Robert writes about popular culture including movies and books.
Veniss Underground is a 2003 horror-fantasy novel by Jeff VanderMeer, consisting of five stories, all set in the same universe but taking place in different eras. The first story, the titular Veniss Underground, is the longest and the most elaborate in terms of plot and imagery. The last two stories take place in an unspecified future, long after the events of the first story have unfolded.
Veniss Underground is one of those novels that starts incredibly well, assaults your brain with bold imagery and concepts, but ultimately leaves you unsatisfied and hungry, like having eaten a five-course meal made of fairy dust and empty air. In order to understand why this is so, it is necessary to look closely at the plot.
"Veniss Underground" Plot Summary
The plot of the story is relatively simple once you cut away the surreal, nightmare imagery that decorates the story. In its essence, the story is about a man’s journey into a hellish underworld to rescue his beloved from the dead, or at least a quasi-death. The journey to the deepest level, past monsters and creatures, has obvious parallels with Dantes’s Inferno and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Except that there are important differences which make Veniss underground a pale imitation of the epics on which it is based.
The city of Veniss is a decadent and doomed city in the far future Earth. Its real, official name is Dayton Station, but it earns its nickname by virtue of cooldown canals where the occasional starship lands. The city is surrounded by crumbling walls to keep out the polluted ocean in the sands that stretch on forever. Everyone knows that soon the walls will crumble but no one cares, and the City goes on in a hectic frenzy of excess.
Nicola and Nicolas are twins born from an ambiguously defined vat growing process. They are two halves of a single whole, as physically identical as a man and a woman can be, but that is where the similarity ends. Nicola is a successful computer programmer working to keep the machinery of the decaying and decadent city functioning; she is a good, productive citizen, and the responsible half of this duo.
Nicolas is a failed artist specializing in creating Living Art, which in the madhouse of Veniss, an enclave of humanity amid a desolate and barren Earth, consists of bioengineering new and bizarre animals or modifying oneself in an insane version of performance art. One more successful performance artist gained renown by splattering himself onto a sidewalk after intentionally jumping off the roof. The resulting splash of body fluids was acknowledged by everyone as his masterpiece, which gives you an idea of what kind of society Veniss is.
The Nightmare Journey Is About to Begin
Despite his ambitions, Nicolas lacks talent and success eludes him. He lives marginally, sponging off his sister who constantly worries about him, and surviving on the fringes of society. Despite his lack of talent and success, Nicolas is driven by his art and believes that if he can only get his hand on some genetically modified Meerkats, he can create something worthwhile.
Lacking the funds or means to obtain a Meerkat, Nicolas reaches out to Shadrach, his sister’s former lover and an enigmatic figure with connections to the underworld and to the boss of bosses, the elusive Quinn, who is the chief bio engineer (or as they are called in Veniss, a bioneer) creating intelligent talking Meerkats and Ganeshas to act as servants, guards and menial workers in a world where genetic manipulation has become commonplace. The Ganeshas are never described, but from the name, which alludes to the Hindu elephant God, they are some sort of bioengineered creature derived from elephants.
Shadrach tells Nicolas how to contact Quinn but warns him of the danger and especially warns him not to make any deals with Quinn, something which of course Nicolas will predictably ignore. Nicolas goes to meet Quinn and discovers that Quinn has turned himself into his own Living Art, sitting behind a desk which is also Quinn, having modified himself in the most extreme way to have grown into not only the desk but the chair, the person sitting in it, and other office equipment.
It turns out that Quinn has no Meerkats for sale, but he is willing to make a deal with Nicolas to help him with his Living Art. Ignoring Shadrach’s warning, Nicolas makes a deal to serve Quinn, which of course amounts to making a deal with the devil. As he utters his consent, Quinn’s other creatures come out of their cages and recesses in the walls and take Nicolas into Quinn’s bioengineered hell.
Meanwhile Nicola is, as usual, worried about her brother and increasingly concerned because he has gone missing. She traces a credit transaction to a deep level beneath the City. She reaches out to Shadrach, her former lover, asking him to help but he refuses. Shortly afterwards, a talking Meerkat named Salvador, shows up at her door and says that he has been sent by Shadrach and Quinn as a gift to act as her servant. It is gift Nicola apparently does not feel she can refuse, and Salvador the Meerkat settles into cooking dinner and doing household chores around her apartment.
Never Trust a Meerkat!
