The Big Idea: Jeff VanderMeer
Posted on November 5, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 16 Comments
Jeff VanderMeer returns to his weird, fantastical city of Ambergris in his new novel Finch, but as he explains in this Big Idea, there’s more going on in this stand-alone tale than just the rich vein of fantasy he’s previously explored in this world. Finch has more on its agenda, and the idea that more is merrier when it comes to genres. Is he right? Let’s see if he convinces you below.
Sometimes a Big Idea is about combining several different big ideas in such a way that they create what you hope is A REALLY BIG-ASS IDEA. If you do it right, these ideas create what you might remember from high school science classes as a chemical rather than physical reaction. You can’t separate out the parts, and readers don’t even notice those parts. All they notice is character and story.
In my novel Finch, a reluctant detective named John Finch and his partner Wyte must attempt to solve a difficult double murder. If Finch doesn’t, there will be a severe beat-down from his boss and if he does solve it, another faction will probably put a bullet through his head.
Fairly standard set-up, right? But layered onto that core situation are a number of major complications. The novel isn’t set in our world—it’s set in my fantastical city of Ambergris. Finch is basically a conscript. Finch’s boss, Heretic, isn’t human—he’s a gray cap, an intelligent species that has risen from the underground sections of the city and used advanced fungi-based technologies to subject Ambergris to a brutal Occupation. The people who might kill Finch if he solves the case are rebel factions fighting the Occupation. His partner Wyte is literally disintegrating into spores due to a fungal disease. The two bodies, found in an empty apartment, appear to have fallen from a great height. One of them is a gray cap missing its legs.
To make things worse, Ambergris is now the equivalent of a failed state. Although the gray caps run things, even basic necessities like electricity are inconsistent at best. The gray caps use human traitors called Partials as their security services, and to gather intel through spore cameras that supplement their vision. However, so much information is constantly coming in that the gray caps can’t process it all. This gap is what gives many people a chance to survive.
But that gap and others like it mean that Finch’s life is complicated by the presence of other forces that have slipped into the city. In a word, spies. Infiltrating from foreign countries, most are attempting to acquire gray cap technology to gain an advantage against other countries. These spies often come into conflict with the rebels. The rebels, meanwhile, are composed of two rival factions engaged in a civil war that ended only because of the need to band together to fight the gray caps. Not only do they have their own intelligence services but the simmering resentments of the old conflict sometimes puts them at cross-purposes despite their joint objective.
So…maybe it’s time to start counting. Just how many genres are we dealing with here?
(1) Noir. The set-up, the lone, reluctant detective, his friends who may or may not be in on the up-and-up, the number of beat-downs in crappy alleys, all reflect a strong noir influence. (Indeed, the British Commonwealth rights to Finch just sold to Atlantic’s new Corvus imprint, the backbone of which is mysteries and thrillers.)
(2) Thriller. Given the number of times John Finch gets embroiled in gun battles or chase scenes, I think it’s fair to add this designation, which also speaks to the novel’s pacing and the idea that a good thriller provides a test of the main character’s resolve, of their ability to persevere despite almost insurmountable obstacles.
(3) Political Thriller. With scenes involving illegal interrogation, prison camps, and other repression, you might even think about tacking on the word “political” to “thriller”, a very specific subgenre of the normal thriller. You might even start thinking about words like “Baghdad” or “extraordinary rendition.” This is entirely intentional, as is the rebel tactic of using suicide bombers. Fantasy gives me the distance to include the political so that hardwired into the story rather than a didactic statement.
(4) Spy Novel. Finch is faced with a mystery, but when the proliferating list of suspects includes a retired spymaster named Ethan Bliss, an operative from the country of Stockton named Stark, and a friend whose allegiances are uncertain, we’re suddenly in John Le Carre territory. Le Carre’s brilliant fiction is all about the individual attempting to survive in a world of hostile institutions; his spies are as often in conflict with their employers as with the enemy. He’s also exceptional at combining action and introspection, lessons that served me well in writing Finch. (Yes, there’s also the James Bond spy model, but James Bond wouldn’t last five minutes in Ambergris.)
