Jeff VanderMeer’s Apocalypse
With humanity’s penchant for genetic manipulation I fear it’s only a matter of time before our unruly experiments give birth to some sort of monstrosity we’ll regret conceiving. While our capabilities in this realm are still quite far away from the realms of science-fiction, the basis for their development already exists and serves as a powerful fuel for our imaginations. Jeff VanderMeer, in his novel Borne , takes us into a rather bleak-looking future where biotechnology has far exceeded humanity’s grasp on it and has led to a veritable dystopia. In this world begins the story of Rachel, a scavenger who one day makes a discovery that will change everything for everyone.
To put things into perspective for a second, there was an organization called The Company, and it bioengineered mankind’s downfall, unleashing amongst many other things on this Earth a giant flying bear named Mord that terrorizes the city. While officially The Company is no more, there are persisting rumours of them continuing their work in the dark, sending their specimens into areas unspoiled by man’s touch. Coming back to Rachel, while looking through some ruins she comes across a small green lump, and recognizes it as some sort of creature, one she decides to take with her to one of humanity’s last bastions. She convinces her drug-peddling lover not to turn the blob she affectionately named Borne into raw materials, but soon grows suspicious of his intentions after finding a burnt and unreadable journal titled “Mord” in his apartment. He is clearly hiding something from her, something that stems from his time working for the company.
A World of Terror and Comedy
To begin with this novel, one must first look at the insane world that VanderMeer managed to build here. In terms of his ability to create a dystopian future, the author is certainly one of the best at it, describing in very captivating details the series of events that led to the fall of Man. We can feel the ravages of uncontrollable climates and imagine the sorts of dangers we’ve exposed ourselves to be leaving biotechnological development unchecked. He manages to create a world where hope is in short supply and memories from the glorious days past are slowly fading away, no matter how hard anyone tries to cling to them.
At the same time however, I would say that the author’s world is also one that leaves place for absurdity and comedy. For instance, the giant flying bear Mord (by giant I mean building-sized) is a notable exercise in the ridiculous, as is Borne itself, a shape-shifting, talking and reflective creature in its very own right. If you manage to suspend your disbelief a bit, you’ll see that under the surface it’s also a coming-of-age story, where a green bioengineered lump is the one making all the discoveries and whatnot.
A Meditation About Ourselves
While the book has a strong enough plot with a sense of danger and mystery to it, to me it felt like it seldom took precedence over the reflections VanderMeer had to make. While in the first half things move along at an enjoyable pace, somewhere around that point things start to feel like they’re dragging on, and the pace suffers until you get to the last fifty pages or so. I wouldn’t say it’s enough to make people avoid this book, but you probably won’t be reading through those sections in one sitting. Things get a tad boring, and I find the best approach to such a situation is to divide the reading into multiple sessions.
Looking away from the plot itself, Borne is a profound story that asks many questions about human nature, the kind that probably won’t have answers anytime soon. Why are we here? Do we have some sort of a purpose? Does our uniqueness divide us? What does it mean to be a person? Why does evil exist? How do we define sentient life? Do the ends justify the means? What are the chances of there actually being an afterlife? As we see Borne struggling with all these questions, we are reminded of just how much in common we have with the tiny green blob. We are encouraged to find our own answers to these questions, just like our unusual protagonist does.
When looking away from the relationship between Rachel and Borne, however, I found the book to be a bit lacking in terms of the dynamics between various characters and the ideas pondered on by the author. Rachel’s relationship with her drug-dealing partner, Wick, always feels rather underdeveloped, especially since Rachel herself doesn’t pull any punches in her description of him. Most of the other people feel either like placeholders or plot devices more than anything.
The Final Verdict
Though Borne may be a tad far from a perfect novel, it remains an engaging and interesting piece of science-fiction literature that has a lot to offer if you are able to look past its flaws. It has a wealth of food for the mind and a story that, despite the lull in the middle, is still quite captivating, especially considering the characters that drive it forward. It’s a book that tries to walk off the beaten path and give us something different, which is why I ultimately recommend it to sci-fi fans.
Jeff VanderMeer is an American literary critic, author and editor whose works have been noticed far and wide, with Annihilation having received the Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards as well as being adapted into film. He has also edited with the help of his wife some award-winning anthologies, including The New Weird, and The Big Book of Science Fiction. His works are best-recognized for their postmodernist and post-apocalyptic elements.