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A ruined city of the future lives in fear of a despotic, gigantic flying bear, driven mad by the tortures inflicted on him by the Company, a mysterious biotech firm. A scavenger, Rachel, finds a creature entangled in his fur. She names it Borne.
At first, Borne looks like nothing at all; a green lump that might be a discard from the Company. But he reminds Rachel of her homeland, an island nation long lost to rising seas, and she prevents her lover, Wick, from rendering down Borne as raw genetic material for the special kind of drugs he sells.
But nothing is quite the way it seems: not the past, not the present, not the future. If Wick is hiding secrets, so is Rachel – and Borne most of all. What Rachel finds hidden deep within the Company will change everything and everyone. There, lost and forgotten things have lingered and grown. What they have grown into is mighty indeed.
Jeff VanderMeer, perhaps now best known as an anthologist in collaboration with Ann VanderMeer and for his Southern Reach trilogy, has produced a strange new novel, Borne.
VanderMeer’s very public concerns with environmental issues and his approach to humanity’s impact on the world, so evident in The Southern Reach, are doubled down on in Borne: this isn’t a novel of climate change as it will be, but a blended mix of the metaphorical – strange, experimental creatures, wrecked cities ruled over by biotech, a ruined world, and a skyscraper-sized flying bear – and the literal: climate refugees, rising sea levels, poverty and chaos. VanderMeer uses these elements in Rachel’s past and present to create his world, his strange, slightly off-kilter world, with its secrets and lies and dangers, and brings home with it the consequences of climate change in making our world unrecognisably strange to all of us.
The story of Borne doubles down on that; it’s essentially in two parts, although VanderMeer divides it into three. The first part is that in which Rachel finds, and arguably raises, the creature she finds while scavenging in the city, which she names Borne; and the complexities that doing so, and that life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, involve. The second part comes out of a distinct break that happens at the end of this first part (or rather, the first two parts); it would be, unfortunately, rather a severe spoiler to discuss specifics. Borne marries the two parts together well and keeps a singular narrative voice throughout, with Rachel remaining Rachel; VanderMeer’s real strength is that the plot of the is for the most part barely a plot, in terms of actual dramatic events, and a lot of time is spent in emotional reflection and personal introspection, but VanderMeer writes this well, rather better than most literary fiction writers. Those points when he does put in moments of hard action, including combat and dramatic elements of Rachel’s explorations, are fast and brutal; Borne treats its violence much like its sex, as something to be included but not pornographised, to be discussed from the emotional, more than physical, aspects.
The core of the book is questions about personhood, and what being a person means; Borne therefore relies on its characters. There are really only three proper characters in the whole thing, plus a number of background individuals who appear and disappear; our narrator, Rachel, her fellow survivor and partner, Wick, and the strange being Borne. Each is approached very differently as a character, even while they’re only seen through Rachel’s eyes, because she views them each very differently, and the consequences of that are fascinating. Part of that is about VanderMeer’s view of character: rather than being a solipsistic thing, Borne treats character as centred on relationships between people. How one treats and is treated by others defines one, in this metric; for a time, Rachel is thrust into a position of not being around anyone else, and becomes essentially an unperson, in a fascinating way, and the development of Borne especially is so shaped by Rachel and Wick that it’s a fascinating way to raise children.
In the end, Borne has a similar kind of approach to weird and environmental themes as Southern Reach, but a very different approach to narrative itself; and VanderMeer proves his versatility by continuing to carry it off excellently.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.
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The Southern Reach has been lost. With no choice but to trust each other, Control and Ghost Bird have formed an uneasy alliance and crossed over the border. One purpose binds them: To finally uncover the true nature of Area X.
In the same place and yet a world away, the lighthouse keeper Saul Evans protects the lens. For Saul, the Forgotten Coast was a safe harbour, an escape from his preaching past. But something long-buried is resurfacing, and Saul’s guardianship augurs a dangerous and inexorable change.
In the conclusion to the strange, luminous Southern Reach trilogy, we press deeper into the unknown, to arrive at a new understanding of what gives us our humanity. As the brightness consumes all that lies in its path, those who remain must choose whether to resist or accept a fate nearly beyond comprehension. Area X may at least reveal its terrible secrets, but the consequences will be as profound as they are terrifying.
VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy reaches its climax in Acceptance, sequel to Annihilation and Authority; the title of each book revealing its theme, or the theme of its character-arcs. It’s rather impossible, from that standpoint, to discuss the last in the trilogy without spoilers for the prior volumes, so BEWARE THE SPOILERS!
Acceptance declares its theme with its title; a coming to terms with, an understanding of Area X and the Southern Reach. All the threads of the trilogy are tied up in this volume – or at least, all the smaller threads; the existential ones are, in fact, largely left for the reader to sew up themselves. We follow, separately and on the whole alternatingly, the director of the Southern Reach who had previously only appeared as the psychiatrist in Annihilation and a subject for mental autopsy in Authority; Control, the protagonist of Authority; Ghost Bird, protagonist of Annihilation (sort of) and lynchpin character of Authority; and Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper at the start of it all. In the hands of most authors this might feel messy and repetitious but VanderMeer keeps his threads and characters both separate and, thematically, tied together; each not only has a distinctive voice but also distinctive character arcs, from placid acceptance through defiant resistance.
This finale volume also marks the Southern Reach trilogy’s greatest degree of queerness; while in Authority we learn of Grace’s homosexuality, here, Saul’s relationship with Charlie is not only shown (with all the problems brought by the treatment of and social attitudes towards homosexuality in 1960s America), but is actually instrumental to the plot and to Saul’s character development. Acceptance in fact only shows one romantic relationship, and it is this one; VanderMeer paints it gently, sensitively, and lovingly, and I as a queer reader am very grateful for that.
Acceptance is perhaps most notable for its use and presentation of the Weird ideas that have permeated the Southern Reach trilogy. VanderMeer’s avoidance of outright horror continues in this volume with a chilling, creeping sensation of something wrong increasing throughout, alongside a Kafkaesque treatment of government and especially secret agencies; this sense of unreality, of smokiness, is achieved through both the language used in the novel and through the events themselves, which are sometimes very explicit about this feeling. The different timelines in the novel also add to this, seeming somehow slightly unmoored from each other, unconnected even though they are intimately connected; it’s a strange feeling and one that should detract from the novel, but instead adds to the air of the numinous, strange and inexplicable.
For a novel that is sold as revealing secrets, Acceptance does very little of that. Instead, it unravels history and theorises; VanderMeer doesn’t give the reader answers about Area X, or rather, he gives answers, but never just one. As we see the different timelines unfold and roll out before and behind the characters, we see the development of Area X and of the Southern Reach, both separate and commingled. VanderMeer doesn’t tell this in a simple narrative structure, but rather through the experiences of Saul and the director, people both peripheral and central to these events; what Acceptance never does is embrace the viewpoint of a character who really understands everything going on, or who has a full grasp on the world and on Area X.
Acceptance is all about the intrusion of Area X into reality, the interactions between the two, and the human responses to that. It’s exactly the conclusion the Southern Reach trilogy needed, and marks absolutely the status of VanderMeer’s trilogy as the ultimate Weird story; numinous, beautiful and terrifying in equal measure.
Following the troubled twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the second book of the Southern Reach trilogy raises the stakes with the introduction of John Rodriguez, the government agency’s new head. He finds the Southern Reach in complete disarray. Area X, the strange terrain beyond the invisible border, remains a mystery. But, as instructed by a higher authority known as ‘The Voice’, the self-styled Control must ‘put his house in order’.
From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the mysteries of Area X begin to reveal themselves – and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he has promised to serve.
Undermined and under pressure to make sense of what happened to the twelfth expedition, Rodriguez retreats into his past in a search for answers. Yet the more he uncovers, the more he risks, for the secrets of the Southern Reach are more sinister than anyone could have known.
Even the blurb above contains some spoilers for the first novel I reviewed on this blog, Annihilation, a creeping horror novel of the strange and uncanny that really showed off VanderMeer’s talents for the weird. As such, this review will contain more, and I urge you to read Annihilation before this review.
Authority is a very different kind of book to Annihilation in many ways, but its organic, creeping, unknown and unknowable horror is a shared feature; VanderMeer transports it from the physical to the intellectual and emotional realm, putting it at one remove from Rodriguez, who is trying to analyse Area X from outside rather than explore it from within. Rodriguez is, as in any good spy novel whether an action thriller or a gritty intricate espionage piece, dropped in to head Area X as a temporary director to replace the one who joined the twelfth expedition as a psychiatrist, without adequate support or information; what he is given proves misleading and more than he bargained for, as the novel goes on. It’s as much this Kafkaesque bureaucratic quagmire, fighting colleagues on all sides and trying to guess their loyalties even while dealing with the existential threat of Area X, that makes this novel a horror story par excellence; every character is believable, someone you might meet in an office block, someone you might run into at work, and yet arching over all of this is the utterly alien.
