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Jeff VanderMeer’s weird, wonderful ‘Borne’

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Novel combines disparate genre elements to excellent effect

The notion of genre fiction has become considerably more nebulous in recent years. While there have always been authors who refused to be bound within genre confines, it seems that the trend toward using genre conventions to inform more literary-minded fiction has been on the upswing.

However, that pendulum swings both ways. Take a guy like Jeff VanderMeer, a writer who in many ways seems to be doing the opposite. That is, he’s folding more “serious” fiction concepts into works of speculative fiction. He sits among the vanguard of the literary mélange known as the “New Weird,” embracing and discarding tropes as he sees fit and rearranging them in unexpected ways to create strange and compelling works.

His latest is “Borne” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $26), a difficult-to-pigeonhole exploration of a dystopian future that follows a woman carving out a hardscrabble existence as a scavenger on the outskirts of a ruined, poisoned city. Her life is thrown into chaos when a new, unknown quantity enters her world and changes everything.

Rachel ekes out a meager life amidst the rubble of a destroyed city, a city whose downfall came at the hands of the shadowy and half-remembered Company, a biotech corporation whose deterioration led to massive destruction and the creation of inexplicable monstrosities – most notably the still-active guardian of Company headquarters, a building-sized golden bear known as Mord who also happens to possess the power of flight.

She and her companion Wick – a biotech homebrewer and black marketer – live in a shoddy, run-down sanctuary that they have rigged with tricks and traps to protect them from not only Mord, but the forces of the mysterious power-seeker known only as the Magician.

But when Rachel winds up finding a mysterious organism – plucked from the fur of Mord himself – everything is irrevocably altered. This little green lump is indistinguishable as animal or vegetable, natural or manufactured. Yet Rachel finds herself growing attached – naming it “Borne” - as it somehow elicits memories of the bygone days before the world changed forever.

Despite knowing that attachment will only weaken her, she continues caring for Borne – much to the chagrin of Wick. And as Borne grows, he begins to move … and to talk … and to grow some more. His rapid development is infused with an innocence that Rachel can’t help but find appealing, living as she does in a place where innocence seemed lost long ago.

But there’s more to the situation than Rachel truly understands. As Borne becomes something she never anticipated and seismic shifts in the city’s power hierarchy begin to shake everything apart, Rachel soon discovers that even the little she thought she knew – about Borne, about Wick, about herself – can be called into question. She believed that her life was all about surviving, but now, she will learn what it really means to be a survivor.

VanderMeer’s world-building gifts are on full display. The richest fictional worlds are the ones that manage to be meticulously detailed and boldly rendered while avoiding the trap of expository hand-holding; this one, with its piecemeal history and ragged flashbacks (and occasionally unreliable narration) is as rich as they come. It’s an immersive and incredibly complex environment, yet it is conveyed with a smooth ease that snap-captures the imagination of the reader.

And the characters who populate that world, well … they’re magnetic. Too often, genre fiction allows character to fall by the wayside; the focus on ideas or plot resulting in characters rendered vague or flat by disinterest. In “Borne,” we’re instead treated to complicated and fluid relationship dynamics, an almost-love triangle between Rachel, Wick and Borne that is surprising both in its emotional impact and its narrative execution.

There’s a deep-down twistedness to this book; it’s one of VanderMeer’s hallmarks. One of the more notable shared qualities among the writers of the New Weird is a knack for combining the cerebral and the visceral; with the possible exception of China Mieville, VanderMeer’s likely the best of the bunch when it comes to that head-scratch/stomach-punch one-two.

“Borne” is a work that exemplifies the notion of pick-and-choose literature; there are elements of science fiction and fantasy of course, but also flavors of thriller and love story and coming of age. And regardless of genre influence, there’s a crackling intelligence on every page. It’s new, it’s weird … and it is wonderful.

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