The thing I’ve always loved best about science fiction, above even space ships, time travel, and aliens, has been the way it offers lenses through which we can see a little more clearly our own humanity, however warped the glass – in many cases because of that warp. By seeing ourselves alongside humanoids that are, in fact, extreme versions of human traits; by seeing the results of our own actions and inactions extrapolated out into horrifying or gleaming futures; by experiencing the awe of us at our very best; we can recognize what we are a little more fully. The best science fiction uses the unfamiliar and the strange to reacquaint us with what it means to be a person.
BORNE, by Jeff Vandermeer, is a novel that accomplishes all these things. It offers a view on climate change, genetic manipulation, the nature of love, and the strangeness of time, all the while being a strange narrative, brimming with enormous flying bears, alcohol fish, a wizard, children spliced with tech and animal parts, and above all, a shape-shifting creature dubbed Borne.
Shades of Love
Rachel is a scavenger clinging to survival in a strange city, where lives can be wiped out in one blood-misted instant when Morde, the giant flying bear that has overthrown its creators and runs rampant, gets cantankerous and sweeps his paw through a few buildings. Still, Rachel has a home in Balcony Cliffs with her boyfriend Wick, whom she loves in spite of his secrets.
Then she finds Borne. A small, plant-like thing clinging to Morde’s fur. She takes Borne back to Balcony Cliffs, where Wick suggests he be broken down for information, and salvage. Rachel refuses, and instead begins learning to care for what she thinks is a plant.
Very soon, that plant reveals its ability to speak telepathically, and begins to look more like an upside-down squid.
Rachel embarks on the task of raising Borne, innocent and tremulous and strange, as if he is her child. She helps him find food, she tries to pass to him the lessons her dead parents taught her, and in return he makes her laugh, he challenges her, and he reminds her of the things in her terrible world that are beautiful. Rachel’s relationship with Borne is one rarely depicted in science fiction with this sort of depth: it is that of a parent and child, with all its joy, tedium, heartbreak, and uncertainty.
Rachel is uplifted by Borne’s accomplishments. She laughs as they race down hallways. She worries that she isn’t teaching Borne enough. She sets aside Wick’s questions about what Borne is, ignores any warning signs that he might be dangerous, and doesn’t wonder too deeply about the fact that Borne’s droppings are never anywhere to be seen.
When Borne asks, “Am I a person?” Rachel always answers “Yes.”
She mourns Borne’s rapid growth, how quickly it seems he stops needing her guidance, just as any sappy parent would when their kid starts school. This relationship, between a woman and a shape-shifting piece of biotech, rings true because it is as difficult as it is wonderful.
Equally complex is Rachel’s relationship with Wick. Here is a couple often left wondering why they’re together, especially as Borne grows and inserts himself more and more into their relationship. They have a good partnership, with Rachel going out into the city to scavenge for parts, while Wick takes what she brings back and uses it to create more biotech to sell. But they also have secrets, ones that threaten to drive them apart.
Like a real couple, they struggle to communicate at times. At others, they synchronize well. There are moments in the novel when they both fight for what they want, rather than what’s best for the other person. And there are others when they make sacrifices to save each other. What they have is ultimately rich, dynamic, and in constant flux. And in the end, they need each other to survive.
Time in BORNE can be strange. Rachel often casts back in her memory to better times with her parents, especially when she is struggling to raise her murderous, tentacled pseudo-child, and so flashbacks abound. The miserable present frequently becomes all the bleaker juxtaposed against the moments when Rachel’s parents took her out for a celebratory meal.
But on a smaller scale, BORNE also tends to put events together based off their relationship to one another, rather than when they occurred. In one particular instance, Borne and Rachel are hiding on a rooftop, watching as the spliced children they believed would kill them are slaughtered by the giant bears who most certainly will kill them. The battle between these two groups is described in gory detail from beginning to end, and then there is a break in the narrative. Rachel then describes what Borne was saying over the course of the combat. And then the narrative jumps back into the bear now climbing the stairs, seeking them.
This arrangement means that the battle between the spliced children and the bears goes uninterrupted, and then the reader gets to see, separated out for emphasis, Borne’s commentary on this moment. If these things had happened together on the page, the horror of the slaughter would have been broken up, and Borne’s thoughts on it would have been lost in the chaos. Time jumps, which are very often done to challenge a reader to play mental hopscotch, in this case give the reader more clarity. There’s no need to recall that moment when the Wizard first appeared to Rachel as she encounters the mysterious figure’s meddling in her life: the two things are placed together, and so their importance is clear.
The way time is broken also makes a great deal of sense in light of what has happened to Rachel. By the end, we discover that Wick once removed the memories of her parents’ death, so that she could move on with her life. And so Rachel’s life is split, into a time before her parents died, and the time after. In order to bridge the gap between, she must hold moments up and compare them, tearing apart time to make sense of what is happening around her.
I think one of the best lessons a writer can take from BORNE is the importance of complexity in relationships between characters. This novel presents love in so many different shapes, even though Rachel only has two primary relationships over the course of the novel. The task of parenting Borne is full of missteps and successes, and moves rapidly from Borne as helpless plant-thing to Borne as threatening monstrosity.
There is all the tender love, all the dull frustration, and all the fear (rational and irrational) of a genuine relationship between a parent and a child. Nothing about this is distilled or simple. Rachel might defend and romanticize Borne’s innocence, but all the while she suspects that he is much more than he seems. She watches with thrill and discomfort as he grows. And ultimately, she is left feeling that she failed him even as she assures herself that she could not have done any differently.
Rachel’s relationship to Wick also has a raw realness to it. They each struggle for control, try to do what is best for one another, break one another’s trust, and ride all the ups and downs of a close partnership. It is only by accepting the things they can never know about each other, accepting the wounds that each has suffered at the other’s hands, that they are able to at last live together in peace.
BORNE is a reminder that we as writers will do well to look at the ways people love one another, with all its depth and uncertainty and trials.
The way time works in BORNE is a technique that requires less careful observation and representation of human behavior, but much more planning and consideration. Here, time is pieced out and broken up, and events are positioned according to their relationship with each other, rather than their chronological order. This is a tactic that could very easily confuse readers if it’s overdone, but BORNE achieves balance and remains effective.
This, quite frankly, is exactly the sort of thing that I find the most challenging to accomplish when I’m writing. I imagine that taking this approach requires either extensive outlining or very careful editing. Regardless of the technique, it is time well spent, because when it’s done well, events in the book reverberate much more strongly than they might have otherwise.
Calling the Reader
Ultimately, BORNE is a novel full of complexity, strangeness, and big ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, less for its moments of tension (which it certainly has) and more for the ways it forced me to think. This is a book that trusts its readers, and even challenges them to keep up and consider more deeply. I appreciated that, and I dare to say that most readers do.
This is one of the greatest challenges of writing: to not only entertain readers, but also to trust them to follow along whatever strange paths we might take them.