Jeff Vandermeer’s latest deserves at least a short review but it has a lot in common with Slow River, a re-issue in the SF Masterworks series, so I thought I should write about that at the same time. Slow River in turn connects to an intriguing anthology of newer short SF, so here we go.
Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer (2021, Harper Collins) was described on the back cover as, “An intellectual mindf*ck disguised as a thriller,” and by the time I finished it I was inclined to agree.
The Ministry for the Future was the last book I treated in this way. It, too, was a dystopian vision but other than that the two books have little in common, except that both have been very highly recommended by all sorts of people.
The Wind-up Girl is twelve years old, not one, and was a first novel, not the latest of many from an acknowledged master. Perhaps more importantly for the reader, the Ministry is somewhat nerdy and the Girl is a cracking thriller.
There’s a lot to like in The Capricorn Sky but unfortunately there’s more than a little to dislike, too. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.
It’s Campbell’s first novel (nothing wrong with that) and it’s self-published. The book’s unpolished design (fonts, text spacing, etc) sends up the first warning signals and suggests immediately that it has missed out on the benefit of experienced editorial eyes and hands. Furthermore, Campbell has chosen to write in an invented future English in which hyphenated words are replaced by camelCase, “qu” by “qw” (qwite, qwiet, etc), and there are other neologisms and re-spellings. He probably intended that it would help place the action where it’s set, at the end of this century. It’s a tactic which can work well in the hands of an experienced writer (Burgess’s Clockwork Orange and Hoban’s Riddley Walker come to mind) but this reader, for one, found it merely distracting.
And that’s a pity, because Campbell has set a good story in a worryingly plausible future North Queensland.
As I’ve said before, SF is valuable for its freedom to conduct thought-experiments, which often illuminate our present by showing us futures which may arise from it. Utopias beckon us along a particular path, while dystopias hold up warning signs saying, “Wrong way – go back.”