Life in Ambergris
By Cheryl Morgan
Well boys and girls, I might not be able to see into your chimneys, but I know that you have been good this past year. After all, look what Santa has brought: a new Ambergris book!
Because it took Jeff VanderMeer a long time to establish his particular brand of squid-filled visions in the literary world, Ambergris seems to loom much larger than the actual quantity of material published. First we had short fiction, then there were the various incarnations of the collection: City of Saints and Madmen. Years later we finally have a novel, and it will come out from major publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Thank goodness for that. But, I hear you ask, is Shriek: An Afterword worth the wait? Well, I guess it depends on what you were expecting, but Iíd say a definite and enthusiastic "yes!"
Probably the most famous of VanderMeerís invented books, one that forms an entire section of City of Saints and Madmen, is The Hogebotton Guide to the Early History of the City Ambergris by Duncan Shriek. As it turns out, Shriek knew rather more about the city, and in particular about the mysterious gray caps or "mushroom dwellers" than he let on. Years after the book was published, Shriekís art critic sister, Janice (the woman who discovered Martin Lake) set out to write an afterword to Duncanís book. Before long her work turned into a full-scale biography of her brother and his strange fascination with the world beneath Ambergris, not to mention his relationship with fellow historian, Mary Sabon. Perhaps most importantly, however, Shriekís work sheds new light on the most famous period of Ambergrisian history: The Silence.
More than two hundred years before, twenty-five thousand people had disappeared from the city, almost the entire population, while many thousands had been away, sailing down the River Moth to join in the annual hunt for fish and freshwater squid. The fishermen, including the cityís ruler, had returned to find Ambergris deserted. To this day, no one knows what happened to those twenty-five thousand souls, but for any inhabitant of Ambergris, the rumor soon seeps through ó in the mottling of fungi on a window, in the dripping of green water, in the little red flags they use as their calling cards ó that the gray caps were responsible. Because, after all, we had slaughtered so many of them and driven the rest underground. Surely this was their revenge?
From the point of view of the SF&F reader, that is exactly the sort of material that is expected. City of Saints and Madmen dangles many, many unresolved questions in front of the genre reader, and we are the sort of people who want to know what really happened. Shriek wonít supply definitive answers, and it has to be admitted that the narration is highly unreliable. Neither of the major "authors" of the work is particularly sane, and one has spent an extended stay in the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Hospital. But a considerable amount of sickly green light is shed upon the doings of the gray caps nonetheless. They are down there, and they are up to things.
What is more, VanderMeer supplies us with some serious action. There is a war, and this being Ambergris it features terrifying gray cap fungal weaponry. If you are looking for SFnal material, here it is:
I can remember watching from one end of a street as a fungal bomb blew up a few blocks away. It was one of those hideous creations that, dissolving into a fine purple mist, travels forward from the impetus of the blast and enters the lungs of everyone in its path, making them brittle statues that disintegrate at the slightest touch or breath of wind.
All that, however, is only part of what you get with Shriek: An Afterword. Because in many ways the book is more like a mainstream novel than anything I have read in a long time.
What do I mean by that? Well, despite all of the fantastic material, at heart Shriek is about people. Specifically it is about three seriously dysfunctional people: Duncan, Janice and Mary. All three feature significantly in the story.
Janice, of course, is the author of (most of) the book. We know her as a successful gallery owner, art critic and society figure. In Shriek we find a very insecure woman, someone whose artistic ambitions far outweigh her talent and who makes it big largely by accident. The two constants in her life are her love for her eccentric younger brother, and her hatred for the woman she believes has destroyed his life, Mary Sabon.
We would know a lot less about both Janice and Duncan if VanderMeer had simply let Janice write her book without interference, but he has not. When she wrote her manuscript, Janice believed that Duncan was dead, or at least lost in the underworld, but his ability to navigate the world of the gray caps, not to mention his mastery of their sophisticated biotechnology, far exceeded her imaginings. When the manuscript was found and delivered to its eventual editor it was full of annotations in Duncanís handwriting, many of which flatly contradict what Janice has written.
That isnít surprising, because much of what Janice wrote is about Mary, the former student of Duncanís whose affair with him cost Duncan his job and who later became one of his fiercest critics. Mary Sabon became a leading light of the Nativism movement, a political and philosophical view that essentially denies that the gray caps are in any way intelligent. More of this later, but first some comments on the structure of the book.
Normally when a writer produces a work written in two very different voices the publisher will opt to use some sort of typographical trick to help the reader follow who is speaking. Typically they will use a different font for each character. With Shriek VanderMeer and Tor have elected not to do this. Instead Duncanís annotations are simply shown in parentheses (thus). The rationale is apparently so as not to inadvertently place too much emphasis on one or the other narrative, especially Duncanís, which contains some pretty outlandish claims about the gray caps. Inexperienced readers may have difficulty working out who is speaking when, but most will not because VanderMeerís control over his charactersí voices is superb. Most of the time you will have no trouble knowing who wrote what, and indeed you will delight in the by-play between brother and sister. Janice is given to excessive flights of colorful verbiage and strong emotion, while Duncan is much more detached and precise, but prone to make sarcastic comments on his sisterís work.
Ten years shall we fly across before we begin our slow, circling descent to the cause of Duncanís calamity. Those ten years brought five black books flapping their pages. Five reluctant tombstones. Five millstones around my brotherís neck. Five brilliant bursts of quicksilver communication. Five leather-clad companions for Duncan that no one can ever take away. (Five progressively grandiose statements that stick in my craw.)
For all the entertainment that the Family Shriek provides, however, it is Mary Sabon who is the key to this book. Duncan first meets her when she is a young history student and he a professor, and falls madly in love with her. Their affair is discovered and he is dismissed from his job. Later, and significantly during the war, they live together, but Mary is increasingly unable to cope with Duncanís obsession with the gray caps and his determination to explore the cityís underworld. As the book progresses she falls deeper and deeper into denial, until at last denial of what Duncan has shown her becomes the entire core of her life. Here Duncan ruefully comments on her life after their separation.
Worse, worse ó I found she had taken up with another man, her own age, the son of her fatherís best friend, someone she had known for years. Someone comfortable. Someone safe. Someone with a "III" in his name.
That should give you plenty of clues. Indeed, the comment about Ďa "III" in his nameí is probably superfluous. All you have to do is use the word "safe" and people know that you are talking about modern-day America. For all its bizarre and wonderful fantasy and magnificent characterization, Shriek is just as much a commentary on modern politics.
The main appeal of Nativism to Ambergrisians was that it freed them from any responsibility to think about or do anything about the gray caps, while reassuring them that this was the most responsible thing they could do.
That, of course, is the key to propaganda designed to promote an aggressive, militarist policy. Not only do you paint your enemies as less than animals, you convince your population that this is the right and moral thing to do.
There is much to enjoy in Shriek: An Afterword, in many different ways. Ambergris itself is as bizarre and wonderful as ever. I am also coming to the conclusion that the gray caps are the best-realized aliens since Gwyneth Jonesís Aleutians. Shriek will be sold as fantasy, but in many ways it is a superb science fiction novel. Contrasted with that are the magnificent character studies. Some readers may get a little bored with Janiceís self-pity or Duncanís sickly love-letters to Mary, but if you do find your attention wandering just skip through those pieces and youíll soon get to the war. Finally, Shriek is not just a great book; it is a great book with a very serious point to make. You canít ask for much more than that. Hereís hoping we donít have to wait too long before the next VanderMeer novel.