Book Review - Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

 

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Cover art of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Borne
 is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi by Jeff VanderMeer following a scavenger named Rachel, her drug designer partner Wick, and their efforts to survive. The city where Rachel and Wick live has been destroyed by monstrous tech/animal hybrids manufactured by "the Company," and has devolved into gang warfare and tribalism. Despite this, Rachel and Wick's partnership has made living in the city tolerable for them. 

One day, while out scavenging, Rachel finds an odd lump of something that she can't determine is plant or animal. The fleshy pod reminds her of an anemone, which calls up memories of her childhood on an island. The island is gone, Rachel's parents are gone, but this weird pod is here. She takes it home. When it starts growing, she knows she should get rid of it--there's no telling what the Company may have designed it to do. But there's an odd attachment that Rachel develops toward the pod, which she's named Borne. And then Borne starts speaking and Rachel realizes she's in over her head, but it's too late. Despite the risks and Wick's disapproval, Rachel loves Borne like a mother. She tries to give him some semblance of her happy childhood memories despite living in wreckage behind a wall of traps, in a city plagued by a giant, berserk bear.

Published in 2018, I'm a bit behind in reading this, but boy am I glad I picked it up. It was unlike anything I've read before. The writing style itself was quite literary, which wasn't what I was expecting from a story which features a King Kong-sized flying bear. It took me a few chapters to really get into the rhythm of VanderMeer's words, and even then, I found myself rereading sentences or even paragraphs to better grasp them. That said, it was worth it. The language is playful and rich with meaning. The flowery descriptions served both to abstract the horrors of the city, as if painting it with impressionist's brush, and to give credence to Rachel's abandoned aspirations of becoming a writer herself. 

I found Rachel to be slightly frustrating as a main character, but oddly, I don't think that's a fault. She was frustrating in a way that I find a lot of real people frustrating. She frequently acted based on her emotions, knowing that she was making bad decisions as she was making them. She knew there were risks, she knew she was hurting Wick, and yet she chose not to resist the calling to mother Borne. There are a lot of conversations in this book that left me screaming at both of the characters to just talk. Just tell each other the truth and all of this would be easier! But both Rachel and Wick have reasons to keep their secrets--it's not manufactured misunderstanding like in a soap opera. 

As far as character arcs go, I'm missing something from Rachel. Wick is fully fleshed out, and by the end, his motivations were made clear. But Rachel? Rachel's motivation is, largely, to survive. In a post-apocalyptic setting, that does make sense, and is a valid place to start a character, but it grows a little hollow over time. I can guess that her motivation was love for both Borne and Wick, but it never felt explicit enough to serve as true growth from her. At the end, she's still just surviving. I would have loved to have seen more on the page about that survival transforming into something else, some kind of goal beyond seeing another day. 

The plot is what you would expect from your average sci-fi adventure romp, which I think is a good thing. When the language is dense and there's a lot going on with character interactions, I think that it was a good decision to keep things simple. In fact, it likely could have been trimmed down for pacing in a few places. 

Without getting too far into spoiler territory, I'll just say that "the crack in the wall" section was... at least twice as long as it should have been. I get what it was going for, what it was doing narratively, but it didn't deserve all the page space it had. It was the only section of the book where I had a really hard time imagining where the characters were visually, spatially. There's... a crack? In the wall? And it takes them several hours to traverse it? But how? 

Most of the time, VanderMeer's descriptions of locations are memorable and grounding. Truly, the setting is where this book really shines. What a world! I was describing this book to my husband, and I kept having to stop and laugh at the sentences that had just come out of my mouth. "Yeah, and there's flying, fire-breathing bears that attack them, but then they start fighting the roving gangs of monstrous, genetically modified children that have claws and wings and bug eyes and things." It sounds crazy. It sounds like a fever dream. But it feels so intense and serious when you're reading it. If you've seen the anime classic Akira, you know what I mean--telling someone what happens in Akira is laughable. Watching Akira is an experience. A tense, horrifying, and deeply moving experience. 

Ultimately, that's how I feel about Borne as well. It has a few flaws, but reading it felt like an experience worth having, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who's interested in experimental, genre-bending sci-fi. 

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