Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne looks, at first sight, for all the world like a post-apocalypse novel. This is a familiar sub-genre of science fiction, starting maybe with Richard Jeffries’ After London (1885). It has flourished ever since, but examples tend to come in waves, triggered by one form or another of anxiety. The A-bomb/H-bomb era produced a score of them, most notably (in very different ways) Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz three years later. The general public by this time had learned a lot of new and alarming concepts, like “radioactivity,” “fall-out,” “mutant,” and, worst of all, “Mutual Assured Destruction.” It was only natural that authors should start to speculate, in fiction, about what all of this might actually mean.
Mean for us, that is. On the Beach was very clearly intended as a warning, and for the warning to work, it had to be focused on people we could identify with, average sort of people, people like us, struggling with a situation none of us would ever want to be in, still less actually vote for. In very recent years there has been another wave of warnings, notably Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse (2011), John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse (2012), and Chris Brown’s Tropic of Kansas (2017), to name three from a very crowded field.
What has gotten authors so alarmed now? Every scenario is different, but as the titles just given show, the likely end is felt to be no longer a bang but a whimper: climate change, economic collapse, energy failure, exhaustion of the Midwest water table, any combination of the above. One other characteristic of such novels is that, since they’re based on analyses of the real world, they involve not only ordinary people being forced to adapt, like college graduates turning into tribal scavengers: they also insist on giving us a diagnosis, a broad picture behind the individual tragedies and predicaments.
Borne, it turns out, isn’t like that at all. The scenario certainly looks very familiar. The central character is Rachel, and she lives in a ruined city, made almost uninhabitable by pollution and contamination. (Where is the city, though? No indication, which is immediately unusual.) She’s holed up in a kind of bunker in Balcony Cliffs, with her lover, Wick. Both are under constant threat from other scavengers, cannibals, packs of feral children, and they protect themselves with various forms of biotech, poison beetles and fireflies. Insofar as either of them has a way of living, it consists of Wick acting as a kind of bio-drug dealer, trading alcoholic minnows and diagnostic worms.
So where does their food come from? Surely scavenging in ruins cannot keep even a very reduced population going for long? Once again, no indication, no broad picture, and, very unusually, no interest in what is for most post-apocalypse writers the really important question: what went wrong?
The center of the story is Borne himself, or more correctly itself, and quite what he is (I retain the masculine pronoun as being as good as any other) remains, like everything else in the novel, a mystery. It may as well be said at the beginning that there are only three characters in the story, Rachel, Wick, and Borne, plus three other entities to take into consideration: The Magician, a female of unknown powers who dominates one area of the city; her enemy Mord, a gigantic bear who prowls the rest of it; and “the Company,” possibly the cause of the destruction, possibly extinct, but possibly still operating with reduced powers from its old headquarters.
Borne, then, first appears as Rachel is cautiously scavenging along Mord’s gigantic flanks, to see if there are any leftovers she can use. She sees Borne clinging to his fur “like a half-closed stranded sea-anemone,” strobing green and purple. She plucks him from Mord’s sleeping body and takes him home, as a curiosity. Slowly she realizes, first that Borne can change shape and grow, and second that he can converse. Whatever else he is, he is an intelligent being.
To start with, the relationship between Borne and Rachel is that of child and mother. But as he grows, strange things about him become apparent. One is that he grows by absorbing other life — the lizards and rats that still prowl Balcony Cliffs. Although he grows, however, and appears to be eating, he does not excrete. Later on he will insist that he never kills anything, he only absorbs, digests, and everything he absorbs “is still alive. In me.”
This does not seem very reassuring, given that one of the things he has absorbed is a pack of feral children trying to break their way into Rachel’s bunker. Could he, like a pet python, turn on his owner? There is another threat, which is that he is a shape-shifter. Rachel knows this, but she does not recognize the full potential danger until the moment when she calls unannounced on Wick and sees him with — herself. Only it’s not herself, it’s Borne. But if he can imitate her to her lover, he could also have imitated her lover to her. Who has she been sleeping with? Does this explain why Rachel and Wick have been increasingly failing to communicate? Because they haven’t been talking to each other at all, but only to their protean companion?
Much of the center of the novel, then, becomes an account of a kind of love-triangle gone wrong, with the kind of clichés one might expect. “I need my space . . . I would never hurt you” . . . “Do you love me?” Only, of course, in this context they aren’t clichés any more. The contorted relationship makes them all more threatening and more mysterious than everyday betrayals.
Meanwhile the micro-politics of the polluted city evolve. Mord, who is not only gigantic but also capable of flight, is shot down by the Magician’s guns and missiles, though this does not put an end to his proxies, feral bear-packs. Borne becomes a kind of leader of the city’s outcasts, rats and people and foxes. Some hints of the past start to leak out. Rachel remembers life on an island, with her father and mother, from which they were driven by rising waters into a succession of refugee camps. But as for what went wrong, hints are all we get.
Is Borne, then, meant like other post-apocalypse scenarios to function as a kind of warning, and if so, why is the warning never made explicit? Much of the story, like the gigantic flying bear, seems to be edging towards myth, with no rational explanation. Should we take it perhaps as an allegory, prompted by remarks which seem more powerful, more generally applicable, than is demanded by their context? Some people in the city think they have died already and are in Purgatory or Hell, being punished. “We cared,” says Rachel at one point, confessing a collective guilt, “but we didn’t do.”
Yes, but what is it we should have done? The running theme of the book is biotech. Biotech was the business of the Company, biotech is the livelihood of Wick, both Mord and Borne must be creations of biotech in one way or another, both of them experiments that have gotten out of hand. Looking at it that way, the role-model for Borne must be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, from two hundred years ago. Borne is the monster created in a laboratory, and like Mary Shelley’s character, he is only doubtfully a monster: the question he keeps asking is “Am I a person?” Rachel meanwhile is only half a Dr. Frankenstein. She didn’t create Borne, but she mothered him, fostered him, nurtured him.
The underlying message, nevertheless, seems to be the same. Don’t try to create life. Don’t meddle with forces you don’t and can’t understand. In a way, that’s very contrary to the normal science fiction ethos. In the regular post-apocalypse scenarios, things go wrong, of course, but as a result of misjudgement, over-confidence, greed, short-termism. The idea that science itself is at fault rarely if ever surfaces. Indeed, it’s a kind of science fiction mantra that science cannot be suppressed. If you opt not to do what’s possible, someone else will. Better to do it yourself, and do it right.
One of the things they tell you at Harvard (which doesn’t mean, of course, that it must be true) is that you cannot evaluate a work of art until you know its genre. In this case, approaching Borne with the expectation that it will conform to the post-apocalyptic canons leaves you in the end puzzled and perhaps frustrated. Gigantic flying bears just don’t make sense, not within science fiction.
Best to take it, then, as a personal vision, a kind of dream or nightmare, intrinsically inter-generic. Think of the “grim shape” that Wordsworth saw in his vision, such that “huge and mighty forms, that do not live / Like living men, moved slowly through the mind / By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.” I still don’t know quite what he’s afraid of, but I would not like to share Mr. VanderMeer’s dreams.
Photo credit: A red lionfish seen at the Tasik Ria diving resort in Manado, Indonesia. Photo by Jens Petersen via Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 3.0)