Jeff Vandermeer is known for his surreal and unsettling stories. Look no further than his Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance), which told the story of a region of the country cut off from civilization, where nature is left to reclaim the space in strange and otherworldly ways. In his new novel Borne, Vandermeer revisits some of the environmental themes of those books, but he turns out an impressive, post-apocalyptic tale about a young woman and a bizarre, intelligent blob that she discovers while scavenging. Oh, and there’s a giant, flying bear that terrorizes the city’s inhabitants.
Borne follows Rachel, a scavenger who spends her days searching a ruined city for food and cast-off pieces of biotech left behind by a mysterious company. Along with her partner, Wick, she ekes out a meager existence in an abandoned apartment complex known as Balcony Cliffs, while trying to avoid the attention of Mord, a giant bear that flies above the city. (He was responsible for its destruction years ago.) It’s while she’s out searching that she discovers a lump of... something, stuck to Mord’s fur, which she takes home and names Borne.
Vandermeer excels at strange, immersive worlds. His city is a weird, artificial ecosystem in which bioengineered organisms live alongside buildings, people, and pollution, finding their place in this strange new hierarchy. Borne first appears to be little more than a plant, but soon begins to move and speak — and grow at an unsettling pace. To Wick’s dismay, Rachel begins teaching Borne to survive while instilling a sense of right and wrong. But as Borne keeps growing (in size and intelligence), so does its hunger. It hunts down small creatures in the Balcony Cliffs, and even people who invade their space, absorbing them into itself, where, frighteningly, Borne says that they’re not dead, but living inside him.
As Rachel raises Borne, a war is brewing between Mord and his diminutive, bear-like minions, and The Magician, a former employee of the Company who possesses strange, biotech-enhanced powers. Vandermeer has often drawn inspiration from humanity’s relationship with the natural world, and this fight is between two giant forces: one a chaotic force of nature, and the other a calculating, malevolent individual who mutates her followers into grotesque creatures. Borne’s entry into this world upends the balance between these two forces, the proverbial chicken coming home to roost. Borne is a force of nature in its own right, but it’s not of nature.
Where Mord and the Magician are forces driven insane with power, Borne’s upbringing under Rachel imparts him with some sense of morality. It grows supernaturally fast and begins to mimic objects and human beings, gaining knowledge and raw data — but not wisdom — as it absorbs its prey. For all of its incredible power and intelligence, it’s still a child, a combination that never works well. Rachel and Wick eventually banish Borne from their apartment after it becomes clear that this combination of factors poses a direct threat to them, but even after that incident, Rachel worries about her surrogate child. But, after its banishment, her guidance early in its life helps it. When the two meet later in the book, he talks about the conflict within him: he’s a supernatural predator who’s destined to kill, but wants badly to live up to Rachel’s non-violent human standards.
The true purpose of the Company is never revealed, but the results of its creations are equally strange and horrifying. Vandermeer has always been great at putting together bizarre environments, and the City is a place that the Company felt was as disposable as the biotech that it dumped there. In the process, it inadvertently created Mord, a human who became terrible and inhuman, and the Magician. At the same time, it also ends up inadvertently creating Borne, which is essentially the opposite of Mord: something that was never remotely like a person but does its best to be like one.
Rachel describes her role as a surrogate mother to Borne, trying to provide some sort of moral example in an otherwise lawless world, all while rejecting the Magician’s attempts to recruit her. At the same time, Borne provides Rachel with a purpose in an otherwise chaotic and almost literally meaningless world, saving her from a lost and directionless existence of mere survival. At the end of the novel, Rachel explains that “real reality is something we create every moment of every day, that realities spin off from our decisions in every second we’re alive.” It doesn’t matter if her world was created for some specific purpose: like Borne or Mord, their existence isn’t defined by the company: their world is what they make of it.
In Vandermeer’s world, nature seems to strike a balance between the horrible things that have been done to it and the new creatures and people who persist between the pollution and violence. Nature is resilient, and stranger than we can imagine, but even with the introduction of giant, flying bears and strange, intelligent blobs, everything still has its place.
Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge