Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: May 2017
Jeff VanderMeer returns to the wonderfully weird. His latest novel is set in a not-too-distant future or a parallel now, after the collapse of most of society. Rachel is a scavenger in an unnamed city, “a damaged city, a city that could not go on like this forever, torn between foes and monsters.” She lives in a fortified place called the Balcony Cliffs along with her partner, Wick. Together they simply try to survive day to day—survive the other scavengers and the city’s general dangers, but also specific ones.
Most notably, there’s the giant flying bear named Mord. Mord is a destructive demigod of sorts who does what he pleases and also has command of miniature versions of himself, the “Mord proxies.” An opposing power is that of the mysterious Magician, a woman who has a loose gathering of followers, not to mention gangs of violent children who seem to be experimented upon bodily. For the city was once based around the Company, and the Company excelled in producing “biotech.” Wick is a former old employee of the Company and knows a bit about biotech, although he’s down to his last few medical worms and alcohol minnows.
The new piece of biotech that Rachel comes upon is a strange creature she names Borne.
To go too much further into plot details would not do justice to VanderMeer’s style of tactile and psychological writing. All the surroundings are mysterious yet specifically described, and the world the author creates is one full of visuals that best exist in the mind’s eye. Borne himself is a fascinating creature, an enigma who Rachel tries to parent as best she can. He grows quickly, his childlike mannerisms humorous and unsettling. Rachel watches as Borne becomes more aware of his world and himself, until he finally comes to need his own space. At one point she notes, “from his tone, I believe Borne was beginning to parody his own innocence,” which is a heartbreaking milestone for any parent. And then of course comes the bigger realization that you can’t fully control a young one’s education and they may learn more from you than you’d like: “Every moment I had been teaching him, and how I wanted now to take back some of those moments.” Borne himself keeps a diary at one point, and recalls testing out his interactions with the two humans in his life. “I do not know when I am being what they want me to be and when I am myself. It is better when I am ‘cute.’ It is safer.” You’re onto something, Borne.
This is a story about family, and memory, and loneliness, and survival, and finding meaning in a place that is brutally trying to erase all meaning. As Rachel tries to keep relationships with both Borne and Wick, she risks losing both of them. Eventually, her path takes her back toward discovering secrets of the Company. When she’s out exploring dangerous territory, at one point she’s hiding inside of Borne while the Mord proxies attack from outside:
I was in a situation no human being had ever been in and a situation that human beings had experienced for thousands of years. … The depths of the familiar and unfamiliar were colliding.
This is a tidy summary of what it’s like to read VanderMeer, with scenes only he could concoct. He focuses so much on the organisms in his story that much of it feels primal and essential. Yet the particulars of his scenes are outlandish and strange, and for that reason, very memorable.
Did this book live up to the high expectations I put on it? I’m still deciding. There are a few small reveals at the end that would add layers to a re-read down the line. The heavy focus on scientific experimentation and the potential fallout from such reminds me of Oryx and Crake. These types of tales could be read as a condemnation of straying too far from humanity. But in keeping his story small (almost too small—I wanted more of the Magician), VanderMeer is able to skirt around the preaching. The statements he makes are more about the individual and the close relationships between beings. When Borne is no longer under Rachel’s care and tries to make amends with her for a past wrong, it’s aching how human he tries to be:
Borne was gripped by the false power of remorse, which makes you think that by the strength of your convictions, your emotions, you can make everything right even when you can’t.
And though he’s not a human, Rachel does treat him like a person. Is there a distinction between those words? Our futures might continue to reshape our answers to that question.