Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

While I’ve read plenty of books with Jeff VanderMeer’s name on the cover, it’s generally been preceded by “edited by” rather than “written by”. As such, Finch is the first Ambergris novel I’ve read. It’s a very atmospheric novel, with a great deal of style. The city of Ambergris seems quite alive, just as China Miéville’s Bas-Lag is a rotting corpse of a city.

It’s a gritty detective noir story, and the fungal atmosphere really works. While there is obviously backstory with some of VanderMeer’s other Ambergris novels, each takes place at a different point in the city’s history, which means that the previous stories are alluded to, rather than requiring knowledge. It works rather well for those coming to his fiction for the first time.

VanderMeer seems at home with the mystery genre, and the plotting makes sense once the story is done. The further I got into this book, the harder it was to set down, as if fungal spores had grafted themselves from the book into my hands. The plot tension of the novel ramped up, and VanderMeer’s narrative kept pace.

VanderMeer plays with the liminal. The occupying forces are fungal creatures, not truly plant, nor animal. John Finch is a detective, but working for the occupying forces. Blending things even further are the Partials: human-spore hybrids, accepting greater power in the occupation, but equally feared by everyone. While there’s a strong sense of independence and rebelliousness in the human detectives like Finch, the Partials strongly evoke the feel of collaborators in the war-time occupations in Earth history.

Finch is a very stylistic novel, with a near perfect mix of plot and characterization. It raises issues of colonization and living in an occupied state, something which resonates strongly in many areas of the world today. A very enjoyable read.

Federations: The Culture Archivist by Jeremiah Tolbert

Unlike Robert J. Sawyer’s story “The Shoulders of Giants” in John Joseph Adams Federations anthology, Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Culture Archivist” has considerably more bite.

Tolbert’s story takes capitalist consumerism to the ultimate conclusion: enforced participation in consumerist society. Not only is everyone a consumer, but alien planets are conquered in order to open new markets. It’s an interesting concept to explore, and Tolbert’s story shows how resistance to such a society might happen.

When reading this story, I was reminded of the movie Idiocracy. Not that Tolbert’s world has sunk to the level of mindless media consumption (although there are indications that in other parts of his universe this is the case) but that the point of existence is consumption.

While Tolbert’s view of an authoritarian future may be bleak, the core of the story is about the resistance to this authority. It seems particularly relevant today, as we see different forms of protests across the world, such as in Egypt.

While Tolbert’s story fits in the post-humanist subgenre of science fiction, it also plays well within the bounds of post-colonial fiction in general. The story is sharp and witty, while also being quite humorous. I especially enjoyed the way he dealt with an emergent AI swarm.

It’s a smart story, and fits well with the theme of the anthology, despite its overt pessimism.