“Borne” is my first foray into the work of Mr. Vandermeer. I didn’t get this book because I had heard anything about him, or his popular series, or the movie that’s being made of one of his books. I was at a bookstore and this cover grabbed me and I have no regrets about that. But being unfamiliar with the author’s other work, I can’t say if “Borne” is the best he has to offer, or if his other series are his shining achievement. I will say that this book has some incredible prose, made me rethink how scary bears should (or shouldn’t) be, and just where the line should be for science-fiction, science-fantasy, or just plain fantasy.
“Borne” is told as a kind of journal where the main character is reflecting on the events of the past. It took me a little bit to figure that out, which meant it took me a while to get into the story as it shifted a bit from past to present with the main character, Rachel, foreshadowing certain events. The world in Vandermeer’s novel is post-apocalyptic with vague hints that the cause of the world’s demise was a mixture of irreparable climate change and corrupt governments, but the reader is never told how we got to this point as its deemed unimportant. And maybe it is, but I’d still have liked to know how we got there. Still, in this world, people have tried to rely on private companies (also called just “The Company”) to save them with their biotech. Biotech is this weird, cool mix of animals (or people) and technology that allows these hybrids to do amazing things. You want to wipe your memories? No problem, here’s a memory beetle which will take care of that for you. Want your ginormous bear to fly? Yeah, our biotech can do that, too! How this technology works is never explored. This could be because Rachel only scavenges these parts for others and she doesn’t understand it herself, or Vandermeer didn’t care to add more science to his novel, who knows.
That’s where my conundrum comes in. Is this book science fiction at all? Just because you say biotech and allude that there is some technology at play, doesn’t really count as science. When Vandermeer tells us of “diagnostic worms” and how they look just like worms but help attack toxins in the body, why can’t that just be a new species? How is it tech? Maybe it’s simply that as I’ve gotten older I prefer my science fiction reads to be hard science rather than this murky blend of science and fantasy where the fantasy isn’t fully fleshed out. I don’t know! But I really struggle to call this science anything because it always appeared as if The Company was just making monsters to let out into the world because reasons. Case in point: Mord.
Mord is a bear. A really big bear. Like, so big this bear is crushing sky-scrapers when he takes a casual stroll. This bear is far more intelligent than the average bear, and he can fly. No wings or anything he can just jump into the sky and zoom around. Because clearly the one thing really big bears need is the ability to fly. How is Mord made? Or why? Or for what purpose? It’s never explained (well, how he was made gets teased at the end but that’s it). Same thing with most of the tech that is in existence or what The Company’s original purpose or goal was. The reader doesn’t get to know why they did the things they did, or why it happened.
In fact, don’t do what I did and just get this book because the cover is pretty. Really read the synopsis because it does such a better job of explaining the characters than the book. I feel the synopsis is actually more of a prologue than anything else, as it becomes so vital to understanding this world and the characters in it. Like why a biotech drug dealer like Wick needs a scavenger like Rachel. And why Rachel would keep such an odd creature as Borne who, while not humanoid at all and always a bit disconcerting in appearance, she develops a maternal affection for despite the dangers Borne may present to her and Wick’s safety. Borne is this… thing. A thing that can change shape and talks like a child (which I adored) but with a sinister side to him that Wick always suspected, and Rachel ignored. He’s a cool creature, but that’s what he feels like, too. An alien creature, not biotech.
That’s the book in a nutshell for you: Rachel finds a weird thing, raises it, and then it does weird things, and things turn from bad to worse for Rachel and Wick. But it takes a long time for those things to happen. The story starts to fly the last third of the book, so you really have to love beautiful writing to stick with this otherwise vague storyline until that point. And honestly, if you can, I’d recommend you devout the time to really read this book. Take the time to absorb Vandermeer’s command of sentence structure, because it is just breath taking. But, if you want a clearer cut science fiction, or heck, even a fantasy, I don’t think this is that book. So despite my love of the prose in “Borne”, I’m giving it 3 stars because of how vague and detached I felt most of the time from the characters and overall plot.