“Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.”
I have now read all the Borne series of books and stories by Jeff VanderMeer, pretty much – as far as I know… but the thing is I read them out of order. And I think that was a good thing.
First of all was the newest Borne book – The Dead Astronauts, which I read on behest of the Wild Detectives Book Club (back in the day when you would actually go to a book club). The book was incredibly weird – so difficult to read that I thought that would be the end of the Borne Dystopia for me.
But before I finished The Dead Astronauts I stumbled across and online short story/novela written about the same world – quite a bit earlier as it turns out – The Situation. This detailed a very strange world but told the story in a familiar way – the destruction of everything told as a story of corporate back-stabbing. I really enjoyed The Situation and that led me to check out The Strange Bird from the library and devour that short novel. It too told a strange tale but was written in a familiar style – that of a quest or journey. It was set in the same world and had a few characters in common with the other two works – enough to continue to increase my interest.
So, I bought a copy of the central novel in the series Borne – and finished it late last night. It was really good, a crackerjack of a novel. The most complete of the books, it explains a lot of what what mysterious and curious in the others… explains some, maybe not a lot, really, … and definitely not everything.
At the book club discussion of The Dead Astronauts someone describe Borne as a love story. And it is the typical girl finds odd plant in fur of giant bear, girl falls in love with plant, plant turns out not to be a plant but a ruthless killer, girl loses plant/killer, and finally girl discovers her love is something else entirely type of story. Yeah, it is a love story.
Having read it last it was inevitable that I would read it trying to ferret out the connections with the other works. The three Dead Astronauts from their own epynomous novel made an appearance in Borne but they didn’t do much probably because they were dead. The story of The Strange Bird and Borne are dovetailed – the identical tale told from two different points of view and in very different styles – the same characters populate both.
The Situation is a prequel to all the others. It contains the origin of the Giant Bear, Mord, along with other clues. In Borne, it is strongly hinted that Wick is the narrator of The Situation but I wasn’t absolutely sure. In researching this, I came across a graphic version of The Situation from Tor books – where Wick is named explicitly. Now I wonder if Scarskirt is the Magician from Borne and The Strange Bird. She is described as someone who “stared at reflective surfaces all day” which is a connection. I don’t know – but it’s fun to speculate. At any rate, click that link and look at the drawings – they are very good.
So now I’m done with Borne and I can get back to reading Zola. Except… now I’m thinking about VanderMeer’s Annihilation (I liked the movie) and the rest of its Southern Reach trilogy. We’ll see. So many books, so little time.
By the way, I’ve been reading rumors that AMC has optioned Borne for a miniseries. Wow, I have no idea how this goes onto the screen. It would be like a science fiction version of Game of Thrones… except on acid.
For he had no typewriter ribbon left and only fifty sheets of paper and he counted on the stabbing imprint of the keys to make an impression like a branding, and when he had used the fifty sheets, front and back, he would start again, typing over what he had already impressed upon the page.
—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird
Back in the olden days, the days when we did things, I would go to a book club in a bookstore on the other side of town and join a group that would read the same book and discuss it. It seems so long ago.
One book we read was Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts. I really can’t say I enjoyed the book – it was too, too difficult to read. I looked forward to the discussion. I was curious about what everybody thought – but the thoughts were jumbled. I asked, at the end of the evening, “Would anyone here have finished this book on their own – without the pressure of having book club?” The answer was a resounding NO.
Though I won’t say the book was enjoyable, it was interesting… and it was… haunting is the best I can come up with.
And when I came across an online short story written by VanderMeer – The Situation – I read it and wrote about it. It was another fabulous story but told in a more conventional way – not too difficult to get through.
And then… well, there’s this thing I do. I always like to have some short books laying around – something to read when I don’t have very much time, energy, or patience. What I do is I walk down the aisles of the library in the fiction section simply looking at the physical books. Then I pull the small and slim volumes out and see if they are something I might be interested in. This, again, was back in the olden days when there were libraries.
The last book like that I checked out – I looked at it and, surprise, it was another by Jeff VanderMeer – a short novel, novela really, called The Strange Bird.
And it, again was in a different style. It was a straightforward (though bizarre) tale told as a hero’s journey – like The Odyssey, or The Alchemist, or The Hobbit, or something like that. The protagonist is the eponymous “Strange Bird” – a creature that may have started out as a bird but had been manipulated in a horrific futuristic bio-tech lab – bits added from many different animals… and humans… fantastic properties and abilities… until what was left was an intelligent, damaged, powerful, fearful, beautiful, hurt and most of all – unique thing – the Strange Bird:
In the lab, so many of the scientists had said, “forgive me” or “I am so sorry” before doing something irrevocable to the animals in their cages. Because they felt they had the right. Because the situation was extreme and the world was dying. So they had gone on doing the same things that had destroyed the world, to save it. Even a Strange Bird perched on a palm tree on an artificial island with a moat full of hungry crocodiles below could understand the problem with that logic.
—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird
Even though the styles are varied – the Strange Bird is a “Borne” novel and The Situation is a “Borne” novela and The Dead Astronauts is another “Borne” novel. They are set in a fantastic world established in the linchpin novel Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a dystopian earth destroyed by the experiments conducted by The Company – a giant biotech conglomerate. The blasted world is left with the few remaining humans battling for survival with the genetic monsters created by The Company – now escaped and running amok.
