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.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, Edited by John Joseph Adams and Karen Joy Fowler

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016For those who are interested in the best that Science Fiction and Fantasy has to offer as a literary form. This is an equal mix of F and SF stories, and John Joseph Adams truly understands the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is refreshing. In Fantasy the impossible happens. In Science Fiction the impossible but theoretically plausible happens. The stories started out a little rough but quickly got into some AAA level stuff about a quarter of the way in, including a few new personal all-time favorite short stories from any genre.

It’s wonderful to see this published along side The Best American Short Stories. I’ll be picking this yearly collection up every year, and so should you.
Standout stories: Interesting Facts, No Placeholder for You My Love, The Duniazát, Things You Can Buy for a Penny, and Three Bodies at Mitanni.

Individual story reviews:

Meet Me in Iram, by Sofia Samatar: F, 2/5
Narratively unique but otherwise not particularly interesting.

The Game of Smash and Recovery, By Kelly Link: SF, 3/5
Enjoyed this one. I like it when authors write outside of their usual genre like this. It’s dedicated to Iain M. Banks at the end, which automatically made me rethink it as a Culture story, which it isn’t. But it very easily could exist in that universe.

Interesting Facts, by Adam Johnson: F, 5/5
A new all-time favorite. Heartbreaking and human, with mind-blowing prose that literally changes the way you read the story AS you’re reading it. Fantastic fantasy.

Planet Lion, by Catherynne M. Valente: SF, 2/5
Alien lion analogs act out some soap opera drama when they come in contact with advanced colonist tech. A real eye-roller, with a neat tech concept near the end that is its only redeeming quality.

The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary, by Kij Johnson: F, 1/5
20 very short non-stories written in second person about imaginary creatures in apartments, often detailing whether or not “your” boyfriend or girlfriend likes or gets along with them.

By Degrees of Dilatory Time, by S.L. Huang: SF, 4/5
I liked this one. Near future transhumanistic tale about adaptation and the process of healing being more than a physical one.

The Mushroom Queen, by Liz Ziemska F, 4/5
Creepy little fantasy story. Reminded me a lot of Jeff VanderMeer, but that might just be the Mushrooms talking.

Daydreamer by Proxy, by Dexter Palmer: SF, 3/5
Short little comedy about what seems like the worst place to work.

Tea Time, by Rachel Swirsky: F, 2/5
Great writing for literally being a piece of fan fiction.

Headshot, by Julian Mortimer Smith: SF, 4/5
Realistic near future democracy concepts. Very thought provoking.

The Duniazát, by Salmon Rushdie: F, 5/5
Fantastical alternate mythical history. Beautiful prose.

No Placeholder for You, My Love, by Nick Wolven: SF, 5/5
Fucking hell, that was brutally good. An SF romance/tragedy mixed in with Simulacron 3. Fantastic writing, and a compelling story.

The Thirteen Mercies, by Maria Dahvana Headley: F, 4/5
Great writing. I want to know more about this world. Brutally grimdark fantasy that’s just one click off our world.

Lightning Jack’s Last Ride, by Dave Bailey: SF, 4/5
Loved the way this one was written. Feels like a story straight out of the prohibition era, transported to the slight future.

Things You Can Buy for a Penny, by Will Kaufman: F, 5/5
Such a perfect cautionary fairytale. I wanted to hate this one when I started it, but it very quickly won me over and became another high peak in this collection.

Rat Catcher’s Yellows, by Charlie Jane Anders: SF, 4/5
An almost perfect little SF story.

The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History, by Sam J. Miller: F, 3/5
Solid oral history of a paranormal event that took place during a police raid on a gay bar during the late sixties.

Three Bodies at Mitanni, by Seth Dickenson: SF, 6/5
This story exemplarily embodies everything about what SF can accomplish as a literary form. An absolutely fantastic cerebral, philosophical, moral human story.

Ambiguity Machines: An Examination, by Vandanna Singh: F, 2/5
It was okay. The stories within the story were fun.

The Great Silence, by Ted Chiang: SF, 2/5
Really surprised that this wasn’t better. Ted Chiang almost never disappoints, but this one kind of left me wanting.

How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

What’s frustrating is that the setup is so clever, so thoroughly unique, and promised so much, and then the narrative completely loses it’s way halfway through, and never regains its composure. What’s frustrating is that this was a good book, even a terrific book, and then suddenly it wasn’t. What’s frustrating is that it had so much potential, that it squandered so completely. What’s frustrating is that the majority of the second half of the book keeps saying the same things over and over and over again, in ever so slightly different ways, with lots, of, unnecessary, commas, just sort of drawing it out as long as it can, kind of like this review.

Charles YuWhat’s frustrating is that there was a story that was setup very well, it would’ve been amazing, and then it disappeared halfway through, replaced by a lesser story, and the mother of all Deus Ex Machina endings. What’s frustrating is the concept — using a lexicon so full of interesting, fun science fictional words combining, quite literally, ’scientific’ and ‘fiction writing’ terms relating to time and narrative, chronology and character, examining the ideas of creating worlds and traveling via the process of creating, writing, crafting a narrative, grammatical choices etc — is such a good concept, and then it’s ironically wasted precisely through the misuse of those same tools on a practical level: narrative, chronology, character, etc.

