Monday, June 12, 2017

Review of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Short review: Biopunk mythopoeia better a novella

Long review: While many genre fans were already aware of Jeff VanderMeer thanks to his years of writing and editing short stories as well as his novel-length works in the Ambergris setting, it was the Area X: Southern Reach trilogy which put VanderMeer’s name on the broader map of fiction.  Almost universally well-received, the three 2014 novels appeared in genre awards lists as well mainstream bestseller lists.  The three written and released in a very short period of time, it’s no surprise VanderMeer took a long break before releasing his next novel, 2017’s Borne.  Trouble is, was it too much time, or too much expectation for the follow-up?

A focused look at two people embedded in a near-future setting twisted Weird by advances in bio-technology, Borne opens with a woman, Rachel, scavenging for survival in a post-Collapse Earth.  Finding a small, blue-green blob-plant creature, she names it Borne and takes it home to her erstwhile companion, Wick.  Wick a drug dealer for the mutant bear overlord named Mord, he brews his bio-narcotics in an abandonded swimming pool.  Wanting to dissect Borne rather than nurture and raise him, Wick believes Borne is one of the many discarded creations of the Company, a biotech corp largely responsible for the ecological Collapse.  But Rachel convinces Wick to let the little creature live, and soon enough, it starts growing and learning.  Thing is, what kind of world is Borne growing up into?

Playing with the concepts of dark and light, good and evil in its backdrop, Borne remains a character study of Rachel and Wick.  The two’s thoughts and feelings forming the foreground of the novel, VanderMeer examines memories and relationships as the two attempt to maintain and survive in their savage, bio-punked world, Borne the rope they play proverbial tug of war with. 

But where VanderMeer has proven himself an attentive writer (his oeuvre to date proves the strong ability to adapt style to story), in Borne it remains unclear whether style normalizes or detracts from story.  The delivery relatively mundane, rarely does the book’s soul rise to the surface.  Borne’s development is rendered in an affective, light-hearted fashion reminiscent of E.T. or some other alien-learns-human-ways fashion.  But beyond this, particularly Rachel’s search for meaning and identity in their ecologically collapsed world, renders content relatively blithe.  The prose doesn’t have the bite—the dynamics—to infer the full impact of the narrative as we’ve seen in works like Annihilation or Shriek.  Certainly enough of Rachel’s thoughts and situation are described for the reader to have complete understanding of the text, but it lacks a living, beating heart.  And the reason seems—seems—clear: VanderMeer does not appear to waste words, but at the same time the story feels padded, as if lexical focus could have been much, much tighter.  While impossible to identify chunks or sections that could have been elided, Borne still feels like a novella trapped in a novel’s body.

To be fair, Borne is getting a huge amount of positive press.  The LA Times writes “Jeff Vandermeer’s lyrical and harrowing new novel, may be the most beautifully written, and believable, post-apocalyptic tale in recent memory”.  With a flying bear and sentient blob-plantanimal occupying a huge portion of the narrative, however, I must question where the line between honest obsveration and hyperbole lies.  This is not to mention the initial, cutesy-wutesy relationship between Rachel and Borne.  Harrowing?  I don’t’ know.  The cynical side of me would look back to the success of the Area X trilogy and blame it for the less than objective view of the follo wup, while another part of me questions whether there was some significant aspect of Borne I overlooked.

I criticize, but overall Borne remains a good novel.  Borne him/herself is colorful and endearing.  The symbols and devices are well-positioned, then developed effectively within the story’s arena.  The climax feels as though it has arrived naturally and the denouement is one with meaning for the reader, Rachel, and Wick.  And given the symbolism, there is a lot of thinking room for the reader to connect the potential dots—the mythopoesis.  But later in life, when looking to re-read VanderMeer, I will likely seek out his earlier works first…


  1. A very astute review (as always). Borne really would have benefited from being a novella/novelette rather than a full-size novel. I found the first 100 pages interesting with its echoes of Shardik, The Waste Lands, Dhalgren and Engine Summer. But somehow the Weird and Outlandish seemed clich├ęd this time. I couldn't help picturing Borne like one of the brain slugs from Futurama -- and I will be glad if I never have to read the phrase "like a vase or a squid" again (by cutting that description alone the book could have lost some weight in its page count).
    After 120 pages I lost interest and found it increasingly pretentious in its (to me failed) attempt at a character study. The big revelation at the end was not one, but something I suspected pretty early.
    I will probably read VanderMeer's next novel, if I find its premise interesting, but I keep being disappointed and almost dread re-reading City of Saints and Madmen in the future, because somehow that was his only work which completely convinced me.
    I have to admit, though, that I grew impatient with Borne once James Morrow's The Asylum of Dr Caligari arrived at my doorstep. I wanted to finish the former and turn to the latter, and I knew if I took a break from Borne for Asylum, I wouldn't return to it.


    1. I'm curious why you think Borne is getting so much positive press? Is it because of the Southern Reach trilogy getting mainstream press, and therefore the follow up by default does also?

  2. Yes, that would be my best guess as well. Or maybe The Southern Reach has brought him more mainstream readership. That audience tends to be wowed by material SF readers have seen before, and mostly done better. It's a little like when mainstream writers go "genre slumming" (as Michael Moorcock called it) and tend to get high praise for what are actually pretty banal works.

  3. This is the first work I have read by VanderMeer, and I did enjoy it. I don't know if I am alone in my thinking, but I found the treatment of Borne by Rachel and Wick bizarre. Supposedly, he had nine senses, and the memories of any life he had consumed. He would have been a useful ally considering the problems they faced. He was a ravenous carnivore. Could he not have been encouraged to eat only mord proxies, soldiers for the Magician, and reptiles and such? I don't understand the condemnation of his eating, when I think talking to him could have changed some of his habits. I think it would have been interesting to explore that even though he was created for a certain purpose, interaction with other species can cause modification.
    The ending was a non event. There were some plot actions that seemed a bit sloppy, and unemotional - just moving the story along even if a few details did not make sense. I did enjoy the concern for engineered life.