D’Arc, by Robert Repino

D'Arc, by Robert Repino

This sequel to Mort(e) picks up right where we left off and then propels itself forward. It feels like a few different genre novels married to each other: A western, a murder mystery, and an action/adventure story. I’ve always enjoyed that approach in speculative fiction. You take something fantasy or scifi, and write a story in that world from a different genre.

I thought it did a great job building up a mystery, while expanding on the mythology and worldbuilding quite nicely. In some ways it’s also a coming of age novel; a moral tale about choosing your own path, and writing your own story.

Robert RepinoRepino’s writing is extremely clean and tight. It reads effortlessly, and never gets in the way. Simple declarative sentences lay it all out for the reader. When the story really starts to get going, it’s almost like the writing entirely disappears, and you’re just… in it. I have to applaud him for that. I’m not even sure how one accomplishes something like that, but it’s impressive.

There was some fun closure for secondary and tertiary characters from the first novel, particularly Wawa. I really loved her arc in this. She was one of the better developed characters in Mort(e), so it was nice to see her get something good to chew on again in this one.

The last third, and the conclusion to the story didn’t really work for me. Early on there were a few big questions that were set up, and a great antagonist built through his own POV chapters, but those questions were mostly sidestepped, and the antagonist just fizzled out. I suspect that there will be more novels that may resolve my questions, and in fact, there was quite a bit of setup for what may be coming next. I have to admit it sounds very interesting. The world really is ripe for more stories.

All in all, it’s a fun continuation of the story that began in Mort(e), but it feels much less it’s own thing, and more an interstitial chapter in a continuing saga; something that needed to happen before the next part can occur. I’m still very excited for that next part though!

The Survivors, by Nick Farmer

The Survivors, by Nick Farmer

“Do I miss it? I dunno, man, maybe. I feel like everything before the sleep was a lie, and now I’ve woken up, in more ways than one. But being awake is scary.”

The Survivors is a clever viral outbreak story that takes a unique, layered point of view on survival of the fittest. On the surface there’s a straightforward tale of post-apocalyptic existence at play, but there is also a lot between the lines about transhumanism, genetic modification, living rather than just being alive, fear motivating division motivating hatred, etc. It’s a great story, and the novelette form is the perfect length for it to unfold in.

Personally, the thing I love about short fiction is that when the word count is only so long, instead of filling in every last detail, writers have the freedom to tell a smaller, more human story, while hinting toward the greater fictional universe. This lets the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps and personalize their experience, effectively meeting the text halfway. I think this serves to kickstart our sense of wonder, which is the root of speculative fiction, and why short fiction has always been SF’s bread and butter. It’s that “What if…” that gets the ball rolling, and helps us to imagine. In The Survivors, the main “what if” questions are: What if the infected were the survivors, while still representing a mortal danger to the uninfected? What if it were preferable to be infected? What if there were desirable side effects? This novelette is a jumping off point for those kinds of questions.

Nick FarmerPart of the fun of post apocalypse stories, is the fantasy that everything could change in an instant. All of the daily drags, work, responsibilities, etc could evaporate and you could live a more exciting, adventurous life full of danger and genuine struggle. I think that a lot of us are so removed from the reality of living to survive, that we almost crave it. For most of us in the western world, what we call work barely resembles anything physically demanding. We sit in front of screens, and move pixels around, which somehow corresponds to a paycheck, but it’s all virtual; we aren’t really doing anything. I think this can sometimes leave us rather unfulfilled physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally. In turn, we crave some adventure, or maybe just something more “real”, something that ties into our mammalian core, and what’s more real than the struggle to survive? This is probably why we go camping, or hiking, why we ride motorcycles, or partake in other risky activities. It’s also most likely why we tend to love apocalyptic fiction in all its varieties. It’s a thrill to read.

Something else I want to touch on is the absolutely gorgeous graphic design both outside and inside this book. Each chapter heading has a visual progression that changes as you get closer to the conclusion. Little details like this really make a physical copy a worthwhile thing in an age of easy digital books.

