In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Surrealist Circus AnimalsNed Beauman

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
by Jeff VanderMeer.
Fourth Estate, 323 pp., £12.99, June 2017, 978 0 00 815917 7
Show More
Show More

What​ kind of emotions will we have after the end of the world? When we’re fighting over cans of dog food in the shadow of half-collapsed overpasses, will we observe, in Nietzsche’s words, ‘how differently the human drives have grown and still could grow depending on the moral climate’? The American writer Jeff VanderMeer seems to dangle two possible answers to this question, and it is at some cost to the distinctiveness of his work that in the end he chooses neither.

VanderMeer has been publishing fiction with magazines and small presses since the early 1980s, but made his commercial breakthrough in 2014 with the Southern Reach trilogy. These three novels concern an eponymous government agency investigating a stretch of Florida coastline that has been annexed by some kind of supernatural force. (A film adaptation, directed by Alex Garland and starring Natalie Portman, is due for release next year.) Much of the critical discussion of the trilogy has presented it as an achievement in nature writing; a review on, for instance, was headlined ‘The Weird Thoreau’. However, VanderMeer’s descriptions of forest and beach and marsh, though offered in faultlessly precise and rhythmic prose, are seldom striking enough to leave much of an impression on a reader who, like me, doesn’t really care about scenery. In fact, what’s most interesting about Annihilation, the first, shortest and best book in the trilogy, is the merciless psychological acuteness of the narrator as she plays power games with the three other women who have accompanied her on an expedition into ‘Area X’. The rustling background of nature only serves to emphasise the pettiness, and the ubiquity, of such dramas. In other words, Annihilation is really about office politics, and indeed the subsequent book, Authority, leaves the wilderness behind in favour of a story set almost entirely within the Southern Reach’s dysfunctional headquarters.

VanderMeer’s new novel, Borne, is not about an office, but it is a sequel of sorts to a 2008 short story, ‘The Situation’, which is. ‘The Situation’ concerns various employees of a biotech firm known only as the Company. Like Annihilation, it’s a tremendous piece of fiction, with something of George Saunders’s dystopian workplace tragicomedies, but slathered in a layer of goo. At the Company, meeting minutes are

taken by a veined slab of purpling meat whimsically shaped like an ear. This minutes-taker lay in a far corner of the room, on a raised dais, and printed out its observations on the usual paper that reflected mood, tone, and intent. Alas, in this particular case, the minutes came out thick, viscous, and smelling sickly sweet. Very little could be intuited from them.

The protagonist is not perturbed by the minutes-taker itself, but by the imprecise minutes leading to draggy progress on his assigned project (which is to design a huge, child-swallowing fish).

The story sustains its basic Kafkaesque joke very effectively: although human beings can accustom themselves to any physical horror, the emotional degradations of hierarchy and bureaucracy, the loneliness of the striver whose nearest friends are also his nearest rivals, are inescapable. Until he quit his day job in 2007, VanderMeer worked as a technical writer, and he dedicates the story ‘to all of the passive-aggressive emotional vampires, cowardly blunderkinds, narcissistic sociopaths, and incompetent power-abusing managers currently lurking amongst unsuspecting office workers everywhere’.

‘The Situation’ and the early stages of the Southern Reach trilogy are not pre-apocalyptic so much as peri-apocalyptic, a frog-boiling middle stage between normality and doom. By the time of Borne, the Company’s various inventions, let slip across a blighted landscape, have made a significant contribution to the sorry state of things. And in the Southern Reach trilogy, it is suggested that if the rest of the planet is swallowed up like the northern coast of Florida, we can put some of the blame on the government itself, which may have had something to do with the creation of Area X in the first place. In other words, the tile-carpeted, air-conditioned office is where VanderMeer locates the seeds of destruction. This is the case not just literally – because we all know that in science fiction every single research lab or testing facility is a Pandora’s Box waiting to burst its shoddy latch – but in a broader sense, too: the sheer resilience of human drudgery means that, even as we are in the act of unleashing armageddon on the world, we are still mostly thinking about our quarterly performance review. In Borne, the characters eventually return to the ruins of the Company, just as, in Acceptance, the third book of the Southern Reach trilogy, the characters eventually return to the ruins of the Southern Reach headquarters. Given the dedication quoted above, one might be tempted to diagnose a bit of wish-fulfilment on VanderMeer’s part, but in both cases he makes sure the comeuppance is thoroughly deserved.

