In a ruined, nameless city of the future, a woman named Rachel, who makes her living as a scavenger, finds a creature she names “Borne” entangled in the fur of Mord, a gigantic, despotic bear. Mord once prowled the corridors of the biotech organization known as the Company, which lies at the outskirts of the city, until he was experimented on, grew large, learned to fly and broke free. Driven insane by his torture at the Company, Mord terrorizes the city even as he provides sustenance for scavengers like Rachel.
At first, Borne looks like nothing at all—just a green lump that might be a Company discard. The Company, although severely damaged, is rumoured to still make creatures and send them to distant places that have not yet suffered Collapse.
Borne somehow reminds Rachel of the island nation of her birth, now long lost to rising seas. She feels an attachment she resents; attachments are traps, and in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet when she takes Borne to her subterranean sanctuary, the Balcony Cliffs, Rachel convinces her lover, Wick, not to render Borne down to raw genetic material for the drugs he sells—she cannot break that bond.
It’s taken me a while to figure out how to review this book because it’s just so very strange and wonderful and it has a lot to say but I’m not entirely sure all the time of what exactly that is. But it’s a book that made me think and for that, I love it.
I’ll be honest–I’m not that smart. A lot of times when I read more literary types of books like this one, I feel like a lot of the themes go right over my head. And that’s probably true here too, but one thing that rings through very clear in this story is the author’s feelings about the natural world and the environment. Here’s an imagined future where the seas have risen and the natural world has been invaded by bio-engineered creatures. What exactly has caused the disaster that has led to the destruction of civilization and the decline of humanity isn’t super clear–but it feels as if it wasn’t any one thing but rather a culmination of bad decisions made over time that have led to this inevitable conclusion. I think one of the other themes is humanity, represented here by Rachel. She finds Borne, a small blob of biotech, and raises him like her child, teaches him, loves him. Borne is not human. He’s the furthest thing from human. And yet Rachel tries to teach him to be human, to varying degrees of success. Rachel and Borne’s relationship is the heart of this book.
Like I said, there’s a lot about this story that I just don’t get, but that’s okay because I still had a great time reading it! It’s so very strange. And the strange things are my jam. I keep asking how did humanity get to where its at where Rachel and Wick live near The Company? Things seemed somewhat ‘normal’ in Rachel’s childhood flashbacks. Normal except a mostly broken down society decaying fast. But there are things that just don’t make sense in Rachel and Wick’s time in the present. The whole mythology around Mord and even Mord himself. Some kind of giant bear god that comes now and then and causes destruction among the remaining people. Also that things like Borne are just accepted. He’s just a blob. And then he grows and changes into….everything. The world itself is weird, as is society and the way Rachel and Wick live. But the strangest things may just be how they accept this weirdness and are so unruffled by it. What happened in this world?
This book put me very much in mind with Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It’s tough not to compare the two since they are similar in some ways–post apocalyptic stories featuring genetic engineering gone wrong. I will say that one thing I loved about Borne compared to Atwood’s series is that there’s more humor and whimsy. If you follow VanderMeer on social media at all you probably won’t be surprised by the humor in this book because it seems to be so much a part of his personality. It’s a great balance to rather serious nature of the world he’s presented us with here. VanderMeer also presents us with more questions and mystery–he’s not an author that hands you answers on a silver platter. Even when he does give you answers, they’re not necessarily the answers you want and also leave you with more questions in the end.
Overall, I thought this was a really great read, even if I probably didn’t get it all the time. It’s a book I’m still thinking about even after a month after reading it, so that has to count for something. I also loved how much heart this weird little story had to it. 4.5/5 stars.