One night she follows the Meerkat on his nightly errands and discovers that there is a city within the city where Meerkats live in a hidden forest amid the shambling and decaying skyscrapers, their secret place hidden by holograms. There the Meerkats have built a society separate from humans. While hiding, she observes the Meerkats watching videos of human atrocities, apparently showing them to their children as a lesson about the danger of humans.
Nicola makes it back home to her apartment and pulls out her laser pistol, realizing that her servant is not what he seems. Shortly after, the Meerkat returns with his usual catch of fiddler crabs and as the conversation between them unfolds it is clear that he intends to kill Nicola to keep the secret of the hidden Meerkat paradise. She shoots him first, but then the door rings and it is her brother. Her joy turns to the bitterness of betrayal as she realizes that he has come to finish the job. She loses consciousness as her own twin brother, her other half, strangles her.
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Saving Nicola: The Orpheus Myth Re-Told
Shadrach regrets having let his pride get in the way when he refused to help Nicola. Meanwhile his boss, Quinn, cruelly sends Shadrach to meet a client, a wealthy woman, and as he speaks to her, Shadrach recognizes immediately that one of her eyes belongs to Nicola. In the world of Veniss, organ donation and transplant, whether voluntary or not, is a commonplace. Shadrach realizes that Quinn has some how engineered for Nicola to be harvested for organs.
Shadrach arms himself with a laser pistol and goes to Nicola’s apartment where he finds evidence of a struggle but no Nicola. Looking in her closet, he finds the wounded Meerkat who had been shot by Nicola. Shadrach finishes the job, sort of, by cutting off the Meerkat’s head with his laser. However, the Meerkat’s head continues to live and talk separate from the Meerkat's body. In the world of Veniss, it it is commonplace for heads to keep on talking and living for quite some time. This allows Shadrach to interrogate the Meerkat’s head and find out more of what happened to Nicola. She has indeed been taken for organ harvesting. But all is not lost! When Shadrach checks a database, it shows that Nicola is still listed as alive in a subterranean level deep beneath Veniss. This is how we end up with the Underground part of the story.
Shadrach then literally pockets Salvador’s head and takes it with him, wittily renaming him “John the Baptist” in reference to the biblical story of John the Baptist’s decapitation.
Together with his unwilling companion, the talking Meerkat head, Shadrach journeys into the underground levels of Veniss. He leaves behind the decadent, overripe, beauty of Veniss aboveground and journeys deeper and deeper into the hellish underground levels beneath the city where the lowest of the low and the working poor live in crowded, poorly lit tunnels. There are tunnels devoted to mining, to garbage collection, and various menial tasks. Shadrach himself came from this world. He was born to a family of miners but escaped thanks to an annual lottery which allows a few lucky underground dwellers to move to the surface. It has been decades since he has been underground, and now the world beneath the city is now alien and disgusting to him.
The deeper underground Shadrach goes the more horrors he discovers. There is one particularly evocative vignette where he pushes his way past a line of desperate people waiting to donate organs much like vagrants today might sell their blood to the blood bank. There are people who already are missing legs and limbs and eyes and apparently are desperate enough to sell more of themselves. The scene is nightmarish, and it only gets worse from there.
Having arrived at the clinic where organs are harvested Shadrach forces the staff to point him in the direction of where his beloved Nicola is. They cannot tell him exactly where she is because the clinic is basically a chaotic charnel house and has an overabundance of severed arms, legs, eyes, and all kinds of organs which they deal with in a surprisingly sloppy and negligent fashion to the point were one has to ask why they are even interested in buying organs since they have so many that they leave them lying around in various states of the composition and/or suspended animation.
Finally, he reaches a sort of catacomb where there are stacks and stacks of severed limbs set, some rotting, some still preserved by some sort of stasis process, being picked over by human scavengers and organ merchants. A disinterested attendant points him to where he must go, which involves finding a tunnel by burrowing deep into a mass of disgusting severed limbs.
Shadrach eventually finds his beloved Nicola. She is in a form of suspended animation and a whole lot of parts have been taken from her, not just her eye but also part of her leg and other pieces. He gathers up Nicola and takes her to where his parents used to live but their apartment belongs to someone else.
No one knows where they are. The current occupant is a bear-hybrid, and a priest of Quinn. Notwithstanding this, he helps Shadrach, mainly to get rid of him, by taking him to see a witch of sorts.