I mentioned the dedication in an email to VanderMeer’s publicist asking if she knew what sorts of jobs had inspired it, and in response she relayed an email from VanderMeer in which he not only satisfied my curiosity but also took pains to clarify that ‘The Situation’ and Borne ‘are not meant to be read together’. The story is not a direct prologue to the novel, he said, but rather ‘a proto-Borne story, like from an alternate universe’. But I didn’t know that when I was reading them, and to anyone but the author the distinction may seem rather Talmudic, because at least a couple of characters from ‘The Situation’ reappear in Borne. One of them, Mord, was introduced to us in the Company’s offices as a human being but has now been transformed into a gigantic flying bear, ‘the de facto ruler of our city’. The novel begins when the narrator, a young woman called Rachel, is picking through Mord’s matted fur while he’s asleep, and discovers a strange creature ‘like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid’. She takes the creature home, names him Borne, and teaches him to talk. Feeding on lizards and rats, Borne grows larger and larger, causing some tension with Wick, Rachel’s flatmate-with-benefits and another former Company employee. But when invaders begin to threaten their sanctuary, adventures must ensue.

The novel is thronged with chimeras: as well as Mord there are other, smaller bears with venomous fangs, and foxes who can turn invisible, and a gang of ‘poisoned half-changed children’ with ‘iridescent carapaces’ and ‘gossamer wings’. VanderMeer evokes all these beings with real skill; a scene where Mord is attacked by surface-to-air missiles is a masterclass in IMAX prose. But I suspect VanderMeer’s favourite of them is Borne himself, because he least resembles any known original.

Not long after Rachel brings Borne home, he has

abandoned the sea-anemone shape in favour of resembling a large vase or a squid balanced on a flattened mantel. The aperture at the top had curled out and up on what I chose to interpret as a long neck, sprouting feathery filaments … [which] with a prolonged soft sigh, would crowd together and then pull apart again like bizarre synchronised dancers … Colours still flitted across his body, or lazily floated in shapes like storm clouds, ragged and layered and dark.

Compare, from Acceptance, this description of a monster called the Crawler:

The surface of its roughly bell-shaped body was translucent but with a strange texture, like ice when it has frozen from flowing water into fingerlike polyps. Underneath a second surface slowly revolved, and across this centrifuge she could see patterns floating along, as if it had an interior skin, and the material on top of that might be some kind of soft armour.

There’s a lot more where that came from. VanderMeer begs, and I would say earns, the indulgence of his readers here, in lavishing so much prose on the shapes and textures of these imaginary beasts that it verges on a kind of abstract daubing. Indeed, writing like this may find its closest analogue in the work of artists like Louise Bourgeois and Berlinde de Bruyckere, whose biomorphic sculptures you can imagine waddling into VanderMeer’s books like teratomas given life – foreskins and intestines and folds of fat appreciated for their unsettling material properties, with no affiliation to any particular organism. Borne, under Rachel’s care, soon evolves into a surrealist circus animal; at one point, ‘so many eyestalks arose from him that his body flattened away to nothing, into an irregular pool of flesh across most of the roof, the edge lapping up against my boots.’

What would become of our inner lives in a world like this? It may be that, when late capitalist civilisation is replaced by this violently mutagenic landscape, we should expect our familiar configuration of ‘human drives’ to warp into a commensurately novel form. But then again, because we’ve seen in VanderMeer’s earlier fiction that a chronic smallness of mind can persist in even the most extreme circumstances, perhaps we should expect that office politics would pass almost unchanged into bunker politics or shanty politics. Or – to consider a third option, extraneous to VanderMeer’s work but common enough in the kind of post-apocalyptic stories that make a fetish of big ‘manly’ characters – perhaps we should expect a radical simplification, so that people would only be vengeful, protective, greedy and so forth, with any subtler shades of feeling blasted away like soft tissue in the flames of an atom bomb.

Any of these three emotional registers would have been fun in its own way. Unfortunately, VanderMeer’s narrator instead offers us a fourth register: what might be called a literary one. ‘I told myself whatever lie would work. Because I needed a lie.’ ‘It made me reckless, as if I wanted Wick to confront me.’ ‘Perhaps deep down [I] thought that without Borne there, Wick had no right to say where [I] wandered or did not wander.’ ‘Perhaps that was my subconscious revenge: if he wanted to be an adult, I’d make him become an adult all the way.’ ‘Perhaps the real reason Wick and I believed we were finished is that we both, on some subconscious level, understood that the quest to make the Balcony Cliffs safe was futile.’ And so on.

