Review | Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne: Motherhood is a Beast

April 25, 2017 by DAVID MORRIS | LITERATURE
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Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Release Date: April 25th

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Jeff VanderMeer

I have been reading the work of Tallahassee-based Jeff VanderMeer for more than a decade, glorying in the bizarre worlds of Ambergris and Veniss, full of mutated dogs and mushroom-men so strange and dark they felt like they were mine alone. Then, in 2015, the Southern Reach trilogy presented him to the world, taking his obsessions – with genetic manipulation, with the threat of the nonhuman – and transferring them to a version of the real world, populated with painfully real people. The books became bestsellers, and in 2018, we will see a film adaptation of the first installment – starring, amazingly, Natalie Portman.

With his new novel, Borne, VanderMeer’s ascendance from cult strangeling to mainstream provocateur continues. His preoccupations are the same: in the world of Borne, just as in the Veniss setting he established nearly three decades ago, the world is a nightmarish battleground full of genetically-engineered horrors. The difference is that, as in the Southern Reach books, VanderMeer’s lead characters are dealing with their situation as deeply-feeling modern humans would. Borne is superficially a sci-fi adventure, but more than that, it is a meditation on human attachments, romantic and, most of all, parental.

The book’s title is also the name given to a strange creature discovered by the lonely scavenger Rachel. At first mute and tiny, the foundling grows into something that is completely inhuman, but also talkative and emotionally complex. Borne is, as his adoptive mother insists, “a person.”

Maybe the most magical passages of the book concern Borne discovering the world, and his place in it, a process that is full of joy despite the bleak setting. The creature’s personality is enthralling – innocent yet wise, so playful and relatable that the reader, no less than its guardian, is distracted from the mystery of its origins. But Borne’s mystery unfolds quickly, even as Rachel holds onto her parental role as a shred of normalcy in a nightmare world.

That world takes many specific elements from earlier Vandermeer work, particularly the outlines of its main antagonist, a giant flying bear called Mord. Mord appeared by name in “The Situation,” a short story which also established the Company and its destructive bioengineering (On Twitter, VanderMeer told me Borne is “a proto-version of [“The Situation’s”] universe with alt-world versions of some characters.”). The idea of a bear as a strange villain surfaced as far back as 2007’s “The Third Bear.”

What seems to fascinate VanderMeer about bears is that, while the bear was a primal threat to our caveman forebears, it is also vastly more relatable than, say, a crocodile, or even a lion. Bears – which are not distantly related to dogs – have sympathetic eyes, and their violence is more complex than that of the purer killing machines. For all his terror Mord is, like Borne and in some ways moreso, a person.

The species-anxiety VanderMeer plays with here, the question of what makes ‘a person,’ is one of weird fiction’s core tropes, going back at least to H.P. Lovecraft. But VanderMeer has become such a refined chronicler of humanity’s relationship with the transhuman that he is being drawn into a different orbit, earning plaudits from literary bigshots like Colson Whitehead and Junot Diaz.

Borne, while it is deeply relatable for anyone who has loved and lived, does retreat from a different element of weird fiction that The Southern Reach elevated to new heights. That work boldly offered few answers to its central mystery, presenting disparate viewpoints that sometimes didn’t align with one another. This cultivated a sense of dread, of unknowability, broader and more profound than any monster that VanderMeer showed on the page.

Borne is not that kind of book – it is linear, and its conclusion is satisfying, even upbeat. VanderMeer has never been as relentlessly bleak as weird writers like Thomas Ligotti or Michael Cisco, and the accessibility of Borne will provide an even bigger invitation for newcomers to the genre. But it did leave me hoping he treats his longtime fans to something even stranger and more troubling the next time around.

VanderMeer will appear at Tampa’s Oxford Exchange on May 28th. More info here.

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