- Genre: New Weird/Science Fiction/Biopunk
- Pages: 336
- My rating: 8.5/10
Jeff Vandermeer’s new creation, or concoction, requires so much explaining that I don’t know where to start. I will try to give a brief description of what is only the setup: we are in a city that I presume is somewhere along the coast of California. A biotech company has lost control of one of its bio-engineered creations: a giant floating radioactive bear the size of Godzilla, named Mord. The bear has ravaged the city and knows how to levitate in the air, and by night it nests in the ruins of the Company’s campus. Many of the other bio-engineered creatures of the Company get lost in its fur at night, and fall into the city by day when the bear floats over it.
Rachel is a scavenger in the city and finds a small purple pulsating anemone in the bear’s fur and brings it home to her boyfriend Wick, who is a bio-engineering drug dealer. The anemone stays in their hidden warren of a home and grows into something extraordinary. Now, any other writer would have spent large paragraphs in infodumps to explain all of this, but Vandermeer very neatly unfolds all of this in the background of the text while also describing Rachel’s character and her relationship with Wick and how their living area mirrors their own psychological state at the same time.
The text is very economical and evocative at the same time; very dense in its explaining power. And Vandermeer creates a world that is shockingly strange but feels real and dangerous too. There is a completeness of vision behind Borne where the characters, their relationships and their surroundings click together. It has the biopunk inventiveness of Paul McAuley’s Fairyland and the imaginative strangeness of China Mieville’s Railsea. But its emotional core is stronger than both of these novels.
Borne is also one giant allegory for motherhood. On the basis of it, this story is a variation on that of the unusual creature that enters someone’s life and plays a personal role in that person’s development, like The Iron Giant, My Neighbor Totoro or Lilo & Stitch. But Borne grows up, gets in between Rachel and Wick, and learns from Rachel. The post-apocalyptic world outside is dangerous, and Rachel gets upset when Borne moves out to live next-door ( ‘cause Borne also needs his privacy). We move through all these parenting stages with her. I suppose Jeff Vandermeer approached his wife Ann and suggested: what if I write a book about a mother with some kind of cute alien baby?
For a biopunk novel full of weird organisms in a post-apocalyptic world, this is a very personal and heartfelt story. Vandermeer dives deeply into his main character Rachel’s emotions and especially her connection with Borne, the anemone that grows into something like a child to Rachel. I was worried at first that the creature Borne would be presented as too unbelievable, too cute, too much like some kind of imaginary fantasy of a super creature that can do all kinds of things, and Vandermeer does not totally avoid that trap. Borne is all big eyes and colors and cute speak to the point that this became rather childish, but the idea that Borne is a designed, bioengineered organism makes it more acceptable, and his interactions with Rachel are also very charming.
Thoughtful and moody, Vandermeer goes to great length to describe the feel of this world that he creates. Very similar to his Southern Reach trilogy, Borne is full of wandering people, making observations of the mood of the place. It even has a woman who describes herself as a ghost with a fascination for tidal pools, a nameless mysterious company, a landscape deformed by a new ecology. And like Annihilation and its sequels, it even becomes an exploration of inhuman sentient life and how we might interact with that.
Borne does not recreate that same frisson of spookiness of Annihilation and repeats quite a few of its themes, but it does have a much stronger emotional heart. I wished though that Vandermeer spent more time designing a plot and would show more than tell us what is happening. The story drags at times, but the inventiveness and completeness of its vision is very impressive.