Oh, the humanity | Borne by Jeff VanderMeer | Book Review

One of the many ‘uses’ of fiction is its ability to zoom in on and then pick apart some aspect of our experience as self-conscious creatures thrust into a world that cares very little for our life’s trajectories – be they emotional, economical or philosophical.

From the primordial power of the earliest myths and religious narratives down to the most kitchen-sink realism, that thing we can broadly define as fictional narrative can serve to give us some form of solace – be it through simple escapism or by allowing us the focus of meditation.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne goes some way towards literalising these ‘uses of fiction’ by presenting a post-apocalyptic fable narrated with a world-weary eye by Rachel, a scavenger in this ravaged landscape who finds a piece of sentient biotech which she nicknames ‘Borne’ and begins to raise as an erstwhile child, much to the chagrin of her partner and survival companion, Wick.

borne cover

In line with VanderMeer’s most recent work, Borne does not default to stock tropes when painting its picture of the natural world, and our relationship to it. And this also counts for VanderMeer’s take on the post-apocalyptic scenario. There is no sweeping, omniscient voice explaining away How We Live Now (and as if it’s a deliberate gag, the final section of the novel riffs on that exact phrase — crucially, however, replacing ‘We’ with the more modest ‘I’). Instead, we are thrust into it from the point of view of a strange new family… stranger still, from the point of view of its troubled formation.

VanderMeer’s ecological focus was made apparent thanks to the trilogy of Southern Reach novels – all of which were released in a seasonal stagger back in 2014, and which have endeared him to a new batch of readers who may cleave more closely to the literary mainstream than the fans of his earlier, weirder work.

Running the gamut from science-fiction thriller to explorations of bureaucratic entropy and surreal fever dream punctuated by melancholy for a fading natural world, the trilogy – comprised of Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance – only pays tribute to speculative fiction tropes when it needs to, with VanderMeer employing them to tell a story of an encroaching environmental catastrophe which only brings into focus our diminished understanding, and relevance, in an ecosystem that we’re helping to destroy through a mixture of avarice and willful ignorance.

Borne picks up after the destruction is more or less complete, though as alluded to earlier, there are no explanatory prologues detailing exactly what happened, with no fingers pointed at unambiguous culprits. Instead, it finds Rachel and Wick simply surviving, and VanderMeer gets a lot of dramatic mileage from this sharpened worldview.

Courtyard of Dead Astronauts Kyla Harren

The Courtyard of Dead Astronauts (from ‘Bourne’). Art by Kayla Harren

However, it is clear that Rachel is narrating all of this to us from a retrospective standpoint. Dramatically, this does rob the story of some immediacy in an wider sense. Though the grime and graft of surviving in such a world is very much evident throughout, Rachel’s digressive and analytical lapses into what all of this means for her and her relationships – with Wick, with Borne and the rest of this unsettling, Not-So-Brave New World – signal to the reader that the novel will not be about the payoffs of suspense implied by the ‘survival narrative’ genre. But this is also what makes the book so distinctive, so sensitive.

Once again, VanderMeer swerves away from generic constraints to focus on larger themes that deserve to be digested thoroughly. As was the case with the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer once again shows he’s not interested in a cliched representations of the natural world, and avoids indulging any ‘human-splaining’ tendencies for natural phenomena in favour of depicting the environment – now rendered even stranger by the complete fallout of civilsational collapse and its toxic discontents – in granular detail which builds to a sense of true wonder.

The same could not be said for the overarching political realities that frame Rachel’s existence. We are told that the main opposing forces in this world are the ‘Company’, which asserts its dominance through the biomechanical giant bear, Mord, and his many proxies, and the ‘Magician’, who runs a resistance force that Rachel and Wick find suspect.

Seeing the map revealed so nakedly made naked, too, the thought of a growing conflict – to rule the city – and what choices! We were so lucky, after such strife, to be able to choose between a homegrown tyrant in the Magician, who strove to win by any means, and a Company-grown tyrant in Mord, who held the city in stasis, us unable to do more than react to his whims. Neither imagined as rules could long be tolerated. Yet we could not imagine what lay beyond them except, with a shudder, the specter of the Company itself rising once again from its own ashes.”

In some ways, this is an affront to the kind of laboured ‘world-building’ that’s encouraged by the conventional hegemony of speculative fiction. But it works all the better to transmit the kind of ‘mythic’ clarity mentioned earlier. By not drowning himself in the details of how both the Company and the resistance works, VanderMeer gives Rachel wider berth to expand upon the day-to-day implications of this ongoing social friction.

Mord by Theo

Mord, woodcut by Theo Ellsworth

Then, of course, there’s Borne itself. The creature is another act of mythic distillation on VanderMeer’s part; both heartwarming and unsettling, his growth is, on the one hand, an expression of the ins-and-outs of the raising of children and on the other, our inability to fully comprehend the jolting permutations of a natural world thrown into crisis.

