Review: James Bradleyon Jeff VanderMeer

Made Things: Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne

As I was writing this essay news came through that a Russian tanker had crossed the high Arctic without an icebreaker. Even a decade ago it was unthinkable this might happen before the middle of the century, yet the Arctic ice has retreated so much faster than expected that some scientists are predicting the Arctic will be ice-free in summer by the end of this decade.

Like so much about the environmental catastrophe unfolding around us this story is at once unthinkable and oddly workaday. Many – myself included – can appreciate the enormity of what is taking place while simultaneously continuing to behave as if nothing untoward is happening. Even though we recognise we are in the midst of a planetary emergency, as both individuals and a culture we seem unable to take even the most minimal steps to alter our behaviour. The psychic dissonance of this situation is intense, and growing.

This dissonance is a reminder the crisis we face is not merely environmental. It is ethical, social, historical, economic, political, cultural; indeed its effects ripple outward into every aspect of our lives, touching and transforming all they meet. The world we knew is not just gone, but – as the centuries-long process that has led to an iceless Arctic demonstrates – it never really existed, its certainties founded on fantasies about our privileged status and separateness from Nature.

For writers of fiction the challenges posed by this transformation are both profound and particular. The global nature and temporal scale of climate change exceed the conceptual and technical possibilities of the conventional social realist novel, revealing its artificiality and undermining its claims to universality. As Amitav Ghosh has recognised this has more than a little to do with the ways in which social realism seeks to regularise the world, pushing those aspects of the world that disturb the orderly nature of our society into the background. But climate change also challenges our most basic ideas about narrative, demanding we grapple with the interconnectedness of our world, the degree to which any attempt to parse reality or impose order upon events is vulnerable to our growing awareness the part cannot be understood without reference to the whole. As Ghosh puts it, ‘the irony of the “realist’’ novel’ is that ‘the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’. Or, in McKenzie Wark’s more trenchant formulation, ‘the bourgeois novel is a genre of fantasy fiction smeared with naturalistic details – filler – to make it appear otherwise. It excludes the totality so that bourgeois subjects can keep prattling on about their precious “inner lives”.’

How then are writers supposed to respond? What kind of novel can make sense of this crisis and our increasingly incoherent responses to it? Interestingly, many of the most thoughtful responses have emerged from the literatures of the fantastic, or borrowed techniques from science fiction and fantasy, genres that have spent the past century evolving strategies for describing the sort of transformative change we are experiencing.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the technocratic bent of much science fiction, many of these works have concerned themselves as much with the practical question of what living in a climate-affected world might look like. Yet others have gone further, probing the psychic and conceptual dimension of what is taking place around us by using the fantastic as a metaphor for the ways in which climate change renders the world we thought we knew strange, or even terrifying.

Possibly the most articulate and cogent example of the latter is to be found in the work of American writer Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach Trilogy. Published in a single year across the course of 2014, the three books that make up the trilogy – Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance – focus on a stretch of coastline in what appears to be Florida affected by some kind of inexplicable transformation or intrusion. Known as Area X, the region has been separated from the outside world by an invisible barrier since an unexplained event thirty years before. Hidden from the public eye by an offifical lie about an environmental disaster, the region is monitored and studied by the Southern Reach, a government agency, which despite having sent multiple expeditions into Area X over three decades, is no closer to understanding its secrets.

In the first of the novels, Annihilation, an expedition known as the 12th Expedition crosses the border into Area X. The expedition quickly unravels, shadowed by an animal that moans in the night. The group eventually descends into a hole where a tower should stand, only to discover that the lifeforms in the region have begun to change in strange and inexplicable ways. The second, Authority, picks up where the first ended, turning its attention from Area X to the scientists and bureaucrats of the Southern Reach, now grappling with what to make of those members of the 12th Expedition who have returned, and now claim not to be themselves. At the centre of this narrative is the acting director of the Southern Reach’s struggle to resist attempts to hypnotise and surveil him. And the third, Acceptance, draws together characters and elements from the first two as it moves toward a climax that sees Area X begin to expand and supplant the ‘real’ world.

