troubling themes, evocative images and unforgettable action. It is not something that should be allowed to pass by. If you don’t have it, you have done a grievous disservice to yourself. Remedy that at once.

All of this leaves A City of Saints and Madmen with quite a bit of living up to do.

Peter F. Hamilton - Fallen Dragon

In the public conscience, the glamour of interstellar exploration was fading like the enchantment of an aging actress...

The quote, given to us within the first paragraph, sets the tone for the rest of the book. Within, Hamilton questions just how realistic our gilded dreams of colonizing the stars really are. The rose-colored enthusiasm of the early explorers is almost wholly gone by now, leaving in its place corporate domination. The common people want nothing so much as to be allowed to live their own lives.

Despite this interesting premise, the book has some serious problems. Most of these seem to come from a fundamental clash in just what story was being told. It’s a common reader complaint that whatever book they have just bought didn’t turn out to be what they were after, and it’s hard to blame anyone but them for their generally shoddy research. I don’t feel that’s the case here, however. It’s not just that the back promises one thing and the text delivers another, it seems like the two different strands of the story are constantly pulling against each other and trying to sprint off in opposite directions.

The first of these strands is, essentially, corporate piracy. Zantiu-Braun funded the colony’s development, now it feels it has a right to whatever the place has produced since. Backed by their Skin wearing super soldiers, the corporation has to face a determined resistance attempt on the world of Thallspring. In this, all three viewpoint characters – Zantiu-Braun’s Simon Roderick, resistance organizer Denise Ebourn, and Skin soldier Lawrence Newton – seem to be of roughly equal importance and are given roughly equal screentime.

The second strand, however, is solely about Lawrence Newton and his development. Now, Newton is a fascinating character. His idealistic dreams about exploration and space flight form an interesting contrast with those around him, and his life is suitably traumatic to be fascinating. All the same, this focus works actively against the first far more than it aids it.

The resistance plotline relies almost wholly on rising tensions. As the movement commits each isolated act, the population of the city is further emboldened and the Skins are increasingly nervous. Tensions rise consistently and everything would be fine - if only it wasn’t completely upset after every single chapter. The book is roughly split between Lawrence’s past and the current conflict, and every flashback totally severs whatever was built up in the chapter prior.

The first few flashbacks are closely related and manage to keep our interest for the next one reasonably high. But after that, just as the other storyline is ramping up, the scenes here grow further apart and more disconnected. The result is that the books pace starts to feel wildly uneven, as each chapter has to start from scratch and wholly rebuild the tension that its predecessor had already established. In addition, Lawrence’s life goes through so many different phases that it is some time before we receive any pay off within the present day at all from the interludes.

Tying into this is Hamilton’s methods of maintaining tension in his various mysteries. We are given a single hint, then no further clues for five hundred pages. At the last second, though, the mystery is busted out fully formed.

After all that, I feel I should probably state that the book is actually quite good. The technology is always interesting and inventive, as are the worlds that the characters visit. The plot always moves at a decent clip and remains quite reasonable throughout. Several twists and developments come as a total surprise, though in retrospect each is exquisitely foreshadowed. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading for hours at a time, on this one. Once Hamilton gets going, it’s damn hard to put down. The action scenes are near flawless, both adrenalin filled and packed with cool concepts and clever trickery. After making the Skin suites so powerful, one would think that Hamilton would have a hard time giving them worthy adversaries. On that front, there’s no need to worry.

The characters are a mixed bag. Well, that’s probably not the best term to describe them. They are, all save one, very well done. Which just makes that one exception all the more glaring. Lawrence Newton is the star of the show, and is the best realized character by far. All of his experiences eventually do tie who he is and his quest to finally attain his dreams of interstellar exploration is a joy to read about.

