Borne is Jeff VanderMeer’s first new novel since his Southern Reach trilogy. I was stunned by reading it, and I am not sure that I can really do it justice. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape: a nameless city that was first transformed by a biotech enterprise known only as the Company, and then abandoned when the Company broke down or abandoned the region (it is not entirely clear which). The Company itself seems to have come from elsewhere; perhaps it is (as the novel suggests at one point) a mechanism of “the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future,” or “another version of Earth” enriching itself at the expense of this one. (The issue is not resolved, but I find it suggestive: it’s a far better version of Nick Land’s fantasy of capital as an alien parasite from the future). (The idea of the future exploiting its own past — which is our present — is one that I find especially compelling; something like this is also the premise of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers).
In any case, the city in which Borne is set is basically a desert; and there is nothing left but ruins, noxious chemicals, and the remnants of the Company’s biotech — much of which is mutated and broken. There are many dangers: polluted water, violent feral children, venomous beasts, and a gigantic flying bear named Mord who ravages and destroys whatever he cannot control. There doesn’t seem to be any exit from this hellscape: there are remembered past scenes, and the elsewhere from which the Company emerged, and to which it has presumably returned — but none of these are accessible to the characters in the world of the novel.
In this landscape, the novel’s narrator Rachel ekes out a living as a scavenger, venturing out into the ruins to find usable bits and pieces of abandoned stuff — anything that can either be eaten, put to work, or somehow repurposed. Her partner, Wick, is a broken man who used to work for the Company, and still manages to engineer working biotech from the fragments Rachel brings him: worms that, introduced under the skin, can clean and heal wounds; bugs that provide new memories, or erase old ones; “alcohol minnows” that can be swallowed to get you drunk. All this is background; Rachel meticulously describes it in a flat and direct manner. This is the given: that which must be taken for granted, the reality in front of her — even if she has fragmentary memories of a happier childhood, before the world was destroyed.
The novel’s landscape/background is vividly drawn, imposing, and indeed sobering — since VanderMeer is in fact warning us about how bad it can get if we continue down our current route of environmental catastrophe, and of using technology which has no end or rationale except subordinating everything in the world, and extracting maximum profits. However, at the same time VanderMeer is also warning us that this devastation isn’t the end — there is also the existential dread of surviving the end of the world, of living on in its aftermath, of having to outlive the ruination of everything that made living worthwhile. Of having to go on, and to discover that things can become even worse than what you thought was already the worst we could endure. As Rachel remarks at one point: “Apparently we’d been richer than we thought, to suffer such continual diminishment and still be alive.”
But all this is still only background. What really makes the book, what really impassions the reader (or, at least, me as a reader) is two things: Rachel’s voice; and the creature known as Borne, who gives the novel its title. As for the first: Rachel is a survivor, but this fact/condition is not romanticized (as it all too often is in dystopian fiction). Rachel’s voice is weary and matter of fact, even when she recounts the most bizarre and incredible things. There is no triumphalism in her; she is not any sort of savior. Surviving itself is the most that she can hope for; but survival always has its price, since the more you survive the more you suffer. The novel has a provisionally happy ending, but it is still one in which survival — even with something of an improvement in one’s circumstances — is tenuous and fragile, always subject to revocation, to new shocks and surprises. The desolation remains. There is no moment of self-congratulatory resilience.
As for the second: Borne is a bit of biotech that Rachel discovers one day. She initially refers to Borne as an “it”; but quickly she moves to referring to Borne as a “he.” At first, Borne is tiny, something “like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens.” But as Borne grows, Rachel discovers that he can change his shape at will, and mimic or impersonate just about anyone and anything. Also, Borne learns to speak, and to read and write. Rachel at first raises him like a child; but soon she has to accept his independence from her guidance, as any parent must with any growing child. In any case, Borne is the novel’s richest and strangest creation. Along with Rachel, we come to love and admire him, for his childlike enthusiasm and wonder, as well as for the way he loves her back. But in the course of the novel, along with Rachel, we are ultimately forced to realize that — for all his beauty and lovability — Borne is also a monster, and a danger to survival.
Rachel insists on regarding Borne in human terms. She assures him over and over that he is a person, in the same way that human beings are persons. But she (and we, reading her narrative) are finally forced to recognize that Borne is not, after all, human; and that the “human” itself — whatever essential or merely contingent attributes we might assign to it — is not a viable construction in and of itself, but must always rely on — or be dependent upon, or find itself networked with — that which is not human, which is inhuman, and which cannot ever be humanized. This would be true even in the case (not envisioned in the novel, and probably never having existed) of a vital and unspoiled Nature; and it is all the more true in the denatured nature, the aggressively “humanized” nature, within which Rachel finds herself — and, I am inclined to say, within which we in the Anthropocene inevitably find ourselves. “Turn and face the strange” — as David Bowie sang, in what might well be the motto for all Weird Fiction; though especially for Weird Fiction today — much more than in the time of colonialism and of Lovecraft. How antiquated Lovecraft’s vision of alien powers appears today. Lovecraft mythologized an indifferent Nature, whose horror resided in the fact that it does not care for us, is not in any way concerned with us, and may well crush us out of simple negligence (rather than anything that can be moralized as “evil”). Today, Lovecraft’s cold materialist vision seems outmoded, and hopelessly naive; and it even works as a sort of consolation. The menace of Cthulhu is so much simpler than the actuality of systems that threaten us precisely because we are so intimately intertwined with them. VanderMeer has often, rightly, rejected comparisons of his work with Lovecraft’s; books like Borne (and like the Southern Reach and Ambergris trilogies) indeed forge a new path for Weird Fiction, away from Lovecraft’s outworn metaphysics and towards a new sense of how the inhuman impinges upon us, all the more so because it cannot be recuperated in human terms.
The Anthropocene means that “we” (human beings) have irreversibly altered the entire biosphere; but it also means that, in doing so, we have exposed ourselves, more fully and more nakedly than ever before, to the geological and biological forces that respond to us in ways that we cannot anticipate or control. This seems to me to be the core of what Jeff VanderMeer is exploring — and seducing us to recognize. In Borne, the material forces unleashed by the Company do not do what the Company wanted them to do, nor what anyone else might want them to do. These material forces have an impetus, and an intelligence, all their own. They have twisted, both for good and for ill, into strange and ungainly patterns that stretch well beyond us — and that may continue, with their own interests and desires, even when we are gone. As Rachel says, very near the end, the animal descendants of the Company’s mutant creations “will outstrip all of us in time, and the story of the city will someday be their story, not ours.” This is the point to which Borne brings us, and the prospect with which it leaves us. We live in an ongoing catastrophe; but we may be able to outlive it, or to maintain ourselves beyond it. The novel leaves us with a diminished world, but one in which the worst destructive forces have been defeated (or have just played themselves out), and in which we can perhaps indulge hope for a yet more distant future, beyond our own extinction, in which things might at least be slightly better, or even (these are the last two words of the novel) “truly beautiful.”