With their atmosphere of nameless dread and terrifying transformation the Area X novels exist within the tradition of what is usually described as the Weird, a branch of writing that incorporates elements of the fantastic and the supernatural, yet eschews the tropes usually associated with these genres. Not quite a genre, more an affect or technique, the exact nature and boundaries of the Weird (and indeed the more recent effusions of writers such as China Mieville that are sometimes described as the New Weird) are imprecise and contested: in The Weird, the 2011 anthology VanderMeer edited with his wife Ann VanderMeer, the VanderMeers argued it is as much ‘a sensation as it is a mode of writing’, and that ‘[b]ecause the Weird exists in the interstices, because it can occupy different territories simultaneously, an impulse exists among the more rigid taxonomists to find The Weird suspect, to argue it should not, cannot be, separated out from other modes of writing’. It’s perhaps a measure of the speed with which this field – and indeed our appreciation of the scale of the crisis we inhabit – has moved in recent years that the introduction to the VanderMeers’ The Weird does not mention environmental questions, despite having been published a mere three years before the Southern Reach Trilogy. Yet still, there is something pleasingly recursive about this notion of the Weird as an invisible presence, shadowing other genres and forms, unnameable yet present all the same.

More recently Mark Fisher attempted a more systematic definition of the concept by distinguishing it from the related notion of the eerie. He argued that while the weird can be understood as an intrusion or juxtaposition that ‘does not belong’, the eerie involves the presence of agency where there should be none or the absence of agency where it should exist. Area X is a classic example of such intrusion. And while Fisher’s formulation suggests the eerie might be found in the sense of presence that inheres in an otherwise empty landscape, it is equally present in the dissociations of hypnosis and suggestion that pervade Authority.

Yet however we define the Weird, the Southern Reach novels suggest a new twist, something we might call a New New Weird, or perhaps an Ecological Uncanny. Writing in 2015 Siobhan Carroll noted the way the Area X books make manifest our creeping awareness that the distinctions we have traditionally maintained between the natural world and ourselves no longer make sense, and that ‘in the Southern Reach trilogy, it is no longer just one’s psychological depths that are being repressed, but one’s knowledge of oneself as nonhuman, as much an alien part of a natural world as a plant or a whale.’ Rebecca Giggs has likewise described the Ecological Uncanny in terms of the dissolution of the boundaries between the inner world of the self and the outer world engendered by climate change, suggesting that ‘the Ecological Uncanny is perhaps best encapsulated as the experience of ourselves as foreign bodies’.

This process of dissolution and estrangement echoes the philosopher Timothy Morton’s arguments about what he calls the ecological thought. A shorthand way of describing the recognition that all natural phenomena are interconnected, part of what Morton calls ‘the mesh’. Thinking the ecological thought alters our perspectives in deep and profound ways, both by extending our perspectives outward by demanding we grapple with the scale of interconnection, but also by erasing the boundaries between things: as Morton puts it, ‘if everything is interconnected to everything, what exactly are the things that are connected?’

There are obviously resonances here with the VanderMeers’ notion of the Weird as something that evades definition: certainly for those of us used to thinking about the world as a place comprised of discrete things, our encounters with this infinite interconnectedness can be profoundly destabilising, a glimpse of something that overwhelms our comprehension, rendering the familiar strange, even terrifying. Yet it is also possible to see why the Southern Reach novels speak so powerfully to our current moment by giving shape not just to our gowing anxieties about our estrangement from the natural world, but also our sense we are caught up in a transformation that overwhelms everything we believed certain.

VanderMeer’s new novel, Borne, is simultaneously an extension of the territory mapped in the Area X books and something startlingly new. Set in unnamed city at some point in the not-too distant future, it posits a world in which civilization has collapsed as a result of environmental degradation.

In the ruins of the city various characters eke out a living, chief amongst them Rachel, a refugee and survivor of the fall of another city, far away, and her sometime lover, drug dealer and bioengineer Wick, from whose complex of tunnels in the Balcony Cliffs Rachel ranges through the city, scavenging for food and biotech and doing her best not to fall foul of Wick’s rival, the Magician. The feral biotech that litters the city is largely the creation of a shadowy corporation known only as ‘the Company’, an organisation which has continued to thrive amidst the chaos it has unleashed, using the ruined world as a testing ground for its creations, many of which roam the city and its environs.

These creations – and indeed the city itself – offer VanderMeer a conceptual playground in which to indulge the gloriously baroque effusions of his imagination. There are feral children with insect eyes and wings, edible lichens, alcohol minnows and beetles bred to synthesise drugs or spy on the unwary, giant lizards, wonderful fish with wide mournful mouths and emerald and gold veined eyes that can walk on land and are designed to instil fear and act as crowd control. This sort of wild inventiveness has long been a feature of VanderMeer’s writing. The cycle of novellas and novels set in the fictional world of Ambergris that preceded the Southern Reach Trilogy featured a wonderfully bizarre cast of private detectives, human-fungus hybrids and an array of fungal technologies and psychoactive substances. Yet in Borne these creations are part of a larger exploration of the instrumentalization of nature and the degree to which that process renders ideas of natural and unnatural otiose.

