See also my review of City Of Saints And Madmen
For such a very dark and, at times, frankly horrific book, Veniss Underground seems in some ways imbued with a paradoxical sense of playfulness in the warp and weft of its pages. Jeff VanderMeer's far-future vision ('vision' in a very Blake-ian sense) reveals an advanced but slowly, imperceptibly retreating human civilisation living an isolated existence within mighty walled cities protected from an irredeemably polluted Earth. Despite the many sights and wonders of such a twilight existence, this is the familiar old humanity, caught up in the day-to-day act of living, rather than an epic struggle against decadence and decay. The struggle to make art or just to put food on the table occupies a more central position than civilisation's entropy. Imagine someone were narrating your life today, in all its science fictional wonder, to a reader from 200 years ago. How amazed might they be, and how horrified, and yet how blasé you are about it.
Three characters at various points look to find the mysterious Quin, a Dr Moreau-style genius and vital producer of the city's enhanced animal servants. Nicholas is a failing artist and slang-jockey (imagine a kind of far future fashion victim). His twin sister Nicola is a successful but unfulfilled programmer who once loved the book's third character, Shadrach, a sometime employee of Quin's and former denizen of the city's awful underworld.
Nicholas, destitute and desperate, visits Shadrach for help and advice in finding Quin, and gets it - along with a warning. Visiting the underworld to find Quin he disappears. Nicola, wracked with guilt, sets out in turn to find him, also visiting Shadrach for help and advice. When she in turn disappears Shadrach returns to the underworld he grew up in to try to rescue the woman he still tragically loves.
Veniss Underground has echoes of Jack Vance, Hieronymous Bosch and George A. Romero, and VanderMeer at his best can match China Mieville for industrial-strength descriptions of awful strangeness any day. Where's the fun in this? Well, for a start the highest intelligences in the city may well be Quin's meerkat's, engineered servants (or are they…?) of rich humans.
I also liked the narration of the book's three sections (Nicholas's, Nicola's and Shadrach's) in the first, second and third person, respectively. Quite apart from neatness, these viewpoints also help to define the characters: Nicholas's (first person) self-centredness, Nicola's (second person) detachment and Shadrach's (third person) alienation. Shadrach's adventures down below (one might almost say in the furnace…) are, as I've said, really quite horrific; the city above, initially so real and familiar to us through Nicholas and Nicola, who narrate the first and second sections, comes to seem almost a layer of froth upon an ocean of suffering. It's ironic that only with the third person do we become aware of the reality beneath the world, metaphorically escaping from the other's heads to see the outside.
Veniss Underground is frighteningly well written and carries far more than would ever seem possible within just 177 pages.