Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
In the vast world of science fiction, there is a frequent and frequently unfair desire to contextualize an individual work with comparables within its own genre. Unique voices are met with resistance, their greatness discounted in the face of a catchy selling point that unintentionally renders a work as derivative of something that came before. Jeff VanderMeer deserves better than this and with his latest novel Borne he has created something entirely new. Any efforts to relate to VanderMeer’s biological marvel through familiars like the Fallout video games, or a kaiju cinema wasteland, or the Parasyte manga and anime series or even Stephen Chow’s lovable film CJ7 would be in vain, half correct, at the risk of missing the point entirely. Borne is a new strain, a tale as emotionally and ecologically adventurous as it is a dystopian warning.
Rachel and Wick are survivalists in a biotech ruin. They live in the Balcony Cliffs, a network of caves laden with traps and secrets, and when they’re not scrounging for food and supplies, they tinker with engineering scraps and defend themselves from body-modified, bloodthirsty children. Outside the caves is a war zone: Mord, a building-sized ursine behemoth engineered by the now-defunct “Company” careens through the nearby ruined metropoli, toppling buildings and eviscerating anything in its reach. Mord’s chaos is sloppy and unrelenting, and “all kinds of treasures became tangled in that ropy, dirt-bathed fur, foul with carrion and chemicals.” Scavengers like Rachel would attempt to climb Mord’s flanks undetected to pilfer whatever carnage was hidden in his wake. Elsewhere in the land, an enclave led by The Magician teems with activity and a thirst for regional power.
While climbing Mord for supplies, Rachel discovers a rainbow-hued lifeform, possibility parasitic, nestled in his fur. She takes it home and marvels at its curious biology: Wick, ever the engineer, wants to “make use of it” and dissect it into parts but “this thing I found,” she recalls, “was from the tidal pools of my youth…I could smell the pressed-flower twist of the salt and the feel of the wind.” Something about the specimen speaks to Rachel’s past, and to her motherly side.
And then it actually speaks. Rachel calls it a him, and names him “Borne,” and revels in the new sense of purpose with which her desolate life had somehow been graced. Borne is a voracious learner, a mischievous shape-shifter, and a potentially powerful variable to enter into the Mord-Magician conflict and Rachel and Wick’s fight for survival. “Am I person or a weapon?” Borne asks Rachel late in the novel. “You are a person,” she replies, “but like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”
Despite VanderMeer’s flawless knack for worldbuilding — the wastes of Borne are an inventive technical fantasia — the introduction and development of Borne transforms the novel from a science-fiction triumph to a stunning tale of nature-vs.-nurture, biological husbandry, and mankind’s capacity to imprint and project onto their pets. Borne looks, often, like an upside-down vase, the trunk of a squid, and can morph into a tangle of eyeballs and tentacles, but is also one of the most lovable and charismatic characters in contemporary fiction. He reads all of Rachel’s books, wears her clothes, sneaks in and out of her room. He grows fast, and in one scene, adorably asks for a little space from his adoptive mother:
He was moving out of my apartment. To tell me this, Borne had made himself small and ‘respectable’ as he called it, almost human except for too many eyes. But, really, ‘respectable’ meant he looked like a human undergoing some painful and sludgy transformation into into a terrestrial octopus with four legs instead of tentacles. This is how he presented himself to ask a favor.
It’s easy to love him, and easy to forget the extent of his monstrosity. VanderMeer’s pace is immersive (if slightly overwrought at times) and distracts from the chaotic world outside the Balcony Cliffs. He’s so good that it’s effectively terrifying when Rachel slips, unwittingly, into full motherhood furiously balancing love with regret:
[I] wanted Borne to be ‘normal’, to fit in, to be like a normal ‘boy.’ I wanted this desperately….And it struck me, too, that maybe I hadn’t kept up, that maybe it wasn’t just Borne’s physical growth that had accelerated but his mental growth, too. That, with no time to adjust, I still saw him as a child. That giant eye. That silly turret.
Outside, The Magician advances and Mord continues his carnage; in the distance, remnants from The Company seem at work on something big. The world is a familiar sort of mess: “everything everywhere collapsed. We didn’t try hard enough. We were preyed upon. We had no discipline. We didn’t try the right things at the right time. We cared but we didn’t do. Too many people, too little space.” But somehow, amidst all this defeat, hope, or something like it with tentacles, was born.