The strangest and most terrifying of all the city’s denizens is Mord, an immense bear the size of a building, or possibly bigger, a living dreadnought which spawns life forms from itself and which – improbably, impossibly – is capable of flight. As with many of the creatures in Borne, Mord is monstrous and beautiful, his pelt ‘golden-brown, pristine’, his vast head ‘silky, gorgeous’. This beauty – and indeed the Rilkean terror of this beauty – is real, but it inheres in his animality, inseparable from the evolutionary logic of his form and function. Even his ‘smooth white fangs’ are ‘less a bloody threat than the promise of a swift, clean execution’. Yet he is not natural. The first time Rachel sees him his enormous eyes are ‘bright and curious and curiously human,’ suggesting the ‘distant, remote truth’: that Mord might once have been human; just as his inexplicable ability to fly teases an idea that recurs through the novel: that that the inhabitants of the city ‘had died and now existed in the afterlife. Some purgatory or hell’.

For those who inhabit the city Mord is like the weather: a vast, impersonal force that cannot be predicted or controlled, only endured. Yet he is also life-giving, his fur picks up treasures from his lair in the Company building so the brave – or the foolish – can snatch them while he slumbers. On one such sortie Rachel spots something pulsing and strobing emerald green. Picking it up she discovers it is about the size of her fist and resembles:

a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on a lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form.

Retrieving the creature – if that is what it is – Rachel takes it back to the Balcony Cliffs. But while she is delighted by her discovery Wick is not, his manner evasive, suspicious.

Having decided to keep the creature Rachel names it Borne, a name inspired by an offhand remark of Wick’s about one of the biotech creatures he engineered while still in the employ of the Company: ‘[h]e was born, but I had borne him’. Like the blurring of roles in Rachel and Wick’s relationship (‘I sometimes called him my boss because I scavenged for him’) the distinction between these two kinds of labour is elided, a reminder of the degree to which Borne embodies the blurring of the biological and the technological which underpins the novel as a whole.

Borne grows rapidly, revealing new abilities with surprising speed. First comes speech, startling Rachel, and with it an almost childlike delight in the mutability and possibility of language. Yet tellingly Borne’s true nature resides in the confusions that mutability induces. ‘Are you a machine?’ Rachel asks him at one point. When Borne asks what a machine is, and Rachel tells him it is something made by people he seems puzzled. ‘You are a made thing,’ he replies. ‘Two people made you’.

Simultaneously Borne begins to absorb information. At first it is through observation and inquiry, but quickly he begins to absorb knowledge in a more wholesale fashion, assimilating entire systems of knowledge. Yet it is not just his mind that delights in mutability. His body becomes capable of altering and reshaping itself, extending pseudopods and slithering up walls, across ceilings, cycling through combinations of plants and animals, rocks and people and emitting light and scent. Sometimes this is done playfully, sometimes to please or entertain Rachel, sometimes as camouflage.

Perhaps fittingly given Wick’s profession there is something almost narcotic about Borne, its insectile brilliance and sheen sinuously shifting and glittering as it winds its way toward its conclusion. Yet despite its wild fabulations its core is emotional, built around the unlikely bond between Rachel and Borne. This love story – for although the bond is parental that is what it is – is grounded in real tenderness. Likewise the relationship between Rachel and Wick is founded on a kind of shared silence many will recognise. Lost in his own deceptions, his own need, Wick is both addict and dealer, a man who, as Rachel observes early on, sees ‘everything, except, perhaps, how I saw him’.

Simultaneously the novel keeps the reader off-balance, underlining the profoundly ambiguous nature of Borne. Like any child Borne has trouble with behaviour and boundaries, yet unlike a human child he seems unable – or unwilling – to understand the moral dimension of his actions. When Rachel catches him lying or manipulating her his tendency is to insist that he did it for her, something she finds increasingly difficult to believe as he grows larger and more powerful. This process is given one of its most painful expressions when Rachel realises the salty smell that made Borne so alluring to her when she found him was not accidental, but rather designed to trigger Rachel’s memories of childhood. Given what the novel tells us about Rachel’s past, her history of dislocation and loss, this manipulation verges on abuse.

Yet despite its creepiness, it is tempting to wonder just how different it is from the adaptation strategies of other organisms. It’s also tempting to ask how different this behaviour really is from what we understand about other biological triggers designed to prompt parental affection. For whether they be the upward thrust coloured throats of baby birds, the doe-eyed facial structures of small mammals, or the pheromones that connect breast-feeding human mothers to their infants, in the end all are simply survival mechanisms. This reminder of the indifference of Nature to human notions of morality and goodness is echoed elsewhere in VanderMeer’s work. But it doesn’t entirely alter the disquiet engendered by Borne’s childlike lack of moral awareness.