There are characters and locations shared (though often at different times – different stages of their lives) – Charlie X, Rachel and her lover Wick (who sells drugs in the form of customized beetles that produce memories when shoved in one’s ear), the Balcony Cliffs, and especially the giant flying killer bear, Mord. Borne himself(herself? itself?) is mentioned briefly in The Strange Bird.
So, now, what choice do I have? I picked up a copy of Borne – will read it next.
Joy can only remind you why you fight.”
OK, it was Monday, the end of work, I was so very tired, I didn’t have my car with me, I had to get clear across town, if I really wanted to go there, it was cold, it was raining, it was dark, I thought about not going, I would get back home so very late, here’s how I would have to travel:
Work Shuttle – DART Red Line – walking downtown – Dallas Streetcar to Bishop Arts – Walk to Restaurant – eat a hamburger – Walk to Bookstore – Wild Detectives Book Club discussion of Dead Astronauts – Walk to Streetcar – Streetcar downtown – walk to DART station – Red Line to Spring Valley Station – wait for bus – DART bus 402 – walk home from Belt Line and Yale
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone, today is the next day and I’m tired I didn’t get enough sleep last night
But I realized I had to go because the book was so difficult and so WEIRD that I had to find out what the others thought about it. Also, I had fought my way to the end of a tough read – I had earned the trip and the meeting.
I asked the group, “Would you have finished this if you weren’t in a reading group? If there weren’t other people shaming you into plowing ahead and getting to the end?” Everyone (and I mean Every-One) replied enthusiastically “Hell No!”
What do I think about difficult books? What do I think about WEIRD books? What do I think about books that stretch the envelope of what text can do? What do I think about books that play with illustration and typography in odd and confusing ways? (think House of Leaves)
I did say that, usually, I judge difficult and WEIRD books… in the end… by an emotional connection. I don’t care if the plot makes no sense I don’t care if there is a conventional resolution I don’t care if the theme is obscure(d) – but I prefer it if I have some kind of emotional connection or some sort of inner payoff at the end
With Dead Astronauts there was some (but not a lot) especially in the Sarah section and at the very end. Was there enough? Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows
Now, the next big question is should I read more VanderMeer? (I did really like The Situation – a protoBorne novella) Should I read Borne? (set in the same world as Dead Astronauts but different – the people in the group that had read it said it was character-driven) Should I read Annihilation?( I saw the movie without knowing it was from a book and thought it was very cool) Should I read the whole Southern Reach Trilogy (A guy sitting next to me said he really liked Annihilation but the sequels left him cold because they resolved too much of the mystery of Annihilation)
So Maybe I’ll read Annihilation and skip the rest of the Trilogy. I think I will read Borne.
But first… I have to read L’Assommoir – Have to keep troopering through my Zola project – and then, in March there’s another Wild Detectives Difficult Book Club project – we’re going to tackle The Brothers Karamazov (about six weeks of work)………………….
So little time, so many books.
My Manager was extremely thin, made of plastic,with paper covering the plastic. They had always hoped, I thought, that one day her heart would start, but her heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her ribcage,animated to lift and fall only by her breathing. Some-times, when my Manager was angry, she would become so hot that the paper covering her would ignite, and the plastic beneath would begin to melt.
—-Jeff VanderMeer, The Situation
from Wired Magazine
About a year ago I started going to book club meetings at The Wild Detectives – a bookstore in Bishop Arts that features beer and coffee… a great place. Even though I don’t have much in common with the other readers and it’s really tough to get across town after work, I like to go. Actually, now that I think about it, the fact I don’t have much in common with the other readers is the best thing about going.
The book we will discuss the first Monday in February is The Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer. I’m cranking through the book and haven’t made up my mind yet. It’s very imaginative and well written but exceedingly weird. I like weird – but only if, at the end, there’s a point… some emotional connection. I’m not a big fan of weird for weird’s sake. I have a feeling that I will be a Jeff VanderMeer fan at the end.
I think that’s a good thing. It’s always good to find a new author isn’t it? Even though I have a ways to go on my Zola reading project and enough other books to… well, to fill up my rapidly declining lineup of years left.
Looking at other Jeff VanderMeer works there’s the Southern Reach Trilogy (I’ve seen the interesting movie Annihilation which was adapted from the first book in the trilogy) and I think those books will get added. Also there is the Borne novel which is set in the same insane world as The Dead Astronauts. That’s four more books to read. So little time, so many books.
As I was looking around for info (The Dead Astronauts is difficult enough I’m not worried about spoilers) on The Dead Astronauts and the Borne world I discovered an online short novella called The Situation. It is billed as a proto-Borne story – set in a preliminary version of that universe (are we reading about the origin of the giant bear named Mord?). So I sat down and read it.
And liked it. It is a sort-of comedy about the difficulty of surviving sane inside an evil bureaucracy. Quite a harrowing story. And well-worth the time and effort.
Shit. That means I’ll eventually have to read all those books. So many books, so little time.