A few weeks ago, I was idly looking through my local charity shop for books. Nothing really took my fancy – I have far too many books so don’t usually buy them that whimsically – but as I was just about to leave, an amazing cover caught my eye.
The book was pretty thin, by an author I’d not heard of – later, I realised that I had two books edited by the author in my bookcase: The Steampunk Bible and the Steampunk anthology. The blurb ofVeniss Underground sounded interested, and the first page was readable and intriguing. The publisher was Tor, which gave me a lot of faith. But most of all, I fell in love with the cover art. It was so beautiful – the grungy colours and textures, the menacing interlacing of semi-abstract imagery. Yes, I bought the book based on its cover.
It was also a signed edition. I wonder why someone would go to the trouble of getting a book signed, only to give it to a charity shop.
Anyway, I started reading, and I found the protagonist a little annoying and the story a little non-nonsensical. Something about biologically engineered meerkats… okay… But I wanted to give it a chance. Flipping ahead a little, I saw that the book was divided into three unequal sections. The first was the shortest, and the last was the longest. Each section put the reader in the head of a different character. The first section was told in the first person, the second section in the second person, and the third section in the third person. Interesting, I though. I enjoy experimentation and diversity in fiction.
The second section grabbed me. I found myself deeply in the character’s head and starting to get to grips with the strange world I was in. By the third section, I was in love. The novel intensified into horrifically beautiful madness, and I was left awed by the imagination and the depth of the writing.
I don’t really know how to describe this book. It’s somewhere between science-fiction and fantasy, with a grounding in a possible distant future, but also full of impossibilities and madness, written with a convincing suspension of disbelief that gives the world the grain of truth while simultaneously being completely ludicrous. I guess it could be described as biopunk with a dash of steampunk. It doesn’t really matter what sub-genre it falls in. Essentially, it is a fantastically imaginative and beautifully written book.
Here are some of my favourite sections:
He was brittle with the weight of his humanity, and he had memories of this place… His first memories outside of the room that served as their home were of the clank-and-thrum musics of the mining machines. He soon saw them up close: monstrous black metal carapaces four, five stories high, the heat they gave off like sweat, so that they always seemed possessed of a righteous anger: to steam, to bubble, to boil. They generated a fierce light that annihilated his vision even as he adjusted to it; a corona of flame through which the machines burst through in glimpses – their bodies a black darker than night… their spokes like iridescent midnight starfish…
- ‘Veniss Underground’ by Jeff Vandermeer, p83
Where the sculptures of saints would have been set into the walls, there were instead bodies laid into clear capsules, the white, white skin glistening in the light – row upon row of bodies in the walls, the bewildering proliferation of walls. The columns, which rose and arched in bunches of five or six together, were not true columns, but instead highways for blood and other substances: giant red, green, blue and clear tunes that courses through the cathedral like arteries.
- ‘Veniss Underground’ by Jeff Vandermeer, p87
This gives you just a flavour of the writing and the nightmare visions within this novel. And it fills me with intense respect and intense envy. This is how I want to write. This is the kind of eloquence and vitality I want to achieve through my own stories. Discovering this kind of writing fills me with joy and inspiration, but also with a little bit of despair as I think: ‘How can I want this talent for myself when it is already so perfectly in existence elsewhere – what’s the point of that?’
But, of course, it all comes down to tapping into our own voice, telling our own stories in our own ways. I can only dream that someone, one day, will have the same sense of awe about my writing that I feel when I read novels such as this. That’s the dream.