By Jeff Vandermeer
Narrated by Bahni Turpin
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Unabridged: 12 Hr & 10 Minutes
Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopia
In a ruined, nameless city of the future, a woman named Rachel, who makes her living as a scavenger, finds a creature she names “Borne” entangled in the fur of Mord, a gigantic, despotic bear. Mord once prowled the corridors of the biotech organization known as the Company, which lies at the outskirts of the city, until he was experimented on, grew large, learned to fly and broke free. Driven insane by his torture at the Company, Mord terrorizes the city even as he provides sustenance for scavengers like Rachel.
At first, Borne looks like nothing at all—just a green lump that might be a Company discard. The Company, although severely damaged, is rumoured to still make creatures and send them to distant places that have not yet suffered Collapse.
Borne somehow reminds Rachel of the island nation of her birth, now long-lost to rising seas. She feels an attachment she resents; attachments are traps, and in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet when she takes Borne to her subterranean sanctuary, the Balcony Cliffs, Rachel convinces her lover, Wick, not to render Borne down to raw genetic material for the drugs he sells—she cannot break that bond.
Wick is a special kind of supplier, because the drug dealers in the city don’t sell the usual things. They sell tiny creatures that can be swallowed or stuck in the ear, and that release powerful memories of other people’s happier times or pull out forgotten memories from the user’s own mind—or just produce beautiful visions that provide escape from the barren, craterous landscapes of the city.
Against his better judgment, out of affection for Rachel or perhaps some other impulse, Wick respects her decision. Rachel, meanwhile, despite her loyalty to Wick, knows he has kept secrets from her. Searching his apartment, she finds a burnt, unreadable journal titled “Mord,” a cryptic reference to the Magician (a rival drug dealer) and evidence that Wick has planned the layout of the Balcony Cliffs to match the blueprint of the Company building. What is he hiding? Why won’t he tell her about what happened when he worked for the Company?
Borne is a complicated experience that will likely land readers on one of two sides of the fence; love or hate. For myself, I fell onto the “love” side with a heavy landing. Although, with my constant appetite for the peculiar, I cannot say I am surprised.
The Company lies at the edge of the city, where while known to be almost defunct, many still believe continues to create. One such creation, Mord (a bio-engineered bear) flies above the city where he was once created, held captured and ultimately tortured. Now he reigns havoc on the land while also providing a way of life for scavengers, such as Rachel, who survive off of the remnants of Mord’s destruction. Upon discovering a small green, gelatinous blob (Borne) snared within his fur, she makes the decision to bring the creature home into her safe haven shared with her only companion Wick. He happens to be a drug dealer, developing tiny creatures who have the ability to give others more desirable memories, and he immediately wants to dissect Borne to experiment with his genetic composition. However, Rachel develops an attachment and refuses to surrender her newfound discovery, much against Wick’s advice. But as Borne begins to evolve, secrets also begin to surface. Secrets about Wick and the Company he once worked for. The same company responsible for Mord. What is it that he cannot tell Rachel? And what is Borne?
Attempting summarize Borne in a paragraph feels like a ridiculous and almost impossible task. As you may have noticed, it is not easy to do. I am sifting through the many notes I acquired during my listen (read) and trying to reduce this review into a more digestible and compact recap of my time with Vandermeer’s very original, and often odd approach to an ultimately endearing and emotional dystopian tale.
In terms of character growth there is an enormous amount happening, but in the most subtle of ways. Rachel begins to bond with Borne over her own loneliness and desire for something more in a desolate and harsh environment. But in turn, we soon discover that Borne is the one who truly encompasses that loneliness. There is a brilliant exchange of developments, realizations and acceptance that is continually occurring between both, supplying the reader with a very unique and profound form of character development that is rarely seen. As Rachel’s relationship with Borne evolves it slowly begins to challenge her relationship with Wick, bringing multiple questions to the surface, further exploring all characters. And tucked within it all, we learn that everyone is grappling with various issues of self-identity and acceptance.
The setting is typical of many dystopian tales in the sense of the usual suspects: imminent dangers, the fight for survival and a barren landscape that requires daily scavenging and roaming. All of the expected threats and dis-pleasantries are offered with the additional element of bio-engineered life forms. The effect is intriguing and inviting, but not in the warm, fuzzy sort of way.
But the real appreciation for Borne can be found in its strangely contrasting narration that manages to present the often harsh and brutal reality of a post apocalyptic setting in an almost child-like and innocent manner. There is an ever-present air of light-heartedness that should clash with the current setting and events, yet it successfully fuels a rare and welcomed study of humanity and the significance of its small presence on Earth. Accompanied with Bahni Turpin’s well paced and enthusiastic narration, it becomes something of great worth in terms of science fiction. I was convinced this story was written to be told by Turpin.
The final product is a bizarre and bracing take on a timeless tale that will not be for everyone’s taste. However, there will be those that cannot help but find delight and fascination between the pages, making it an instant favorite. I am happy to fall well within the latter group. Highly recommending that you give this one a chance!
Enjoyed with several cups of green tea and mint.