Is Borne a miniature – even, in certain ways, ‘cutesy’ – iteration of the Area X of the Southern Reach novels (an encroaching blot on the landscape that signals danger and absolute bafflement)?

Perhaps, but Rachel’s emotional processing of the creature she takes under her wing is rife with an understandable (but always, inevitably) reductive anthropomorphism, much to Wick’s chagrin, but in a way that creates a pleasing affect for the reader. Yes, this is VanderMeer doing his take on the ‘talking beast’ fable – from Aesop to Disney – but it’s when the more unsettling implication of what Rachel had been ignoring come to the fore that things truly get interesting.

Also because VanderMeer doesn’t skate over that other layer of the trajectory of parenthood – the realisation that the adults in your life are as broken and insecure as you are.

And indeed, when Borne temporarily exits stage left to assert his newfound independence, VanderMeer expands upon another favourite theme – the fragmented nature of human memory and identity, explored so hauntingly through the fractured figure of ‘Ghost Bird’ in the Southern Reach trilogy.

“Wick never believed he was a person, was continually being undone by that. Borne was always trying to be a person because I wanted him to be one, because he thought he was right. We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.”

By turns harsh and delicate, immediate and removed, Borne is as strange and oblique a beast as the creature of its title. Not so much of a ‘tour de force’ of genres and styles – not as much as the Southern Reach trilogy was, anyway – it feels more like a digression into similar themes, with VanderMeer using the opportunity afforded to him by the success of that trilogy – the first installment of which is being adapted into a feature film by Alex Garland – to wade into more exploratory waters.

It truly succeeds in “finding life in the broken places…”

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Chatting is the thing | Worldcon 75

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Being overwhelmed is part and parcel of going to any convention. I would argue that it’s actually baked into the experience from the word go — the idea that you shove yourself into a large space — usually one with inordinately high ceilings — to experience specialised events and ‘network’ incessantly is not a recipe for being chill, exactly.

Worldcon 75, having taken place at the Messukeskus in Helsinki from August 9 to 13, was certainly one such experience for me, and judging by the exhaustion of many other science fiction, fantasy (etc.) writers and fans who I came into contact with over this intensive batch of days, I wasn’t the only one.

But neither would I say that it was all draining, or particularly difficult to grasp.

Part of this is down to just how much better a time I had at the Worldcon this year than I did back in 2014 — the so-called ‘Loncon’ in the — you guessed it — still-not-blighted by Brexit UK capital. Perhaps the event itself is not entirely to blame for my awkwardness (and I had my good friend Alistair Rennie guiding me through the worst of it anyway) but learning the ropes and pacing yourself is what the convention should be all about.

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Day One!

There’s also the fact that Helsinki seems to have attracted a batch of people whom I knew online but hadn’t yet had the pleasure to meet ‘IRL’ — largely thanks to the fact that I had lured them to participate in Schlock Magazine in some capacity, which now being more than ably run by my little sister. There was an especially nice symmetry to the fact that the lovely trio of Gregory Norman BossertKali Wallace and John Chu served as both a welcoming and a farewell committee for myself and my new bride (who was bemused by the whole affair but, I’m sure, enjoyed the company and is bound to have taken some lovely (film) photos of our various gatherings).

In what was to become another through-line for the trip, that trio are alumni of the celebrated Clarion workshops — just like two other friends I was lucky enough to chat with on more than one occasion during the Con; Haralambi Markov and Karin Tidbeck. The latter, whose novel Amatka you should definitely check out and who was among the many people kind enough to write me a recommendation letter as I applied for — and won! — the Malta Arts Council grant that allowed me to come to the Con in the first place, openly recommended that Clarion should be the next step forward for me.

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We shall see what the future holds in this regard… actually, let me rephrase that: I will have to see just how I can manage to rustle up the necessary funds to attend the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, since its benefits were made empirically evident for me throughout the Con.

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On a panel about European Myths and History (ambitious, much?)

Standing — or as was more often the case, sitting — shoulder to shoulder with the Clarionites for the best part of a week could easily have made me feel out of place, were it not for the fact that they were, for the most part, really nice and accommodating every step of the way. Perhaps the knee-jerk clubiness of Maltese culture is what leads me to assume that everyone ends up that way. When in fact, it’s certainly not the case; and going to events like this Con is a clear reminder that pretentiousness and ‘attitude’ of any kind is never helpful if you want to get ahead in any creative industry — be it based on writing or otherwise.

Indeed, I will remain forever humbled by some of the writers I’ve met and who, despite their success guaranteeing them a certain degree of autonomy, still found enough time to speak to me one-on-one and offer their professional advice in a candid and expansive manner. Part of that, I think, is borne out of a desire to ‘pay it forward’ after your own creative trajectory has been so tough (even if the rewards came, in the end).

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Sith Happens

It could be a dispiriting fact to remember, but I also find it inspiring. It’s a reminder this word-wrangling business isn’t just a ghostly pursuit, but a field whose steps you can climb.

