Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne: A Novel BY Jeff VanderMeer. MCD. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.
The cover of Borne: A Novel

Just when you’re about to do a proper job as critic, assessing Jeff VanderMeer’s latest and looking at his previous, considering, too, his worldwide success and the good it’s done for science fiction generally—just when you’re about to get serious, his new novel, Borne, hits you with the likes of this:

We didn’t see the intruders at first because they were seething up from the underground. . . . But soon enough from our vantage on the roof, looking down to the factory floor through a couple of loose slats, I saw who it was: more poisoned half-changed children. . . . Spilling out of a culvert. An explosion of colors and textures and such a variety of limbs. Some had iridescent carapaces. Some had gossamer wings. Some had fangs like cleavers that half destroyed their mouths. Soft and exposed and pink or hardened and helmeted, they spilled out. A carnivalesque parade of killers.

And the shocks have only just begun. Before these “biotech” children do any damage, they themselves fall prey to souped-up bears, with worse enhancements. The ambush leaves “a violent canvas of body parts and fluids,” yet one monster remains unsated. It begins to nose its way up the stairs towards the narrator, Rachel.

Now, Rachel does have a protector: This is the novel’s title character, a sentient polymorphous something-or-other, and a piece of work itself: perhaps not of this ravaged Earth, perhaps a product of worsening climate change, or perhaps more biotech gone awry. In any case, Borne is full of tricks, and the one it pulls to survive the bear’s attack proves the topper to the whole outrageous episode. It’s such a humdinger, in fact, that VanderMeer trots out the gambit again at novel’s climax. If the first time blew a reader’s mind, why not go for two?

So when I term Borne the author’s best work yet, it’s precisely for this untrammeled inventiveness. VanderMeer has brought off a fiction that takes him again and again to his strength, namely, imaginative spectacle. Better yet, while the freak show tends to horrors like the factory massacre, the violence isn’t unrelenting. Rather the plot alternates between fireworks and stillness, and many of the quiet moments might be called romantic interludes.

These feature Rachel and Wick, a man who moves the narrator “toward some amorphous frontier or feeling that . . . I refused to call love.” He used to work for “the Company,” the firm behind the biotech. Rachel considers this outfit “the white engorged tick on the city’s flank, the place that had robbed us of resources and created chaos”: shorthand, that is, for industry’s rape of the earth (implied, too, by its all-purpose name). Nonetheless, Wick left his job with skills enough to construct a post-collapse safe haven that, for a while at least, keeps him and Rachel clear of Company products gone rogue. The worst of these is another bear, immense and capable of flight, with the grim name "Mord." Rachel and Wick want only to survive Mord, but the mysterious Magician, a woman in command of the killer children, seeks to kill it and take over the city. But while this conflict generates terrible carnage, Rachel and Wick suffer the gentler troubles of love. They have their own technology, their own compromises, and above all a psychological subtlety that provides ballast for a story otherwise pitching and yawing ferociously.

To give just one example of this subtlety: As Rachel peeks down at the bears tearing into the children, she realizes that she feels a tinge of schadenfreude. Earlier she was assaulted by such kids, and now a part of her enjoys “a revenge I’d played out in my mind a thousand times.” As for her scenes with Wick, they include this: “So I took him and kept taking him until he had nothing left and we glistened with each other’s sweat.” Sex is a rarity for VanderMeer, and it keeps the emphasis where it ought to, on the emotions: “I could still feel those lines of power extending outward.”

The couple’s most complex dealings, however, concern Rachel’s shape-shifting companion. “Borne was just salvage at first,” she says, picked up while scavenging. Soon, however, the thing grows into a basic form, like “a large vase or a squid,” and somehow starts to talk. The relationship with Rachel falls into that of mother and child, and allows for comic relief. Her unearthly foundling, for instance, eventually sounds like a teenager: “I need my space.” To Wick, however, the newcomer looks like a competitor—if not worse. When Borne’s around, other creatures have a way of disappearing, and there’s the nagging question of its provenance. The most likely answer remains the Company, with its “smokestacks that had killed off this part of the world.”

As the questions grow threatening, Borne grows more spectacular. During one get-together the thing flattens, giving off a smell “like the salt edge of a wave,” and spreading “halfway up the cathedral-like ceiling, there to peer down through star eyes, as he replicated the night sky.”

Special effects have spiced up both the trilogies that define VanderMeer’s career to date. He began with three fictions set in Ambergris, his City of Saints and Madmen—the 2002 title that kicked off the series. That metropolis felt a bit like Borne’s, with its teeming underground, but the development was more earthbound, with elements of the detective story and Borgesian self-reference. Then in a single jubilee year, 2014, appeared the “Southern Reach” novels. The trilogy clearly struck a chord, as it became an international phenomenon, and part of the appeal was that the alien invasion had no truck with the usual gimmickry. Rather, a reader strove to survive in the wilderness or defeat a bureaucracy; the “Southern Reach” isn’t the alien presence, but the quasi-military agency set up in response.

Another part of the appeal, to be sure, was the novels’ admonition about damage to the planet. The trilogy’s finale rises to a peroration against “every pollutant that had ever been loosed against the natural world,” and the New Yorker saluted VanderMeer as “the weird Thoreau.” Yet while these fine novels are suffused with sympathy for our threatened Earth, their change agent remains extraterrestrial: the alien “Crawler.” To this reader at least, the ecological argument feels imposed.

The new fiction, therefore, doesn’t succeed merely by setting loose the Wild Rumpus. There’s plenty of that, as I say, and indeed insofar as I had misgivings, they arose from a sense of overflow, of too much. In the final chapters, I was glad to learn just what Borne was, but I could’ve done without the additional backstory for Wick and Rachel. Still, I’d never argue the end was less than thrilling—or that thrills are the whole point. VanderMeer never stints on the humanity of his players, not even the one who isn’t human. He keeps the possibility for better, the “blueprint for a return of civilization,” squarely in the same hands as brought on the catastrophe. When Borne asks Rachel “What happened in this city?” she puts it this way: “We didn’t try hard enough. . . . We had no discipline. We didn’t try the right things at the right time. We cared but we didn’t do.”

Last summer, John Domini brought out his latest book, a collection of short stories, MOVIEOLA! (Dzanc).