There, using arcane and largely forgotten tech, the witch helps to bring Nicola out of her near-death coma. The process involves connecting Shadrach’s brain with Nicolas so that he can call her back to reality. In the process Shadrach is able to see her final moments when she was attacked by Nicolas and also finally get the answer to why she had abruptly left Shadrach: she simply did not love him.
Into the Deepest Underground: "Dante's Inferno" Re-Imagined
The realization that Nicola does not love him hurts Shadrach, but he is also filled with rage towards Quinn and what he has done. He resolves to kill Quinn. He leaves Nicola in the care of the witch and pays her (by credit card of all things) to heal Nicola, who is still unconscious. Here is one of the many plot holes in the story. Even though this is a world where growing organs, including regenerating ones that have been harvested, or creating entirely new organisms is commonplace, there apparently is still a demand for harvesting people’s organs whether they like it or not. If regenerating Nicola’s leg and other missing body parts can be done by a witch in a shabby underground apartment, it makes the entire plot device more or less silly.
In any event, Shadrach now is a man on a mission. Armed with his laser pistol and still carrying the bitter and complaining head of John the Baptist in his pocket, Shadrach journeys deeper into the hellscape of the deepest underground levels. In a level devoted to recycling and sorting the tons of garbage created by the aboveground city, where tribes of feral humans stake out little kingdoms amid piles of rotting garbage, Shadrach finds Nicolas. Or at least he finds what is left of Nicolas. It seems that Quinn has turned Nicolas into his own Living Art canvas by taking all of Nicolas’s internal organs and making them external, held together in a grotesque web of transparent sacs.
Shadrach forces the mutated Nicolas to take him to Quinn. It turns out that the Quinn who had an office, or more precisely was the office, aboveground was only an avatar, a meat puppet. The real Quinn is on the 50th level beneath the surface of Veniss. The journey involves more surreal scenes and horrors. Eventually they reach the deepest level where Nicolas manages to end his own miserable existence, leaving Shadrach alone on the shores of a dark underground ocean with only John the Baptist’s talking head to keep him unwilling company. The journey along the shores of the dimly lit ocean and over the waves represents an even deeper nightmare where Shadrach encounters even more grotesque abominations created by Quinn’s bioengineering. Finally, he reaches Quinn’s inner sanctum, a colossal minnow (yes, a fish) that has been mutated to an unimaginable size so that it contains laboratories, factories and Quinn’s abode.
Shadrach here encounters yet another avatar of Quinn only to realize that this is not the real Quinn. The real Quinn lies deformed and helpless in a sort of aquarium, the victim of his own genetic experimentation, having lost his original human form. Quinn expresses a distaste for the human race which he has left behind. He does not even acknowledge having done anything to Nicolas or Nicola, treating them as one of many other forgettable games that he plays with living things. Quinn admits that his end goal is the extinction of the human race which he has set in motion by creating his mutations, particularly the Meerkats who are highly intelligent hybrids including human and orangutan DNA.
Here is another pothole: Despite the fact that Quinn is the canter of a vast criminal enterprise and an evil Bond genius in an underground lair, he is not defended by anyone except a weak unarmed puppet of himself which Shadrach quickly overcomes. Shadrach then kills Quinn and puts John the Baptist’s head out of its misery.
Tired, hungry, and dirty Shadrach makes his way back to the apartment where he had left Nicola and finds her whole again. Her eye and other missing parts have been regenerated; it only took seven days. Shadrach pays for the witch for her services and then leads Nicola back up to the surface. Although he realizes that Nicola does not love him, his love for her has lead him to the depths of hell. As they emerge into the nighttime polluted air of Veniss, the look out at the city ‘s lights and crumbling walls, Nicola and Shadrach contemplate the coming Meerkat Apocalypse. Nicola is free from her parasitic brother and Shadrach is freed from his service to Quinn, although he will never be free of his unrequited love for Nicola.
The short stories that follow Veniss Underground:
- The Sea, Mendeho and Moonlight
- Detectives and Cadavers
- A Heart of Lucretia
- Balzac's War
are all set in the same Veniss universe but in diverse eras. The last two stories take place hundreds or more years in the future when human civilization has fallen and the Meerkats are working to stamp out the last scattered bands of humans.
