Nicholas is a holo-artist whose creations have been burgled; he seeks a meerkat so he goes to Quin and offers to work for him in exchange (selling his soul to the devil?). He disappears. His vat-twin Nicola searches for him and is provided with a rather sinister servant meerkat. When she too disappears Shadrach, who was born underground but allowed to come up top as a result of winning a lottery, who used to be Nicola's lover but now works for Quin, goes to seek her and bring her back.
He therefore descends into the underworld. I recognise glimpses of other afterlifes in literature. For example, from the Odyssey(?): "A thousand lost souls populated the land along the shore, condemned to wander until death." (3.7). I wondered to what extent there were echoes of the Gilgamesh story too.
This is the sort of science fiction novel in which the world-building is important and Vandermeer builds a convincing world of anarchy and nightmare described in passages of free-wheeling description which teeters on the edge of the baroque without ever tumbling into purple prose. Vandermeer himself describes it as an "unabashedly, decadent, phantasmagorical novel." Indeed, unabashed if not self-indulgent. There was a great deal of invention but in the end I didn't really care which of the warped creations survived and which failed.
Some of my favourite moments:
- "I'd be bored - and not even to death, unhappily, just to near death." (2.1)
- "On his way to hell, Shadrach stopped at his apartment." (3.1)
- "His father: a silent giant of a man who caved in on himself over the years until it seemed the flames had devoured him, a sad husk who had done the best he could for his family. His mother skipped from job to job with a flexibility and ease that was frivolous next to his father's stoic centredness." (3.2)
I have read a number of this type of novel. Others might include:
- Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Wild Boys by William Burroughs
- Hyperion by Dan Simmons
- The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
- Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake
I suppose that for me these books sink or swim firstly by the strength of their characters and secondly by their ability to convince me that their fantasy worlds convey to me a message about the real world, in other words to what extent they succeed as an allegory.
February 2020; 248 pages