The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer
Never has an idiom been less appropriate to apply to a book, than the opportunity with this one to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ as it fits two current tags!
Jeff Vandermeer’s novels defy easy categorisation, combining SF with fantasy, horror, dystopias, eco-thrillers and more, demonstrating imagination in full flight. I loved his Southern Reach trilogy (see here) and now have his earlier Ambergris Trilogy to read.
The Strange Bird, however, is set in the same world as Vandermeer’s 2017 novel Borne, reviewed here. Borne is set in an unspecified future after some kind of devastating event involving the ‘Company’, who were heavily into biotech. Now released into the environment, the biotech is causing havoc, particularly in the form of Mord, a project gone wrong creating a giant flying predator bear; and the Mord proxies, vicious smaller beasts originally designed to attack Mord, but who kill anything. In this world Rachel and Wick scratch a living, scavenging and selling bits of good biotech, and bring up their found creature, Borne. Their rival is the Magician, another biotech dealer looking to take control of the area.
Enough scene-setting. The Strange Bird begins with the title character escaping from the Company lab where she was made, after intruders came and the besieged scientists started to eat their creations for food. Finally, finding herself out in the open, she is able to fly for the first time and revels in it, but her new world of blue sky and blinding sun is initially difficult to comprehend.
To the west lay the laboratory where they had done such beautiful, such terrible things.
Where was she headed, then?
Always to the east, always veering south, for there was a compass in her head, an insistent compass, pushing her forward.
What did she hope for?
To find a purpose, and for kindness, which had not yet been shown to her.
Where did she want to come to rest?
A place she could call home, a place that was safe. A place where there might be others of her kind.
The Strange Bird may resemble an avian creature, but she is more than that, embedded within her are human and other animal parts. She flies on, only to be knocked out in a storm, and is captured by the Old Man, who keeps her captive again, calling her Isadora. She is desperate to return to the open, but can’t escape. Then the Old Man sells her to the Magician, who can’t believe her luck. One of the Strange Bird’s adaptations is camouflage, a chameleon-like ability to blend into the background, and the Magician wants that. The Magician cruelly transforms the Strange Bird into a living cloak, causing such pain and suffering. But the beacon in her head still works; although she now exists in a living hell, she still has some hope, but it’s fading…
Oh my gosh, this novella is full of such powerful, terrible imagery. The Magician, who was a secondary character in Borne, is shown to be the worst kind of mad scientist megalomaniac. Writing from the point of view of one of this strange world’s creations gives a whole new perspective on it and the cruelty of the Company and those who exploit its remnants. Luckily, the Strange Bird will encounter Rachel and Wick, who although they fight for their own survival, are good people.
The Strange Bird’s sleep is populated by dreams of blue foxes (borrowed by Vandermeer from Sjón’s novel). These dreams help her understand her kinship with the animals she encounters and bring her some relief from life, although she often dreams of the scientist Sanji and her partner too, how do they fit into her destiny?
All of Vandermeer’s books that I have read share more than just their genre-defying settings, he seems to relish looking at life’s mysteries from oblique perspectives. There’s something of William Blake around his strange future worlds populated by hybrid creatures. The writing in this novella, although full of pain, is particularly beautiful in a metaphysical kind of way. I strongly believed in the Strange Bird, this ill-used, but beautiful animal.
You could read this as a standalone, but already knowing the setting, I loved it even more. If you enjoyed this novella, you’d want to hurry back to Borne, and then its sequel Dead Astronauts, which I have yet to read. A superb little book. (10/10)
Jeff Vandermeer, The Strange Bird (MCD x FSG originals, US, 2018) Paperback 112 pages.
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