Monday, September 29, 2008

Book Review: The New Weird edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

"Bringing order to madness," is probably how I'd best describe The New Weird. The Vandermeers attempt to explain the movement called the New Weird which in itself is difficult to define. What you end up is an indispensable tome when it comes to tackling that particular topic or if you need a primer on the subject.

Rather than simply following a text book format or that of an anthology, The New Weird combines the best of both worlds. It is divided into four sections, each one tackling a different aspect of the term. In the introduction, Jeff Vandermeer does a good job of giving us a brief overview and the goals of the book.

The first part, entitled "Stimuli", has a good selection of stories that influenced the New Weird such as Clive Barker's "In the Hills, the Cities". For the most part, these stories are quite readable and enjoyable, but it clearly hasn't crossed into the border of the "too bizarre".

The second part, "Evidence", moves into stories and novel excerpts of what can be considered the New Weird proper. Rather than simply talking about the New Weird, these stories show us what it is. Some of these stories are easily identifiable thanks to its aliens voice and form such as "The Lizard of Ooze" by Jay Lake, "Letters from Tainaron" by Leena Krohn, and "The Ride of the Gabbleratchet" by Steph Swainston. It has to be said that some of these stories aren't easy-reading and might make some readers uncomfortable or alienate them too much (which, in part, is the nature of the beast). On the other hand, there were some stories that surprised me in the sense that I never considered them New Weird before, such as Jeffrey Ford's "At Reparata", which just goes to show how diverse this sub-genre can be.

The third part, "Symposium", collects discussions and debates, whether it's authors attempting to define the term and question whether it should exist, to editors from around the world discussing the impact of it on their culture. This is the nonfiction section and I think it's appropriate that this is located in the third section instead of barraging readers with information overload in the first part.

"Laboratory", the fourth part, is the most interesting for me because it is an experiment in narrative, with various authors building up on Paul Di Filippo's short "Death in a Dirty Dhoti" and appropriating New Weird elements for their own. This can be best described as non-New Weird writers writing New Weird. I found some stories curious and interesting but the cumulative effect is where it shines.

Should you still need further reading, the editors have provided an indispensable Recommended Reading list.

Overall, if you're looking for a resource on the New Weird or interested in acquiring familiarity with it, this is your bible (at least until someone else comes up with with a book that is better, if not as competent, as this one) in the sense that it's not definitive but rather a jumping off point. The Vandermeer's choice of sections is to be commended. On the other hand, if you're looking for something good to read, The New Weird is a double-edged sword: I find that the New Weird is not to everyone's tastes (personally I'm divided on the subject). If you do like the New Weird, grab this anthology. If you don't know enough whether to like or dislike the New Weird, save yourself much time and money by giving this book a shot. Similarly, since New Weird is a term that's difficult to define, the next time someone asks you what it is, just hand them this book; it'll save you hours and hours of discussion.

Rating: 3.5/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Glad you liked it.

It strikes me that I prefer reading your reviews without reading the rating, since in some cases, including this review, I don't think they really match up. In fact, I don't know if you really even need the ratings.



Charles said...

Hi Jeff! Thanks for the comment!

Honestly, with the ratings, a part of me keeps it for the sake of marketing. (People are attracted to ratings and sadly, sometimes based their judgments entirely on the ratings rather than what's actually said by the reviewer.) During those days, I agree with you and want to do away with ratings entirely.

Of course I also know how ratings can be the "lazy way" of reviewing books.

On a related note to that, ratings also give me a certain flexibility. Like I can praise a book in a review and talk about its strengths yet via the ratings, show how the book's audience is limited to a core few (i.e. there's a couple of "guilty pleasure" books that I really enjoy but I'm under no illusions as to how others might perceive or read it, thus give it a rating of a 2).

Overall, it's something for me to mull upon. I guess I'm still finding my voice as a reviewer and my tastes are changing. Books I've read last year--or even six months ago--would have received different ratings from the present me, although my actual reviews of them would have mostly remained identical.