Reading Jeff VanderMeer's latest novel Finch, out this week, you're tempted to make up descriptors like "biosteam" and "spore noir." Inventive and haunting, the book is a hardboiled detective story set in a city overrun by spore-hacking mushroom people.
Set in the city of Ambergris that VanderMeer invented with his collection City of Saints and Madmen, the novel takes place after the once-oppressed "grey caps" have risen up from their underground ghettos and taken over the city. Mysterious and seemingly magical in previous stories, the grey caps are revealed in this novel - intriguingly - as bioengineers who can convert plants and animals into weapons, surveillance devices, superpowered implants, and even entire buildings. The city that was once run by industrial/colonial mafia-style companies is now entirely run by the grey caps, and our main character Finch has been enlisted to serve in their puppet police force.
VanderMeer is at his best when imagining the vast, alien, and yet strangely recognizable history of Ambergris. Built on the dead bodies of natives, then atop the oppressed grey caps' tunnels, and finally out of the imperial pursuits of warring companies, the city is like a puckered scar of historical traumas. Now its entire architecture is being rewritten by grey cap biotechnology, buildings evaporating into dust or rising up out of weird plants to form spongy, reeking structures. Half the citizens have been transformed by spore infections, converted into souped-up "partials" or simply killed by mushroom toxins.
The novel begins with ambiguous hero Finch investigating the extremely bizarre murder of a human and a grey cap, who appear to have been dropped improbably from a very great height onto a sofa in an apartment. Making matters worse is the fact that this investigation is being watched closely by his grey cap boss, who insists that he carry a spore gun that leaks weird fluids all the time.
Like any noir gumshoe, Finch finds himself drawn into a conspiracy far vaster than anything he'd imagined. With the help of his rebel librarian friend, and his spore-eaten partner, he discovers that the grey caps have a terrifying plan that involves two enormous towers they're building near the harbor. But he also discovers that there are insurgencies within insurgencies whose reach goes far beyond Ambergris' boundaries - possibly into other worlds. Finch's own family history connects him more deeply to the city's deep political structure than he ever realized.
Surreal and at times intoxicating, Finch is ambitious in a way that few genre novels ever are. VanderMeer has tried - and, often, succeeded - in blending fantasy, science fiction, and crime fiction into something delightfully evil and strange. He's converted the traditional hard edges of noir fiction into the foggy, fungal shapes of magical science realism. Especially when Finch is exploring Ambergris' new biotech contours, which inevitably lead into its industrial past, you get a visceral sense of what it means to discover that what you thought was magic was actually just advanced technology. This is a very difficult idea to depict using imagery and mood, but VanderMeer does it brilliantly.
There is a David Cronenberg feel to the universe of Finch, with its gooey guns and spore surveillance devices. But it's also a kind of Lawrence of Arabia story, which is what will keep you reading. You never quite know what sort of weird new narrative path you'll be led down, and that's exciting.
While the experiment of the novel is laudable, it sometimes fails frustratingly. The novel begins agonizingly slowly, which undermines the rapid pace required to tell a successful detective story. As if to make up for this problem, VanderMeer has written the entire novel in noir-esque sentence fragments that begin to grate on the nerves almost immediately. This is particularly tragic because so much of the author's charm lies in his lush prose.
While Finch may be flawed, it's ultimately a rewarding read. Even if you've never read any of VanderMeer's other Ambergris stories, it stands well on its own and is testimony to how mind-boggling and affecting science fiction can be when released from its usual cliches.