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Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
4.5
Book Name: Borne
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Publisher(s): MCD (US) Fourth Estate (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Science Fantasy, Literary, New Weird
Release Date: April 25, 2017 (US) June 15, 2017 (UK)

Looking at the list of genres above, it’s clear that I had difficulties categorizing Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. But I suppose that is what the New Weird is all about. Although there is some disagreement over the precise nature of the genre, it seems to be a sort of mashing together of speculative elements to produce a setting and story that are unsettling and discomfiting while also presenting that story in a literary fashion. It’s an odd and heady mix that kept me riveted, even as elements in the story both beautiful and horrifying.

Borne takes place in a ruined neighborhood located in the middle of a devastated world. There is talk of the world changing due to climate change, a slow but inevitable descent. But in this neighborhood, the changes came faster and carried more consequence. Because at the heart of this neighborhood sits the Company, which intentionally released its biotech into the streets, an experiment with no controls. Mord, a Godzilla-sized flying bear, is the most extreme example. The Company’s headquarters is now a wreck, cracked open like an egg, its contents spilling and spreading, both good and bad. And the only three named humans in this book—Rachel, Wick, and the Magician—all must find ways to survive among the miracles and madness.

After all, the biotech is like any other technology, really: capable of being used for good or bad; it’s a constant threat and a valuable tool for survival. Mord, his vicious proxies, and children bearing claws and carapaces are constant dangers to Rachel and Wick. But there are also worms that can diagnose illness and injury from inside your body, beetles that deliver new memories when consumed, minnows that dissolve on your tongue into an alcoholic cloud, and medicinal pills in the shape of small nautilus shells. This is a bizarre, utterly foreign, and frightening playground for VanderMeer to explore and develop. And I loved the journey—like walking through an avant-garde museum that is also a shocking haunted house.

But if all Borne had going for it was the setting and weird creatures, it wouldn’t be enough to earn the rating it did. For me, what really makes this book stand out is watching the characters respond to the world, react to the world, and determining how they will survive amid this haunted, damaged world.

Rachel is a scavenger, searching for useful things in the wake of Mord’s destruction. It’s how she finds Borne. She’s an explorer, curious yet cautious, perhaps the result of a lesson from her refugee childhood, spent fleeing her home island as the waters rose and swallowed it. And perhaps those familiar memories cause her to become a surrogate mother to Borne, protecting him, feeding him, teaching him. She provides Borne with a home—something that she lacked.

Wick is the neighborhood drug dealer, the mad scientist, the recluse, and Rachel’s part time lover. He’s a former Company man still providing the neighborhood with his biotech creations that he fashions from what Rachel brings him. But he avoids the world that Rachel explores. He has retreated far into the heart of his booby-trapped apartment building. Perhaps he knows just how little power he has, so he works to create something new, something to give him an edge over the world and those in it. To Wick, Borne is both a potential resource and a potential threat. In Wick’s eyes, Borne is better taken apart and re purposed before he becomes a new Mord. When Rachel refuses to hand Borne over, their relationship becomes frayed—it’s one more thing he can’t control or exercise dominion over.

The Magician is a rival drug dealer and another Company worker. Unlike Wick, she doesn’t hide. Unlike Rachel, she doesn’t want to explore but conquer. She gathers followers and turns them into monsters that serve as her enforcers. She gathers weapons and threatens Mord. It doesn’t matter if this neighborhood is a fetid, radioactive, poisonous mountain of trash. To the Magician, all that matters is who sits atop it.

But Borne is the most amazing part of this book—VanderMeer’s most impressive creation in this small world. Borne is a small creature that looks like a mix of sea anemone and squid, vaguely vase-shaped and capable of emitting lights and smells. But he doesn’t stay small. He grows, physically and mentally into something strange, curious, protean, powerful, and even threatening. As he learns more about who or what he is and what he is capable of, that learning and curiosity upends everyone and everything around him. He is undoubtedly the most bizarre, the most foreign, and most frightening aspect of this book.

Borne is unique, and so alien, so nonhuman. He doesn’t view the world the same way people do, so he acts according to different rules, different norms. And yet VanderMeer is able to transform Borne the “it” to Borne the “him”. Like Rachel, readers will be curious about Borne, about how he learns and grows, how he consumes everything with perfect efficiency. It’s only later that we realize not only were we being manipulated by VanderMeer’s skill but also some of Borne’s abilities. Maybe he is not the sweet, curious E.T.-like creature. Maybe there is something a bit more vicious hidden in Borne. Maybe he is not progressing from child to teen to adult but simply growing into a more subtle and dangerous monster. As Rachel repeatedly asks Borne, “Are you a person or a weapon?”

Borne carries echoes of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (the first volume of which, Annihilation, has been made into a movie that will come out later this month). Both stories describe an infected world, and the agent of infection is something that shouldn’t be, can’t be, yet is. In the Southern Reach, a bit of territory has been taken over by an unknowable force that is erasing all signs of humanity, returning it to a pure, primordial nature (of a sort). In Borne, a neighborhood is in ruins because of radical biotechnology run amok. In both worlds, the rules as we know them have been bent, torn, broken, and reassembled. Humans struggle to understand, adapt, live alongside that vector of infection, knowing that at any point, it might be their doom.

By all accounts, this book shouldn’t work. It’s about an anemone-shaped creature that grows up in a neighborhood ravaged by a skyscraper-sized flying bear. But yet it not only works, it’s also beautifully and skillfully told. That’s quite a feat. I get drawn into VanderMeer’s novels, and Borne is no exception. No matter the twist, the scare, the horror, I can’t put down his beautiful, fascinating books. It’s no wonder that here at Fantasy-Faction, we chose Borne as one of the best fantasy books of 2017.

Borne is a strange book, yes. But for all its uncanny and horrific contents, it is also quite beautiful, startling, shocking, and compelling. It’s also a great introduction to VanderMeer’s fiction, if you’re not willing to commit to the Southern Reach trilogy. And if you want an even briefer introduction, VanderMeer also wrote a novella that takes place in the world of Borne, The Strange Bird.

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