What’s frustrating is that I get what the author was trying to do, but in my opinion, it didn’t happen. The book he was trying to write, is not this book. It’s absolutely clever, and post-modern/self-aware as hell, and I love all of that. The character is aware they’re in a fictional world, aware of other fictional worlds, this universe the author created had so much potential for amazing things, and then none of them happen. Lots of setup, no payoff.

All that being said, the strengths of the first quarter of this novel, make me think that I might really enjoy Charles Yu’s short fiction, so I’ve picked up his first collection (on my own conflicted recommendation).

This book could’ve been amazing.

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang’s name continually comes up in lists of great short stories. He’s never written a novel, but has won nearly every SF award that exists. 4 Nebulas, 3 Hugos, John W. Campbell, Locus, and on and on. He’s greatly admired among authors and almost entirely unknown by most readers. I’ve heard him referenced as an inspiration by several authors that I enjoy reading. Specifically Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (who collectively write the Expanse series under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey) cite this collection as massively influential. I figured I should probably do myself a service and at least check it out.

It turns out that It’s completely mind-blowing. High concept science fiction that is grounded heavily in the real world. Every single story is incredibly unique, tonally diverse and powerful in different ways. If the quality among these 8 stories wasn’t at such a consistently high level, I’d say that Chiang was merely a ghostwriting team, comprised of 8 different authors, all exceptionally talented, each with different interests, politics and writing styles. Every story genuinely feels like it could be penned by a different author. I’ve never come across a creative powerhouse like this guy. He’s impressing the hell out of me with every sentence.

Tower of Babylon: 5/5
Killer story. The Old Testament cosmology was especially fun to hear described–passing beyond the moon, sun and stars, etc. A telling of the construction and journey up the tower of Babylon, and what lies beyond the vault of heaven. Blew my mind right open. Seriously creative. I get why it won all kinds of awards.

Understand: 5/5
Again, with the unique approach to storytelling. While reading this one, I started realizing how some of these concepts have clearly influenced other stories. Most obviously, the movie ‘Limitless’ and the Max Barry novel Lexicon. I particularly liked how the language and vocabulary of the story evolves as the protagonist’s intelligence and recall increases.

Division By Zero: 4/5
An examination of loss of belief, mental illness, suicide and math. What happens when everything you’ve worked for in your life, every kind of order that you’ve relied on, is suddenly incorrect?

Story of Your Life: 6/5
Stop what you’re doing now and read this. This is the absolute best short story I have ever read. Chiang’s grasp on the English language is deeply integrated into the story itself, causality, and omniscience. It’s insanely good.

Seventy-Two Letters: 3/5
Interesting concepts, but storywise it was a little boring. The power of language to shape action and perception. Reminded me a lot of early 50s Asimov. All conceptual, not much character development.

The Evolution of Human Science: 3/5
Interesting and extremely short little tale about a scientific understanding breaking down between regular humans and meta-humans. Conceptually cool, but too short to really be that interesting.

Hell is the Absence of God: 5/5
The moral of the story? God is a maniacal motherfucker who doesn’t give a shit about humans, and you should love him unconditionally. This one was a real brain twister. I loved it.

Liking What You See: A Documentary: 5/5
Advertisers, elective localized brain damage, culture jamming, politics, coming of age, concepts of beauty, love, relationships. This was terrific and heavily subversive.

The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks

Synopsis: “The Culture–a humanoid/machine symbiotic society–has thrown up many great Game Players. One of the best is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Player of Games, master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel & incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game, a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game and with it the challenge of his life, and very possibly his death.” 

The Player of Games

The Player of Games

The first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, did a lot of world-building heavy lifting from a Culture antagonistic POV. Having read that previously, this one is allowed to come in and really flesh out the world from a pro-Culture POV, which was really fun. Reading them in order gave a sort of a pros-and-cons approach to their philosophy. We get all of the negative things about the Culture first, and then we start to see the positives in this book.

Big shocker, I really loved it. The complexities of the main character and his occasional slips into apathy and/or something much darker during his experiences playing the game and interacting with the foreign philosophy an actions of the Empire, were handled expertly and really made him feel flesh and blood.

Iain M. BanksUltimately, this story serves as an allegory for — and examination of — the ultimate cause of the baser desires of humanity. The Culture’s philosophy stands in for one possible method that these social terrors might be not only curtailed, but pretty much completely circumvented. Of course, this is a work of fiction, and this philosophy may not work so perfectly in practice. I do think there is at least a little truth to it though, but for it to function in practice we may need access to those pesky ‘unlimited resources’ that the Culture has.

Bottom line, you should read this book. But you should also read Consider Phlebas first. Don’t be an idiot, read the books in publication order. There has never been a series that has ever benefited from being read/watched/listened to in any other order than the order it was published in.

Since I read this back to back with Consider Phlebas, think I’ll read a quick palette cleanser before moving on to Use of Weapons. This is heavy stuff, and I’m exhausted.