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The mushrooms are coming!

Everybody wears masks in Jeff Vandermeer’s claustrophobic, formerly seductive city of Ambergris — by some accounts, the founding city of the New Weird fiction movement.

In Finch (Corvus), the third Ambergris tale, the Grey Caps — the mysterious sentient mushrooms from the city’s depths — have taken advantage of capitalist rivalries and ruinous foreign wars to occupy the city. They rule harshly, employing an array of manipulated fungi as tools, food and punishment.

Many humans wear gas masks against the spores.
John Finch, a detective in their employ, is assigned the case of two corpses — one human, one Grey Cap — found in a locked flat. Finch wears two masks: one literal, one metaphorical, for he is neither really a detective, nor called Finch. Slogans on the walls of the occupied city declare: ‘Everyone’s a collaborator. Everyone’s a rebel”, and Finch, drawn ever deeper into conflict as he pursues answers, finds all those around him carry multiple identities and affiliations. And choosing sides is near impossible, with perceptions filtered by the masks they all wear.

The first Ambergris novel, City of Saints and Madmen, was a baroque collage of place; the second, Shriek: An Afterword, a tale of Dickensian sibling rivalries expressed in the fussy, pedantic voice of an editor. Finch is a noir tale of police work and spies, expressed in the terse, hard-boiled voice of a forties thriller writer — all sentence fragments, as though co-written by Chandler and Hemingway.

Vandermeer (multiply nominated for just about every genre prize, and twice winner of the World Fantasy Award) has been reviewing mysteries for Publishers’ World for seven years and says Finch was ‘hugely noir influenced”. But, as well as fantasy and detection, the book operates powerfully as an allegory about trying to do the right thing in wartime — and searching for what the right thing might be.

And although Ambergris is a fantasy setting, Vandermeer’s source book for that dilemma was far closer to home. ‘[My setting was inspired by] — occupied Paris during World War II mixed with the definite influence of the past eight years and the idea of an occupied Baghdad — As a thinking, feeling person in the 21st century who has been absolutely horrified [by] the whole way in which America’s imperialism of the last decade has played out, it just can’t help but affect your work,” he said. Finch is a compelling, terrifying tale, the spongy tentacles of which reach out from the page to grab you. Perhaps it should be compulsory reading in the Pentagon.

There’s a war going on among the Culture worlds in Surface Detail by Iain M Banks (Orbit). Because disembodied minds can survive in virtual worlds for eternities, some civilisations insist on creating virtual Hells, to enforce good behaviour in the Real. Modelled on a rather literal interpretation of Hieronymus Bosch, these sites of vile, endless torture offend other civilisations so much that negotiations between the two sides have collapsed into open war.
And although the title of Banks’s latest Culture novel at first seems a reference to the exotic, gene-level tattoos borne by his protagonist, Lededje Y’Breq, as a sign of her servitude, it is actually a pervasive metaphor for the constant tension between appearance and reality; between the virtual and the Real; between the surface and what lies underneath.

No one and nothing — plush country estates, apparently empty planets, ice fortresses — are what they seem to be, but ‘when the fake behaves exactly like the real, why treat it as anything different?”

Lededje suffers years of rape and abuse by her owner, Veppers. Finally, he kills her — but she is resurrected aboard a Culture ship, courtesy of a neural lace. Not unnaturally, her first impulse is to speed back to her home planet and return the favour to Veppers — up to his neck in dirty deals related to the Hell Wars. A disapproving Culture tries to police her in various ways.

But there are mavericks around: the saturnine Demeisen, avatar of the Abominator-class ship ‘Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints” (it’s in disguise, too), comes ambiguously to her aid.

Threaded through Lededje’s tale are those of others. Prin and Chay are scholars who infiltrate a Hell to build arguments against it. Prin escapes; Chay does not. Vateuil is a regularly resurrected universal soldier in the war. Agent Yime Nsokyi appears to be one of Lededje’s minders.

Virtuality masking the horrors of war is not a new theme for Banks, but here it is the central pillar of the book. As a counterpoint to the hypocrisy it feeds, there is Demeisen, revelling in slaughter and mayhem: ‘Abominator class, we have a reputation to protect. Fuck me, the others are going to be so jealous!”

Yet, despite the vivid, engrossing battles and Demeisen’s mordant humour, Surface Detail is not a space opera but a morality tale. When a stealth drone on a screen obliterates a ‘target” in Pakistan, real people burn and die. When rape becomes entertainment on cellphones, real women are screaming. Banks’s characters are far more than stage puppets and they drag us into this savage Real, the responsibility for which is ours alone.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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