Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

The Weird World of Jeff VanderMeer: “Southern Reach” & “Borne”

Like China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer got his start as a pioneer in the genre of New Weird; although he had decades of experience publishing novels and story collections (not to mention editing anthologies), his work remained highly niche until the release of the Southern Reach trilogy gained mainstream traction in 2014. This is where I jumped on the VanderMeer bandwagon, and I hope to convince you to do the same.

Southern Reach consists of three books: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, which were respectively released in February, May, and September of 2014. I’m not sure to what degree VanderMeer himself is responsible for that schedule, but I’d like to see it implemented more frequently—not only does it help forgetful folks such as myself remember what the heck is going on, but it requires the author to construct the series as an overarching whole rather than as a succession of sequels. Each novel in the Southern Reach trilogy focuses on different characters caught up in the mystery of “Area X,” a swampy coastal region in the United States where any vestiges of civilization have been reclaimed by nature and all sorts of unexplained phenomena occur. An agency known as Southern Reach has been sending expeditions in Area X; members of these expeditions rarely return, and they’re not the same when they do.

Annihilation (which I’ll say outright is the best of the trilogy and perhaps even stronger when read as a stand-alone book) concerns the 12th expedition, which is comprised of four unnamed women: the biologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. Told through the perspective of the biologist, what follows is a maddening existential spiral into something that is as much blinding emotional clarity as it is ineffable intellectual insanity—as much as I enjoy using the word “Lovecraftian” as a description for everything that resembles cosmic horror in even the slightest sense, doing so here would be a disservice to the richness of VanderMeer’s work. His brand of weird trends more in the direction of humility than nihilism.

Clocking in at barely two hundred pages, Annihilation comes in late and gets out early; it’s a supremely well-crafted work that doesn’t waste a page. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Authority and Acceptance, both of which are double the length of Annihilation and half as interesting. Authority, at least, benefits from the clarity of a single POV; Acceptance ricochets between characters with such abandon that it leaves the novel feeling diluted and disjointed. Rather than warn you away from Authority and Acceptance, though—there’s still a lot to like in them—I would instead hold up Annihilation as an example of the first book in a trilogy which isn’t burdened by its successors; no three-novel commitment is necessary on your part.

But if trilogies really aren’t your thing, I’d recommend starting with 2017’s Bourne, a stand-alone book which distills all the finesse and wild ambition of VanderMeer’s writing prowess into pure storytelling. A motif appears: as in Southern Reach, Bourne concerns a world in which nature is slowly but inexorably reclaiming the remnants of human civilization (albeit on a much wider scale) after an apocalypse triggered by the enigmatic “Company” and their experiments in genetic engineering—the city inhabited by protagonist Rachel and her husband, Wick, is terrorized by one of the Company’s creations, a gargantuan flying bear(!) named Mord. Rachel finds in Mord’s fur a shapeshifting creature(?) whom she christens “Borne,” and the novel chronicles her relationship with the being as it grows from infancy to adulthood.

That’s where Borne shines. Under all its genre layering, this is a story not even about parenthood, but about motherhood; it’s about the fear of ushering someone into the world and then losing touch with who they are, what they know, and what they are capable of; it’s about the gulf that inevitably grows between yourself and your child, about the pride you feel when they accomplish something and the shame you feel when they do wrong, and about who is responsible for those accomplishments and those wrongdoings—the child, or the parent who raised them? (I’m not a parent, so please disregard if this is in no way an accurate description of the experience.) It’s a thematic tapestry not often seen in genre fiction, and it is only because it’s genre fiction that it is so deftly able to illuminate the parent/child dynamic.

That said, Borne is still an extraordinary work of science-fiction from top to bottom. There’s a gargantuan flying bear(!!), a mysterious maybe-villain known as “the Magician,” adrenaline-pumping action sequences, shocking twists and revelations, and genuine laugh-out-loud humor throughout. VanderMeer brings all of it together with a practiced mastery of tone and style, and the result is a rare book which feels rich and rounded and satisfying on every front. While I won’t assert that Borne is VanderMeer’s best novel given that I haven’t yet read much of his earlier work, it’s certainly a great place to begin reading a great author. If, for some reason, you’re not convinced yet, I should also mention something which I have thus far neglected: there’s a gargantuan flying bear(!!!).

I’d like to touch briefly on a quality in VanderMeer’s work which is present both in Southern Reach and Borne, and that’s the absence of the male gaze. Borne, Annihilation, and portions of Acceptance are experienced through the eyes of female characters, and those viewpoints are distinctly feminine without ever being reduced to femininity as their single defining trait. The stories VanderMeer tells in these books deal with roles and subjects that traditionally have been, and often still are, considered “masculine”—hardened survivalists, science and science gone wrong, the hubris of attempting to capture or control the natural world—and he reinvigorates them by opening them up to a spectrum of gender and sexuality. You won’t find token diversity in these novels, but you will find humanity in all its complexity and all its confusion and all its contradiction. That might be the weirdest thing of all in the weird world of Jeff VanderMeer.

No, wait, I just remembered there’s a gargantuan flying bear in Borne.

That’s weirder.


Reviews by Aaron Larson