(5) New Weird Fantasy. Okay, you may be saying, but Ambergris is still identified as a New Weird setting. Yep, and that still comes into play. Ambergris is a secondary-world decaying, fungus-shrouded major, centuries-old metropolis. That setting shapes all of the characters, all of the other elements—in sense, it’s the broth in this cross-genre soup. It’s what makes it possible for all of the other elements to work in harmony.
So that’s my Big Idea: the ultimate cross-genre mash-up in which one character finds the pressure turned up to “11” and the only way out is to navigate a landscape scarred by civil war, occupation, infiltration, insurgencies, counter-insurgencies, betrayals, and, oh yeah, surreal fungal technologies. John Finch is an honest man with militia training, clear-headed and quietly brave, but even he may find it difficult to make it out alive.
Finch: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s
Read an excerpt of the novel (pdf link), and visit the book site. Listen to the novel soundtrack. Follow VanderMeer on Twitter.
Sounds good, but are there enough King Squid?
This looks very good. The cover art is also exceptional (unusual for a sci-fi/fantasy novel).
Though I have to take issue with the author in that the Daniel Craig and Sean Connery versions of James Bond would last 5 minutes.
1. My goodness but that is a pretty book. Wow.
2. Every single word of this article made me want to read said pretty book more than the word previous. By the time I got to your list of genres, I was fully convinced that your big idea has great promise. I wish to subscribe to its newsletter.
That is all.
I just saw Jeff last night! And I was hooked on this story then, and now only even more so. Sporetech is pretty freaking awesome.
Roseanne “Ambergris. Noun. A grease-like product of the sperm whale’s digestive tract that is used as a base in the finest perfumes. This has been Roseanne, your guide to the world of facts.”
Jeff’s stories weird me out. Squishy, half-constructed. Ink wet, rancid. Pages slime-coated.
His book-covers suck me in. Into the squick. And after, I can never be certain I’ve scrubbed the spores away. Not all of them. Never all.
Got this last weekend, and wolfed it down in one day. Very, very, good. I’ve loved all JV’s Ambergris books, and I’d say Finch is the most accessible (or at least the most traditionally plotted). Saying that, I’m absolutely sure I’ve missed a lot, and think it’ll need a couple of re-reads.
Scary, enjoyable, and very well written. And yes, its very pretty. Go John Coulthart.
I also saw Jeff Vandermeer (and Cat Rambo and Cherie Priest) at the University Bookstore in Seattle last night. The reading was fantastic. All three writers were excellent, as was what each read. I’ve got my signed copy of Finch sitting on my nightstand even as we speak and this weekend will be Ambergrisalicious. Oh yes it will. (After which I expect the next book in the pile to shake my bones with zombified steampunk goodness.)
Wow. I’m looking forward to this one. Sounds like it was great fun to write, too.
Apparently hanging out with Miscellaneous Steve (and not knowing it:>) – the readings were absolutely enjoyable! This book looks to be quite the ride :>.
You had me at “advanced fungi-based technologies”
you forgot to add the very science fictional technology you introduce and everything that surrounds them, not to mention that I found your fungal beings and their society to be more SF than F.
The thing that most impressed me with Finch was the seamless blending of all of these elements. I hesitate to say it due to possible unfortunate negative associations, but Finch may be heralding the “New New Wave” of speculative fiction.
Oh, screw that. A good novel is a good novel no matter what we call it.
Finch has been my most anticipated novel of the year. (Okay, it tied with Mieville’s The City & The City.) Seriously, people, if you haven’t read his other Ambergris work, GET ON IT.
This sounds like it would perfectly fit into what China Mieville’s term “Noird.” Noir mixed with weird, a lot like “The City and the City” and “Halting State” and “Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.”
Finch is great. I saw JV at WFC2009, and picked up a copy of Finch the next time I walked into the dealer’s room. It was a smart move.
Not finished yet, but the book is just wonderful. I’m a big Noir fan, both in writing and on film. The way that JV uses fungus _fits_ with Noir so very well. Inspired.