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Borne by Jeff VanderMeerFive stars
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Imagine if China Miéville had written My Neighbor Totoro, and you might begin to get an idea of how powerfully strange and wondrous a creation Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne is. Even then, that’s underselling VanderMeer’s achievement, because this is a story very much in keeping with the sensibilities of the exemplary novelist who brought us the Southern Reach trilogy, and who has now steered his themes of ecocatastrophe and the relationship between humanity and the environment in an altogether new direction.

Where the Southern Reach Trilogy threw readers headfirst down the rabbit hole of its surrealism, to the point where the final novel played out like an extended apocalyptic fever dream, VanderMeer gives Borne a much more conventional adventure narrative. It’s an approach that sacrifices none of the haunting qualities of Annihilation, but adds a stronger grounding in plot and character. It also has a kaiju-sized flying bear that smashes entire city blocks like so many Legos, and who would definitely give Leonardo di Caprio something like Vietnam flashbacks. Borne is one of those books that ends up being a masterpiece not just for its entertainment value, but the conviction VanderMeer has put behind its sheer storytelling audacity. Borne is just one of the damnedest novels I’ve ever read. But it’s also one of the most thrilling, suspenseful and heart-wrenching. It believes passionately in itself on every page, and that passion infects your own reading of it.

Rachel is a young woman doing her best to survive in a world wracked by environmental disaster. She can remember a time when things were normal, and then grew less normal, and she can remember her parents, who did their best to maintain a sense of normalcy even as sea levels were rising and the world was collapsing around them. At some point she cannot remember, Rachel lost her parents, and now scavenges in a nameless, ruined city with her partner Wick, who breeds biotech drugs that he trades with other survivors.

The city itself is home to two warring powers who mostly operate offstage, while our focus remains on Rachel and Wick, hiding out in an overgrown apartment block they called the Balcony Cliffs, which they’ve disguised and booby trapped for their own protection as best they can. The Company, one of those sinister organizations you know is sinister because their very name is both generic and monolithic, is Wick’s former employer, who decided to use the city as its private laboratory, creating and testing all manner of hostile biotech upon its desperate survivors. One of these experiments became Mord, a mutated bear who’s three stories tall when he lies down, and who originally acted as security for the Company’s headquarters. He’s kind of his own bear now, though. As for the Company, it isn’t clear that they were responsible for the global catastrophe in the first place — that appears to have mostly been the cumulative fault of humanity at large — but they’ve definitely jumped on the opportunity to exploit the results for whatever nebulous goal they have in mind.

Mord now patrols the poisoned streets where many survivors think of him as a god. The Company, meanwhile, is opposed by a rogue calling herself the Magician, holed up in a distant observatory, and who has nebulous goals of her own about “the future,” whatever that might involve. In case it isn’t apparent, VanderMeer is openly riffing on epic fantasy tropes here: two mighty, warring powers seeking control of their realm. But VanderMeer has a different storytelling agenda here. Whereas epic fantasy most often cares only about the powers, Borne is a novel partly about those caught in the middle of the conflict, who only want to stay alive. It is also, in its own darkly magical way, about family.

While out scavenging one day, Rachel climbs right up onto the flank of the sleeping Mord — whose forest of fur commonly collects all manner of random biotech and useful trash — and discovers a curious and unique lifeform, a kind of cephalopod-like blob of biomass that may have emerged from one of the Company’s many perverse failed experiments. But it’s alive, and Rachel names it Borne and takes it back home, where it very quickly begins to grow and display surprising intelligence and autonomy. Wick is immediately (and understandably) wary. For one thing, Borne produces no waste product. A lot goes in — Borne seems especially fond of lizards — but nothing comes out. One day, Borne begins talking.

Probably the book’s most remarkable achievement is getting us to love this strange little blobby organism. But even moreso is how effortlessly VanderMeer makes us believe the maternal bond Rachel develops for him (and Borne is only a “him” because Rachel defaults to that for convenience). Borne starts out as a child, trying to learn and make sense of his world. He learns at first by mimicry. His has a child’s lack of guile. One day when Rachel takes Borne outside to look upon the city for the first time, Borne takes in the sight of its ruined buildings and toxic, miasmic rivers and sees only beauty. He has no frame of reference to see it any other way, and it’s infectious. He and Rachel play games, and she does her best to instill in Borne a sense of his own personhood, while Wick remains suspicious and cautious. Because whatever Borne is, and however human his emerging behaviors may seem, he — or it — is most definitely not a person, regardless of how good he eventually gets as morphing his gelatinous form into the semblance of a human body. For one thing, early in the story, Rachel is viciously attacked by a mob of feral children, who quickly vanish, after which Borne seems to have gotten a little bigger. It’s not hard to add two and two. Is Borne really an innocent let loose into a harsh world? Or was he made to be something like a weapon?

The story progresses, unlike the Southern Reach novels, in an accessible way, following a three-act structure that heightens the tension and action as plot complications build. There’s one spectacular set-piece where Mord goes on an awesome giant-bear city-demolishing rampage after a failed attack by the Magician, and Mord’s many proxies — a mob of normal-sized, venomous bears — terrorize the survivors. But at the heart of all of this is a tender and often heartbreaking story of a mother and her “child,” a child who doesn’t know or understand what he is, or why he is, or why the world is so broken or what he has to do to fix it. And it’s about that specific moment of anguish and pathos in every mother’s life, when the child is no longer a child, and it’s time to let him go.