'Borne' Is a Beautiful, Bizarre Sci-Fi Novel with a Gigantic, Flying Bear
We caught up with author Jeff VanderMeer, whose new novel envisions biotech end times.
Photo by Kyle Cassidy/courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
"I'm not interested in increasing the distance between us and the world we live in," author Jeff VanderMeer tells me. "I'm interested in showing how there is no real gap and that if we don't realize that soon, other narratives are going to overtake us and replace whatever stories we're telling with their own. Most everything else is just bullshit."
We're discussing the 48-year-old Florida resident's eagerly anticipated novel, Borne, an insanely beautiful and beautifully insane story of a scavenger woman named Rachel who finds a strange creature in a post-apocalyptic landscape and raises it as a son. Oh, and also there are feral mutant children, biotech foxes, and a gigantic, venomous flying bear named Mord, who, along with his miniature Mord proxies, patrols and ravages the world.
VanderMeer is on the vanguard of sci-fi that engages directly with the Anthropocene, the current era where human interference is altering the planet's environment. But VanderMeer's fiction is not preachy by any means. Rather, it probes the mysterious of different lifeforms and highlights our human ignorance at the life around us. Recent Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead hailed Borne as an "investigation into the malevolent grace of the world, and it's a thorough marvel."
VanderMeer's best-known work is the Southern Reach trilogy, published in succession in 2014, about a government agency trying (mostly in vain) to understand a bizarre, alien-altered ecological system called Area X. The books were a big success, and the film adaptation of the first book, Annihilation, will hit theaters next year starring Natalie Portman with direction from Ex-Machina's Alex Garland.
While the Southern Reach was an atmospheric horror—"layering a seething and tangled natural landscape to infringe on the characters and reader," in VanderMeer's words—Borne is quite a different beast indeed. "Borne [in] an ecological sense is about a seemingly lifeless place that you slowly come to realize has more life than you might think," he tells me. The novel opens with Rachel finding a weird creature on the fur of the aforementioned gigantic flying bear. She names the shape-shifting creature Borne. At first it resembles "a half-closed stranded sea anemone" but eventually grows—or distorts itself—into something roughly human-size and able to speak.
I'm not sure I've ever read a novel that so perfectly balances the intimate—the lives of Rachel, her partner Wick, and their quasi-child Borne—with the bizarre. In the background, a struggle ensues between the terrifying flying bear Mord and the Magician's army of mutated children. Both are products of biotech tests by a shadowy organization called the Company, which discarded experiments that now populate the land. A lesser writer would make that the story a kind of Godzilla meets Game of Thrones (not that I wouldn't have been thrilled to read that, too), but VanderMeer grounds the novel in the personal story of Rachel and Borne, allowing him to move us with emotion and introspection between bouts of flying-bear fireworks.
"It's all down to Rachel, and I don't think the novel would work without it being from her point of view," VanderMeer explains. "She foregrounds what's important to her, and because she's an old hand in the City, she doesn't spend overlong dwelling on the biotech and the other weirdnesses of this world. She lives in it, and its wonders and horrors are all in a day's work."
Both the imaginative elements and the intimate story of Rachel's odd family make the novel stand in contrast to the dour, post-apocalyptic novels that fill up the bookstore shelves each year. You know the ones: A plague kills everyone, or maybe turns them into zombies, and the last remaining people must murder one another in a desolate wasteland or rape, death, and decay.
Borne is set after an apocalypse, yes, but there is still life both inside and out.
"Sometimes we have misconceptions about kinds of habitat, like deserts, and since the city in Borne is semi-arid, that's one myth I wanted to dispel: that such places are lifeless. They're not," VanderMeer says. "The life might be nocturnal or sometimes underground, or pick its spots to bloom and then fade away for a time, but it's always there. Life on this planet is an endless source of ingenuity and wonder."
The colorful feeling of Borne's world comes from both the natural world and from visual media. VanderMeer lists Moebius, Jodorowsky, and Miyazaki as three strong influences on the book. "Miyazaki in Nausicaa and Princess Monomoke has such sophisticated and brilliant 'seeing' of ecology and of ecological devastation and mutation. The complexity of it all and the burgeoning of weird life in strange places."
Borne is set after an apocalypse, yes, but there is still life both inside and out.
"Weird" is a key word for VanderMeer's fiction. He's commonly associated with the "New Weird," a group of contemporary genre-bending authors who mix sci-fi, fantasy, and horror together with a healthy dose of the strange. But unlike the cold, nihilistic weirdness of H.P. Lovecraft's amoral alien gods, VanderMeer's fiction is pulled from our own strange, complex, and bizarre planet, as well as the organizations and systems that we humans have enclosed ourselves in.
When I ask VanderMeer what humans refuse to understand about our environment, he notes our strange belief "that somehow we're not part of this world but instead settlers of it, as if we're all astronauts who came from another planet." He points out that, "in fact, that attitude—and the idea that hidden costs aren't actual costs—is what's brought us to the brink. The idea that we must bend the world to our will instead of bend to it."
Of course, the world is not bending to our will so much as pushing back. Climate change is something that hovers behind VanderMeer's fiction, as it does over all of our lives, even if some politicians want to pretend it doesn't exist. Unsurprisingly, VanderMeer is no fan of the current administration. He recently published a short story in Slate about a Trump amusement park that you have to enter through Trump's anus.
"For me, there is no other topic, in a sense, in how it pulls all kinds of other themes and issues into it," VanderMeer says, noting how the interpretation of his work has changed in the decades he has been publishing as our understanding of climate change's dangers have. "It's hilarious to me, grimly, that often early on I was told my work was unrealistic. Well, sadly, it's more realistic now." He continued: "People today live in situations of ecological collapse and displacement. If you don't feel that in your bones, it is because you have been sheltered from it—literally by location or economics or because you wall out the images and reports coming in from other places."
In my own reading, I've noticed that a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction shows either humanity rebuilding hopefully or else revels in a cynical irony about the world being taken over by cockroaches. Borne is different. It provides a sense that human life might survive but also that other intelligent life, with its own aims and dreams, will take over. When I ask VanderMeer about this, he's hesitant to call the book hopeful.
"Does the novel have hope in it? Sure. It has the hope that's warranted—no more and no less. Especially in a context where we seem intent on commodifying 'hope' in the literary world, making it a code word for 'this is still entertaining even though it is dark. Don't worry—we shoved the hope into it, no worries there. Now buy my book.'
"That said, if you still trust me, I do see Borne as hopeful," he elaborated. "I think at this point any fiction that posits that some humans will survive is tilting toward the hopeful, but also it's how you survive. And that doesn't mean how many possessions you have, but how you conduct yourself, and how you manage to have empathy and engage in acts of loving kindness and trust regardless of your situation."
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Borne by Jeff VanderMeer is available in bookstores and online from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.