This process reaches a climax midway through the book. Unsettled by a peculiar conversation with a strangely insistent Wick (‘What about Borne? Do you love Borne? How much do you love Borne?’), Rachel decides to visit her lover in his apartment. But when she arrives she Borne has assumed her form, and is pretending to be her to Wick, just as he had been pretending to be Wick to her a short while before. ‘[I]t shook me to the core,’ Rachel says, ‘to see myself like that. To see me having a conversation with Wick, as if my body had been stolen and I was just a wraith.’

The scene recalls Freud’s essay about the uncanny and his fascination with doubles and copying, an association the novel underlines when Borne dissolves into ‘a whirlpool full of eyes’. This motif recapitulates the importance of seeing and the eye in Freud’s essay and indeed of his argument that the power of the uncanny derives, at least in part, from the return of the repressed and the conjuring forth of the imagined other selves of childhood.

The horror of this scene is heightened by Rachel’s fear this may not be the first time Borne has taken on her form, that he may have come to her in Wick’s guise before, talked to her, touched her, even slept with her (this last possibility she quickly if not entirely convincingly pushes away, declaring it ‘a violation of trust I couldn’t contemplate’). Yet there is worse to come. For as Rachel struggles with her horror about Borne’s actions Wick extracts an admission from him that he has been absorbing people and animals, ransacking their memories and stealing their faces. Rachel is horrified, yet as with his impersonation of Wick and Rachel, Borne is left confused, unable to understand the significance of his actions. ‘I don’t kill,’ he protests, explaining that their memories persist within him. ‘I absorb. Digest. It’s all alive. In me.’

In narrative terms the confrontation results in Borne’s banishment from the Balcony Cliffs, an exile that sets in train the sequence of events that lead to the book’s conclusion. But it also points to what makes Borne such a troubling – and extraordinary – creation. Borne’s protean form and power to absorb the memories and lives of others, his lack of comprehension of death mean his consciousness is radically unbounded. He is unconstrained by the assumptions about individuality, the boundaries of the self and mortality that structure not just our lives but our understanding of the world, our very cognition.

Borne’s unboundeedness also offers a reminder of the same collapse of boundaries that lies at the heart of the Southern Reach novels; he is an embodied example of what Amitav Ghosh has described as the ‘insistent, inescapable continuities’ of the Anthropocene. Like the mysterious Area X Borne’s nature is part of a larger unsettlement of the order of things, an ontological disruption. In the Southern Reach novels this violation is experienced as cognitive rupture, a sense that the world has become strange, uncanny; in Borne it is processed in more conventional narrative and emotional terms, absorbed into a new equilibrium.

In an essay published last year VanderMeer suggested this experience might perhaps be understood as a sort of haunting, observing that ‘in the Anthropocene, hauntings and similar manifestations become emissaries or transition points between the human sense of time and the geological sense of time’.  In Borne this hauntedness pervades the world. The city is a place of ruins, yet also a place where time seems slippery, peopled by the remnants of other times, other places. Some, like Wick choose to erase or sublimate their memories of other times; others, like Rachel, seek to build new connections. Yet all are caught between the need to survive and the sense reality has been disrupted, that, as Rachel observes after that first glimpse of Mord, it is no longer possible to be certain whether she is alive or dead, the haunted or the haunter.

In this Borne captures something of the strangeness of our historical moment, giving shape to a sense of dislocation and irreality, the world of the novel becoming a ghost of our future, or perhaps an echo of our present. And even as it moves toward a sort of hopefulness in its final sections we see the image of our own hauntedness, the dislocation of our own world, and perhaps – just perhaps – a vision of possibility.

Works Cited

Siobhan Carroll, The Ecological Uncanny: On The Southern Reach Trilogy, Los Angeles Review of Books, 5 October 2015.

Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, Repeater, London, 2016.

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016.

Rebecca Giggs, The Rise of the Edge: New Thresholds of the Ecological Uncanny, Doctoral dissertation, UWA, 2010.

Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought, Harvard University Press, Boston, 2012.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds), The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales, Tor Books, New York, 2011.

Jeff VanderMeer, Hauntings in the Anthropocene: An Initial Exploration, Environmental Critique, 7 July 2016.

McKenzie Wark, ‘On the Obsolescence of the Bourgeois Novel in the Anthropocene’, Verso Books Blog, 16 August 2017.