Rachel is a scavenger, living in a post-apocalyptic world blighted by mutated, out of control products of bio-engineering from The Company. Chief among them is Mord, a giant psychotic flying bear that terrorises the residents of the city. Rachel picks out a living at the margins of society, finding enough recoverable materials to eke out an existence, or to trade for food, water and other goods. She lives with her lover, Wick, a former Company bio-engineer who spends his time making and fixing products, trading on his expertise and skills.
One day Rachel finds a strange creature entangled in Mord’s fur. It’s an amorphous lump resembling a sea anemone. Rachel brings it home, and names it Borne. As Borne consumes he learns and grows, becoming an integral part of Rachel and Wick’s family, as well as the cause of tension between them. But Borne is also the key and the catalyst for Rachel and Wick to get to the heart of the Company’s secrets with a view to finding a way out of their marginal existence.
VanderMeer’s regular themes of environmental change and the indifference of nature to humanity are highly prevalent in Borne. The landscape in which Rachel and Wick live is a product of humanity’s actions and the damage caused by industry and uncontrolled bio-engineering. Humanity is no longer the apex predator, and the natural world is not something for it exploit in pursuit of a comfortable standard of living and convenience. Humanity must instead scratch a living in amongst the pollution and scarcity that its actions have created. Ultimately, it must learn to live in harmony with this changing world, rather than seeking to change it further or escape it.
But Borne is also a story about memory and communication and our relationships with one another. The novel is characterised by moments of misunderstanding, and the gulfs created between people by their unique histories and the difference of meaning and interpretation those lead to. Our memories are fallible and we conceal as much about ourselves as we reveal to one another, even those we are closest to. But the way we relate to one another can have profound effects. Rachel’s parenting and raising of Borne shapes his world-view. The ultimate blank canvas, he absorbs his values and view of the world from her and those ultimately come to guide his actions.
Jeff VanderMeer is one of my favourite writers of speculative fiction and I’ve been following his career with interest, ever since I picked up City of Saints and Madmen many years ago. Always with a literary touch, he reveals deep truths about people and our relationships with each other and the world we live in. Borne is another jewel he has added to the crown of genre fiction.
Goodreads rating: 5*