“Borne” is the past participle of the verb “[to] bear”, which means to carry or transport, as in a weight or burden. You can say, “the tide bore the seaweed away”, or “the seaweed was borne away by the tide”. Whereas “born”, without the “e”, is to give birth to. Once the meaning of the one-word title is clear, everything in Borne, Jeff VanderMeer’s latest Science Fiction novel, falls into place. “Borne” is a little thing when the narrator, “Rachel”, finds him on one of her scavenging trips, looking for biotech in a ruined metropolis. He (or it – the question is whether Borne is human) looks like a small, pulsing tube with tendrils, and feathery hair, like a sea anemone. So, she bears him home – she has borne him – realizing right away that she feels some responsibility for him. And there the trouble begins.
If you’ve read Troll, by Johanna Sinisalo, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien, or the fantasy series Percy Jackson & the Olympians, by Rick Riordan, you’ll recognize the classic Quest narrative structure which depicts the dangers of bringing home an object found on a quest. Whether it’s a small troll, an Old Master painting, a ring, a thunderbolt or a “Borne”, the more you want it, chances are the more trouble it will cause. In fact, it’s to be expected in this novel, right from the title on the front page.
Critics have labelled the book a “biotech apocalypse” novel, and it is certainly that. But I believe VanderMeer modelled it on a far older, more classical form – the Quest Fable. VanderMeer likes to mix up genres and subgenres, and in this novel he also included many Fairytale elements – and a “Bestiary” at the end with illustrations and explanations of all the imaginary creatures in the novel. However, the entire setting is in the far future, with machines and life-forms-made-into-machines that dominate the earth.
(Above: Pages from the Bestiary at the back of the novel, illustrated by Eric Nyquist. The bear is “Mord”.)
The narrator is Rachel, who, with her lover, “Wick”, has carved out a few rooms in a mountainous rubbish dump they call “Balcony Cliffs”. They live and hide out in the booby-trapped warren of spaces in a devastated city of no name. The city is like a killing field – everything is potentially lethal, from the made-and-discarded, half-alive biotech critters who live in deadly pools, to the man-made bear as huge as a mountain, called “Mord”. (“Mord” aptly meaning “murder” in German.)
“Mord rose above me, had been hiding or invisible, and the asphalt thrown into the air with the impact of him smashing his feet into the ground near us now rained down in clumps and I put up one hand to protect my face but could not stop staring. The blue sky, curiously calm, and the silence, and Mord, a huge golden-brown bear rearing up on hind legs to blot out the sky, to destroy everything from the dust motes to the sun…and me lying there looking up at that as his body extended higher still and the sky around that mass of fur burning and seething, a corona around the utter impossible smothering thickness of his fur, and there was his mighty foot raised and there were his claws and above that the sight of a paw and at an impossible height up that golden length the muzzle, the fangs, the great yellow eye, the deranged beacon, as dangerous as in my dreams.” (p. 235 – “What freedom meant”)
That’s a dense eyeful of a scene, in which the horrifying visual impact of the bear combines with Rachel’s panicky observations and awe.
VanderMeer’s imagination is prodigious. Your head fills with bright, completely convincing images of the characters and the settings: the gaseous murk that covers the city but looks so pretty at sunset, the derelict buildings with their dead and packs of mutant children, the vast wrecked oval building of the firm, “the Company”, that caused all this, dead astronauts that become wall ornaments, the sly, sweet foxes who go through walls, and the massive, man-eating bear that both guards and kills everything that lives in the city.
VanderMeer also creates a fascinating critter in Borne. What is Borne? What is Rachel to Borne? (Keeper, mother, friend?) What is Borne turning into and why doesn’t Borne poop? (Gross, but really, it is a good indicator that all is not normal with Borne.)
Like a robot or an animal becoming sentient, the process is simultaneously mesmerizing and horrifying. How do you teach such a creature what it needs to know about life, death, the universe and everything, if you yourself know only the city and your memory is patchy? The reader can almost taste the fiasco coming…it is as inevitable as the predictions contained in the titles of Rachel’s “diary entries” – as in “Where I lived, and why”, and “What I did to others and what others did to me” in the quotes, below:
“This, then, is where I had brought my sea anemone named Borne – into this cocoon, this safe haven, this vast trap that took time and precious resources to maintain, while somewhere a ticking clock kept track of the time we had left.” (p.15 – “Where I lived, and why”)
A straight-forward narrative
It is a straight-forward narrative: Wick finds Rachel wandering along the poisoned river, homeless and traumatized, and takes care of her. Rachel finds Borne. Borne grows up, while Rachel and Wick scavenge, fight, run away and survive. There are two surprise reveals – one about Rachel’s origins and another about Borne’s confrontation with Mord (but saying more than that would spoil the plot).
