Renowned as an author of “weird” literature, Jeff Vandermeer’s new novel, “Borne,” again showcases his spectacular imagination by placing his thrilling tale in an unthinkable setting: a world ravaged by climate change, war, a refugee crisis, poison rain and the mistakes and cruelties of corporations. He grounds the scenario by including a bevy of things we all fear and do our best to stay clear of on a daily basis: food scarcity, roving gangs of mutant children whose bodies are augmented by scavenged technologies and, of course, a giant flying venomous bear named Mord and the smaller proxy bears that do his bidding.
People that survive do so by eating bugs, lizards and whatever biotech they can scavenge. This biotech originates from an organization referred to as the “Company,” and it allows for such nifty items as “alcohol minnows” (tiny fish that provide both sustenance and tipsiness) and “memory beetles” (beetles that provide both sustenance and memories). The world Vandermeer created is vivid and interesting enough to sustain a much longer novel, but his focus is on the relationship between his narrator, Rachel (a scavenger living with her partner in a fortified cliffside) and Borne (a colorful chunk of biotech that initially seems inanimate).
When Rachel finds Borne tangled in the fur of the sleeping Mord, it smells like a pleasant smell from her childhood and looks a bit like a tiny sea creature or a lovely vase. Unsure what it is, but certain that it looks and smells cool and might be useful, she places it on a shelf. Her partner, Wick, would like to dismantle it for food and parts. (I’m grateful for Vandermeer’s inclusion of Wick, as the character’s use of “diagnostic worms” to repair his diseased flesh will surely go a long way to destigmatizing the condition referred to, often with a disgusted shiver, as “having worms.”)
Despite the wishes of a man filled with worms, Rachel insists on leaving Borne intact. Given time to chill on a shelf, Borne blooms. It starts talking and growing and adding and removing eyes as it sees fit. It changes color and shape at will. Despite it being an amorphous chunk of newly discovered flesh and technology, Rachel begins to view it as male (it probably left the toilet seat up, am I right). Many readers may see Rachel and Borne’s relationship as analogous to a parent-child relationship, and indeed Borne learns much like a toddler: he is read to and reads, he asks billions of often unanswerable questions and he eats an astonishing amount of spiders and lizards.
Though, as many a tearful parent will attest, the child eventually grows out of reading books and conversing with its parent, and instead gains knowledge by merely absorbing the bodies of the people it meets on its unauthorized treks through a ruined city. Rachel feels a spectrum of emotions as she watches her “child” go from a pretty conversation piece to a creature capable of eagerly consuming the entire planet, but she tries to do what is best for them both.
But this isn’t solely a story about a parent and her terrifyingly hungry, shapeshifting child. It is also a superb adventure tale with several hefty doses of suspense and a terrifying reminder that we are all under the heel of a giant, (and ever growing) flying venomous bear named Mord.