Review – City of Saints and Madmen

Cover of City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VandermeerCity of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer
Originally reviewed 1st March, 2009

Confession: I didn’t actually read all of the appendix of this. I intend to finish it some day, but it’s not the kind of book I feel like I can sit down and just blitz on through. The… bittiness annoys me: I do like short stories/novellas, but this isn’t the easiest collection to read.

The comparisons between Perdido Street Station and this book are obvious. I felt the cities were characters in both books — more clearly so in this book, where there’s no single recurring, central character. It’s an interesting collection of stories with all kinds of different tones and styles and genres, even, all centred around the fictional city of Ambergris. The writing and descriptions are quite rich, and you build up a very clear mental image of this city.

Ignoring the appendix, there are four stories:

‘Dradin, In Love’ — This one was richest in very visual descriptions of the city. I kind of felt overwhelmed, a bit thrown in at the deep end, but I did like the descriptions. It was also the most straightforward short story — not masquerading as anything else. The ending was weird, and clever, but also kind of predictable.

‘The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris’ — This was slightly drier, masquerading as a sort of history pamphlet. The footnotes made me laugh, but it was kind of irritating to go back and forth between text and footnotes. The style was clever, but the story wasn’t as enjoyable as the first one.

‘The Transformation of Martin Lake’ — This combined story-telling with a sort of… art criticism thing. Again, clever, and more interesting because there was also normal short story narrative. It kind of discusses misinterpretations of art and rolls its metaphorical eyes at people who pretend they understand author intent through psychoanalysing them.

‘The Strange Case of X’ — At this point it felt like it was “too clever by half”. Which is how I generally feel about authors appearing in their texts, so perhaps that isn’t an unexpected reaction from me. It was kind of obvious to me, and yeah, it’s a clever story device but it also wasn’t that surprising. Not so much world-building or anything, just pure “lookit my clever plot device, look!”.

Appendix — Stuff related to the previous story. Some of it is interesting, some of it not, for me.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Acceptance

Cover of Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeerAcceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

Let me just say up front: if you’re looking for a resolution, a concrete simple answer, this isn’t the book for you. I think that’s the point: VanderMeer gives us the uncanny, the unknowable, the impossible, and posits that maybe when we come across alien life we’re not gonna know what the heck to make of it. That we might not see any rhyme or reason in what they do — that to us, there may not be any rhyme or reason.

If you’re looking for solutions to some of the smaller mysteries, like what the creation of Area X was like, or why Saul Evans is involved, or anything like that, there’s some of that here. You can find out what happens to some of the characters, like Control and the biologist (though Grace and Ghost Bird are less certain). You get a lot more mystery, atmosphere, weirdness — basically, more of everything you’d expect if you’ve read the previous books.

And I don’t know about anyone else, but I found that I’d got quite attached to the characters. I cared about Saul Evans and Charlie (and excuse me while I’m incredibly pleased about the casual gay couple); I cared about what happened to the biologist and to Grace; I cared about Gloria/Cynthia.

Overall, this is a brilliant trilogy for the pure atmospherics of it. The weirdness. The sense of place. The actual real alienness of Area X, and the paltry efforts of humans to understand, define, dissect it.

Rating: 5/5

Review – Authority

Cover of Authority by Jeff VanderMeerAuthority, Jeff VanderMeer

Coming after Annihilation, this book seems to make so much more sense, to be begin with. There are still aspects of mystery, confusion, and not just around Area X — there’s missing time, people who haven’t even been to Area X seeming contaminated by it, etc, etc. But the horror is muffled, the adventure is muffled, and instead it becomes more of a spy story, a sci-fi story. Still a mystery story, but a different kind of drive to the narrative.

Don’t kid yourself for a moment that’s actually going to work out by giving you answers. There are some answers, but they ask questions of your own. VanderMeer carefully avoids really ever explaining what is causing what is happening; I can only hope that we get some more on that in Acceptance. It’s driving me a little nuts not to have even a working theory, because I don’t even trust the evidence.

Still, if you’ve read Annihilation, you know what you’re signing up for fairly well. It’s still really weird. It’s still intriguing. It will still make you yelp “what the hell!?” at your ereader screen/the page of the book. Or the audio, if there’s an audio version. (I’m trying to imagine the right narrator for it. The right casting could really add to the creepiness.)

With most books, I’d adjust the rating down from what I gave the previous book, but since I think the three are working together to build the atmosphere, the mystery, and it’s unlikely anything will be irrelevant, I’ll leave it at a sort of overall rating of 4/5, with just a note that I didn’t like it as much as the first book.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Annihilation

Cover of Annilation by Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

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.

Rating: 4/5