“Mord destroyed and reimagined our broken city for reasons known only to him, yet he also replenished it in his thoughtless way.” So thinks Rachel, the protagonist of Borne, as she climbs the side of Mord, a giant bear, braving his “ropy, dirt-bathed fur, foul with carrion and chemicals” in search of food or biotech treasure that’s stuck to him. Those are the thoughtless replenishments he provides. Instead, she finds a fist-sized organism that resembles a sea anemone. She takes it back to the crumbling apartment building where she lives, deciding on the way home that it’s a he and its name is Borne. Her partner and lover, Wick, is unhappy about Borne’s presence—an outcast biotech scientist, Wick recognizes a threat when he sees one—but he grudgingly allows what he’s powerless to stop. Borne already has a hold on Rachel’s heart.
These are the axes around which Jeff VanderMeer structures Borne. Maternal love, and its heartbreaking counterpart, letting go; love and mistrust among partners, equals, friends, lovers; the possible bonds between human and nonhuman; a giant bear, a mysterious organism; and, hovering over it all, the power humans have to alter the world, in terrible and beautiful ways.
Mord was created by the Company, a biotechnology firm with the bad habit of engineering monstrosities and unleashing them on the city. He is enormous—three stories high on his side, as Rachel climbs him—and oh by the way, he can fly. Mord seems to obey no law other than his own impulses, ravaging the city at will, flying high and then crashing into buildings, destroying them. His creators at the Company, helpless to control him, have turned into his acolytes, subservient to the monster they’ve created. There’s little left in the blasted landscape to oppose the bear, though a mysterious character, the Magician, has been marshalling forces toward that end. Others, like Rachel, scavenge among the ruins. Children with body modifications wreak havoc where they can, and a host of normal bears—normal in size, but breathing fire—do Mord’s bidding.
Meanwhile, back at the Balcony Cliffs, the warren of apartments that Rachel and Wick have turned into a stronghold, Borne grows, morphs, begins to speak. He is a child, but he is not human, and he obeys no recognizable laws of biological organization: his body is amorphous, can become any shape he wills it to, and though he consumes everything in sight that’s edible, he produces no waste. Wick warns Rachel about Borne, to no avail, and Borne’s presence strains their relationship. In a brief moment of clarity, Rachel recognizes the danger:
The most basic and troubling puzzle? Even though so much went into Borne, nothing ever came out of Borne. This fact struck me as absurd, even humorously sinister. It actually made me giggle. No pellets. No dung. No little puddles. Nothing.
The idea of an organism that produces no waste is as concerning as, well, a behemoth bear capable of flight. It’s a brilliant touch on Vandermeer’s part, because it positions Borne as anti-ecological. He takes, but he does not give back. This kind of sly subversion marks Borne, as it does VanderMeer’s excellent Southern Reach trilogy: we are to be suspicious of isolation, of existence removed from its fundament. “Other than Mord, the poison rains, and the discarded biotech that could cause death or discomfort, the young were often the most terrible force in the city,” Rachel tells us. And why? “Nothing in their gaze could tell you they were human. They had no memories of the old word to anchor them or humble them or inspire them.” They are, in other words, cut off from the common ecosystem of humanity, however ill it might be, and have turned feral, half-mad, bloodthirsty.
Ecosystemic illness is an explicit theme in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, where humans have encountered the unknown—the truly, weirdly, reality-altering unknown—and have found themselves powerless to understand it. In those books, VanderMeer fully embraced the concept of “the weird.” The weird—as he and Ann VanderMeer wrote, in their introduction to The Weird, an anthology of weird tales that ranges from Kafka to Angela Carter, Jamaica Kincaid to George R. R. Martin—“represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane.” By turns strange, thrilling, terrifying, and mind-bending, the Southern Reach trilogy upended the usual idea that humans are in control. After an event of unknown origin creates rapid ecosystemic change in a coastal region, teams are sent to investigate. The world they discover is purified of human disruption, but it is not being returned to a prelapsarian state. Instead, unimaginable weirdness awaits: an inverted tower that twists down into the earth instead of rising up, a creature that makes an unearthly moaning sound, and most unsettling of all, a dolphin with an eye that looks, in VanderMeer’s words, “painfully human.” It is, however, the human-created ecosystems which look ill in comparison to this otherworldly terrain—intra-team dynamics that fray under pressure, familial histories of disappointment and failure, institutional rot and decay. Though the trilogy leaves many or even most of the big questions unanswered, the thought underneath the work leaves a distinct impression: if we are not willing to think the unthinkable, imagine the unimaginable, we are doomed to fail.
Borne, by contrast, is less weird, and somewhat optimistic. The unthinkable is now known: doom has come, in the form of a giant bear and a mysterious child-like organism. Ecosystemic collapse is a reality. Uncontrollable beasts destroy what remains of the ruined city and cults rise around enigmatic figures. But Rachel’s relationship with Borne sparks a new possibility, a sign that cultural transmission might still have power, might still create absolution, as we so often wish it to. Borne, mimetic and polymorphous, sucking up every piece of text he can find in the warren of the Balcony Cliffs, opens up that possibility, suggests that he, like the bear, can reimagine the broken city, perhaps even replenish it.
This possibility, however, is far from certain. Borne may turn out to be as dangerous as Wick thinks he is, and there’s still that flying bear to contend with. But within this desolate landscape, what else is there to do but try for redemption? Where the Southern Reach trilogy drew power from its weirding of readerly anticipation, Borne draws power from its embrace of narrative norms, promising a redemptive quest, a climactic battle, resolution. In the post-apocalypse, humanity must try to assert itself once again. Rachel, thinking of the Balcony Cliffs, says “there was a secret shape to it all that lived inside us, a map that slowly circled within our minds like a personal cosmology.” It’s not purely optimistic, after all—the Balcony Cliffs, reduced to barely more than a hovel and fortified with traps, is nothing like what it used to be—but it’s something: a map, a personal cosmology, a way through the wreckage. For those living in the ruins, it will have to do.
John Flynn-York is an MFA candidate in the UC Riverside–Palm Desert low residency creative writing program. He writes fiction, poetry, and essays.