A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #36:-
This novel is set in a far distant future where the social order has largely broken down and mankind co-exists with specially bred artificial life forms, used as both toys and for menial work. In the city of Veniss, formerly known as Central Dayton, eighteen different bodies claim to be the government and for the computer programmers life is a constant battle to hold chaos at bay, while in the underworld that stretches far below the city life is even more tenuous and strange new forms of sentience have taken hold. Down on his luck holo-artist Nicholas seeks help from the legendary Quin, a quasi-crimelord and bio-engineer responsible for many of the meerkats and ganesha that walk the city streets, but himself ends up as a victim of Quin’s whimsical nature. Nicola, his sister, searches for him and brings herself to Quin’s attention, learning a deadly secret that results in her disappearance from the surface world. Shadrach, Nicola’s former lover and now a bully boy in Quin’s employ, decides to save her, but this requires him to go back into Veniss Underground, which he escaped from as a child, and confront the terrifying reality of Quin’s plans for the world.
Veniss Underground is a wonderful baroque fantasy, beautifully written and with the intriguing experiment of having the three sections of the story cast in a different tense, a device that gives each narrative strand its own particular voice. There is some vibrant imagery, both gorgeous and grotesque, particularly in the closing sections when Shadrach wanders through a vast cathedral formed out of human body parts and then stumbles upon the ocean at the heart of the Underground, a place of strange denizens, the strangest of which is the giant fish that houses Quin’s stronghold. The characters are excellent too, their motives and the emotional bonds that both hold them together and ultimately destroy their lives so well realised that we share their pain. Vandermeer’s sense of humour somewhat softens the prevailing mood of tragedy though, and mention should be made of both The Gollux, omniscient and quietly smug, and the meerkat John the Baptist, who at one stage of the story exists simply as a head without a body, full of marvellous dry wit and succinct observations. Elsewhere the story strikes all sorts of mythical and archetypal grace notes, such as Orpheus going underground and Jonah trapped in the belly of the whale and the story of Pinocchio, while the hopeful ambiguity of the ending hits just the right note for this strange, enigmatic and wonderful tale. Highly recommended.