We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.
oh, jeff vandermeer…. to my shame, i have yet to read the southern reach trilogy, although i own all three, and have owned them for a good long time now. and while we’re on the subject of my many personal failings, i actually own a TON of his books, including three copies of city of saints and madmen, in at least two different versions. many of these are in storage right now, after bedbug-overreaction 2015 sent so many books off into limboville, but they were here, accessible, for so many years without my getting around to reading them. he’s an author i knew i would love just based on his reputation, the reviews i’ve read both by and about him, his tasteful curation of anthologies and other books he’s championed.
all of that to say that i can’t really tell you how this compares to his other books, or if there is any connection between this one and the southern reach trilogy, but i do know that i liked this one a lot (as i knew i would), that it was more challenging a read than it appeared at first glance, and that it took me much longer to read than i’d expected.
it takes place in an unnamed city after an ecological catastrophe, where what remains of humanity struggles to stay alive in a ruined landscape revolving around the headquarters of a mysterious Company, through which their leftover biotech roams; either genetically altered animals, hybrids of creatures and tech, or creatures once human transformed into monsters – jury’s undecided. threats include a japanese movie monster-sized flying bear called mord, a woman with advanced tech known as the magician, and their acolytes – the magician’s band of feral children with genetically-modified inhuman accoutrements, and the mord proxies – normal-sized humanoid bears, as well as the unaffiliated clever foxen, poison rain and assorted scavengers trying to acclimate to inhospitable conditions, made dangerous through fear and the effects of alcohol minnows and mind-altering beetle-drugs. in short – many dangers.
the central (human) characters are a couple: the empathic rachel, our narrator, who remembers her life before in isolated fragments: a submerged island, a birthday party, her parents’ protection, but not what happened to them or how she got to the city. her companion is the dour and secretive wick, a former biotech engineer who worked for The Company who spends his days gloomily fiddling in a lab with a very icky pool, reduced to the status of drug dealer and keeping secrets about his health and past. the two of them have carved out a life for themselves in the relative safety of a crumbling apartment complex which the paranoid wick has safeguarded with baroque security measures, allowing them the freedom to live undetected but vulnerable in this ‘wealth’ should anyone ever discover them.
the writing is in many ways capricious, where so much of the big picture is left undefined – the name of the city, the nature of the disaster, the generically named Company – but those are just details – the heft of this story is attached to the human drama, or more to the point – the drama of the person.
and for all the unwritten details, there are so many beautifully lyrical passages that make you wanna stop and reread ‘em:
Most nights now there was some kind of cacophony and a rawness, and such a sense of covert movement. So much noise out there – and echoes of noise – and a keening or growling or the sound of something or someone being killed. That was the sound of a city that no longer believed in one ruler or one version of the future.
and as many instances where the lede is buried in passages that seem less important than they are at first glance.
the tone is also tricky to pin down but it’s admirably complex, made up of a number of moods that should be contradictory but somehow all work together without clashing: melancholy, hopeful, helpless, brooding, funny, sentimental.
the real story begins when rachel, on one of her scavenging missions, discovers something unusual stuck to the sleeping mord’s fur – something that appears plantlike and perhaps decorative, but turns out to be borne, whose presence in her life will change absolutely everything.