The short stories that follow the longer Veniss Underground are underwhelming and somewhat repetitive. They lack anything of real interest and there is not much to say about them except that VanderMeer, seems to have a preoccupation with siblings, severed heads and foraging for body parts. For example, in Veniss Underground, Shadrach takes the talking head of Salvador the Meerkat with him into the Underground, in an attempt to save his love. In Balzac's War, Balzac tries to the severed head of his beloved into the undergound in an attempt to save her. In a heart for Lucretia, a brother tries to save his dying clone-sister by buying a heart from the meerkats. He soon regrets this sort of deal, just like Nicola regretted making a deal with Quinn.
In Balzac's War, the final story, the Meerkats have apparently learned from Quinn’s methods and are creating genetic monstrosities which they unleash against the humans. However, for some reason the Meerkats like to sever the heads of the humans that they have killed and install them into their genetic monstrosities, perhaps as a way to demoralize the humans although that seems like a lot of effort for not much gain.
Analysis and Opinion
The hero’s journey into the underworld to reclaim his beloved from death obviously borrows from the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The horrors of the Veniss’s Underground, which get more surreal and more horrible the deeper one goes, are heavily indebted to Dante’s Inferno. However, Veniss Underground creates no new myth and provides no new lens by which to interpret and understand the human condition.
Whereas both Dante and Orpheus were on noble, inspired, missions which taught universal truths. Veniss Underground simply achieves a Halloween-house type of horror. There is no deeper meaning in Veniss Underground, only nightmare visions that serve no purpose.
As far as the Orpheus myth is concerned, Veniss falls short of reinterpreting it in a meaningful way. Shadrach takes a few elevators down to a crazy organ clinic, he digs through a bunch of half rotting body parts, and then takes his beloved to some sort of black-market healer who fixes everything and accepts payment by credit card. If it were not for the Jeff VanderMeer’s amazing powers of description and his ability to create surreal imagery, this version of the Orpheus myth would be unintentionally comical.
The second part of the journey, in which the hero goes deeper into the underground hell on a mission to kill Quinn also lacks the grandiosity of the Inferno, from which it borrows heavily. In the original Inferno, Dante enters the underworld on a quest to redeem himself from despair, guided by the lofty soul of the poet Virgil, and inspired by his muse, the angelic Beatrice. In his journey Dante encounters levels and compartments of hell where sinners are punished in accordance with their sins. There is a sense of moral purpose and perspective in the Inferno. Nothing like the that exists in Veniss. The levels and compartments of Veniss’s hell are merely random assortments of grotesque things, creatures and horrors. There is no purpose to the suffering and nothing is learned from it. It is random.
Shadrach’s guide through the hell of Veniss’s Underground is also underwhelming and unworthy of comparison with the Inferno. A petulant severed Meerkat head cannot compare to the gravitas of Virgil guiding Dante through the levels of hell. The effect is like having a clown car disgorge a dozen clowns during a serious funeral eulogy.
Quinn is also an inadequate arch enemy. Here, again, the parallels to the Inferno are obvious. In the Inferno, Satan lies trapped in a frozen lake in the deepest part of Hell. In Veniss Underground, Quinn lies trapped in an aquarium, in the deepest level of the hell he has made, a pathetic remnant of his own genetic experimentation. There is a lack of grandeur, which makes the villain unworthy of the quest, and makes the book fall short of its potential.
There is also a glaring flaw in the climactic encounter between Shadrach and Quinn. Although we can suspend disbelief and accept that there can be talking Meerkats and indescribably grotesque genetic mutations running around the shores of a subterranean ocean, it violates even the logic of the story for the all-powerful arch enemy to be floating completely unguarded in an aquarium so that a lone man with a laser pistol and a severed Meerkat head can simply waltz in and kill him. If it were not for the author’s beautiful imagery and wordsmithing, which somewhat salvage the novel, the hero’s quest which ends inside a giant minnow and a final boss fight with a helpless aquarium specimen, would be unintentionally funny.
Perhaps the book should have been called Veniss and the Planet of the Meerkats. Not does the book borrow heavily from Dante and Greek myth, but it also owes a lot to the Planet of the Apes. Instead of genetically modified apes, Veniss brings us cute but deadly Meerkats with opposable thumbs and monkey DNA taking over the world. In fact, in the last story the Meerkats have taken over the planet and the humans live in squalid desert settlements scavenging amid the ruined cities of their forefathers. The only thing missing from the last Veniss story was a shattered remnant of the Statue of Liberty rising from the dead seabed.
Overall, I found the story to be lightweight and disappointing. The shiny baubles of pretty imagery and description do not make up for a weak story.
© 2021 Robert P