In an unspecified future, a nameless city lies in ruins, wrecked by an unscrupulous biotech firm known simply as “the Company” and terrorized by a giant bear named Mord. The Company created Mord to protect itself from the chaos it sowed beyond its walls, but Mord has grown so powerful that he owes allegiance to no one. The great bear now lords over the city like a god, taller than buildings, monstrous in size and appetite. Mord is violence and rage and bloodlust incarnate, a murderer: he kills capriciously, he kills at will, he kills without consequence. And Mord can fly.
The mind boggles at the thought of such a horror brought to life, but Mord is only one of the many fantastic creations to spring from VanderMeer’s inspired imagination. The city is filled with Company biotech—beetles and worms and minnows and countless other creatures less recognizable, each broken down and reassembled or created bespoke for purposes other than nature intended. Amazing as this biotech seems, much of it was cast off by the Company—what Rachel, our protagonist, calls “the dregs” of the vaunted R&D laboratories, cheaper to dump into the city than to destroy, while the Company’s true marvels were shipped elsewhere. In the cold calculus of profit and loss, failed investments are worthless, even if they produce living organisms. The fact that some of the abandoned biotech is sentient, perhaps even intelligent, never gave the Company pause.
Rachel lives by a different arithmetic, scavenging in the broken city for food and biotech salvage. Survival is all that matters in her reckoning of the ruined world. “The first rule,” she tells us, “the only rule, is that you carry your safety with you the best you can—you protect yourself the best you can, and you have that right.” Sometimes that means a wary truce between scavengers, sometimes cooperation. Sometimes it means killing. But only in self-defense, not the way Mord kills. Not murder. Never that. Despite all she has lost—her parents, her memories of how she came to the city, her hope for a life that is more than a struggle to survive—Rachel still seeks to preserve her humanity.
Like everyone in the city, Rachel depends on Mord as much as she fears him. Wherever he wanders, Rachel and other scavengers follow, seeking the treasures that become tangled in his fur when he retreats into his lair in the Company building. Sometimes, Rachel tells us, Mord’s bounty falls from him to be easily collected; other times, Rachel and her fellow scavengers must climb onto the beast while he is sleeping and steal away with whatever they can before he wakes.
On one such expedition, Rachel finds a piece of biotech she has never seen before: a small, purple creature that looks like a cross between a sea anemone and a squid. The sight of the creature triggers in Rachel strong memories of her childhood on a faraway island, long before she came to the city, before the world fell into ruin. The emotions evoked by these memories are so powerful that Rachel can’t resist picking up the creature as salvage, though she has no idea what it might be. A moment later, impulsively, she names it “Borne.”
Of course, Borne is more than it—he—appears to be. Not a plant, as Rachel first mistakenly believes, but an intelligent, shape-shifting creature that defies classification. Borne is mobile, omnivorous, curious, and insatiable—and once he learns to communicate verbally, he even displays a sense of humor.
None of this is comforting to Wick, Rachel’s survival partner and lover. Wick is suspicious of Borne from the first moment, and not without reason. Wick knows a thing or two about biotech, having worked for the Company many years ago, before being thrown out in the aftermath of a failed project. Now Wick makes his own biotech in a converted swimming pool hidden in the depths of the abandoned, half-buried apartment building where he and Rachel live. He immediately identifies Borne as something made by the Company, but in order to discover Borne’s true nature and purpose, he must “break it down into its parts.” Rachel refuses. She has inexplicably developed motherly affections toward Borne—a strong desire to nurture and protect him.
The story that unfolds between Rachel, Borne, and Wick is a narrative hybrid as unexpected and intriguing as Borne himself. What begins as a grim tale of survival in a broken world morphs into a surprisingly endearing coming-of-age story as Borne grows and learns in Rachel’s care. The world outside Rachel and Wick’s hidden, fortified home is no less dangerous, but for a time Rachel takes solace in the bond she forms with Borne, and in having a purpose beyond mere survival.
But Borne’s childhood can’t last. The playful innocence Rachel sees in him is not innocence at all, but a form of miscommunication. Rachel doesn’t understand that Borne’s intelligence is different from human intelligence in ways unimaginable to her. His ability to speak her language does not mean he experiences the world the way humans do, or thinks as we do. Rachel believes she can teach Borne to be a person—not human, certainly, but to act in accordance with human values, to mimic the best of human nature, to be “good.” The possibility that Borne’s own nature might not align with those values doesn’t occur to Rachel until long after Borne has outgrown her lessons.
If you’re worried Mord the flying murder bear doesn’t get his due while Rachel’s interspecies-adoption drama plays out, rest assured that he casts an appropriately long shadow over the novel: the backdrop to the Rachel-Borne-Wick story is an escalating conflict between Mord and a human called the Magician, who is using biotech of her own devising to wage a guerrilla war against the Company for control of the city.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Borne would never get off the ground. VanderMeer, who deservedly ascended to the best-seller lists in 2014 with his award-winning Southern Reach trilogy, and who co-edited with his wife, Ann, last year’s aptly named The Big Book of Science Fiction (see the rave review elsewhere on this site, here and here), sends the story aloft effortlessly with a deft touch and haunting, beautiful prose. The page-turning plot gathers momentum and urgency without overshadowing its characters or shortchanging the author’s philosophical questions about the nature of intelligence, what it means to be a person, and whether it is possible overcome the worst parts of our nature.
These are important questions to consider, especially now, as we rush headlong into our own real-life biotech revolution, seemingly unconcerned, as always, that we are preying on the future for our present contentments. There are no easy answers, and VanderMeer doesn’t suggest otherwise. “Survival isn’t pretty,” Rachel tells Borne during his coming of age. Borne, who already understands this painful truth, counters with an idealism too often in short supply in our world: “Yes, I know what you mean,” he says. “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way” would make a fitting tag line for the novel, and for post-apocalyptic literature in general. But for all its grim visions of a world undone by human greed, arrogance, and ignorance, Borne never lectures. The story’s optimism, tempered by chaos, violence, and fear, is earned, not taken for granted. This makes the novel a rare treasure, like Borne himself; it never gives up on the hope that things can change for the better.
Jeff VanderMeer, Borne. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017.