After the AI Apocalypse
The re-release of Jeff VanderMeer’s first novel, ‘Veniss Underground,’ comes at a strangely appropriate time
Jeff VanderMeer is the “King of Weird Fiction,” so the April 2023 re-release of his first novel Veniss Underground this April is a weird fiction event. But, on the 20th anniversary of its debut, the republication is strangely timely, coming as it does in the months after ChatGPT revolutionized public AI.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
VanderMeer is not the “king” because he’s the weirdest, rather because he is the best at bringing “weird” to the masses. For many people, Alex Garland’s 2018 Annihilation with Natalie Portman was their first time experiencing VanderMeer’s work. Inside Area X, aka “The Shimmer,” the presence of aliens or their artifacts seems to have altered nature. Driven to find a lost loved one (Portman’s husband) and a need to understand the phenomenon, the protagonists veer on the edge of sanity as they try to piece together the—sometimes horrible, always strange—clues about how living works in this new place.
For those who follow speculative and science fiction these are familiar themes and tropes in VanderMeer’s work across his multiple nominations and wins in the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. VanderMeer alone, and with his wife Ann, have received recognition for non-fiction works, as well as for publishing and anthologizing. But it’s the proximity of the grotesque to non-fiction, and prose that’s driven by emotional need that make VanderMeer’s fiction work in these stories of Dayton Central.
Set in Dayton Central (aka “Veniss”), the events of the 2003 novel unfold in a post-AI apocalyptic world where bioengineering is the norm and climate change means that the sea laps against what we know as an inland city. As well as the novel, told in three sections, the 2023 release includes a number of short stories set in the same world (though at different historical moments) that illustrate how the power of sibling and romantic love can thread together narratives that concern even the most varied lifeforms.
The main novel unfolds as three sequential stories, those in turn of twins Nicholas and Nicola followed by that, more significantly, of Nicola’s lover, the oddly named anti-character, Shadrach Begolem. Shadrach takes his names from the Bible and rabbinic lore. The Golem is the famous clay man breathed into life by Prague’s Rabbi Loew and Shadrach is one of the three men who kept walking after being cast into the fire in the Book of Daniel. In VanderMeer’s novel Shadrach walks through the fire of the Veniss underworld on Nicola’s behalf.
Along with its accompanying stories, “Veniss Underground” paints a disturbing world where AIs, mutants and bioengineered beings are as much part of a dystopian world as humans. Though set in the future, the vibe of the whole collection is Hieronymous Bosch while the novel itself feels like a Swiftian picaresque with a climax in an actual Leviathan. Nicola and Nicholas are both flimsy characters, but Shadrach’s seeming denial of personality in favor of a singular driving motivation to save Nicola allows him to show us grimly around the underworld.
The unpleasant weight of the Veniss future makes the novel — and especially Shadrach’s journey — heavy but, despite the almost uniformly bleak contexts of each story as “flesh dogs” attack and “meerkats” assassinate, the collection as a whole is surprisingly readable.