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The Surreal Office

Weird Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer and Vernor Vinge

Here is some required reading for those who feel stuck in a daily grind, or on the contrary, are dreaming about becoming a symbiotic whole with a cubicle.

Jeff VanderMeer and Vernor Vinge are two very different writers in style and approach, but the subject matter is painfully familiar ("Office", "Office Space", Dilbert, you name it). In these short works of fiction, the same office life receives a refreshingly surreal makeover that you likely will never forget... or look at your job prospects in the same way again.

(art courtesy David Fuhrer)

Unless you work in a gorgeous environment like this (Google sets the trend, again), you may desire profound changes in your workplace. Read this story then, and be careful what you wish for:


Jeff VanderMeer
"The Situation"

© 2008, PS Publishing
--/ third place f novelette
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ style award
--/ emotion award

Jeff VanderMeer is not a pirate (swashbuckler, filibustier, rogue), nor is he a squid researcher, or a mushroom grower (though some of his writings may suggest all that, given their ferocious weirdness). He is, however, a damn good writer, who can easily cram a juicy epic into a thin sliver of a book: in this case, a 50-page worth Situation.

Somewhat reminiscent of Vernor Vinge's novella "The Cookie Monster", this particularly steamy slice of corporate Gormenghast for the economy-plagued America provides plenty of emotional harakiri and gut-spilling visual thrills... it crawls around the astonished reader like a misshapen beetle (complete with the grotesque patterns on its carapace and clockwork-sounding clicks). At any point in time this novella seems to have enough potential to be turned into a full-blown 500-page paperback slab, but Jeff VanderMeer never makes this "Alienation in the Workforce" any longer than it needs to be. He lets it lie where it may (using the long-forgotten art form of understatement) - and boy, does the whole thing curl around your subconscious in deliciously disturbing ways!

Suffice it to say that anybody who's been slighted by the benefits-rich corporate culture, or has ever caught a whiff of something rotten emanating from the CEO's office (the Chairmen of the Board abide in a sort of a metaphysical tower and seem to be of insectoid, slug, or worse nature) - anybody who felt the foreboding of CHANGE ready to percolate down the managerial chain... anybody who was strangled creatively or artistically in the name of Almighty Routine... these readers would really appreciate the bizarre Kafka-esque environment of the "Situation", and may cherish it as a sort of confessional, akin to a conversation with a wise (if somewhat mischievous) priest at an altar. The words of wisdom seem to be "Get Out! While you can, and leave your red stapler behind" - but there is more to the particular kind of doom which Jeff VanderMeer carefully measures out. The unavoidable outcome of being fired seems almost a happy ending to a progression of humiliation and defeat.

So in a way, this is a quest, only in reverse. The happy start of the story occurred somewhere during the peaceful "belonging" stage of being gainfully employed. But when the situation developed, everything turned into a bloody, fleshy, surreal set-up (think of "Existenz" movie, or J. G. Ballard's particularly weird nightmares). With the final page the reader can expect to be emotionally exhausted, greatly desiring more details, and only getting fifty pages worth of text. Kind of like Harlan Ellison's angriest (and most laconic) best. Good things come in small packages, indeed.

Download the full text online here, read about the circumstances of how it was written in Jeff's interview on DRB, or order the book at PS Publishing site.


Jeff VanderMeer
"Secret Lives" (coll)

© 2008, Prime Books
--/ fourth place f collection
--/ idea award
--/ style award
--/ humour award

Speaking of Harlan Ellison's "angry candies", or his "From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet", here we have a similarly delicious set - a short collection (little more than 100 pages) of themed stories, vignettes of the secret lives of various quite ridiculous, or utterly boring characters. This is a gauntlet thrown in the face of each of us: "Hey there, do YOU have a secret worth of writing about?" My completely uneducated guess would be that most people lead some sort of secret life, even if known only to the powers above. Admit it, or not, this is a voyarist bliss package, capable to illuminate your boring life with rays of unadulterated lunacy, even if said lunacy is only a product of Jeff VanderMeer's mind.

This book takes my pick as the most intriguing and under-appreciated publishing event of the year (it even has a strange, unaccounted story on the other side of the cover). Don't try to search for it in your cavernous Borders store, and don't confuse this book with Jeff's previously-issued collection "Secret Life". You can order a copy through the Prime Books website.


(art courtesy David Fuhrer, click to enlarge)

Here is a reminder of what conceptual science fiction can do with the "office farce" sub-genre: Hugo award-winning 2003 novella by Vernor Vinge (written after the dot com crash, also in a pretty negative corporate and economic climate)


Vernor Vinge
"The Cookie Monster"
© Analog, Oct 2003
--novella : 2004 Hugo Winner
--novella : 2004 Locus Winner
--novella : 2004 AnLab /3

--/ second place sf novella
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ awesome scale

Just like "The Situation", this haunting novella contains images of corporate hell worthy of Dilbert's worst. It certainly puts a stop to dreams of a cozy desk job in sunny California, grazing around the campus of some hip computer corporation. Instead of perks, freedom and stability the employees here get something quite different... and you get a sinking feeling from the moment the first email arrives in the story.

