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February 11, 2018


Jeff VanderMeer is a name elusive even to the well-read despite having made a break very recently in mainstream literature with his Southern Reach trilogy of novels — Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance. For quite some time, though, he has been writing for and publishing anthologies. His trademark genre is the New Weird, that breaks boundaries between speculative genres such as horror and sci-fi and sets them awry, and much of his recent work focuses on environmental fiction, also known as eco-fiction. He was even on the judges’ panel for the Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction, Pakistan’s first and arguably most prestigious speculative fiction writing award.

The novel Borne is VanderMeer’s latest work. Set in an unnamed, futuristic, post-apocalyptic city, the story follows Rachel, the protagonist, as she manoeuvres through the sparse and crumbled terrain, hunting and foraging for food, scavenging for resources, fighting those who want to kill her and killing those who pick a fight. There is little else to her life: survive, survive, survive... then go home to her companion Wick — part lover, part worker, an ex-Company employee who makes drugs and trinkets to sell for money. Rachel brings him engineered animals called Biotech, which Wick deconstructs and rebuilds as tiny beetles and worms capable of attacking people, healing them and even giving them hallucinogenic visions so they forget their dying world.

The Balcony Cliffs where the two spend most of their time is a warren of rooms and corridors hanging off the edge of a precipice, overlooking the rest of the city, and this is where most of the book takes place. It is a vantage point for our protagonist, and that is pretty much all that matters for us to know — the city has little geographical structure in VanderMeer’s writing. What we are supposed to know is the division of power: part of the city is in the clutches of the Magician, a shadowy character and a powerful rival to Wick and his drug-beetles. Part of it is overrun with the feral children — normal kids that have mutated and developed wasp-eyes and claw-hands, bolstered by their manufactured powers, but no longer human. Another part of it is the ‘Company’, polluted and surrounded by a moat of Biotech. And part of it is with Mord.

An important piece of current literature with difficult prose and ideas worth understanding requires patience. And it has a gigantic flying bear

When I first read on the cover that Mord was a “despotic, gigantic flying bear,” I thought it was some sort of big, figurative metaphor.

I was wrong.

Mord is a rebellious product of the Company: several stories tall, a towering mass of fur and gore and primal instinct, accompanied by smaller bears called Mord Proxies. They’re the constant danger that lurks in the background on every page, the tension that punctuates every scene. And although Mord’s sentience and part in the ecosystem is constantly emphasised, replete with his own backstory, there is little question that he’s a predator. He kills, he eats and he sleeps. He even flies.

And it is from Mord’s flank that Rachel discovers Borne — the centrepiece of our tale — right at the beginning, and brings him home to the Balcony Cliffs. Tiny, curious, alien-like, Borne is a vase-shaped anomaly with tendril appendages and a circlet of eyes. He is a piece of Biotech not much different from the rest of those littered around the world. Only, he can learn.

He begins with words, struggles with context, then tries to grasp human concepts through his multiple senses — perhaps six, perhaps more — until he grows and disentangles his form, leaves his stationary post and moves for the first time. He produces speech, discusses, argues, contemplates and metamorphosises. Becomes less alien, more human. At least, in thought.

Tiny, curious, alien-like, Borne is a vase-shaped anomaly with tendril appendages and a circlet of eyes. He is a piece of Biotech not much different from the rest of those littered around the world. Only, he can learn.

The novel proper starts from here. It tracks the journey of Borne, Rachel and Wick through the Balcony Cliffs, through the city’s expanse, through problems both physical and philosophical, narrating them in gold-dusted prose, full of life and thought and questioning, full of violence. And it first asks more than it answers.

Who is the Magician? Why do the feral children exist? Why has the Biotech branched out and begun living on its own? What role does it play? What is Wick’s past? What is Rachel’s past? What will become of Mord? What will happen to his Proxies? What will happen to our protagonists?

All these are answered in a thematic adventure that sets the stage for an important discussion on human life, its interaction with where it thrives and the engine that binds it all together: Borne. A thinking, talking piece of Biotech made by us, taught by us, but not of us. An emissary that bridges the gap between us and the world we destroy every day.

That all being said, however, and with compliments aplenty, the final verdict is this: Borne is not for everyone. It is not a page-turner you can enjoy on Sunday nights, no matter how tense its situations might be. When you think VanderMeer, think George Orwell or Haruki Murakami. Borne is an important piece of current literature with difficult prose and ideas worth understanding, and it is enjoyed best if you’re into New Weird or eco-fiction or abstract literature, or if you’re willing to dive into a lengthy trudge, careful and patient, to experience something you’re either going to come out loving, or something you don’t understand.

Either way, it’ll be worth it.

The reviewer is a student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and an editor at the LUMS Business Review

By Jeff VanderMeer
ISBN: 978-0374115241

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 11th, 2018