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Archive for May 23rd, 2017

Review: Borne

May 23rd, 2017 | Category: Opinions

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer is one of his most unsettling and endearing novels; it has the brutal edginess of some of his earlier work, but also a nuanced softness to draw in readers who might not otherwise go for Weird fiction. Borne has its monsters, biotech abominations, hideous children surgically given vicious claws, the soft skin of their throats replaced with reptilian scales, anything to make them better killers that don’t end up prey to worse killers. See, the world has collapsed, no governments, no countries even, just cities and land, nameless decaying cities sitting on decaying bits of land. We kind of know the hows; climate change, war, pollution, the explosion of biotech. Biotech was supposed fix everything, but the minds behind the technology decayed just like everything else.

Borne’s story is told by Rachel, a scavenger in a place its inhabitants simply call, the city. Nobody is alive from “before” to know what the now useless maps used to label the place. The city is blessed, but mostly cursed by biotech that was birthed in the labs of the Company. When the Company realized that the city was beyond help, and hope, they simply started releasing their creations into the field. Creations like Mord, a ten-story tall bio-engineered grizzly bear of near-human intelligence… with the ability to fly. Though, somewhere along the way, that intelligence turned to madness. Mord’s original purpose was to protect the Company, but once again, decay stepped in;, it touched Mord, his mind, his purpose. He went rogue, smashing, tormenting, ruling the city through his deranged whims. Rachel is a scavenger for a former Company technician, Wick, her business partner, friend, sometimes lover. One day, while climbing a napping Mord, searching for the rich salvage that’s often tangled in his fur, she finds a… thing. It looks like some sort of sea anemone crossed with a squid that in sum looks kind of like a bizarre vase. It makes a humming sound and smells of the oceans of “before.” Its color shifts from purple to blue to sea green, Rachel has to have it. She is pretty sure it is biotech, and Wick is certain that it’s Company-related and potentially dangerous. Wick wants to cut it up and figure out what it is, what it was created to do, but Rachel makes a decision that will change their lives utterly. She decides to keep it, she even feels protective of it. The “it” soon becomes a “he,” and he is Borne. A sentient, funny, child-like, intelligent, caring person, who isn’t a human being. That’s one of the first things Rachel decides to teach Borne, that he’s a person. She raises him as her own, tries to teach him the lessons all parents hope to teach their children, especially right from wrong. Only later does she realize that while she feels certain that deep down Borne is a good person capable of finding a good purpose, he might also be a very dangerous person.

Borne is the sort of novel that can’t be neatly tucked into this or that genre, which is why it feels so accessible. I think just about anybody can pick up and enjoy it; there’s sci-fi, there’s grit and violence, there’s elements of modern Weird fiction, but ultimately it’s a story of people trying to be a family in a world that may no longer allow such fragile things to exist. It’s about the relationship between a mother and her child, a child who may have been created to be a monster, or simply a being with a morality that is suited for a monstrous world. Is it wrong to love him? Is it wrong to want him to be safe? To be happy? Through Rachel and Borne we get to examine such concepts, such questions.

The novel is also a true testament to VanderMeer’s skill toward world-building. Mord is a GIANT bio-engineered flying bear, yet nothing about him seems false, or overdone, or hokey. Mord feels as real and as serious as a heart attack. Borne is this anemone squid vase thing with multiple eye-stalks, whose shape and color can change at will, yet one never doubts the reality of his existence, nor does one ever doubt his personhood. The ability to create such characters and make them feel absolutely real shows a total confidence in one’s use of craft, confidence that in VanderMeer’s case, is not at all misplaced.

Borne is a must-read novel, one that will endure because it touches on questions almost everyone asks themselves at one time or another; Why do I exist? Why am I here?

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