This is the contemporary psychotherapeutic vernacular, in which a narrator, like a contrite guest on a daytime talk show, explains away all her aberrant or irresponsible behaviour in terms of ‘personal issues’. The audience murmurs in sympathy and in appreciation of this universalisable wisdom about the human condition. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this stuff – it’s present in some form in most good fiction. But to find Rachel’s consciousness delineated in such an earnest, familiar, ‘relatable’ fashion means that VanderMeer has dodged both of the promising approaches that his work may have led us to anticipate.

First of all, there is no hypermutation of the human drives. At one stage, Rachel, the narrator, discusses ‘the wrenching dislocation of trying to make two separate worlds match up, the one that was normal and the one that was grotesque, the old and the new – the struggle to make the mundane and the impossible co-exist’. In this novel, physical reality is always new, grotesque and impossible, and mental reality is always old, normal and mundane. VanderMeer has been one of the chief boosters of a putative genre called ‘the New Weird’, and edited, along with his wife, Ann, a major anthology called The Weird – but nothing could be less weird than these characters, despite the curious costumes they wear.

The only glimmer of psychological deviancy we detect in Rachel is that she develops loving maternal feelings towards Borne, as if he were a human child. But because Borne is so cutesy – when Rachel is teaching him to talk, he yelps nonsense like ‘Buffoon! Foon buff! Buffalo balloon! Buffaloon’ – we get no more frisson of the unheimlich from this than we do from the relationship between Elliott and E.T. in the Spielberg film. Borne himself initially appears to have some potential, because of the odd modalities in which his moods are expressed (‘He’d gone rough and prickly beside me, and a faint snuffed match/grain-alcohol smell wafted over’). When we read extracts from his diary, however, we find that he’s given to writing things like ‘I didn’t want to move out of Rachel’s apartment. But I had to … On my own, maybe things will be better. Maybe I can be the one in control.’ So even tentacled changelings from a bizarro future have inner voices remarkably similar to those of early 21st-century bourgeois humans.

Borne does reveal a darker side about halfway through the book, but because this darker side is pursued off-stage, involving characters we haven’t met, it never succeeds in tainting our view of him. What really separates Borne from the creations of artists like Bourgeois and de Bruyckere – and of David Cronenberg, whom VanderMeer has noted as a major influence – is that the rank odours of sex and disease are what give body horror its potency. In comparison, VanderMeer’s menagerie can feel rather antiseptic, not to mention symbolically freightless. Surely I won’t be the only reader left with the feeling that Borne would have been more interesting if Rachel and Borne had gone to bed together.

So VanderMeer doesn’t give us any newfound emotional configurations, but neither does he return to the older emotional configurations of which he has already proven himself such a wise observer. Admittedly, Borne doesn’t have enough characters to stock an office, but if the book contains one flight of fancy even wilder than a titanic bear who can ‘dip and glide and wheel and drop across the sky like a god’, it’s that Rachel and Wick seem to live together in close quarters for all that time without a single argument about cleaning the bathroom. Nobody believes the collapse of civilisation will rid us of the passive-aggressive emotional vampires and narcissistic sociopaths – on the contrary, they will outlast even the proverbial cockroach. The blunting that takes place between ‘The Situation’ and Borne is reminiscent of the one that takes place over the course of the Southern Reach trilogy; there, the expedition through Area X in Acceptance, the third book, is substantially less engaging than the one in Annihilation, the first book, because the higher stakes in Acceptance lead the characters to behave more like adults with a common purpose.

One of Borne’s messages seems to be that even in nightmarish and baffling conditions, human beings are capable of love and courage. But in all but the surest hands, this insight is moral kitsch. Whereas the countervailing fact that even in nightmarish and baffling conditions, human beings are capable of resentment, backbiting, idleness and so forth, while not front-page news, gave Annihilation and ‘The Situation’ the spark of life. Now, this may be a matter of personal taste, and I am willing to consider the hypothesis that there is a correlation between people who think that extended descriptions of verdant nature are usually dull (see above) and people who think that extended descriptions of wholesome emotions are usually dull. But nevertheless I maintain that VanderMeer’s work is much less interesting post-apocalypse than it was pre- or peri-apocalypse, and in this regard he breaks the first rule of the genre: the audience must never find themselves wishing in any serious way that the world hadn’t ended.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.