Following his triumphant trek through Area X in the cerebral Southern Reach series, Jeff VanderMeer mounts a more modest yet no less affecting expedition into uncharted territory by way of Borne, a surprisingly beautiful book about a blob which behaves like a boy and the broken woman who takes him in.
Her name is Rachel, and when she was little, she “wanted to be a writer, or at least something other than a refugee. Not a trap-maker. Not a scavenger. Not a killer.” But we are what the world makes us, and no poxy author would have lasted long in the world in which this novel’s narrator was raised:
Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.
There is hope even in this haunted hellscape, however, and it takes a strange shape, as hope tends to: that of “a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours” Rachel finds in the festering fur of a skyscraper-sized flying bear called Mord.
She brings the titular thing, Borne-to-be, back to the Balcony Cliffs, a broken-down apartment building where she lives and works with Wick, her sometime lover and a secretive biotech beetle dealer who pushes a memory-altering product “as terrible and beautiful and sad and sweet as life itself.” Out of the gate, Rachel intends to give her purplish prize to him to pick at—but something, the beginning of some instinct, stays her hand. Instead, she places it in her room, and tries to take care of it.
“This required some experimenting, in part because [she] had never taken care of anyone or anything before,” but equally because her amorphous mass is a complete mystery. Certainly Wick has never seen its like, and having worked once for the Company, he has seen everything there is to see. To wit, Rachel treats this colourful clump like a plant to start; reclassifies it as an animal after it starts to move around her room; and then, when it shocks her by talking, she takes to behaving around it as she would a baby boy. She talks to him; teaches him; comes, ultimately, to love him—and he her in turn.
This all happens fast—in a matter of months at most. Rachel’s experience is in many ways that of a parent’s, albeit with the long years squeezed into brief weeks. Crucially, though, little data is lost in the compression process. VanderMeer’s focus on the magical and the miserable moments of motherhood is so fine that by the time Borne is grown, it feels like a life has been lived, and an unbreakable bond formed. Thus, when that bond is broken, and that life almost lost, it is as momentous and as moving as it needs to be in a novel that may feature dizzying grizzlies and biotech-bred beasts but is at bottom about a relationship most sacred.
That’s not to say there aren’t some weird and wonderful things happening in the background. “Strange things were flourishing,” in fact. More bears have joined the monolithic monster that is Mord, and the Magician—another outcast from the Company in direct competition with Wick—is somehow changing the city’s children:
A growing army of acolytes helped make her drugs and protected her territory against Mord and the others; Wick had only his peculiar swimming pool, the bastion of the Balcony Cliffs, a scavenger-woman who could make traps but kept secrets from him, and a creature of unknown potential that he desired to cast out. […] Worse, the rumoured Mord proxies had finally made their presence known and seemed more bloodthirsty than their progenitor. They knew no rule of law, not even the natural law of sleep.
Both Mord’s proxies and the Magician’s children make moves against the ragtag family that call the Balcony Cliffs base camp, but this aspect of the narrative only really takes centre stage come the cacophonous climax, which boasts a long-in-the-coming confrontation, a couple of great character-based revelations and a truly vast battle made all the more majestic by the relative restraint its author displays elsewhere. Deliberately, I dare say:
There comes a moment when you witness events so epic you don’t know how to place them in the cosmos or in relation to the normal workings of a day. Worse, when these events recur, at an ever greater magnitude, in a cascade of what you have never seen before and do not know how to classify. Troubling because each time you acclimate, you move on, and, if this continues, there is a mundane grandeur to the scale that renders certain events beyond rebuke or judgment, horror or wonder, or even the grasp of history.
Happily, despite the presence of a big ol’ robot bear, an invisible woman whose gadgets basically make her magic and a talking blob that can in time take on any shape it dares—despite, in other words, the creative freedoms VanderMeer gleefully flexes in this fiction now that his very deliberate and massively taxing trilogy is done—Borne doesn’t give us the chance to acclimate to the action, or to the fantastic.
It has both, of course, but it isn’t ever overburdened by either. At heart, Borne is a small story, a sweet story, a sad story; a cunningly punning, playful and flavourful exploration of parenthood more interested in feelings and in fun than fungus. It’s definitely one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read, and it may well be one of the best. Bravo.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.