VanderMeer builds both elements up simultaneously, and tangles them increasingly together; the assistant director, Grace, is blocking Rodriguez as much because of office politics as any affinity to Area X, while the seemingly-helpful Whitby has more on his mind that just undercutting Grace. Every character has these two layers except Rodriguez, who is therefore lost in trying to navigate his way between them; increasingly Authority follows a rudderless, purposeless protagonist going through the motions for their own sake having lost sight – if he ever had it – of what he is doing in the first place.
Authority is also a novel I feel comfortable putting into the Queering the Genre project, for one line if nothing else. Rodriguez, considering the series of eleventh and the (only) twelfth expeditions into Area X, all gender-segregated into male or female, wonders “What about someone who didn’t identify as male or female?” (page 115). In one line, VanderMeer acknowledges the reality of non-binary individuals in his America, their employability by the government and their role as prominent individuals in a number of fields; despite not then having any (visibly) non-binary characters in the narrative, this line addresses and acknowledges their existence and situates this as a world welcoming of them. That he also includes a section on Grace’s personal life, which reveals in passing that she has had relationships with women in the past as a fact not judged by the narrative or Rodriguez, is another brilliant, small and simple moment by which Authority acknowledges and recognises the queer community.
In the end, Authority is a book that doesn’t stand alone, but when read alongside Annihilation and presumably Acceptance shows the breadth of the command Jeff VanderMeer has of the Weird and the uncanny; a truly creepy novel that won’t let you go.
For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border– an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those that have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.
Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.
But they soon find out that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.
Here, all will discover what it truly means to face the unknown. In Area X, they must adapt or die.
The first novel in the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation is difficult to discuss, or even simply describe; part slow, creeping horror of the kind that films like Alien draw on (without the monster!), part science fictional investigation of a new world a la a much darker, more disturbing Star Trek, part meditation on relationships that wouldn’t feel out of place in the literary fiction shelves, VanderMeer’s slim novel packs more in than many trilogies six times its length.
The nameless protagonist, the biologist, is an unreliable narrator who highlights this by telling the reader, at multiple points in the text, that she is concealing things from them in order to raise her credibility; indeed, having only recently read The Gospel of Loki, I’m impressed by the extent to which a narrator telling the reader they are unreliable can permeate the whole text with a sense of unreliability. The final few pages of the novel only enhances and increases this unreliability, casting everything that has come before in a new light, demanding to be entirely reconceptualised; one suspects that as each instalment in the trilogy comes out, the reader will have to do this again and again.
It is not only the narrator whom the reader must distrust; the very blurb misleads one as to the nature of the novel and the events within, which rapidly take a turn for the Weird. VanderMeer has long dabbled in this territory – and his fungus-obsession of books of yore returns here – but Annihilation is his strongest foray into the territory yet, provoking many questions from the reader and refusing to answer any of them; even discounting the unreliability of the narrative, the book’s very structure is designed to avoid closing off possibilities in the reader’s mind, and to allow the audience to draw – and constantly redraw – their own conclusions as to events. Throughout, VanderMeer also cultivates an increasing sense of creeping dread; the atmosphere of the novel is very intense and thick with a sense of anticipation, as if each page turned is bringing one closer to some awful revelation or event.
The exploration of Area X in Annihilation rapidly discovers several anomalies, and the four members of the expedition are rapidly differentiated; despite only seeing them from the perspective of the biologist, the surveyor, linguist and psychiatrist are each given their own personality and course of action, and despite seeming to be defined only by their roles, in fact prove to be barely defined by them at all. The lack of names allows a certain degree of anonymous individuality that creates incredible characterisation, especially of the biologist as we learn more about her: her past, her motivations, her inner life, but never her name. The device of anonymity works to create individuality far better than any names could have.
The rest of the Southern Reach Trilogy is due out over the next 6 months, and judging by Annihilation, that can only be a good thing; whether they answer the questions raised in this slim volume or simply build ever-stranger, ever-more-suspenseful layers on top of it, Area X is somewhere I am looking forward to returning to.