“Once upon a time there was a piece of biotech that grew and grew until it had its own apartment”: an odd, atmospheric, and decidedly dark fable for our time.
VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (Acceptance, 2014, etc.) set high standards for dystopian fantasy, and the wizardry was as much in the writing as in the storyline. This latest is much the same: supremely literary, distinctly unusual, its title character a blob of something or another that earns its name, in part, because it’s carried from place to place—when we meet it, in fact, it's tangled up in the fur of a giant bear that just now is busily marauding through the ruins of a once-thriving city in what would seem to be the very near future. The Company, an unfeeling and monstrously inclined biotech giant, once held sway there, but now what’s left is a whole bunch of one-time experiments gone awry. Mord, the bear, is one, Borne another. Alternately dodging and caring for them is Rachel, an eminently resourceful young woman who doesn’t quite know what to make of the little creature at first: “I knew nothing about Borne and treated him like a plant at first. It seemed logical, from my initial observations.” Logical, yes, but Rachel is no Mr. Spock: she brims with feelings, some of them for her fellow survivor Wick. Just as Borne is able to morph into semblances of other beings, though, including an uncanny other-Rachel, so Wick would seem to have logged some hours in the lab himself. The reader is treated to the intriguing spectacle of Borne’s acquiring consciousness in the middle of all the mayhem: “I became entangled in Mord’s fur. (Who entangled me?) Where did I come from before that?” That the genetic basis for life is nothing to tinker with is plain throughout, especially in the moments where VanderMeer’s deep talent for worldbuilding takes him into realms more reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than of the Shire.
Superb: a protagonist and a tale sure to please fans of smart, literate fantasy and science fiction.