Review: Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

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.



5 thoughts on “Review: Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

  1. I liked it too, but my main conclusion would be opposite of yours: I find the Souther Reach Triology much better, because I could connect much better with it. Using the flying bear (and what comes with it) always reminded me, that Im reading a novel, that this is a bizarre word, I cannot understand, but at which I also really didnt feel any connection for most of the book. It was an interesting read, but it was so far removed from reality, from what I could envision, that I never truly go submerged in the story.
    With Area X, I felt this could be a real place, even a strange one. I connected better to the characters (not the fault of Borne though), because I could “see” this before my minds eye.
    But of course, this is a matter of personal taste. And it should not diminish the pure vision that Vandermeer expresses in both books and the feat of pulling off something new, something like Borne.


    1. Good point – the invasiveness in Area X is missing from Borne and that was a key element of the horror/weirdness. But I felt more drawn in by the people in Borne and Borne himself was a relatable character in a way that the presences in Area X could never be (OK the thing that maybe had once been the Lighthouse keeper.)


  2. I liked this book, but I did not love it. I was expecting something more Mievillian, but instead I kept thinking of Atwood throughout. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily — Oryx and Crake is one of my favorite books of all time — but even though Vandermeer’s monsters were weirder than Atwood’s, I felt like I had been there and done that. And I almost had to roll my eyes with the question-and-answer sessions between Borne and Rachel; sure, they were funny, but Atwood already did that precise routine with the Crakers. And even with seemingly inexplicable abilities like Mord’s flight, there was a consistent insistence on techy/rational mechanisms underlying everything. I just didn’t feel enough originality or sensawunda to really impress me. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the read.

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  3. It’s a while since I read it, but I found it too vague, especially at the end. Admittedly that’s Vandermere’s thing so I can’t complain I didn’t know what I was getting.
    More specifically I didn’t think the revelation at the end was really earned by the build-up.
    I did like Borne himself, and several of the elements like Mord, and there were points when the strangeness of the background really worked.
    What I found interesting was that Mord wasn’t just a bit weird, or horrific in a standard way, his weird was outlandish and outsized. He wasn’t just big, he was ridiculously big. He wasn’t just enormous and fearsome, he could fly as well! He should have been ridiculous but he was actually a real menacing figure.

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