This review could easily just be: what the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck?
As I was just saying to my partner, who is reading these books at the same time as me, the concept isn’t that strange in many ways. You can explain it as a straightforward SF or horror story. It’s just the way VanderMeer writes it: it’s so insidious, so sideways; it creeps up on you. The depersonalisation of the nameless characters helps with that, and the half-said things. The contradictions and confusions and the way that you can never be sure anything has happened. In most SF stories, at least you get a solid answer: this character is controlled by aliens. This character is an alien. This character is turning into an alien. This character is going to have an alien burst out of their chest.
But VanderMeer makes you consider all possibilities at once. They could all be true. Or none. Or something else even weirder. It’s that thing that effective horror/suspense can do, where it’s more scary because you can’t define exactly what the discomfort is.
I’ve said all that and not even touched on the characters, which are normally the most important thing for me. But when it comes to a lot of New Weird type stories, I’ve found that the places in which the action occurs are often characters in themselves, in some weird way. Sometimes more vivid and alive than the characters themselves. There’s definitely a sense of the characters here being more roles, archetypes, cyphers, than real people. And yet there are things you can hold onto: the biologist, her husband… to an extent, the surveyor: I wanted to know what she was thinking, how she was coping.
If you don’t like mysteries and you don’t like weird, this is absolutely not your kind of book. But it is very intriguing, in a slow building kind of way. I want to know.