A Review of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Borne”
Jeff VanderMeer is a rarity in the science fiction field: he’s uniquely original. Wait a minute? you say. Isn’t all science fiction original in some way? Well, it seems to me that a lot of it is just regurgitated space opera junk. Fantasy, too, is just one big Lord of the Rings knock-off. VanderMeer, on the other hand, is writing material that seems like drug-induced fairy tales set in the future. That’s original. For instance, all that you might need to know about Borne, his latest novel, before surfing onto the next article in a pique of “that’s not for me!” (but I hope you stick with me here) is that it’s main antagonist is a three-stories-tall flying bear and its anti-hero cannot be categorized as a plant, animal or human, but is maybe all three things (look at the book cover included on this review for a hint). That’s original.
To me, VanderMeer is a true science fiction writer — pushing boundaries while being literary. Thus, Borne is unlike quite anything you’ve read. Like most masterpieces, this book needs to teach you how to read it as you’re reading it. That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining or hard to read. It’s just so different that it makes you feel as though you really are trying something new.
Borne is about that plant/animal/person, who is initially found on the backside of the flying bear (named Mord) by a woman called Rachel during a scavenger run in a dystopian city state where much of the city has been reduced to rubble. Mord controls the city, and the bear is biotech created by the Company. It’s unclear whether the Company is still really running the show from its rundown headquarters, but a human named the Magician, who may have worked for the Company, is trying to steal some of Mord’s thunder by trying to take over the city.
Rachel takes the thing she’s found back to the abandoned apartment building complex that she shares with her lover Wick, and soon begins to nurture what she calls Borne as she would a human child. Borne, meanwhile, starts to grow and even talk. Wick, on the other hand, is not amused, thinking that Borne is evil biotech spawned by the Company — something he suspects is true because while Borne will feed on certain things (lizards, mostly), nothing is excreted from his system.
Thus, this sets up a rather challenging three-way love story: the love a woman has for her “child,” and the love a woman has for her man. As with any human baby entering a family fresh and new, tensions arise between the “mother” and “father” once the child is born. At this level, Borne is perhaps a metaphor for family dysfunction. That’s where the novel largely fails as entertainment, as much as it is entertaining.
Because there’s so much friction between Rachel and Wick over Borne — we never see how the two humans met until the end of the novel (it’s a spoilerific secret) — the novel can be gritty and tough to find enjoyment out of. Meanwhile, Borne’s clownish antics early on, before he grows into an “adult,” are exhilarating and creative. The relationship between Borne and Rachel is a treasure — but the relationship with Wick and Rachel is exhausting. Anytime that Borne is out taking a coffee break and Wick is on the scene, a reader’s impulse may be to skip forward a handful of pages (though don’t do that, or you might miss an important plot point).
VanderMeer has a specific interest in biotechnology, and this bears fruit in Borne — not just in terms of the titular creation itself. This is a novel about good intentions gone bad, and how a single corporation can control human destiny. The Company has created virtually everything in the city, from “alcohol minnows” that you get drunk from eating to, possibly, mutant children whose only purpose is to maim or kill (or worse). We know that Wick was a Company man, but we don’t know how dependent he still is on the Company itself — or even vice-versa, perhaps. In this sense, VanderMeer is making a subtle comment on our need for everything we eat or consume to come from a corporate source. The novel subtly asks, “Are our food and cosmetics genetically modified or engineered to an effect where the harm they cause outweigh the benefits? Can they transform us as humans?”
Aside from the Rachel-Wick bickering, which reaches its apex about halfway through the novel, I did find Borne to be immensely mesmerizing. I know why Rachel and Wick fight, and what VanderMeer was trying to do there, but it’s still a tough slog. (Perhaps, it may have been helpful to have seen Rachel and Wick being more of a loving couple at the very outset, as the novel begins with the discovery of Borne, because, during the book, one wonders why Rachel bothers with Wick since she’s constantly fighting him. Other than for the means of co-dependency or survival, which both don’t seem like very good reasons given the extent that they argue over whether or not Borne is on the side of good or evil as a living organism, why does Rachel stick with Wick? Personally, I was getting ready to throw a shoe at Wick many times during my reading of Borne. Yes, I sided with Rachel — as the novel seems to want you to do.)
If you can overlook the custody battle of sorts that looms over Borne, the novel is dazzling, brilliant and wholly inventive. VandeerMeer sort of reminds me of an early Jonathan Lethem except without Lethem’s angst over the loss of a mother figure. Maybe there’s even a hint of Jeff Noon thrown into the mix here, too. That said, Borne is really unique. With this book (and possibly his others, which I haven’t read), VanderMeer is truly trudging his own path with machete in hand through the jungles of science fiction. This is a book worth reading, if you can get past all the unpleasant in-fighting between characters. Borne is a little like Station Eleven amped up to the max, and makes that book look like a walk in the park, which is truly an amazing feat because of how dark and hopeless its setting was. I know Borne will linger with me. Besides, any book with a flying bear in it can’t be a bad thing, can it?
Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on April 25, 2017.
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