Another beautifully imaginative tale by Jeff VanderMeer.
Borne is another beautifully imaginative tale by Jeff VanderMeer, author of the award winning The Southern Reach Trilogy. The novel opens on the back of a giant bear named Mord. The image in your head of a polar bear or grizzly insufficiently describes Mord’s immensity. He stands many stories tall, the monster subjugating the broken city where the novel is set. Once surrounded by water, dry sandy beds border the city. Fallen buildings and broken streets describe its topography. Environmental collapse has ruined the world. Did I mention that Mord can fly?
Mord is a product of the Company, whose headquarters stands like a citadel in the city. Firms like the Company infested the world with biotech, malleable technologies meant to mimic and supplant the dying nonhuman life forms of the earth that in turn poisoned the world and helped bring about the end. Mord both guards and terrorizes the Company offices and labs, hoarding biotech from the scavengers of the city who use it as everything from food and narcotics to currency.
Rachel is one such scavenger, a hearty refugee from sunken islands who made her way into the city. She scales Mord like a pilot fish follows a whale, picking off items of value that have gotten stuck in the great bear’s fur during his destructive travels. On one occasion she finds a purple, pulsating curiosity with the shape and cilium of a sea anemone. When she brings it back to the hideout she shares with Wick, a former Company scientist, and discovers the curiosity is sentient but unlike any artificiality she has ever known. Rachel adopts the creature and names it Borne.
At the beginning of their relationship, Borne is small in size and innocent of spirit like any child. He learns to read and speak and pummels Rachel with questions. In the halls of Rachel and Wick’s hideout, the Balcony Cliffs, he and his ersatz mother play and laugh when she is not scavenging. Borne recalls E.T. in the early going, his innocence and sense of wonder precious traits to be protected from the outside world. He’s kept locked away from the world for his own protection, but Rachel, as the narrator of the story, tinges every description of Borne with foreboding. Soon the creature’s homicidal compulsions emerge. He hungers to absorb living things into his ever-expanding body. A shapeshifter, he is the perfect hunter in a world with no easy prey.
VanderMeer is often cited as a master of weird fiction, a hard to define subgenre that you know when you read (a post-apocalypse ruled by a giant flying bear is usually a fair benchmark). In Borne he uses the device of biotech to make weirder the usual scenarios of an end of the world aftermath. Biotech is nearly magical when wielded by a character like Wick or The Magician, another former Company scientist intent on wresting the city away from Mord. It allows The Magician to vanish and alter the bodies of the city’s children to make them a savage army. Wick wields worms and beetles that heal him, attack his adversaries and remove memories. He spends his days brewing these creatures in a great pool of biotech like a witch before a cauldron. The city itself could be drawn like a map on the first page of a fantasy novel, its ragged borders surrounded by dunes and deserts, its territories divided between The Magician and Mord with a small, fortified province belonging to Wick and Rachel.
End of the world scenarios are typically philosophical exercises with the nature of humanity being the main rumination. The temporal distance from the apocalyptic event usually determines the level of inhumanity the survivors have devolved to as well as what aspects of humanity others keep sacred. Rachel values the memories of the islands she grew up on and the lessons her parents taught her about art, science and life. She dreamed of being a writer before society collapsed, but she tells her stories to Borne so effectively that he longs to become a person. But what it means to be human is in flux. The humanity of the past destroyed the world and its remnants – Wick, The Magician and Mord – are the forces destroying the city.
At its core Borne is a story about monsters, and VanderMeer never shies away from that. The story is layered with relevant themes about family, hubris, environmental destruction and unthinking faith in technology, but the novel is driven by it monsters. An attack always feels imminent. Safety is an illusion. What, after all, is Borne? The answer is dangerous.