Farmer first came to my attention through his work as the creator of the Belter conlang for The Expanse TV series. If you’re not familiar with Belter, it’s a creole language created specifically for the Syfy adaptation of the book series by James S.A. Corey. It has a surprisingly rich history built into every word and phrase. He has been very active in the online community of fans who latched onto Belter, often answering questions, adding to the Belter lexicon, and correcting usage from his twitter account. There was obviously a remarkable amount of thought and creativity that went into the creation of Belter, and I’d suggest looking into some of the podcasts and videos featuring Nick explaining the process. It’s fascinating stuff.

When I heard that he was writing fiction, I had high hopes that his output would be as good as his conlang creation. So I’m very glad to see that Farmer is not only gifted as a linguist, but is also showing quite a bit of talent and promise as a writer. His prose is clean and straightforward, the pacing smooth, and it’s a well structured story. I’ll definitely be picking up his future writing.

The world has changed. So have the Survivors.

When Daniel wakes up from a disease he never knew he had, he finds a nearly empty New York City, inhabited by a small number of people, who, like him, were infected, yet lived. They are biologically immortal, yet as carriers of the deadliest pathogen in human history, they are feared and reviled by their uninfected neighbors. Under constant threat of attack, Daniel and this new community are looking for answers about what happened, and why.

 

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer’s writing is engaging, difficult, and worth the effort required to read. It takes me a little longer to finish his novels than I feel like it should. It’s the kind of writing that makes me a better reader. It’s challenging and uncomfortable. Something about his prose makes me have to go back and reread sentences to make sure I understood what was being said. It reminds me of William Gibson’s writing in that way. Of course, VanderMeer and Gibson write in entirely different styles, but I have to do the same thing with Gibson novels as well. I kind of love it. There is a lot going on in each sentence, and I feel that it gives his novels tremendous reread value.

Onto Borne specifically. First off, whoever designed this cover is brilliant. Not only is it gorgeous, and visually hard to pin down, perfectly describing the character of Borne itself, but there is also a glossy spot coat image printed across it that is entirely hidden until the light hits it just so. I’ll leave the mystery of exactly what is revealed in the light intact for you to discover when you see it in person. But it is a story element, and it’s very clever. Little touches like this really sell me on having physical copies of books over digital. Bravo FSG.

All of the VanderMeer story staples are here in full force: Ruinous ecology, strange bioluminescent life, forgotten memories, a misplaced sense of self-identity, life that might not be human, animals that (maybe) used to be human, a hint of something much larger happening on the periphery, a creepy company meddling in things they shouldn’t, and a perfect mix of mystery and resolution in the story. All told through beautiful prose that itself lends an eerie literary landscape for the rich characters to inhabit.

The most obvious comparison here is VanderMeer’s Area X/Southern Reach trilogy, being his most recent work. I can guarantee that if you enjoyed those novels, you’re very much going to enjoy Borne. Maybe even more so. I could even make a case that it is entirely possible, and doesn’t take all that much head canon, to connect Borne to the Southern Reach novels. I’m really looking forward to the publication date to see what fellow readers think here.

Jeff VanderMeerUnlike the Southern Reach trilogy — one story broken into three parts — Borne is a complete story in and of itself. It’s also a literary universe I would not at all mind returning to in the future. The story is told in a first person narrative, and the reader is acknowledged to exist. So it’s got that slightly post-modern thing going on. There are only a handful of characters, only one of which I found slightly underdeveloped, and they’re all unique. Nobody is one dimensional here. The story itself deals with themes of nature versus nurture, self identity, parenting, childhood, survival and the different forms that love can take. It’s violent, disturbing, endearing and quite a feat of imagination. At some points it felt so vivid and alive that it somehow became visually stunning. This is of course not a common description of a written work, but it absolutely applies here.

Jeff VanderMeer is a literary author, writing almost exclusively speculative fiction. He’s at the center of that illusive Venn diagram containing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Literary Fiction, and belongs in whatever section of your bookshelf Octavia Butler, Adam Johnson, Ursula Le Guin, Dexter Palmer and Gene Wolfe inhabit.

Borne comes out April 25th, 2017 from MCD/FSG books.

“Am I a person?” Borne asked me.
“Yes, you are a person,” I told him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now derelict―and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.

“He was born, but I had borne him.

But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.