A ruined city of the future lives in fear of a despotic, gigantic flying bear, driven mad by the tortures inflicted on him by the Company, a mysterious biotech firm. A scavenger, Rachel, finds a creature entangled in his fur. She names it Borne.
At first, Borne looks like nothing at all; a green lump that might be a discard from the Company. But he reminds Rachel of her homeland, an island nation long lost to rising seas, and she prevents her lover, Wick, from rendering down Borne as raw genetic material for the special kind of drugs he sells.
But nothing is quite the way it seems: not the past, not the present, not the future. If Wick is hiding secrets, so is Rachel – and Borne most of all. What Rachel finds hidden deep within the Company will change everything and everyone. There, lost and forgotten things have lingered and grown. What they have grown into is mighty indeed.
Jeff VanderMeer, perhaps now best known as an anthologist in collaboration with Ann VanderMeer and for his Southern Reach trilogy, has produced a strange new novel, Borne.
VanderMeer’s very public concerns with environmental issues and his approach to humanity’s impact on the world, so evident in The Southern Reach, are doubled down on in Borne: this isn’t a novel of climate change as it will be, but a blended mix of the metaphorical – strange, experimental creatures, wrecked cities ruled over by biotech, a ruined world, and a skyscraper-sized flying bear – and the literal: climate refugees, rising sea levels, poverty and chaos. VanderMeer uses these elements in Rachel’s past and present to create his world, his strange, slightly off-kilter world, with its secrets and lies and dangers, and brings home with it the consequences of climate change in making our world unrecognisably strange to all of us.
The story of Borne doubles down on that; it’s essentially in two parts, although VanderMeer divides it into three. The first part is that in which Rachel finds, and arguably raises, the creature she finds while scavenging in the city, which she names Borne; and the complexities that doing so, and that life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, involve. The second part comes out of a distinct break that happens at the end of this first part (or rather, the first two parts); it would be, unfortunately, rather a severe spoiler to discuss specifics. Borne marries the two parts together well and keeps a singular narrative voice throughout, with Rachel remaining Rachel; VanderMeer’s real strength is that the plot of the is for the most part barely a plot, in terms of actual dramatic events, and a lot of time is spent in emotional reflection and personal introspection, but VanderMeer writes this well, rather better than most literary fiction writers. Those points when he does put in moments of hard action, including combat and dramatic elements of Rachel’s explorations, are fast and brutal; Borne treats its violence much like its sex, as something to be included but not pornographised, to be discussed from the emotional, more than physical, aspects.
The core of the book is questions about personhood, and what being a person means; Borne therefore relies on its characters. There are really only three proper characters in the whole thing, plus a number of background individuals who appear and disappear; our narrator, Rachel, her fellow survivor and partner, Wick, and the strange being Borne. Each is approached very differently as a character, even while they’re only seen through Rachel’s eyes, because she views them each very differently, and the consequences of that are fascinating. Part of that is about VanderMeer’s view of character: rather than being a solipsistic thing, Borne treats character as centred on relationships between people. How one treats and is treated by others defines one, in this metric; for a time, Rachel is thrust into a position of not being around anyone else, and becomes essentially an unperson, in a fascinating way, and the development of Borne especially is so shaped by Rachel and Wick that it’s a fascinating way to raise children.
In the end, Borne has a similar kind of approach to weird and environmental themes as Southern Reach, but a very different approach to narrative itself; and VanderMeer proves his versatility by continuing to carry it off excellently.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.
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