The most thrilling moment for me was when Borne “wakes up”. I had to read it a few times because it was just so satisfying.
“Borne stood at least half a foot taller than that afternoon, his base thicker and more robust. On the chair, he came up to my shoulders. I couldn’t see that any harm had come to him – he still had that perfect symmetry. He was beautiful in the darkness. He was powerful.
‘It’s just me,’ Borne said.
(p.35 – “What I did to others and what others did to me”)
You wait and wait and then, what does the alien life force say, for the first time ever? “It’s just me” – so placating, so meta-cognitive, so innocent. Or is it?
The invention of Borne
Borne, like Mord, is described in painterly detail, However, Borne is not one thing, but many – as deceptive as the city itself. You never know what he is going to be like when he approaches you:
“When I started back into watchfulness, there was an overpowering smell to the air, like an ancient, waveless ocean buried in its own silt and reflections. The darkness had arranged itself into something the resembled intent. The plain before me that had conveyed even in the murk the sense of its ridges now had smoothed out into a uniform glistening black layer. A kindness, really, a reminder, a memory to soothe: the tiny flashes and flickers of a thousand fireflies, like the ones on the ceiling at the Balcony Cliffs. A soft, golden blinking from the ground that wished for me to be calm.
The lip of this sea of dim twinkling light pushed up to the ledge of broken rock that flumed out from the pillar, peered in at me, inquisitive.
’Shhhhh, Rachel. It’s me.’ A familiar voice, this illusionist’s trick.”
(p.257-258 – “Who we met on the desolate plain”)
Every SF novel needs a really compelling idea, if it is to gain traction. And in this case, it is Borne. It (he?) has already been the subject of fan art, including a competition on FSG – Work in Progress. Perhaps the flowery, tentacled, feathered thing on the cover is Borne. I actually saw a man on the train drawing a copy of it on his iPad the other day. How did I imagine Borne? Not quite like any of these, but won’t CGI artists have fun with it!
The pleasure and perils of finding treasure on your quest
The real pleasure in reading the book is experiencing, through the narrator, the wonder of a remarkable, beautiful object found on a quest. The quest is ostensibly about Rachel and Wick going out to find the medicine Wick needs to stay alive – or it could be about finding this wonderful thing called Borne, that she now has and wants to keep more than anything, and that she has already killed for.
In Quest novels, sometimes it’s about a psychological discovery, sometimes about finding a physical object. Either way, all we humans have quests in our lives. As Doug Dorst, co-author of “S” (Ship of Theseus) explains:
“I wanted to try to capture a sense of wonder. I hope that there’s a lot of wonder in “S.” It’s about the wonder of discovering a book. But it’s also about the wonder of discovering another person—the wonder that comes from feeling yourself getting to this place where your life is about to change, in a big way. If “S” happens to evoke that feeling in people, that would thrill me.” (Joshua Rothman, The Story of “S”: Talking With J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, in The New Yorker, November 23, 2013, rtrvd. 2018-06-23)
I certainly had that feeling of wonder while reading Borne. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to find a little Borne one day in my garden? A little sea-anemone-ish, mushroomy thingy, coloured like a moving rainbow, and all full of tiny purple stars? Yes! Would I take him inside and feed him? Definitely, regardless of the lessons that Quest stories have taught us and the moral of the story of Borne.
More Borne stories and a possible film adaptation
In August 2017 VanderMeer released the novella The Strange Bird: A Borne Story. The stand-alone story is set in the same world as Borne but features different characters. He is also reportedly working on a story called “Three Dead Astronauts”, based on the dead astronauts mentioned in Borne. Paramount Pictures optioned the film rights to Borne even before it was published. In Oct. 2016, it was announced that, “…with the highly anticipated ‘Annihilation’ set to bow next year, Paramount is looking to stay in the Jeff VanderMeer business, as the studio has acquired the rights to his next novel ‘Borne.’ ” And why shouldn’t they? Every scene in this novel is just about ready-made for the screen.
About Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer is famous in the SF world. He has more plaudits and praise than grains in a bucket of sea sand. Go look at his website, which has a cute cat on the home page (why? no idea), and is called “Borne Central” (clever). Or go to his Twitter page. He has won loads of awards. VanderMeer has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award 14 times. 14! He won the 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel for Annihilation. And so on. Why have I not written about his books before? Because SF is filled with wonderful authors with madly creative minds and with frabjous word-mongering capabilities and there are so many that, after all these years, I am barely scraping the surface.
The “tentacles” graphic in the header design is from the cover of the Hungarian translation of Borne, published by Agave, which has the tagline on the cover: “A szörnyetegeink felett nincs többé hatalmunk” – “There are no more powers over our monsters”. Pretty apt, I’d say.