Publisher and Titles: MCD: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now derelict―and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.
One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.
“He was born, but I had borne him.”
But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.
I have to admit that early on in my reading of Borne, I almost gave up because I had a hard time immersing myself in VanderMeer's fantastical post-apocalyptic world. The novel is set in the ruins of a once-great city that is nearly surrounded by a poisonous river―"a stew of heavy metals and oil and wastes that generated a toxic mist, reminding us that we would likely die from cancer or worse." This world is the aftermath of a biotech disaster that occurred when a biotech corporation called the Company lost control of the weird and wild creatures that it created. Click HERE to read Irene Noguchi's interview with VanderMeer entitled "Talking with Jeff VanderMeer about Borne, Mothers, and Nurturing.” That interview begins with these words from Noguchi: "Science-fiction author Jeff VanderMeer's books are an Audubon guide of fantastical creatures. From glow-in-the-dark fungi that spell out words to bloodthirsty bears that fly through the night sky, VanderMeer pushes past the boundaries of what’s real with plants and animals both recognizable and terrifying."
The scariest biotech creature in the city is Mord, a fierce, gigantic, rage-filled bear that was developed by the Company as a sort of watchdog. But Mord soon grew to be three stories tall and broke free of the Company's grip, dooming the Company and the city when he destroyed the Company's headquarters and other buildings and began chowing down on the city's inhabitants. Rachel views the mutant bear as "the de facto ruler of our city." Eventually, Mord learned to fly and now spends his days sweeping through the skies, knocking over buildings that get in his way and feasting on citizens who are unlucky enough to catch his attention. Rachel is a scavenger, and she frequently risks her life by catching a ride on one of Mord's lower legs. As Mord travels through the city and around its outskirts, salvageable bits and pieces get caught in his fur―things that she takes back to her partner, Wick, who uses them to create new biotech that he sells on the streets to help them survive.
One of the most interesting bits that Rachel finds is Borne, a biotech creature who is pictured on the book's cover in one of his/her/its many sizes and forms. When Rachel finds Borne, he―let's call him "he" because Rachel decides that Borne is a boy―is caught in Mord's fur. When Rachel first sees Borne, he "was not much to look at...dark purple and about the size of my fist, clinging to Mord's fur like a half-closed stranded sea anemone. I found him only because, beacon-like, he strobed emerald green across the purple every half minute or so." Rachel brings Borne back to Balcony Cliffs, the huge, decrepit riverside refuge she shares with Wick, only to discover that Wick dislikes and distrusts Borne and would like nothing more than to take the creature apart and use his innards to make more biotech to sell to his contacts out on the streets. Rachel refuses to give Borne to Wick and finds a place for him in her bedroom. There, she begins to feel like Borne's mother as she teaches him how to read and tells him about life in the human world. Soon, Borne begins to grow, to change shape, and then to speak. He is obviously able to absorb knowledge at a superhuman rate―but that's not all he absorbs. When Rachel learns how Borne handles his hunger, she is repulsed, but then just refuses to accept the reality of what Borne really is.
Borne and Rachel's burgeoning friendship/mentorship merges with Wick and Rachel's romantic partnership in troubling ways, becoming a true test of their trust in one another. At one point, Rachel says that she can't understand how Wick trusted so many people in his life before the city's collapse. She muses, "I couldn't remember as an adult when I had trusted three people at the same time." Now, with Borne in their lives, trust and betrayal become even more important and elusive for all three inhabitants of Balcony Cliffs. When Rachel and Borne's relationship hits a particularly rough spot, she thinks, "That's the problem with people who are not human. You can't tell how badly they're hurt, or how much they need your help, and until you ask, they don't always know how to tell you." Later, Rachel learns that this problem can also surface in relationships between two humans.
As the situation in the city deteriorates, Rachel, Borne, and Wick face multiple enemies, several of whom mount violent attacks against them. By the time I realized that Borne was going to develop constantly during the course of the story―in a wide variety of weird, interesting, and unexpected ways―I found myself fully involved in the plot and enjoyed the story immensely, all the way through to its bittersweet ending.
This novel is difficult to describe and impossible to summarize. VanderMeer has created a completely original approach to post-apocalyptic eco-fiction that mixes real humans, tech-enhanced humans, and robotic creatures into an inventive and intriguing plot that slowly pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages to see what in the world is going to happen next.
At the end of this post, I have included a few of the best comments from mass media reviewers. I have to agree wholeheartedly with the last reviewer (Brian Ted Jones) who compares Borne's experience to that of the little alien in Spielberg's E.T., because that's exactly what popped into my mind as I watched Borne and his human friend, Rachel, meet and try to understand each other's world views. Watching Borne develop into the creature he was meant to be is a fascinating literary experience.
Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt on this novel's Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.
QUOTATIONS FROM MAINSTREAM MEDIA REVIEWS
”VanderMeer is that rare novelist who turns to nonhumans not to make them approximate us as much as possible but to make such approximation impossible. All of this is magnified a hundredfold in Borne . . . Here is the story about biotech that VanderMeer wants to tell, a vision of the nonhuman not as one fixed thing, one fixed destiny, but as either peaceful or catastrophic, by our side or out on a rampage as our behavior dictates―for these are our children, born of us and now to be borne in whatever shape or mess we have created. This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the twenty-first century will be as good as any from the twentieth, or the nineteenth." ―Wai Chee Dimock, The New York Times Book Review
"The conceptual elements in VanderMeer’s fiction are so striking that the firmness with which he cinches them to his characters’ lives is often overlooked . . . Borne is VanderMeer’s trans-species rumination on the theme of parenting . . . [Borne] insists that to live in an age of gods and sorcerers is to know that you, a mere person, might be crushed by indifferent forces at a moment’s notice, then quickly forgotten. And that the best thing about human nature might just be its unwillingness to surrender to the worst side of itself.” ―Laura Miller, The New Yorker