Rachael and Wix survive in the ruins of a city via scavenging and trading in biotech and drugs. Dominating the city is the ruins of the Company building – a source of horror and marvels and which hides secrets to Wix’s past. Nesting in that building is the former guard of the Company and now monstrous eminence – Mord a giant biotech bear with the capacity to levitate. Welcome to the very odd world of Borne.
The easiest point of comparison is with Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy in that it bridges a surreal bio-engineered post-apocalyptic world with a more recognisable modern one. However, that is misleading. The bridge to the past is limited and mainly via Rachael’s unreliable memories of her former life. In some ways, this is more like a portal fantasy in which the biotechnology is the Clarkian sufficiently-advanced-technology indistinguishable from magic. That Rachael can remember a world more like ours gives a reason for her explanations of her universe – which has become purely the city.
That this is a nightmarishly surreal world in which life is magical in the bad sense of the word is underlined by the absurdity of Mord’s capacity for flight, Wix’s alcoholic fish and Wix’s territorial rival, the woman known only as ‘The Magician’.
Into this unstable wasteland of horrors comes Borne. Found as a kind of polyp stuck to the ragged hairs of Mord’s hide, Borne begins as a plant-like creature tended to by Rachael. Borne’s mysterious growth (things go in but nothing comes out) soon leads to sentience and communication.
The story takes us through Rachael and Borne’s relationship amid a growing territorial crisis in the city. With toxic bears (‘Mord proxies’) and bio-engineered feral children vying for territory and control and the Magician plotting against the bestial dominance of Mord, the story rolls forward with the sense of an unbalanced object on an unstable surface. Yet this is mixed with humour and charm as the innocent but dangerously powerful Borne learns more about his abilities and the world around him.
Borne (the book rather than the character) maintains that unsettling environment and paranoia about physical space that Vandermeer deployed so well in the Area X/Southern Reach trilogy. Yet this is a more accessible plot, with stronger closure and more things explained (not everything – the foxes for example or the place behind the silver wall). Also there is a weird reversal of likability compared with the Area X novels – even the horrific bear-monster Mord has a weird charm – the characters are all flawed and each in their own way murderous and manipulative but at the same time shown sympathetically as people just trying to get along in a world that is unfriendly, cruel and prone to senseless death.
Moving and clever and surreal in the core sense of the term, the novel manages to be many things at once while feeling like a consistent whole. Borne, as a character feels like a juvenile version of Philip K Dick’s Glimmung – an extraordinarily powerful being that can reshape itself almost infinitely and yet prone to childishness and petty behaviour. The power over life and death held by the now defunct Company, Wix’s & the Magician’s biotech manipulations, Borne’s growing powers or Mord’s apex predator death-from-the-sky suffuses the novel with a theological air. The ruined city is a training ground for flawed, inadequate gods.
Very readable and at turns both charming and horrific and meditative. Better, I think, than Area X/Southern Reach in that Vandermeer finds a better balance between resolution and what should remain unexplained. I really liked this and it deserves awards.