Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

2003: Veniss Underground (VanderMeer, Jeff)

Myth, horror, and sci-fi in an intricate dance (4/5)

Written in three movements, the three perspectives in Veniss Underground are steeped in textural myth and literary history. As neither a myth historian or literary historian, most of these connotations were only superficially sensed. Veniss Underground has been compared to Dante's Divine Comedy (for its hellish descent into the city's netherworld), Greek mythology's Orpheus and Eurydice (again, for its hellish portrayal), and the Dutch painter Heirontmus Bosch (for its dark portrait of life in a dystopia alá The Hermit Saints Triptych)--all suggested by Publishers Weekly.

Myth? Horror? Science Fiction? Much like the tag of "speculative fiction" or "bizarro-fiction," the amalgamation of each genre's ambiance is brought to the surface in Veniss Underground: the mythical stories of the descent into hell, the horror of somatic pain in the existence of abject poverty, and the science fiction import of future dystopia and reality as illusion. These three heavenly bodies pull of genre and push each other in a dance of literary gravity, a three-bodied system of balance and finesse. where no body exerts more force than any other.


Part I: Nicholas - 4/5 - Nicholas is robbed of his ceramics and holo art, which leaves him in despair pondering life underground in the garbage of humanity's garbage. One last idea of some sort of personal salvation, Nicholas wants access to Quin's Shanghai Circus through is friend Shadrach. Shadrach, who was once in a relationship with Nicholas' twin sister, Quin "raised him from the dead" after the break-up. Nicholas seeks to get himself a meerkat from "the Livliest Artist" of them all--the creator of new organic species, the regeneration of species long dead, and the melder of the organic. "Working for an artist" of Quin's proportion may be as undefined as the shape and function of his organic avatar of flesh and circus. (16 pages) ----- A fairly short story but laden with terminology and mysteries that can only be and explained revealed upon the completion of Parts I and II. The nuances of the story are flourish when the other stories are read, which turns a confusing 3-star story into a more fulfilling 4-star story upon reflection.

Part II: Nicola - 4/5 - Nicola, twin sister of the recently missing Nicholas, visits her brother's apartment for clues as to his whereabouts. One scrap of paper reveals his obsession with the Livliest Artist, Quin. Nicola contacts her ex-boyfriend and friend of Nicholas, Shadrach, who radiates guilt and brushes off her request for information. Soon after their meeting, Nicola receives a meerkat for a servant, who tends to cook excellent fiddler crab for dinner. Given that the meerkat is the work of the infamous Quin, Nicola trusts the critter very little but also can not resist the urge to follow it as it leaves her flat every morning. (57 pages) ----- Annoying written in a second-person past-tense narrative format, the significance the style ONLY becomes clear half-way through Part III. It definitely takes some adjustment to... but just when you think that the writing style in Part II is just part of the artistic license, the focus is pulled to full detail in Part III and the reader is gifted full insight, forever relieving. Nicola's experience reminds me of Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Reynolds' Chasm City--a creepy and cryptic combination which favors multi-layered mysteries over th clear and obvious. One possibly idiosyncratic addition to Part II is the narrator's use of alliteration: familiar furry, silently surveys, glint and glitter, row of doors down the corridor, ache of atoms.

Part III: Shadrach - Shadrach still works for Quin but grudgingly accepts the assignments given to him, until his ex-lover Nicola disappears and her eyeballs end up staring back at him from the passive face of a geriatric celebutante. Shadrach returns to Nicola's flat and discovers the hiding servant meerkat in the closet. In order to assist him in descending the rancid depths of the underground, he cuts off the meerkat's head, glues it to a plate, and places it in his inner pocket. With this inside information, Shadrach descends to the organ replacement junk yard seeking Nicola... but he'll have to descend to the 10th level and lower if he plans to seek revenge against the immoral kingpin. (119 pages) ----- The complacent grit in the city alone gives way to evolutions of horror through the levels of the underground; rather than horrific, the events witnessed are ones of abject poverty, bottom of the barrel existence, and the amoral, unnatural existence of creatures from a madman's mind. The chasm of inhumanity is contrasted by the witticisms between the decapitated meerkat and the dedicatedly driven Shadrach. The tiers of corporeal amorality through the descent of the underground is in perfect opposition to Roshwald's descending sterility in Level 7. It also has the odd feeling of Super Mario Bros. and most Nintendo games of the era, where the protagonist/adventurer/hero passes level after level to the conclusive fateful meeting with the "end boss" or "final boss."


  1. My favorite new (non-Tolkein) fantasy writer (I realize that this is perhaps slightly more sci-fi). I highly recommend (if you're in the new weird postmodern fantasy mood) VanderMeer Shriek: An Afterword (2006).

    1. Yea, VanderMeer and his non-Tolkien kin have turned me onto weirdness though I bore quite easily with gothic weirdness of authors like Poppy Z. Brite. Murakami's novel was wonderful, too, though without the sci-fi slant than VanderMeer has. Shriek: An Afterword was added to my list yesterday, fellow great mind!