Author: Guest blogger
HP Lovecraft is a writer of horror and supernatural stories. His style of writing from the 1930s is known as ‘weird tales’.
He said ‘The true weird tale has something more than secret murder… A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint…of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space’.
Well, now there’s ‘The New Weird’. Jeff VanderMeer is an author of numerous new weird fantasy tales. His latest novel Finch follows on from his earlier book City of Saints and Madmen. Finch is set in a city run by fungal men and the main character, Finch, is in the service of these mushroom people.
Book Show reviewer Simon Keck is not afraid of the new weird and is our guide through this city of fungus.
Whenever I’ve read science fiction, I’ve had a hard time convincing my more bookish friends to ditch their preconceptions and give it a try. They’re often reluctant to dip their toes into what they perceive to be a pool filled with neck-bearded weirdos endlessly debating whether Kirk could beat Picard in a rugged manly fistfight. Well, as rugged and manly as two grown men beating each other in lycra suits can be. I understand the in trepidation. Those beardy weirdy fanboys do exist, but you can’t let that get in the way of a potentially great book. I mean, just because bogans eat meat pies, wouldn’t stop me from wolfing down some beef filled pastry now and again.
Still, science fiction can be a hard sell for some, but people are beginning to take these fictional worlds seriously. It might be that a generation of people raised on light sabers are now adults who can grasp the broader concepts within these space faring tales, but I think it has more to do with the quality and style of science fiction that exists nowadays.
Authors like China Meiville are moving science fiction into highly detailed worlds that rely less on soap operas with laser fights and more on pitting their characters against philosophical and ethical dilemmas. It’s for this reason more and more people refer to sci-fi as speculative fiction. It makes sense too. The best science fiction I’ve experienced is the kind that posits impossible problems that mirror conflicts within our own world.
Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Finch is one of those books.
Finch is the latest in a trilogy of novels all set within the city of Ambergris, a once proud metropolis gutted by civil war. But while the two warring factions fought over a crumbling city, a stranger enemy rose from beneath the streets to conquer the citizens of Ambergris. The Gray Caps, an intelligent race of fungal people whose sophisticated technology, entirely created from fungus, has enabled them to usurp the powers that be in Ambergris.
If you’re pondering that last part and thinking to yourself, ‘Did he just say mushroom people took over a city with mould?’ you’d be pretty much spot on, but the darkly surreal Ambergris, and its inhabitants, will soon have you overlooking how silly it all sounds as you get lost in an oppressed city slowly dying like a tree choked by vines.
Our guide through both the Ambergris of old, and the Orwellian nightmare it has become, is the title character. Finch, a tortured man who sold out his own people to work for the Gray Caps as a detective solving human crimes. Finch is a survivor, and his choice to work for his oppressors is one that haunts every step of his journey. His continued existence has cost him his dignity, shunned by his people as a traitor and despised by his employers because of his weakness.
Finch’s shadowy past, questionable motives, and wavering allegiances make him the perfect narrator for this abnormal crime noir tale. Neither you nor Finch are ever really sure if the choices he makes are the right ones. You can see how surviving two wars has taken a toll on Finch’s personality. He is incredibly paranoid, testing everyone, even himself and Vandameer often breaks up his social interactions with short stabs of Finch’s doubt-filled inner monologue to great effect.
While you follow the seemingly impossible crime that Finch must solve, you discover that he is a man caught between two worlds, no longer a part of either. Finch’s journey is the same as the city of Ambergris, tenaciously holding on to the past so as not to face the cruel reality of today.
Vandameer avoids one of my greatest pet hates with science fiction and fantasy novels, getting bogged down in elaborate visual descriptions. Instead of becoming consumed in aesthetics, he writes about the atmosphere of a city that has had all but the last flicker of human spirit snuffed out. Vandemeer aptly describes the emptiness of the war torn streets, the constant shifting of the living landscape, rotting and flourishing, caught somewhere between life and death. Those who still live there are broken, you get a real sense of loss from the characters Finch interacts with. It seems that much like Finch, everyone has paid a price to stay alive in Ambergris.
Although Finch is the third in the tales of Ambergris, I don’t feel I missed out on anything from not having read the preceding books. Finch is a strong story in its own right, but it will no doubt take some effort to get anyone not versed in fantasy or science fiction to read Finch, which is a shame. It’s the characters and the unfolding mystery of Ambergris that really makes this book. You might be able to coax some of your friends with the fact that it’s a good detective novel, just try to avoid mentioning ‘humans vs shroom-mans’ — that’s probably a deal breaker.
Listen to Simon Keck’s review on The Book Show