If you like imaginative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror and similar genres) you may or may not have heard of Jeff VanderMeer. His new novel, Borne, has been attracting attention, as did his previous Southern Reach trilogy, but readers are often uncertain in their reactions to his work. He writes in a style that can shift abruptly in viewpoint and sequence, and his subject matter can be disturbing—if you’re even sure what’s going on. The Star Wars SF series this is not.
Without exactly telling you how the dystopia Borne features came to be, we get impressions of a world far into the floods and destruction caused by environmental change. Rachel, the protagonist, had been a refugee from the flooding as a child, lost her parents, and now, somehow, finds herself surviving as a scavenger in a nameless city. She lives in what seem to be the ruins of a mashed apartment building with her partner, Wick, who worked for one time in a sinister biotech firm, The Company. He manufactures and sells memory-altering beetles, which along with biotech discards she finds keep the couple alive. Then one day Rachel finds a shape-changing blob that looks a little like a sea anemone that intrigues her. She names it Borne, takes it home, and very soon Borne is walking and talking and learning about the world from Rachel. Does Borne have a reason for existing? Why is Wick uneasy around Borne?
The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, is also unusual. It takes place in “Area X,” which appears to have been part of the southeastern coast of the US, which years earlier transformed into a zone of… something, sealed off from the public, in which the laws of reality seem no longer to apply. When scientific expeditions are sent in, their members die or disappear or kill each other. A new expedition goes in, and the members see the same things differently. Their personalities change. They realize that they have new purposes in life. It is hard, much of the time, to know exactly who is seeing or doing what.
Jeff VanderMeer has also written several more conventional books, like his survey of the Steampunk movement, and a guide to writing imaginative fiction. But at his best, he’s a world-builder, and sometimes when you’re reading him, you must do some work.