He isn’t the only character that is well drawn. At first glance, his squad mates, especially the newbie, Hal Grabowski, are all almost caricatures. Yet, somewhere amidst the man’s fourth and ten thousandth plea for sex, he came alive. Though it came as a shock while reading, I found myself genuinely caring when he got himself into trouble

The one flaw is Denise. For the vast majority of the book, we have a very solid character in her. The contrast between loving playschool teacher and ruthless resistance leader is excellent. In the course of her experience with small children, she tells them and us the story of Mozark. The story is a charming travelogue of sorts, filled with interesting descriptions and ideologies. Despite, or perhaps because, of how different it was from the rest of the book, it became one of my favorite parts:

“The planet’s true name had been forgotten centuries ago. It was just called The City now…The people who lived there had devoted themselves to making the most beautiful buildings it was possible to make. All of them lived in their own palace with a parkland and a lake and a river, and their public buildings were as majestic as mountains.

…after a time Mozark began to see it for the folly it really was. All the inhabitants of The City did was maintain their buildings. Some families had lived in the same place for twenty or thirty generations. They added to it, but never changed the nucleus, the essence that made them what they were…Mozark knew the people could be inspired to build beautiful or gigantic structures, but after that it was always time to move on. The city was magnificent, but decadent it celebrated the past, not the future."

Then, right before the end, Denise gives a big reveal. Her motivations change completely. The problem is, in a fairly tight third person perspective like this, we get to see her thoughts. All of them support the first course. The second, the supposed purpose of her life, isn’t dwelt upon in the slightest.

Among all these different characters, Hamilton certainly doesn’t shy away from the big issues. Weighty matters like systems of government and “ecocide” are debated at length. In and of itself, that’s hardly a new thing. What is refreshing, though, is the absence of any THIS IS THE RIGHT WAY declarations to close the argument. Hamilton is more than content to let his various characters make their points, and he allows those points to rise and fall on their own merits. That quoted passage up above, for instance? Undoubtedly against materialism, and yet it’s never confirmed by the hand of god/the author. In fact, several other characters would no doubt vehemently disagree with it.

I checked out Fallen Dragon after being intimidated by the length of the Night’s Dawn trilogy. In that respect, it served as an interesting entryway to Hamilton’s work, and I will be checking out the trilogy shortly. If you’re looking for a character driven science fiction story, filled with fascinating big ideas and awesome action, check it out…just don’t expect a perfect ride.

Mission Statement

There are a lot of review blogs out there. Amongst all of them, the sensible thing to do would be to try to differentiate oneself. That could be difficult, though. Amidst this many bloggers, mostly following the same general format, what can one do that will be truly original, while still remaining useful to the only part of the equation that really matters, the readers?

Whatever it is, I haven’t thought of it. I don’t have a single catchphrase that reveals – RIGHT THERE AND THEN – what I’m offering that no one else is. Popularity would be nice. I doubt all that many people would complain about being quoted on book jackets, or being courted by their favorite authors. I’m pretty aware that it’s not going to happen to me, at least not with a beginning as ambitious as this is proving to be.

Why am I doing this, then? Simple: I love to read, and I love to write. Over the years I’ve discovered that, when I read a book, I’m going to decide if I like it. I’m then going to decide why. I’m then going to share these reasons with someone else. This is something inalterable about me. I will find myself going over the merits of The Lies of Locke Lamora or Perdido Street Station with classmates who haven’t willingly read a book in years and who couldn’t possibly care much less.

Reviewing is, as far as I can tell, the obvious solution here. I get to take something that I was going to do anyway, and I get to get something out of it. If not piles of money, then at least something more constructive than endless IM conversations about the merits of The Gathering Storm or Chasm City.

So, I’m not offering anything particularly new, or innovative, or, in all likelihood, particularly worthwhile. All the same, it will hopefully prove interesting. If you have an interest in reading and would like to read a – hopefully thoughtful - take on books you’ve read, or are considering reading, perhaps I can provide it. Perhaps not. No harm done, in that case. If you are interested, know that from this point on (February 9th, to be exact) I'll post a new entry every Tuesday and will focus mostly on science fiction, fantasy, and perhaps a touch of horror.

I think I’ve blathered enough here – you may want to note that nowhere in the above did I say I could be concise – and whatever I say here won’t change the quality of the blog’s content in the slightest. I think it’s time to get to some reviews.