Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer
NYC, MCD Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 2017, hardcover $26.00 (323 [+ 2] pages), Kindle $12.99.
Borne is a science-fiction novel, not a furry novel. That’s Borne on the cover. No furry author has ever featured an animal quite like him – if he is an animal.
“WHAT I FOUND AND HOW I FOUND IT
I found Borne on a sunny gunmetal day when the giant bear Mord came roving near our home. To me, Borne was just salvage at first. I didn’t know what Borne would mean to us. I couldn’t know that he would change everything.
Borne was not much to look at that first time: dark purple and about the size of my fist, clinging to Mord’s fur like a half-closed stranded sea anemone. I found him only because, beacon-like, he strobed emerald green across the purple every half minute or so.
Come close, I could smell the brine, rising in a wave, and for a moment there was no ruined city around me, no search for food and water, no roving gangs and escaped, altered creatures of unknown origin or intent. No mutilated, burned bodies dangling from broken streetlamps.” (p. 3)
Mord, the giant, floating, ever-hungry bear, is almost as fascinating.
“No one, not even Wick, knew why the Company hadn’t seen the day coming when Mord would transform from their watchdog to their doom – why they hadn’t tried to destroy Mord while they still held that power. Now it was too late, for not only had Mord become a behemoth, but, by some magic of engineering extorted from the Company, he had learned to levitate, to fly.
By the time I had reached Mord’s resting place, he shuddered in earthquake-like belches of uneasy sleep, his nearest haunch rising high above me. Even on his side, Mord rose three stories. He was drowsy from sated bloodlust; his thoughtless sprawl had leveled a building, and pieces of soft-brick rubble had mashed out to the sides, repurposed as Mord’s bed in slumber.” (pgs. 4-5)
But Mord is not anthropomorphic. He is just a giant, floating, ever-hungry bear, dripping with unknown things. Including Borne.
“I knew nothing about Borne and treated him like a plant at first. It seemed logical from my initial observations. The first time Borne felt comfortable enough to relax and open up, I was sitting down to a quiet dinner of old Company food packets I’d found buried in a half-collapsed basement. He was sitting on the table in front of me, as enigmatic as ever. Then, mid-chew, I heard a whining noise and a distinctly wet pucker. As I set down the packet, the aperture on top of Borne widened, releasing a scent like roses and tapioca. The sides of Borne peeled back in segments to reveal delicate dark-green tendrils that even in their writhing protected the still-hidden core.
Without thinking, I said, ‘Borne, you’re not a sea anemone at all – you’re a plant!’” (pgs. 17-18)
But Borne is not a plant. And he doesn’t stay rooted or small for long.
“Borne was also growing. Yes, growing. I hadn’t wanted to admit it at first, because the idea of growth carried with it the idea of a more radical change, the thought of a child becoming an adult. In how many species did the transformation become radical, the parent so different from the juvenile? So yes, by the end of the first month, although the process had been gradual, I could no longer deny that Borne had tripled in size.” (p. 24)
The narrator (eventually identified as Rachel) is not the only person in the ruined city. There is Wick, her partner. There is the Magician, their enemy. There are other scavengers. Some used to be human.
“Other than Mord, the poison rains, and the odd discarded biotech that could cause death or discomfort, the young were often the most terrible force in the city. Nothing in their gaze could tell you the were human. They had no memories of the old world to anchor them or humble them or inspire them. Their parents were probably dead or worse, and the most terrible and transformative violence had been visited upon them from the earliest of ages.
There were five of them, and four had traded their eyes for green-gold wasps that curled into their sockets and compounded their vision. Claws graced their hands like sharp commas. Scales at their throats burned red when they breathed. One wing sighed bellows-like out of the naked back of the shortest, the one who still had slate-gray human eyes. After a while, I wished he’d had wasps instead.” (p. 30)
The children sadistically torture Rachel and leave her apartment, taking Borne. Wick discovers and helps her. They find Borne alone outside Rachel’s apartment. There is no sign of the children.
“Borne stood at least half a foot taller than that afternoon, his base thicker and more robust. On the chair, he came up to my shoulders. I couldn’t see that any harm had come to him – he still had that perfect symmetry. He was beautiful in that darkness. He was powerful.
‘It’s just me,’ Borne said.
I screamed. I stumbled back, looking for a weapon – a stick, a knife, anything. His voice sounded just like the rasp of the boy with the gray eyes.
‘Just me,’ Borne said. ‘Borne.’
Just me. (pgs. 35-36)
This review could be filled with excerpts showing Borne growing up. What Borne becomes, what his relationship to Rachel is, what the city and the Company were and what happened to them, what happened to the other people in the city – what happens, present tense — read Borne to find out.
“Then Borne changed shape into something huge and tremulous, but also something long and low and streamlined and snakelike. He sped off at such a frightening pace that he was just a thick black line zigzagging across the roof and then gone, over the side.” (p. 224)
Borne (cover by Tyler Comrie and Rodrigo Corral) is a fascinating and eerie novel. It’s not a furry novel, but it does have a talking – animal?
“‘What are those doing there, Borne?’ They did loll, they did sag, the faces looking down at the floor. Those were three dead bodies on the wall, three skeleton corpses.
‘Oh, the dead astronauts? The fox said I needed to jazz up the place. I needed to give it some pizzazz, some oomph.’
I was rendered speechless by so many parts of what he’d said. Foxes. Dead astronauts. Least of all, jazz, pizazz, oomph – three words he never should have used outside of the books he found them in. But that wasn’t the point.
‘They’re not dead astronauts. The fox told you what?’
‘Never mind,’ Borne said. ‘It was a joke. I was joking. Now, what did you come over for? How can I help you.’
How can I help you?
‘Those are three dead skeletons on the wall, Borne.’
‘Yes, Rachel. I took them from the crossroads. I thought they would look nice in here.’” (p. 142)
Even discounting Borne himself, the novel is filled with vivid imagery.
“The seventh night, I slept in Wick’s quarters, and Mord, far above, slept over us, sprawled across the sea of loam and debris that covered the Balcony Cliffs. We experienced his breathing as a haunted depth charge that tumbled down through the layers, the beams, and the drywall, the supporting columns and the cracking archways. The sound of it permeated the atoms of a dozen ceilings, vibrated through our bodies. We felt it in our flesh after we heard it in our ears, and it lingered longer under the skin.” (p. 47)
Jeff VanderMeer is a major new s-f author, and Borne has been reviewed in many major magazines and newspapers. The New Yorker says in its review, “VanderMeer belongs to a loose group of literary writers, the New Weird, […]” Borne is certainly weird. Wired titled its review, “Jeff VanderMeer’s New Novel Makes Dystopia Seem Almost Fun”. Borne is almost certain to be a 2017 Hugo nominee. Paramount Pictures has optioned Borne for an upcoming feature film.
- Book on Author’s site
- New Yorker review
- Wired review
- “‘Borne’ Is a Beautiful, Bizarre Sci-Fi Novel with a Gigantic, Flying Bear” – Vice
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