Borne is about a scavenger named Rachel who lives in a nameless city, ruined by pollution and collapse, and terrorized by an enormous, flying grizzly bear named Mord. (You might think the bear’s name connotes death, from the French mort, but it comes to us from mordre, “to bite.”) The novel begins when Rachel climbs into Mord’s fur and detaches from the monster’s gargantuan hide… something. An animal? A plant? A person? The novel hinges on this question, even as it raises a further point: What’s the difference?
This thing on the bear’s body is called Borne, and again, one might be tempted to see a contrast between Mord/mort/death and Borne/”born”/life. But “borne” is a semi-archaic, past-participle form of “bear.” As in, “to bear.” As in, “to carry.” The fact that a bear named (sort of) Biting Death spawns a creature named (sort of) Bear-ed Newborn is an ornamentation of language both forehead-slappingly obvious and, within the novel, pervasively illuminating.
When Borne first appears to Rachel, Borne is humming, and its appearance is fantastic, lovely:
[Borne was] like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea 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 adds, mysteriously, “Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form.”
Rachel returns Borne to the devastated settlement she shares with Wick, a sickly scientist who experiments with the novel’s chief science fiction concept: “biotech” animals, like room-illuminating fireflies or alcoholic minnows, things that were originally lab-created, but have emerged now as an independent ecological force in the world of the novel. This world is a single city, haunted by a single, godlike monster, and corrupted, somehow, by a single, mysterious entity called, simply, the Company.
With Borne VanderMeer presents a parable about modern life, in these shaky days of roughshod industrialism, civilizational collapse, and looming planetary catastrophe. The Company, as you could probably guess, created Mord, and “no one, not even Wick, knew why the Company hadn’t seen the day coming when Mord would transform from their watchdog to their doom—why they hadn’t tried to destroy Mord while they still held that power.”
VanderMeer imagines the flying bear as an expressionistic stand-in—a symbol, let’s not kid ourselves—for climate change. The correspondence is nearly one-to-one: We created industrialization to protect ourselves from nature, it got big and scary, took to the air, we don’t know how to control it, and it’s going to kill us all if we don’t figure something out soon.
Borne is about two processes—the process by which Rachel and Borne forge a relationship, and the process by which Rachel learns the secrets of the city, the Company, of Wick and Mord and the mysterious figure named the Magician, who appears to be waging some kind of desperate war with the bear. I’ll not get into the particulars of that second process—that’s where the novel’s immediate, propulsive joy is at work, and I sincerely don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of it. But the first process is where the novel’s heart is, and where it derives its real power.
Think of Borne as a retelling of Steven Spielberg’s E.T, or the character arc of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s the story of humanity making contact with something strange, alien, artificial, but yet possessed of a personality, a sense of humor, a drive to find love and friendship and community, to be a part of something—and to be respected—respected the way immigrants, refugees, the oppressed the world over have always wished to be respected. “Grief and common trouble make the world kin”—wrote Guy Davenport—”make a universe of humankind rather than a confusion of suffering individuals.”
Rachel teaches Borne about the world, about humanity, about language and emotion and suffering. They venture out of their settlement and run into bad guys. It’s a process. Borne meets girl, Borne loses girl. Do they get each other back? Again, no spoilers—except to say that a point comes along where the two processes are fused together. Theme becomes plot, and plot becomes theme.
But there’s a question left over, unanswered between these two characters. Borne wants to be a person. Borne thinks he’s a person. But he’s not sure. He knows he’s different from Rachel. He knows he’s not human. But he senses—and don’t we all sense this?—that human minus homo sapien equals… something.
“I’ve stopped trying to be good,” Borne tells Rachel the last time they speak. “It isn’t in my nature. I was made to absorb. I was made to kill. I know that now. And it’s no use.”
“You must try,” Rachel says.
“I’m telling you, Rachel, I can’t anymore. I’m not built like you. I’m not human. I’m not a person.”
Rachel tells Borne he is a person. She feels like she has to.
Why is this question so important to VanderMeer?
In April 2015, Jeff VanderMeer published an essay at Electric Literature called “The Slow Apocalypse and Fiction.” Read it; it’s great—you’ll find about a dozen maybe-novels poking up through the essay’s skin. But VanderMeer raises a vital point in the essay’s homestretch. He addresses the problem that anybody who makes up stories for a living needs, at some point, to ask: Is all this work irrelevant? Given the magnitude of the world’s problems, is fiddling around with sentences and paragraphs, with images and plot structures, anything but the most egregious, time-wasting form of self-absorption?
Not to put words in the man’s mouth, but I think VanderMeer suggests that one solution for this problem lies within the particular province of the science fiction writer.
“We may begin to see novels of the mundane and modern that seem like they could [have been] written thirty years ago, give or take a smartphone or two, as symptomatic of a failure,” VanderMeer wrote. “If sharp, intelligent fiction from the 1960s and 1970s by Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Brunner, and even T. J. Bass (Godwhale) did not create sustained change then why should we think our fictional efforts now will result in a different effect?”
VanderMeer doesn’t have an answer for that, except to argue that “the opportunity remains so open.”
And finally, he says:
A number of what ifs come to mind that seem not to have entered the popular consciousness, but foremost among them is a radical reinvention, at the subatomic level, of how we position animals in our fiction. Animals still exist as inert objects, aspects of setting, in much of our fiction, or exist only in what is projected onto them personality-wise by us. They are in a sense, lost narratives, and lost lives or minds —in a context in which even a simple broach on a bedroom mantel can contain an entire series of stories both in real-life and fiction.
For living creatures to be less animate than the inanimate speaks to lapsed chances for interconnectivity, and a rebuke to the idea that we house a particularly deep imagination. Somehow we need to be humble enough to finally admit to the true complexity of and importance of animal life —not just some anthropomorphic and patronizing sympathy —and in the process continue the necessary step of de-centralizing the human experience within a universe that clearly sees us as simple atoms like everything else.
Rachel seeing Borne as a person is a step toward that decentralization, toward that uncoupling of humaneness with homo sapien-ness, and toward seeing the full interconnectedness of nature as a source, perhaps the source, of moral action.
“We must disenthrall ourselves,” Lincoln wrote, “and then we shall save our country.”
Borne argues we have to do the same, if we want to save our planet.