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Named one of the most anticipated books of 2017 by The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Book Riot, Chicago Reader, The Week, and Publishers Weekly.
“Am I a person?” Borne asked me.
“Yes, you are a person,” I told him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”
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.
From Publishers Weekly
© Publishers Weekly
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer is one of his most unsettling and endearing novels; it has the brutal edginess of some of his earlier work, but also a nuanced softness to draw in readers who might not otherwise go for Weird fiction. Borne has its monsters, biotech abominations, hideous children surgically given vicious claws, the soft skin of their throats replaced with reptilian scales, anything to make them better killers that don't end up prey to worse killers. See, the world has collapsed, no governments, no countries even, just cities and land, nameless decaying cities sitting on decaying bits of land. We kind of know the hows; climate change, war, pollution, the explosion of biotech. Biotech was supposed fix everything, but the minds behind the technology decayed just like everything else.
Borne's story is told by Rachel, a scavenger in a place its inhabitants simply call, the city. Nobody is alive from "before" to know what the now useless maps used to label the place. The city is blessed, but mostly cursed by biotech that was birthed in the labs of the Company. When the Company realized that the city was beyond help, and hope, they simply started releasing their creations into the field. Creations like Mord, a ten-story tall bio-engineered grizzly bear of near-human intelligence... with the ability to fly. Though, somewhere along the way, that intelligence turned to madness. Mord's original purpose was to protect the Company, but once again, decay stepped in;, it touched Mord, his mind, his purpose. He went rogue, smashing, tormenting, ruling the city through his deranged whims. Rachel is a scavenger for a former Company technician, Wick, her business partner, friend, sometimes lover. One day, while climbing a napping Mord, searching for the rich salvage that's often tangled in his fur, she finds a... thing. It looks like some sort of sea anemone crossed with a squid that in sum looks kind of like a bizarre vase. It makes a humming sound and smells of the oceans of "before." Its color shifts from purple to blue to sea green, Rachel has to have it. She is pretty sure it is biotech, and Wick is certain that it's Company-related and potentially dangerous. Wick wants to cut it up and figure out what it is, what it was created to do, but Rachel makes a decision that will change their lives utterly. She decides to keep it, she even feels protective of it. The "it" soon becomes a "he," and he is Borne. A sentient, funny, child-like, intelligent, caring person, who isn't a human being. That's one of the first things Rachel decides to teach Borne, that he's a person. She raises him as her own, tries to teach him the lessons all parents hope to teach their children, especially right from wrong. Only later does she realize that while she feels certain that deep down Borne is a good person capable of finding a good purpose, he might also be a very dangerous person.
Borne is the sort of novel that can't be neatly tucked into this or that genre, which is why it feels so accessible. I think just about anybody can pick up and enjoy it; there's sci-fi, there's grit and violence, there's elements of modern Weird fiction, but ultimately it's a story of people trying to be a family in a world that may no longer allow such fragile things to exist. It's about the relationship between a mother and her child, a child who may have been created to be a monster, or simply a being with a morality that is suited for a monstrous world. Is it wrong to love him? Is it wrong to want him to be safe? To be happy? Through Rachel and Borne we get to examine such concepts, such questions.
The novel is also a true testament to VanderMeer's skill toward world-building. Mord is a a GIANT bio-engineered flying bear, yet nothing about him seems false, or overdone, or hokey. Mord feels as real and as serious as a heart attack. Borne is this anemone squid vase thing with multiple eye-stalks, whose shape and color can change at will, yet one never doubts the reality of his existence, nor does one ever doubt his personhood. The ability to create such characters and make them feel absolutely real shows a total confidence in one's use of craft, confidence that in VanderMeer's case, is not at all misplaced.
Borne is a must-read novel, one that will endure because it touches on questions almost everyone asks themselves at one time or another; Why do I exist? Why am I here?
An Adventure in the Aftermath of the Biotech Apocalypse
In "Borne" Jeff Vandermeer asks the question, "What does it mean to be a person?" The setting for this inquiry is a post-apocalyptic hellscape of a unnamed city which is overrun by biotech produced by the "The Company." Survivors inhabit the ruins and try to avoid being eaten or just killed by a giant flying bear called Mord, or his proxies, which were some of the last creations of The Company.
Our protagonists are Wick, a former Company biotech creator, and Rachel, a scavenger with a traumatic past. One day Rachel finds a very advanced and unique biotech organism she calls Borne. She decides to raise this organism, first like a pet, then when it shows intelligence, like a child. Little does any of them know of Borne's full abilities and purpose.
The world created by Vandermeer is very bleak, but is not without hope. It is very different from most post apocalyptic tales in that society seems to have fallen apart from many smaller events than one large one. After reading it, I am still not sure if this book is more science fiction or fantasy. Although it explains its creations as biotech, they are so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic. There are little trappings of science fiction added to support these. Wick for example does not have a laboratory he works in, instead he grows his organisms in an abandoned swimming pool that seems more like a witch's cauldron than a science fictional setting. Some of the scenes and settings seem more dreamlike than realistic, in this way it is like his Southern Reach Trilogy. It certainly supports Jeff Vandermere's reputation as a master of the "New Weird" and that his works can be classified as "Squid-Punk."
Regardless of how it is classified, "Borne" is a gripping novel. It has complex and flawed characters who have relationships that are not what you expect. It is also a self-contained story, which is refreshing in a genre filled with endless series. I read it in record time, as I couldn't wait to find out what would happen next.