Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

17/06/17, The Guardian

Jeff VanderMeer’s deeply strange and brilliant new novel, Borne, comes hot on the heels of his enormously successful ‘Southern Reach Trilogy’ and continues and extends his meditation on the central question of non-human sentience in the earlier work. The extraordinarily advanced alien intelligence that infected Area X in the ‘Southern Reach Trilogy’ was capable of such a profound biochemical mimicry that it shone a harsh light on the puniness, the sheer primitive nature, of human cognition. Now, using and splicing together the DNAs of Godzilla and Frankenstein, VanderMeer gives us Borne.

In a world laid severely to waste by a shadowy biotech company (called, menacingly, ‘Company’), a massive flying bear, Mord, over five storeys high, terrorises its survivors, which include humans, both the ordinary kind, and ‘altered’ mutants, variants, animals, hybrid creatures, which are revealed to be pieces of failed or aborted biotech experiments. Biotech in this world spans a huge spectrum: from ‘diagnostic beetles’ that can enter a human system and heal illnesses, pain and wounds, through artificial but living creatures such as feral children who have wings and poisoned claws of carnivores, to transgenic species, starting out as, say, human, but grown in a laboratory, then morphing into a bear. The only named humans in this world are our protagonist, Rachel, a scavenger in the despoiled and dangerous post-Company landscape, her lover, Wick, an ex-Company employee who makes biotech in his swimming-pool laboratory, and a shadowy creature called the Magician, who, it is rumoured, is collecting ammunition and soldiers to fight Mord and wrest control of the land from him. Then there are the ‘Mord proxies’, hundreds of smaller Mords, focused golden-brown killers who see the flying bear as their god and are impelled only by a ferocious bloodlust. Details will slowly emerge of the kind of depredation wrought upon the world by the Company, and will be joined by a deliberately undersketched strand on the pre-Company world, disintegrating under unnamed political upheavals and wars that turn millions into refugees.

In one of her perilous salvaging missions, Rachel rescues a strange creature from the furry depths of the sleeping Mord’s flank, a creature ‘like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens.’ She brings it home and christens him Borne. Thus begins an unexpected relationship, often tinged with mother-child dynamics, that will ultimately carry most of the powerful emotional effect of the novel.

From the very outset, Wick is suspicious of Borne and wants Rachel to give him up so that he can mine the creature for biotech. Rachel refuses, creating a subtle fissure in their relationship that will widen and begin to have serious consequences. Borne, meanwhile, continues to grow, both physically, and mentally, if that’s the right word for a creature that is neither human, nor animal, nor plant (but more of this later). He learns to speak, slowly at first, tripping over language in the way a human child does, and begins to absorb the knowledge and information Rachel feeds him and everything else that he can find on his own. Borne is also a truly protean creature, marvellously fluid with his form, able to turn himself into pretty much anything, even putting out light, colour, and smell effects, sometimes delightful, sometimes unnerving. He can mimic his surroundings and other creatures. It turns out that human systems of knowledge are not the only things he absorbs: his environment soon becomes devoid of lizards, the feral children who break into Rachel’s apartment and torture her for hours disappear and, much later, in a frightening scene, Borne allows Rachel to see what his ‘absorption’ – or ‘sampling’, as he calls it – of other creatures really entails.

Everything changes after the Magician mounts a failed missile attack on Mord; a spectacularly written scene. In the aftermath, the attacks by the Mord proxies grow more frequent and violent. A new urgency presses upon the conflict between the Magician’s and Mord’s forces for control of the ruined city and Rachel and Wick can no longer remain insulated from what escalates to a kind of civil war. As their intricately camouflaged and booby-trapped hideout is destroyed, they have to go on the run. There are thrilling, edge-of-the-seat setpieces of escapes and battles, particularly a final confrontation of almost cosmic proportions between agents whose names it wouldn’t do to give away. All roads will lead to the ruined Company buildings, the origin and end of everything, the repository of all the horrors visited upon the city. The revelations here shine a new light on the nature of Wick, the Magician’s strategies, the history of Mord and Borne, even Rachel’s own past.

No one writes a post-apocalyptic landscape like VanderMeer, so densely and originally imagined, so detailed and strange in all its lineaments and topography, at once a wasteland and yet seething with the weirdest kind of flora and fauna and biotech, that last category manifesting yet again his abiding interest in the cross-pollination between the human and the non-human. It may seem an odd collocation to make, but VanderMeer’s recent work has been Ovidian in its underpinnings, thrillingly working out the radical transformation of life forms and exploring the seams between them. The education of Borne coils around to become an education for his educators and, by extension, the readers – how do we understand non-human minds? Can we ever, without some degree of anthropomorphising? Can such minds think? Can we even ascribe processes of cognition and thinking to a creature such as Borne? In a heartbreaking scene of reckoning, Rachel realises that, to Borne, ‘on some level I’d never understand, there was no death, no dying, and in the end we stood on opposite sides of a vast gulf of incomprehension. Because what was a human being without death?’