It’s Clarke Award time! As I did for the last two years, I plan on reading and reviewing all the books shortlisted.
If you have not seen the shortlist already, here it is:
- Borne by Jeff Vandermeer
- Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill
- American War by Omar El Akkad
- Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
- Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
- Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock
My goal is to read the shortlist before July 18th, the day of the 2018 Award Ceremony.
Anyway, enough rambles, here is my review of Borne by Jeff Vandermeer!
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Length: 368 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars
Publication Date: April 25th 2017
Flying bears, sentient plants, modified children with insect eyes and magicians. Nothing grows in the City and what’s alive is only trying to kill you. Welcome to Borne, the last Jeff Vandermeer book.
Set in a world where Earth is completely ravaged by humanity, Borne follows Rachel, a scavenger. When she is not climbing on a sleeping Mord, a giant flying bear who terrorizes the City, trying to find useful things that she can eat, trade or give to her partner, she spend her time making traps to protect her home. Her days are all the same until she finds a tiny plant living on Mord. Just in case it can be of any use to her partner Wick, a former scientist turned drug dealer when everything fell apart, she decides to take it home. She is oddly drawn to this plant, and against Wick’s will, she decides to keep it and to name it Borne. What she doesn’t know is that, for a plant, Borne is oddly talkative. And that he can also move. And shape-shift. And the worst thing is, that in this world, it’s not actually that crazy.
But what is exactly Borne? Who made him and for what purpose? Is it the mysterious Company, a biotech company which created Mord or does it come from somewhere else? And does it even matter to our protagonists ?
In several aspects, this story is oddly heavily inspired by epic fantasy. Those fantastical elements make interesting contrast with the climate fiction nature of the book.
First of all, a battle between two sides is tearing the city apart and Rachel, Wick and Borne are trying to survive it. This battle is between the Magician, a strange woman surrounded by an army of disfigured mutant children and Mord, a peace of biotech gone rogue. But it is also humanity versus nature and humanity versus the consequences of their mistakes.
However Borne is not a story about heroes making war but about the lives of people who are living through it. Our protagonists want nothing to do with the Magician, they are just trying to live another day, to scavenge another thing and not to think too hard about the future.
Since the entire story is set in a nameless city, we don’t have any perspective on how the world is outside. Indeed for the characters, this city is their entire world, and, when you a trying to survive, you don’t have time to think about the scope of your immediate problem. We, as readers, have to assume that this situation is representative of the fate of humanity.
Borne has a feeling of nostalgia, of a lost childhood and a lost Earth. Nature is uncomplying and completely rejecting humanity. When they are not scanvenging old cans, the city inhabitants take Wick’s drugs or alcohol capsules. Those drugs can make you relive happy memories and forget about your miserable life. It allows humans a short reprieve from Earth rejection.
Borne is here to confront our protagonists to this world. For him, even if Earth is deadly, it is still beautiful. And that’s the beauty of Borne: where Rachel and Wick only see destroyed things, he sees potential, beauty and life. He completely deconstruct their vision of the world and of themselves.
Through Rachel’s eyes, we see the world as it was before and how it all went downhill. However, Borne’s perspective is way fresh, innocent and child-like. He is an endless source of interrogation because he is not indifferent to the world. His sometimes very naive and simple statements are delightful in contrast of the grim and heavy atmosphere of the city felt by the characters.
Borne is a slow book, the plot takes time to unflod itself and for me this book is much more about the journey and the characters than the story. It is a study of love, motherhood, nature and humanity conflicted relationship with environment.
This book begs to be savored. In a way I found it quite comparable to The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber as I found overlapping themes and a same sense of atmosphere between the two works. While Borne is a slow book with dark themes, it manages not to be depressing mainly because of how bubbly Borne is. Even when we learn more about his origins and his purpose, I couldn’t help but to really like his characters. His constant reflexions on what is a person and on Earth’s beauty were a real treat.
All in all, I would highly recommend Borne, it is a very odd read but I found it relevant and thought-provocking. I am glad it was shortlisted for the Clarke as it is clever and not that depressing for a post-apocalyptic book (which is a rare thing indeed!).
“We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.”