In a recent stimulating dialogue with Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer lays out the raison d’être or motivating impulse behind his new novel, Borne, in crystalline, rational fashion: “I’m definitely thinking in terms of fabulist fiction this time around, but I’m also interested in the moral/ethical questions involved with biotech, against a backdrop of a scarcity scenario. I think that’s what’s beginning to play out now in the world, and I wanted to approach the present through the future in a more direct way than I was able to in the Southern Reach books.”
Summaries like this work well as signposts to the author’s intent in the most abstract way, but in the case of a work like Borne, the reader is advised that a guidebook is not a safari. It’s true that Borne addresses all of those issues and more — but they are all exceeded by the organic wonders and mysteries and assorted oddities of this novel as a living, breathing work of art, one whose chief function is to deliver a sense of awe at the strange, terrible grandeur of the human imagination. In Borne, sociopolitical themes and ideas about the future give way to positively mythic dimensions.
Our first-person narrative, a tale delivered in the voice of a woman named Rachel, opens in a nameless day-after-tomorrow city, sparsely populated and composed of wreckage, detritus, abominations, and mortal danger. Rachel is a scavenger, talented, resourceful and wily, prowling the urban ruins to bring back food and barterable goods and raw biotech materials to support her and her partner, Wick, in their makeshift fortress, dubbed Balcony Cliffs. Their city is insanely ruled over — or terrorized — by an improbable creature: a building-sized implacable killer ursine named Mord — who can fly, or levitate, if you will. But from time to time, Mord comes to ground for a rest and falls asleep. At such moments, Rachel is determined to comb through the thick fur of his hill-sized flanks for any stray goodies the bear might have picked up in his depredations.
On the day in question, Rachel finds a unique treasure, like infant Moses among the reeds: the entity who will come to be known as Borne:
[A] hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form.
Taking the small, seemingly innocent creature (for which she feels an inexplicable attraction) with her back to Balcony Cliffs — where Wick views it with instant suspicion — Rachel begins a long odyssey that will take her and Wick and Borne through harrowing events, culminating in a kind of apotheosis, a Clash of the Titans, and a theurgic climax, the details of which should be reserved for the reader’s full reward.
As we follow Rachel and Wick through their everyday routines, the reader derives the jumbled, incomplete, and enigmatic back-story of their world in snatches that eventually cohere into a solid timeline. First came the Company, a massive biotech concern whose myriad creations were unleashed — either inadvertently or deliberately, or in a mix of both — without much regard for the destruction they would bring in their wake. Wick was a scientist for the Company, until they contentiously parted ways. A surviving woman now known only as the Magician was another. The Company itself is defunct. The Magician and Wick remain rivals, with the Magician ruling a different part of the city and seeking Wick’s cooperation or demise.
Rachel’s back-story is antithetical to the privileged stratum that held Wick and the Magician. An orphan of climate-change-refugee parents, she braced the Darwinian environment head-on and flourished, eventually joining forces with the older Wick. The two are currently lovers, though often bristling because of differing philosophies and goals.
Borne soon becomes the third point of their love triangle. The creature proves able to assimilate nearly anything of an organic nature, and it begins to grow and change — and to exhibit increasing intelligence. It falls to Rachel to educate her adopted child, for whom she experiences a kind of tender affection, a luxury in this savage landscape. Wick, however, remains leery of the creature — “Borne is not your friend,” he insists — suspecting it to be unknown Company tech. And as Borne grows it exhibits new capabilities, not all of them savory, Rachel is forced into a choice of allegiance that will have consequences for not only the three of them but for the fragmented world around them.
From the very first pages, VanderMeer indicates that his book is going to operate along several fruitfully interlooping axes. Mord is an impossible, surreal object in the vein of Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant.” At the same time, Mord is totally in the kaiju line, stomping across the city like Godzilla. But then, as in Richard Adams’s Shardik, VanderMeer manages to infuse Mord with the totemic power that bears have always exhibited in fable and legend. This multivalent approach — postmodern, pop-cultural, and archetypical — is sustained throughout the whole book, rendering it much richer than a text with only a univalent approach.
Borne himself harks back to the tradition of horror and body horror, from the campiness of the Blob to more shuddery modern creations. He is a kind of Lovecraftian shoggoth monster: his many eyes, studded over his amorphous body, testify to that kinship.
As for the hardcore science-fictional tropes that VanderMeer chooses deftly to employ, the lineages go deep and broad. In terms of a world shattered by Faustian biotech, one need only look to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake cycle, or Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Nanotech Quartet for resonant futures. And Rachel resembles Jack Kirby’s Kamandi as a beacon of normality in a world where normal is the minority status. The surreal aspects of the organic tech — healer worms, memory-altering earwigs — call to mind classic examples like Jeff Noon’s Vurt and China Miéville’s Bas-Lag universe. Besides the other literary ancestors cited for Borne’s makeup, one might adduce the great SF story by Damon Knight, “Four in One,” in which humans ingested by an alien continue to experience a new way of life, and Greg Bear’s Blood Music, in which a totipotent variety of protoplasm conquers all. When at one point Rachel is entirely surrounded by a protective Borne (without being assimilated), I hear a riff on the living sentient space suit symbiotes found in John Varley’s Eight Worlds cycle.
But beneath this hybrid of postmodern and hard SF narrative lies a foundation of eternal human concerns, most vibrantly the motif of family and parenting. Rachel admits that Borne is like a child to her, and she experiences all the frustrations and rewards that parenting has always brought. The rift that Borne engenders between Rachel and Wick is typical of the way marriages change when the first child is introduced. These aspects of the tale rival in magnitude any of the professed and accurate intellectual concerns that VanderMeer puts upfront in his interview.
There are other dichotomies that are richly laid out. The role of mentor (Wick the Magician) versus the role of student or protégé (Rachel, Borne). Natural versus artificial; civilization versus savagery; altruism versus selfishness; introversion versus exploratory tendencies; elder wisdom versus youthful naiveté. VanderMeer juggles these essential oppositions throughout with great zeal and flair, often using taut dialogue to make his arguments. Borne’s unique thought processes and way of speaking are a great feature of the novel.
As for the setting, VanderMeer conjures up a kind of Ballardian landscape where the tangible debris comes to represent psychical states. As a lover of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, VanderMeer envisions a similar vast redoubt — albeit underpopulated by contrast — in the form of Balcony Cliffs. More to the point might be a comparison to an overlooked cult novel publicly admired by the author: Edward Carey’s Observatory Mansions, about an allied urban structure of menace and decay.
And all of this is conveyed in language that at times evokes a fairytale ambiance.
In the middle distance, the dead plain and across it, the bear closing in and then the living blot marks of bobbing, lumbering bears that had been drawn to Borne, stragglers who were still behind him in his disguise, but not very far. Some would succumb to the last of the buried biotech that had risen; those defenses appeared like smoke, like emerald-and-azure dust with purpose. Shimmering displays that disappeared into the wind at a thin angle, then reappeared as sheets of undulating microorganisms. We had seen a bear caught in that net buckle and fall, spasmodic, jaws spread wide, as if it could not breathe. But then the net broke, the bear rose, the old defenses revealed as ghosts, the Company without dominion.
In this emotional, primal, monitory fable, which demands visual accompaniment from an artist like Jim Woodring, Jeff VanderMeer has succeeded in creating a kind of love story-cum-odyssey that shows us the power of parental love and spousal commitment when all else has come undone.
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