There are very few writers who could pull off a short-story – let alone a novel – that features a three-storey flying bear with a rapacious appetite for human flesh. Unfortunately Jeff Vandermeer isn’t one of them. Kidding. Of course he bloody well is. This is a man with an imagination so fertile, so fecund, it’s a miracle his brain hasn’t sprouted an apple tree.
With Borne, Vandermeer applies his prodigious faculty for creativity to the post-apocalypse genre. In a nameless and ruined city we are told by Rachel, our first person protagonist, that the bear, his name is Mord, is a product of genetic experimentation conducted by an organisation known only as the Company. Mord was never meant to be that tall or destructive, but now he essentially rules what’s left of the city and the Company headquarters. Rachel is a scavenger who follows Mord not because she has a death wish but because when he’s on the move, rampaging through the ruins, he often leaves behind bits of Company bio-tech. Rachel shares this valuable detritus with her boyfriend Wick who once worked for the Company and now spends his time mixing up a brew of choice narcotics that, when ingested (or stuck in your ear) make you forget your past or, better, yet, how fucked up things truly are. It’s on one of these scavenger hunts that Rachel plucks a green lump of matter from Mord’s fur. Clearly alive – it hums and abruptly transitions from sea anemone to squid to something else entirely – she names it Borne. When she brings her discovery back to Wick he wants to dissect it. Rachel stops him, she’s attracted to Borne’s oddness, the sense that it might do more than just ripple its flesh and change shape. She’s proven correct because over a short period Borne begins to grow and evolve, quickly learning how to communicate.
As Borne develops, as it becomes more intrigued with its environment, Rachel finds herself acting as both mother and teacher. Educator and nurturer. At one point she observes that:
“Borne was always trying to be a person because I wanted him to be one, because he thought that was right. We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.”
The use of the word “person” rather than “human” is, in my view, deliberate. When we talk about the question of what it is to be human, especially in a science fictional context, it’s often a discussion as to whether a robot or piece of software is sentient and self-aware. There’s an element of that inquiry in Borne but what’s more important, at least from Rachel’s point of view, is whether Borne has the capacity to be a moral and responsible being. While Rachel suggests that defining personhood isn’t clear-cut she does have her own personal frame-work and as Borne presents as a blank slate she initially believes she can mould its personality. But then Borne’s nature kicks in (I’m making an effort to avoid spoilers) and Rachel has to reconsider her own sense of morality. It’s complicated and difficult with Vandermeer refusing to provide a straight-forward answer. Yet the novel’s gonzo climax (again no spoilers) does suggest that nature vs nurture aside, love – giving it and receiving it – is a critical part of what it is to be a person.
As vibrant and insane as it is – and there are moments that are laugh out loud funny for their sheer audaciousness – Borne is a novel that considers the question of humanity and personhood with a great deal of heart and compassion. And love.