Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Format: eBook, courtesy of NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Secondary Format: audiobook, read by Bahni Turpin
Start Date: June 13, 2017
End Date: June 18, 2017
Rating: 3 stars
There had never been a time when all the people everywhere lived in peace. No one had ever had a lasting peace without ignoring atrocity or history, which meant it wasn’t lasting at all. Which meant we were an irrational species.
Jeff VanderMeer’s latest book, Borne, tells the story of one woman’s struggles in a horrifying dystopian future: where she (Rachel) must scavenge for biotech to survive, where a giant bear (Mord) and the Wizard vie to rule, and where any weakness will kill you.
It is on one such scavenging trip that she finds Borne, stuck on the fur of Mord:
…like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as water-worn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passion flowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled much different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form.
To Rachel, Borne looks and smells like the island refuge she and her parents enjoyed for two years before the discarded biotech of the Company ravaged their oasis with its poison and pollution. Borne represented a better time in her life, a time where she felt happy and at peace. And this was why, regardless of the fact that Borne might be dangerous, that he might cause trouble not only for her and Wick but for the rest of the city, she decided to keep him and raise him.
But, as Borne grew and developed, he began to ask what he was, as all children tend to do to understand themselves: “What am I?” It is something Borne struggled to answer about himself, with growing desperation – who was he? where did he come from? who made him? why was he there? – questions Rachel herself wasn’t even able to answer because she did not know either. He was unique, but who – or what – was he? At one point, Borne is trying to answer just that, filtering through possibility after possibility, but ultimately frustrated because there is no answer to be found in the confines of his own mind:
My name is Borne.
I came here from a distant star.
I came here from the moon, like the dead astronauts. I was made by the Company.
I was made by someone.
I am not actually alive.
I am a robot.
I am a person.
I am a weapon.
I am not/intelligent.
What if I am the only one? What if I cannot die?
What if no one made me?
Ultimately, this book seeks to define what makes a person a person.
Wick never believed he was a person, was continually being undone by that. Borne was always trying to be a person because I wanted him to be one, because he thought that was right. We all want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.
One of the things I struggled with while reading this book was the feeling that Borne (the book, not the character) was trying to be too many things at once: a comedy, an allegory, a warning call, a message of hope, an intelligent piece of fiction. However, that’s not to say that makes the book bad. On the contrary, this idea of Borne being a complex melding and mixing of ideas and thoughts and feelings is one of the things that makes the book so powerful.
I really liked the personality of Borne (the character, not the book). He was complex and interesting and unique. I liked watching his development from “child” to “adolescent” to “adult,” for in many ways it mirrored the development of humans. He showed childlike curiosity and instability toward learning; he showed an adolescence desire for independence and freedom; and he showed an adult’s deepest desire: to understand why he was there and to figure out how to make a difference in the world around him.
Overall, Borne was an interesting look at this future, desolate, and nameless world. It didn’t question or delve into how it got to that point, instead, it gleaned over the details of how the Company essentially poisoned the Earth. Instead, the book is more concerned with the present: how do people survive and live, how to people feel about themselves and others, what relationships do people have, etc.? It follows these people – namely Rachel, Wick, and Borne – as they seek to understand the world as it is around them and how they fit in.
I think one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I might otherwise have is, because it was so dense, I don’t think it necessarily lent itself well to an audiobook format. This is the kind of book that you need to really read, immerse yourself in, and give yourself time to digest. (Though I will admit that one of the best things about the audiobook was the narrator’s impersonation of Borne!)
I also was a little disappointed by the vagueness of how the world got to the state it was in and wanted more details in terms of the specific role the Company played; my personal dissatisfaction may have slightly tinged my overall view of the book. Even though the way the book was written makes logical sense: the characters themselves would probably only have limited knowledge of what events happened as they gradually occurred over time, and left with only rumors after the “main event.” The author makes a point of saying as much:
Names of people, of places, meant so little, and so we had stopped burdening others by seeking them. The map of the old horizon was like being haunted by a grotesque fairy tale, something that when voiced came out not as words but as sounds in the aftermath of an atrocity. Anonymity amongst all the wreckage of the Earth, this was what I sought. And a good pair of boots for when it got cold. And an old tin of soup half hidden in the rubble. These things became blissful; how could we names have power next to that?
I do feel like a thorough reread of this book later down the line will instill a better understanding of the breadth and depth of this book as a whole.
I don’t want to dissuade you from this book, and if the premise sounds interesting to you, definitely give it a go! Even though I didn’t personally like it, I must say that Jeff VanderMeer is a great writer. The story itself is very well-written, both in terms of style and plot development. The characters (Rachel, Wick, Borne) are very complex and well-developed as well. The cover is also very eye-catching and one of the main reasons I was drawn to this book.
Thank you to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for an advanced copy of this eBook in exchange for an honest review!