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Creature discomforts: is Borne an animal, a person or a weapon?

Author Jeff VanderMeer imagines a super-advanced biotech bear.

Jeff VanderMeer recently tweeted: “The answer to your question on this book tour is ‘Because a giant flying elephant shrew would’ve been ridiculous.’” He was touring the United States to promote Borne, the latest of his beautifully written, intricately detailed SF novels. I say SF, rather than science fiction or fantasy or science fantasy, because VanderMeer’s writing often exists not on a hard borderline between them, but within a treacherous, indeterminate and occasionally ridiculous Zone.

The Zone is the setting for Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel, Roadside Picnic, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker and explored by Geoff Dyer in his own book Zona. The idea of the Zone is that it has been created, inadvertently, by a civilisation so advanced that the technology left there appears to our primitive minds as fantastical. What they see as the trash left behind after an intergalactic roadside picnic is revelation for us – or, in VanderMeer’s thrilling 2014 take on the story, annihilation.

The border between science fiction and fantasy can be definite: on one side, Here Be Robots, on the other, Here Be Dragons. Unless an author imagines a robo-dragon, incorporating both arcane sorcery and metal bits, the two genres can be kept distinct. They have different physics. The robots envisaged by Isaac Asimov may still be just beyond our technological capacity, but we will get there eventually. Our 2017 robots sway forward like drunk but determined waiters; soon they’ll be sprinting faster than Usain Bolt – and, unlike their precursors, on two legs rather than four. Dragons, however, obey rather more obliging physical laws. Without the invisible help of fantasy, ­Tolkien’s Smaug could not achieve lift-off, nor could Luke Skywalker raise an X-wing using the Force. Smaug’s power-to-weight ratio is all wrong; Skywalker is using sorcery, plain and simple.

Which brings us back to VanderMeer’s answer on this book tour. The question he is repeatedly facing is, “Why did you make the monster in Borne a giant flying bear?” In his answer, VanderMeer is pointing out something obvious: not only is a giant flying elephant shrew ridiculous but a giant flying anything is ridiculous. Unless – and this is VanderMeer’s Zonal get-out-of-jail-free card – it has been created by a technological entity so far beyond us that making Mord, a Godzilla-sized biotech bear that is capable of nixing gravity and soaring high above a dystopian city, is child’s play. The technological entity, and the book’s malign McGuffin, is “the Company” – Apple Inc as imagined by H P Lovecraft.

In the next few years, VanderMeer will be doing a lot more answering questions, because the film adaptation of his Annihilation, scripted by Alex Garland and starring Natalie Portman, will be released in 2018. From being a very successful SF writer, VanderMeer will become mainstream – and Borne is full of signs that he is already thinking ahead of that easy transition, and perhaps subverting it.

For a start, whereas Annihilation built mystery upon mystery, the tone of Borne throughout is one of explanation – as if the narrator, a dark-skinned, 28-year-old woman called Rachel, were answering a series of “Why did you . . . ?” questions. The novel is structured with self-justifying section headings such as “WHAT I DID NEXT, EVEN THOUGH IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN WRONG” and “WHAT I TAUGHT BORNE AND WHAT HE TAUGHT ME”. The narration, when summarising, often sounds like a cinema voice-over. How did the world of Borne get as bad as it did? “Everything everywhere collapsed. We didn’t try hard enough. We were preyed upon. We had no discipline.”

VanderMeer’s writing is expositional. When he is faced with an action sequence (and this book has many thrilling chases and fights), his inclination is to jump forward until it is safely over and then have it related from a place of sanctuary. What lifts the prose is his streamlined syntax and the delightful quaintness of his word choices. He’s a world-class describer – especially of such strange Zonal phenomena as Borne.

Borne is a piece of super-advanced biotech, an ever-growing creature that starts as a sea anemone-thing, becomes a vase-shaped squid-thing and soon is metamorphosing into just about anything he wants. Here he is, early on:

He was sitting on the table in front of me, as enigmatic as ever. Then, mid-chew, I heard a whining noise and a distinctly wet pucker. As I set down the packet, the aperture on top of Borne widened, releasing a scent like roses and tapioca.

I can imagine many other SF writers happily climaxing this description with roses; none but VanderMeer with tapioca.

Rachel finds Borne stuck in Mord’s fur and takes him home to her lover, an older man called Wick, with whom she lives in a Ballardian tower block called the Balcony Cliffs. The human story – the one to endear the novel to Hollywood producers, and to readers trying to dig through to “What’s it really about?” – is a fantastical version of childrearing. As Borne grows and becomes more powerful, he goes through recognisable stages of toddler, teen, emo and nest-leaver-who-still-wants-his-emotional-laundry-done. His identity is constantly in question. Is Borne an animal, a person or a weapon? In one way, the book is about what it’s like as a heterosexual parent to raise a child who is transgender.

VanderMeer’s explicit question for himself, within the book, is: “What does it take to be a person?” Towards the end, the reiteration of this theme becomes a little wearying. In the film, the voice-over will borrow a line from the book’s end and sagely say, “We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.” As a lesson, given how much wit has gone into the world-building, this is grotesquely disappointing. It’s a mainstream moral, ready-made, and nothing to do with the questions of identity and metamorphosis that the book has raised.

Where VanderMeer perhaps deliberately undermines the future film is in the way Borne looks. Imagine the climactic cinematic battle between Mord the giant bear and Borne – crashing and slashing. On the left side of the screen, a ravening ursine; on the right, “a glowing purple vase shape”. That’s just not going to fly. But Borne the novel does.

Toby Litt’s latest book is “Mutants: Selected Essays” (University of Chicago Press)

Jeff VanderMeer
Fourth Estate, 325pp, £12.99​

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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