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There’s a lot more that could be said about the Con; or at least, a lot more that I could say from my perspective of it, which — owing to the overwhelming-by-proxy nature of the thing I detailed above — would necessarily be subjective to a fault. Starting with my own discomfort with certain performances of ‘fandom’ — hence my unsurprising focus on the dynamics between writers — and ending with my own perceptions of Helsinki itself — a beautiful, calming place that will hopefully get its own separate blog post — but I’d much rather leave things as they are: an airy but fresh perception typed out during a balmy Mediterranean night (so different to the cutting freshness of its bright, Finnish counterparts).

Because the fruit of the many conversations that happened at Worldcon 75 — and, should it not be obvious enough by now, the conversations are what I valued the most out of the entire experience — will be made evident later. When I actually have the time and energy to write out the ideas sparked off by these chats, and to follow up on the networking possibilities that they suggest.

Let this be a promise, to myself above all.

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Thanks to Gregory Norman Bossert, Karin Tidbeck, Jeff VanderMeer, T.E. Grau, Jon Courtney Grimwood, KJ Bishop, Chris Gruppetta and the organising team behind Worldcon 75 for helping me get to the con. My visit to and participation in Worldcon 75 was supported by Arts Council Malta – Cultural Export Fund. 

Turning Thirty to Rampant Development and Literary Nourishment

I turned 30 this May, to a welcoming committee of good friends at a terracotta-walled chillout bar – the same colour that adorns my old room at home and the same colour that will adorn my new room as I settle into the sleepy coastal town of Marsaskala with my girlfriend and Olivia, the fluffy ginger cat.

Or, at least, it will remain sleepy for the odd few months or so, until yet another ludicrous development takes over the ever-diminishing unspoilt land on the island, this time right under my (new) doorstep.

More on that later, for now here’s a few things that have kept me busy over the past month.

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Photo by Jacob Sammut

Photo by Jacob Sammut

Schlock Magazine’s May issue – The overall brief was ‘Spring’, and I think we’ve succeeded in creating an eclectic and visually sumptuous edition, if I may say so myself. Check it out and give us your feedback, if you’re so inclined. It would be appreciated either way, as we’re planning some pretty big changes in the near future any constructive crit will go a long way. Click here to check it out.

Mark Pritchett in Malta. Photo by Ray Attard

Mark Pritchett in Malta. Photo by Ray Attard

Some cool interviews – Got to chat to the great Jeremy Robert Johnson about his blistering bizarro-noir debut novel Skullcrack City (once again, for Schlock) and the day job got a bit more interesting when I scored the chance to speak to David Bowie’s former guitarist turned newspaper mogul Mark Pritchett. It made for a curious afternoon, though as ever, the more memorable insights were kept off the record.

Vemilion by Molly Tanzer. Cover by Dalton Rose, design by Osiel Gomez

Vemilion by Molly Tanzer. Cover by Dalton Rose, design by Osiel Gomez

Fun reads – Apart from the aforementioned Skullcrack City, I thoroughly enjoyed Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion – a weird western with touches of Chinese mysticism and trans-continental vampire lore. We’ll be interviewing Tanzer for Schlock Talks too, and I’ll be reviewing the book for May’s edition of Schlock’s Pop Culture Destruction. Tanzer also featured in an anthology I’ve enjoyed and chatted to my Schlock interlocutor Marco about for Schlock’s podcastLetters to Lovecraft, edited by Jesse Bullington. My dear friend Pyt also gifted me a sumptuous coffee table volume of Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands, which now sits atop of The Steampunk User’s Manual (ed. Jeff VanderMeer & Desirina Boskovich) – another birthday gift, courtesy of my sister and her boyfriend. These are the books that are imagination fuel as I type or sketch away.

Reads I’m looking forward to in the near future: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani, The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace and – perhaps above all – Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. The massed effect of this reading schedule seems to point to a keener environmental awareness, and a desire to get at something obstinately ancient and ‘quiet’, as a counter-reaction to the ADD generation. And what better way to do that than through rocks?

Messaging

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1570). Source: Wikipedia

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1570). Source: Wikipedia

“At best, anyway, his ministry had been an odd assortment, attracting hippies and the straitlaced alike, because he’d pulled from the Old Testament and from deism, and the esoteric books available to him in his father’s house. Something his father hadn’t planned on: the bookshelves leading Saul to places the old man would rather he’d never gone. His father’s library had been more liberal than the man himself.

“The shock of going from being the centre of attention to being out of it entirely – that still pulled at Saul at unexpected times. But there had been no drama to his collapsed ministry in the north, no shocking revelation, beyond the way he would be preaching one thing and thinking another, mistaking that conflict, for the longest time, as a manifestation of his guilt for sins both real and imagined. And one awful day he’d realized that he was becoming the message.” – Jeff VanderMeer

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Read more about Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy in this month’s edition of Pop Culture Destruction on Schlock Magazine