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Friday, November 22, 2019

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer (reviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Order Borne over HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: VanderMeer was born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. This experience, and the resulting trip back to the United States through Asia, Africa, and Europe, deeply influenced him.

Jeff is married to Ann VanderMeer, who is currently an acquiring editor at and has won the Hugo Award and World Fantasy Award for her editing of magazines and anthologies. They live in Tallahassee, Florida, with two cats and thousands of books.

FORMAT/INFO: Borne is 336 pages long. It was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on April 25, 2017. 

OVERVIEW: Imagine a wasteland seething with the weirdest kind of flora, fauna, and biotech. Imagine the unimaginable and you’ll get close. Borne, set in a ruined, nameless city at some point in the not-too-distant future, paints a world in which civilization has collapsed as a result of environmental degradation.

Survivors are terrorized by Mord, a massive flying bear more than five stories high. Mord once prowled the corridors of the biotech organization known as the Company, which lies at the outskirts of the city, until he was experimented on, grew large, learned to fly and broke free. Apart from being an insane monster, he provides also sustenance as sometimes some food or biotech can be found on him. When he’s asleep, scavengers try to “feed” on him. One of them, a woman named Rachel, finds a mysterious creature entangled in the fur of Mord. At first Borne looks like a green lump, but later on, he’s described as:

a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers.

Rachel brings Borne home – to a decaying apartment complex she shares with her lover Wick, who used to work for the Company. Wick produces biotech drugs – mainly beetles that can be swallowed or stuck in the ear, and then release powerful memories of other people’s happier times or pull out forgotten memories from the user’s own mind—or just produce beautiful visions that provide an escape from the barren, craterous landscapes of the city.

Soon, Rachel discovers that small green lump transforms into sentient, rapidly growing and utterly inhuman life-form. Borne grows fast, it starts not only to think and read about the world but also "sample" living things, absorbing people and their experiences whole.

At its core, Borne is a novel about human relationships and limits of cognition – Rachel who has five senses try to communicate with the creature that perceives the world through nine senses. Playing with the concepts of dark and light, good and evil in its backdrop, the book focuses on Rachel and Wick as they try to survive in the savage world and figure out what’s between them. Rachel seeks some kind of sense in all of this. Not an easy task in a decaying world. For some time raising Borne gives a sense of direction. But it won’t last. Children grow and turn into teenagers, teenagers tend to rebel and leave their houses.

Borne is alien and he doesn’t have a knack for assimilating the rules of what is right and what is wrong. By nature, he’s a supernatural predator, by his upbringing wannabe pacifist. It won’t work.

The prose is smart and poetic in places. Especially when describing decaying wasteland or shapes Borne takes at a given moment. It’s not particularly flowery, it’s just very visual. On the other hand, it’s not very dynamic and, given that the pacing is a bit slow in places, the narrative lacks a certain punch that would make it stronger. Additionally, a lot of things are simply told and not shown (when Rachel speaks about Wick’s anger, sadness, etc). I guess the focus of the book lies elsewhere, it’s more about intellectual adventure than tight plotting.

While I usually don’t particularly like descriptions, it’s not the case this time. The world described by the author is easy to visualize and disturbing at the same time. My imagination was challenged in good way.

Having said that, the plot itself lacks tension and drama. The book lacks some cohesive mystery that would make a reader turn pages. I turned them because I was hooked by the world. The plot, though, wasn’t as interesting as the descriptions of the city and relationship dynamics between characters.

Overall, I’m rather impressed. The detailed and strange post-apocalyptic landscape presented in Borne is fascinating and unsettling. The 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 contains bleak moments, but it also shows light-hearted moments reminiscent of E.T. It’s creepy but entertaining.

I think it won’t appeal to people who enjoy fast pacing and tight plotting. On the other hand, I’m such a person and yet I enjoyed the book quite a bit.

I think it’s a book worth trying, especially if you want to taste New Weird subgenre (although VanderMeer work is also called Bio-Punk or Ecological Uncanny).

If, however, you happen to be a bear – don’t read this book. It may misrepresent your formidable species.



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