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17 June 2017

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

By Toby Litt

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​

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel