Cards on the table…this is my first Vandermeer novel. I know that removes some of my weird fic/sci-fi street cred, but I’m behind. You try watching 3 films or more a week, reading at least 2 books, full time classes, and having a social life/full time job. It’s not easy. Anyway, Jeff Vandermeer’s latest novel is titled Borne after the weirdest character I’ve come across in quite some time.
Let me paint you a picture. The lead character, Rachel, is living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with her boyfriend/employer, biotech engineer Wick, and scavenges from the city wasteland as she tries to survive. The area she lives in is ruled by a bioengineered creature named Mord, who exists as a giant flying bear. Yes, you heard me, a bear that both flies and is at least 4 stories tall. Occasionally, if she’s lucky, Rachel gets to scavenge items from Mord’s fur, as he gets cool stuff stuck in it roaming throughout the ruins. One day she stumbles acrossed a sea-anemone creature, an animal stuck in his fur. After naming it “Borne” and taking it home, the creature begins to grow in new and unexpected ways.
Mord is god of this world, but he is challenged by a woman who calls herself “The Magician” and takes on all sorts of biotech to genetically alter her followers. These two names battle it out over the skies of the world in order to give humanity some direction after The Company, a nameless entity, has fallen in the wake of creation.
All of these things are really cool, but they encompass the first third of the book and that is the actual problem.
I first stumbled acrossed Jeff Vandermeer when researching Alex Garland, hungry for more after his film debut Ex Machina. I was familiar with his novels but I wanted more of him as a director. Turns out he is adapting the first book in the author’s “Southern Reach” trilogy. I avoided the book, for fear of spoiling an incredible film experience, but I sought out other work from Jeff Vandermeer and accidentally found his new novel. After a couple of weeks debating its purchase I threw out an Audible credit for the audiobook, just to check it out.
As a matter of scope this is a masterclass in how to build a world. The book opens with Rachel and just tosses us in the deep end. There’s a giant flying bear, a ton of biotech, and an unknown apocalypse that caused the world to fall. Mord seems to have been part of what happened to this region of the world, but other than that we aren’t given much information. And that’s ok, given later events in the novel, because Vandermeer seems to have put a decent amount of thought into how he wants this to play out and what he wants to reveal. Within the world we see so many inexplicable events, so many ideas that are teased at, but in many ways we’re given just enough to stay interested and no more.
And therein lies the problem. Vandermeer has given us a story that has so many interesting characters, but his pacing is all over the place. I don’t mind that we take a while to get to Rachel’s backstory because we get some great stuff there. I don’t mind waiting for Wick’s either. I don’t even mind that Borne’s is left ambiguous for so long, his weird character and physicality something that I enjoyed pondering. What bothers me is the layout of these events.
Stories have to have a decent pacing to get us through. I don’t mind when things get slow, as this can allow for some great character development. What I mind is when a story slows to an absolute crawl for over a third of the page count. The book stops after introducing the world and characters, allowing for wall-to-wall character work. This can be interesting but…it has to service the plot. We’re given ¾ of the story as buildup, with only the last few pages dedicated to fleshing out characters such as Wick, Mord, The Magician, and Borne. Rachel gets a lot of attention but because her backstory is meant to be ambiguous we have to endure so much potential idea, so much withheld information, and as a story point it fails miserably.
Given that she spends so much time interacting with Wick and Borne, I thought we would be given more about them. She also has a special tie to The Magician, but we barely see any of it. All of this time spent looking at Borne do cool new things actually gets old after a while, much to my chagrin. He can be anything, he’s nigh-on a liquid, but he spends so much time as an adjacent to the character of Rachel and she only looks at him through a mother’s eyes. In the end this is a story about parenthood, about the fear of what your offspring might become, and that does a lot for the story but it holds back important aspects of it in that we never see what can actually become of the relationship.
It doesn’t help that Mord and The Magician, our main protagonists, have absolutely no personality. Mord is a giant flying bear, it stands to reason that his character would be mostly flat and aggressive, but The Magician is full of thought and feeling and personality and almost none of it comes through. That frustrates me as she is, perhaps, the most interesting character in the story. Her war against the bear is one of the more interesting arts of the story but it takes a background to relationship drama, parental issues, and a liquid sea-anemone that can also be a person or a bear or…well, whatever Vandermeer needs at the moment.
I struggle to call this a good book. It’s an interesting one for sure, and won’t disappoint fans of Vandermeer’s other work (so I’m told) but as a standalone novel it struggles a lot in the middle, the text trying to convince you that it can hold its weight while it staggers under the burden. This is ambitious, interesting, and has such a sprawl but wastes too much time trying to convince us that the plot is interesting instead of just going with the premise. A missed opportunity that only sort of holds water.