Review: Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff Vandermeer is probably best known for his Southern Reach Trilogy, which I have yet to read. However, I picked up Borne at the library a little while ago upon a friend’s recommendation, intrigued by its promises of biopunk and a world gone mad.

Borne delivers on these promises in the form of a spooky, ethereal twisted myth that touches on themes concerning parenthood, creation, memory and the relationship between technology and the natural world. Rachel, the narrator and central character, lives in a city devastated by out-of-control biotech in a dying world. She scavenges what she can to survive from the wake of Mord, a giant flying bear that rules over the city mostly through sheer presence – and one day, she finds a little object in his fur that she decides to name Borne. She takes it home to her lover and protector Wick, who immediately tells her to get rid of it – she refuses, and Borne begins to grow and become more and more aware.

Minor spoilers for Borne below; the ending itself is left undiscussed. 

There’s a lot to unpack about Borne. The first thing that grabbed me was how it engages with nature, technology and biopunk; rather than the direct nature vs. technology relationship in core science-fiction or the twisted mutants resulting from atomic war, the creatures of Vandermeer’s book are a different type altogether. Human meddling has crossed a terrible line, but much of the cruelty and viciousness of the Company’s creations is part of the natural world as well. Borne needs to eat to survive; there’s nothing unnatural about it other than how he goes about it and the processes he uses.

Besides that, my favourite part of the book is the familial relationship between Rachel and Borne, and Rachel and Wick. While Rachel and Wick are lovers and partners, it’s a bond forged for mutual protection and not intensely romantic. This is even more obvious once Borne reaches the ‘adolescent’ stage of his life – Rachel and Wick, at times, feel like parents on the cusp of separation, still caring for each other but at their wits’ end for what to do next and standing on opposite sides of an uncrossable chasm. Rachel’s affections for Borne are filled with the same kind of conflict. There’s no idolization of the maternal bond here – instead, Rachel replicates mistakes most of us recognize. She tries to teach Borne things he already knows, so she can feel relevant; she ignores warning signs so that she can believe that things are still a certain way. It’s a much more complex and sympathetic – to all parties – portrayal of motherhood than I’m used to in sci-fi, particularly with its focus shifted firmly away from the carrying of a child and towards the raising of one.

From a representation perspective, it’s worth noting that from the narration, Rachel appears to be a woman of colour. I really appreciated this, and it was so nice to see a WOC as the lead in a science fiction novel.

Borne isn’t without its flaws. Some of the mysteries in the book are left dangling, meant for the reader to fill in the blanks themselves, but I personally would have liked answers, or a few more clues. The Magician feels like an underutilized character, who pops up about halfway through the novel and gives only tantalizing glances into her own story. Overall, Borne feels incomplete, which suits a story that feels just as much myth as science-fiction, but lingers nonetheless.

Applicable trigger warnings for the book as a whole include (but are not limited to) proto-cannibalism, gaslighting/unreality, human experimentation, memory altering and war. Borne is available on Amazon.

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