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.
Wick is a special kind of supplier, because the drug dealers in the city don’t sell the usual things. They sell tiny creatures that can be swallowed or stuck in the ear, and that release powerful memories of other people’s happier times or pull out forgotten memories from the user’s own mind—or just produce beautiful visions that provide escape from the barren, craterous landscapes of the city.
Against his better judgment, out of affection for Rachel or perhaps some other impulse, Wick respects her decision. Rachel, meanwhile, despite her loyalty to Wick, knows he has kept secrets from her. Searching his apartment, she finds a burnt, unreadable journal titled “Mord,” a cryptic reference to the Magician (a rival drug dealer) and evidence that Wick has planned the layout of the Balcony Cliffs to match the blueprint of the Company building. What is he hiding? Why won’t he tell her about what happened when he worked for the Company?
I reread Borne by Jeff VanderMeer this week, and I realize that I never wrote a review the first time. I have some fresh thoughts on it, especially since I have read other VanderMeer novels between reads. The basic concept that continues to come up in review of Borne is that it is such a weird book. Rachel and Wick live in an abandoned apartment complex in a city with no name. In the shadows of the city are scavengers, biotech animals, altered kids, and a huge kaiju bear named Mord who is seen as an object to worship by some but an animal to fear by others. All of this has happened under the gaze of The Company, a biotech firm that came to the city, made a bunch of mistakes that they literally threw out the window into a wasteland, and eventually folded. These mistakes live on. Rachel finds a little blob that in the beginning looks like a sea urchin or a vase, depending on how he looks. She names him Borne. Borne grows and grows, and while he is young, he wants to learn things, but after a short period of time, he wants his independence. All of this is mistrusted by Wick and eventually by Rachel as well.
It is simple to call this a weird book and just write it off. There are many things in Borne that are consistent, like the paranoia of Wick and Rachel in a world where nothing is safe. Not only do they have to deal with scavengers and looters, an economy that does not exist beyond bartering for goods, and being hungry and thirsty all of the time, they also have a huge bear flying through the air and destroying things. This constant anxiety and worry makes it easy for Rachel to invite Borne into their little family, even though she does not know where he came from or why he is here. She just knows she has found something to enjoy in a grueling, troublesome life, even if it is no good for her.
VanderMeer thinks a great deal about the world, about humans and cities and how they effect nature and animals. Humans versus nature is a consistent theme in his works, and the world that he builds in Borne is nearly post-human but with the wreckage that humans have left. There is more mention of other animals, plants, water, and nature reclaiming the city (including a huge flying bear) than other humans. Unfortunately with this reclamation of the city with no name by nature, the humans, particularly the Company, have left a huge stamp on everything, regardless of how long ago the Company left, a stamp that will never disappear completely.
I love Jeff VanderMeer and his writing. I powered through this novel in two days, and by the end, I was just as exhausted as the characters. There are always so many things about the way VanderMeer constructs his worlds that he leaves you with a headful of thoughts. This fits firmly in his growing canon of novels about the ecosystems and humans needing to work harder to preserve them.