This is a classic novella about the manipulation of reality; engaging, hilarious and deceptively simple: most of it happens inside a generic industrial park, with the main characters having a reckless adventure... by walking from one building to the other. Soon, however, the daily grind turns into a nightmare (and/or conspiracy) worthy of Kafka and Philip K. Dick. As our characters realize that they have become part of the biggest reality scam since "The Truman Show", they have nothing left to do but to shuffle around in a zombie-like fashion, hoping to "cool off" their thought processes, or trying to figure out the implications of the plot.

A few years back, Vinge popularized the "singularity" concept, in which he predicted that humanity will be left in the dust in the wake of self-evolving software. This writer knows how to handle the vastness of concept, how to tighten the plot with the velvet gloves of the reader's own fears and paranoias. It all starts with an email (just like the good old "Matrix" starts with a call on Neo's phone)... but soon the workplace transforms into something else, and time itself is bending out of shape.


(art courtesy David Fuhrer, click to enlarge)

Also Read: "Surreal Art Update"

Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Click to go to "Dark Roasted Blend" site



Blogger Bettina Tizzy said...

Ravishing photos and a subject near and dear to my heart. I wish David (and Vernor) would pop in Second Life and have a go at making these offices in 3D there. Because he can. Because there are so many who would appreciate it. Because we could all USE these offices.

If David and Vernor would like any assistance, they should contact me in world (Bettina Tizzy). They can learn more about my group Not Possible in Real Life here:

7:04 AM  

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Exceptional British Scifi Artwork from the 1950s

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Pulp Pleasures: Eando Binder

Great space adventure fiction from the 1930s
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Epic Fantasy: the Start of the Journey

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Strange Shadows: Best Classic Fantasy

Fantasy "glitches in the matrix",
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Classic Cyberpunk SF Novels: Reviews

Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, K. W. Jeter, et al
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10 Possible Sources of "Avatar" in Classic Science Fiction

Going beyond the obvious "Dances with Smurfs"...
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"Steampunk" Anthology: Full Review

some truly crazed stories in there...
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"Dune", Plus Often-Neglected
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Two of the Most Entertaining SF Novels from the 1980s

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"The Body Snatchers" and Other Alien Pods

Fiction by Jack Finney, Vance, Simak and Bloch
mind impostors and emotion imitators

Exploring the Noir and the Grotesque

Jack O'Connell "The Resurrectionist"
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Overpopulation, Sex and Sensibility

Robert Silverberg's "The World Inside"
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H. P. Lovecraft "At the Mountains of Madness"

and other masterpieces of terror
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"Constellations", edited by Peter Crowther

original anthology, 2005
full review: mind-bending stories

The Ultimate Guide to New Writers of SF&F

more than 2,000 writers, 1990-2009
Ratings, awards, web links

The Surreal Office

"The Situation", "The Cookie Monster"
Weird fiction by Jeff VanderMeer and Vernor Vinge

Mind-shattering Novels of Philip K. Dick

"UBIK", "Now Wait for Last Year", etc.

Theodore Sturgeon's "More Than Human"

There’s a problem with this new gestalt being: needs a conscience.

Jack Williamson's "Legion of Space" Series

Classic Space Opera
The ultimate weapon, controlled by a gorgeous woman

Astounding Stories, August 1934

Jack Williamson, Nat Schachner, "Doc" Smith
Epic space opera gems and horror surprises

Rare Pulp SF&F, Issue 3

Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber, Vic Phillips
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Pyrokinetic writing in one neat package

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"Nova" and "Babel-17"
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Theodore Sturgeon's "The Cosmic Rape"

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Part 3 of Pulp Sf art series...

Alastair Reynolds' Epic Novels

"Chasm City" and "Revelation Space"
And it's only the beginning...

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Grand Old Times... in the Future

Overview of Pulp Art
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Exclusive: Interview with Nancy Kress

From High Fantasy to Hard Science Fiction
A Spectrum of Wonder

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Alastair Reynolds

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incredible line-up of writers

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Neat & Rare Stories
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Full Issue Review
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Astounding Stories, May 1941

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Frank Belknap Long

"The Horror from the Hills"
Great Lovecraftian Weird Novella

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"Neutron Star"
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"SF&F Reading Experience" is part of "Dark Roasted Blend / Thrilling Wonder" family of sites. We try to highlight the most entertaining and rewarding science fiction and fantasy, with emphasis on memorable reader experience, not necessarily general acceptance by the critics. Have fun, and delve into our extensive ratings and reviews!

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