Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer is an author who defies easy categorization. His fiction is easier to describe by adjective rather than genre: strange, complex, unsettling, and yet familiar, affecting, literate. Of Annihilation, the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy (now a major motion picture starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac), science fiction icon Kim Stanley Robinson states, “This swift surreal suspense novel reads as if Verne or Wellsian adventurers exploring a mysterious island had warped through into a Kafkaesque nightmare world.” Stephen King calls his writing “creepy and fascinating.”
His novel Borne defies even those accolades. While it is full of incredible sounding implausibilities – I mean, a five story tall flying bear, for crying out loud! – it feels so very plausible. Which is maybe the scariest bit of all.
Borne is the story of Rachel, a young woman who as a child had dreamed of being a writer, but who had instead become a constant refugee after her family fled the rising waters that submerged the island nation of her birth. Years later she finds herself in an unnamed city, scavenging for food and biotech that her partner, Wick, can use to create druggish substances used for survival and trade. Wick was once an engineer with the Company that sprawls in one quadrant of the now besieged city. The Company’s role in the devastation of the planet is lost in the toxic decay and abandoned biotech that permeates the environment, yet it had created Mord, the giant flying bear that terrorizes the City, as well as other amazing and terrifying projects of which Wick knows but is unwilling to speak.
One day, while scavenging in Mord’s fur as the behemoth sleeps (for as dangerous as that is, some of the best biotech can be found lodged deep there) Rachel finds what she takes to be some kind of sea anemone, obviously engineered yet reminding her of an earlier, easier, happier time. She takes it back to her hidden complex and names it Borne, unaware of what it will become and the way it – he – will change her life and the lives of those around her.
Without plotting a direct line between a present cause to a future effect, author Jeff VanderMeer has envisioned a future world that is ravaged and brutal, where tiny red salamander fall from the sky instead of rain, and mad scientist warlords engineer feral children into monsters so as to further their own territorial agendas. And yet Rachel holds memories of a time when there were schools and days of filling notebooks with stories and poems, where her mother, a doctor, made spicy food from her homeland and her father, who was on the island’s council, would watch the sparkling lights from other islands through his telescope – until those lights bit by bit winked out. (“Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.”)
Yet Borne does not exist as a cautionary tale about the dire effects of climate change, although the meager existence that Rachel has come to know cannot be anything but a rebuke to our current stand-off mindset. This is a story, first and foremost, set in a place that Rachel has accepted as how it is, not as what-it-could-be. This is what lets the story soar, in that it exists in this place and time, for better or worse. Well, no, for worse, let’s not sugarcoat things. There will be no miracle recoveries in Rachel’s world.
But the thing is – there can be more than mere acceptance. Others have called Borne more “hopeful” than other Jeff VanderMeer books, but I don’t find it hopeful. Instead, I find it more open to beauty, capable of seeing beyond the default mindset. This isn’t unique to Mr. VanderMeer’s current work, but it is, perhaps, closer to its heart.
One of my favorite passages is when Rachel takes Borne to the balcony of her concealed lodging, allowing him to “see” outside for the first time. She is taken aback when he is taken by surprise, and lets her know that he finds it beautiful.
The killing thing, the thing I couldn’t ever get over, is that it was beautiful. It was so incredibly beautiful, and I’d never seen that before. In the strange dark sea-blue of late afternoon, the river below splashing in lavender, gold, and orange up against the numerous rock islands and their outcroppings of trees . . . the river looked amazing. The Balcony Cliffs in that light took on a luminous color that was almost black but not, almost blue but not, the jutting shadows solid and cool.
Borne didn’t know it was all deadly, poisonous, truly disgusting. Maybe it wasn’t, to him. Maybe he could have swum in that river and come out unscathed. Maybe, too, I realized right then in that moment that I’d begun to love him. Because he didn’t see the world like I saw the world. He didn’t see the traps. Because he made me rethink even simple words like disgusting or beautiful.
That was the moment I knew I’d decided to trade my safety for something else. That was the moment. And no matter what happened next, I had crossed over into another place, and the question wasn’t who I should trust but who should trust me.
Life doesn’t get easier for Rachel. In fact, it gets much harder, because when the world is falling apart, life falls apart with it. Grim things happen in this book, chilling things, disquieting things. There is a terrible sense of isolation for Rachel, in that she cannot take anything for granted – not the landscape she ghosts in, the people she meets, the purpose that seems to propel her forward; not even Wick, not even Borne. Maybe especially not even Borne.
But Rachel’s isolation is braced against a fear of discovery – her refuge, her lost memories, of what Wick is hiding, of what every corner, every shadow, every encounter might bring. To expose yourself is to put yourself in danger, in body, mind and especially in heart. So where does one draw the line?
That there is anything of grace or of humor in this world – and both do exist – is a dichotomy that makes this book not only readable, but incredibly compelling. And that’s not even taking into account giant flying bears and frilly, trilling sea anemones who grow into full blown characters of their own. Indeed, while Borne may not be easy to put in a neat and convenient category, it is eminently readable and highly, highly satisfying.