The novel is, indeed, science fiction in that it takes place a minute in the future and includes some near-future science. However, it is primarily a thriller and could be set in the current real world with fairly light revisions. VanderMeer’s concerns about climate apocalypse and our dominant civilization’s need to radically reform its views of the non-human are on full display, as is his detailed ecological research. The characters also show VanderMeer’s typical nuance and detail. If you’re a fan of VanderMeer, this book will likely please.
Bit more on character and tone: typical of my own personal experience with VanderMeer, I find the characters interesting (mainly the protagonist in this case) but the relationships between them not especially compelling. They’re realistic, and I believe the family entanglements and real love between some individuals, but if you read for dynamic character chemistry, this book may not be your thing. Warning: it’s also darker than some of his works, and dysfunctional or flat-out inimical relationships among violent individuals dominate the narrative. There is, however, a bit of hope at the end.
The near-future dystopia the story ends on is like a marginally less severe, more climate-oriented version of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. (If this is a spoiler, it’s a spoiler for our impending real life.) I’d like to think there’s an explicit influence there, but I suspect it may be a case of two intelligent individuals independently seeing the writing on the wall. (And Butler saw it in 1993, so it’s not like we haven’t had warning.)
The very end of the story, to my surprise, left me with a strong impression of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Mind you, the parallels are not overwhelming. I didn’t feel like VanderMeer set out to recast Coleridge’s poem for modern times. Nonetheless, the echoes were interesting and deepened my appreciation. After all, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is also an ecological manifesto in its way.
The bottom line: I don’t think this is VanderMeer’s strongest work. In its emphasis on darkness and bleakness, it lacks some emotional range, and in its tightly near-future setting, it lacks some of the imaginative play of his other science fiction. Nevertheless, it is a well-written page turner with a strong protagonist and powerful cautionary themes about ecological collapse, which we certainly need, alas.