Borne + The Strange Bird
by Jeff VanderMeer
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Sometimes it is difficult writing a review for a book you had anticipated loving, but didn't. Not to say Jeff VanderMeer's Borne was not worth reading, but it didn't satisfy. It's also a difficult thing for an amateur reviewer to say, since I honestly don't think anyone should care about my opinion, least of all the author I'm reviewing. I loved the Southern Reach trilogy, and this had been my most anticipated book since it was announced, and that continued with every other blurb and comment I read. There are interesting characters and creatures, the setting is weird and fascinating, and it might actually tie into the Southern Reach story, although I haven't seen anyone else saying that. Just as that series could be considered an alternate world tale, so can this one. At least one revelation implied alternate dimensions, or maybe it was just widely separated geographical areas connected by a spatial portal. Not sure if I'll ever re-read this, but if I do I won't be surprised if I missed some obvious clues.
A lot of books written in first-person share the same problem, either inadvertently or intentionally: the unreliable narrator. In most cases it is due to the narrator only telling us certain things and leaving out other information. In this case it is because we have reason to doubt everything the narrator has told us. Rachel is a young woman who came to the unnamed, desolate city after traveling with her parents to different locales following a succession of societal upheavals. She is separated from them, almost drowns, then finds herself alone on the outskirts of the city. Maybe. Perhaps her memories are not her own, but rather ones given to her by Wick, her sometimes lover. He supposedly had formerly worked for the Company, but left when he objected to some of their policies. Or he wasn't completely human himself, instead was a creation of one of the Company's bio-tech experiments. Which "truth" are we to believe? Does it matter? Borne is another entity that was likely created by the Company, or maybe by Wick later, or by the Magician, someone who may or may not have also been a former Company employee, a former colleague of Wick's. When Rachel first discovered Borne she thought he looked like a sea anemone, but wasn't even sure he was alive, or if so, maybe just a plant, not a conscious being. She had to alter her perception of Borne several times throughout the book, especially when she learned he could talk, and change his size and appearance at will.
An alternate title could have been Mord. He's another Company creation, a giant bear who can fly. There is no logic to that of course, no explanation of why he was created, how he gained the ability of flight, or how or why he grew to such proportions (as tall as a five-story building), nor how or why he lost the ability to fly halfway through the book. Wick later tells us he had once worked with Mord at the Company, that he was originally human, but transformed through successive experiments. It is implied that Mord was created as a defense for the Company, but a defense against what? Maybe he was just an experiment gone wrong, possibly a cause of the Company's collapse. The uncertainties about the Southern Reach intrigued me, kept me thinking about it long after reading. The uncertainties about Borne are merely frustrating.
I enjoyed The Strange Bird, a companion novella, much more. The title creature had been briefly mentioned in the novel, with the conjecture being she was a creation of the Magician. Turns out she was from another lab altogether, possibly from that alternate dimension, or another area of the world far removed from the city of the Company. That lab and its workers are described in much the same way as those of the Company, researchers obsessed with bio-tech creations designed to mitigate the environmental chaos in the world, when in truth earlier experiments are the likely cause of the chaos.
The Strange Bird escapes the lab, flies a great distance, but then is captured by the Old Man. He is the last remaining guard of a prison, had killed all the other guards and inmates, and traps the Strange Bird in one of the cells. It is during this section we learn of one of the Strange Bird's unique abilities, that of camouflage. The Old Man is not fooled, but later realizes he must leave the prison or else die of thirst or starvation himself. He trusses up the Strange Bird in a sack, to be used as trade. When they near the city, the Old Man is trapped by the Bat-Faced Man, killed and partially eaten. The Strange Bird escapes for a time, but the Bat-Faced Man is able to penetrate her camouflage design and capture her. We learn he is CharlieX, a scavenger who works for the Magician, who operates on the Strange Bird to create a camouflage cloak in order to skulk about the city.
Rachel and Wick enter the story after their defeat of the Magician, but I won't detail that, nor what they do to help the Strange Bird regain some of its abilities, nor what happens when she sets out to complete the mission for which she was created. It seems the Strange Bird also started out as human, but was altered for a specific purpose. That humanity lends itself to the Strange Bird's intellectual capacity, which renders her story in a way that is just as poetic and poignant as Rachel's. I can't say this story is any less puzzling than the novel, but I preferred its style, along with VanderMeer's ability to get me to care about a character, even when I couldn't be sure of that character's true essence. That did not happen with any of the "human" characters, nor with Borne or Mord, in the novel. Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach, has been adapted for film, scheduled for release next February. Borne has been optioned as well. I am looking forward to the former, but cannot imagine how the latter can be filmed successfully. If I'm wrong about that, it might prompt me to re-read it, and I'll grant the possiblity my opinion of it might change. For now, I don't recommend Borne, nor this novella, even though I liked it, since it won't mean much without the novel.
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