Why we chose Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne
Ash and I read VanderMeer’s Annhiliation for our first Family Reads together (two years ago tomorrow!). When we heard of Borne, we agreed that we should read and discuss it for Family Reads. Somehow, I didn’t expect our discussion to turn out so similar to our discussion on Annhilation – though I suppose I should have known better given the author and the subject matter! We went back forth and circle around various plot related questions. Because of the nature of our discussion, this was a difficult one for me to hammer into a narrative suitable for a blog post, but I tried, haha. I decided to focus on three topics: the cover and setting, what was revealed in the Company building at the end, and the role of the Magician. (Somehow, we talked for an hour and didn’t even begin to talk about Borne or the environmental implications of the story or Rachel and Wick’s relationship or any of the other interesting bits of the story. There’s a lot going on in this fascinating book!)
In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company—a biotech firm now derelict—and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.
One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump—plant or animal?—but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts—and definitely against Wick’s wishes—Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.
“He was born, but I had borne him.”
But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.
You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve already read the book (spoilers abound!).
Cover and Location
One of the more superficial things Ash and I loved about the Southern Reach trilogy are the cover designs by Charlotte Strick. Borne also has a striking cover (by Rodrigo Corral) that we loved but we had to ask – did the flower have anything to do with the story? Plant life seemed to play less of a role in Borne than in Annihilation. Perhaps the easiest answer is that the plant represents the general degradation of Rachel and Wick’s world. One theory we came up with about the flower is that maybe it has something to do with Rachel being from a tropical island. Then we had to backtrack and ask, where is Rachel from? Ash imagined Indonesia; I went with Madagascar. (Where do birds of paradise grow? I looked this up after our discussion – native to South Africa, the emblem of Los Angeles…) Now we’re back to the cover. Ash chose Borne as her staff pick at work, so a lot of people have been asking her about the book because it has her name on it and they want to know if the story’s as cool as the cover. She tells them yes.
One last comment: Ash and I have come to enjoy VanderMeer’s books particularly for his world building. We love how he can be so vividly descriptive, yet still leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.
What’s really revealed at the end?
My big question that I wanted to discuss with Ash was what was actually revealed when Rachel and Wick went poking around the Company building. Our discussion wound back and forth as we tried to break things down.
What did Rachel learn at the Company building? Ash said that she learnt her memories weren’t real. Okay, then how much of her memories weren’t real? Did she just forget that blip surrounding her parents death, or could it be everything she remembers from before the city is false?
We didn’t settle on an answer to that question (which of Rachel’s memories are true or false) before moving on to what happened in the Company building when Rachel first arrived, if she and her parents came in crates through some kind of portal? Of course, that led us back to another question – is the city Rachel and Wick inhabitant an alternate reality or the world we know? That’s what I was trying to get at at the beginning of our discussion when I asked what was revealed in the company building. Was the existence of a parallel universe, alternate reality, whatever, established? We agreed that it was (with the caveat that we both blaze through endings too quickly so maybe we missed some nuance). That led us two theories: 1) Rachel’s city is an alternate reality that the Company entered to mess around with biotech or 2) Rachel’s city is in ‘our’ world, the ‘real’ world, and the Company messed it up so bad they went to an alternate reality – the good city viewed in Company building. Our conversation drifted from there – whichever theory might be the right one doesn’t really matter – but we agreed that the big reveal had been the existence of another world/dimension/reality.
The relationship between Rachel and the Magician was one I had lots of questions about. I wondered why she seemed to be an antagonist. Didn’t she just want to get rid of Mord? Why did she have to be awful to Wick and Rachel? Ash suggested that, since she worked for the Company, maybe she felt guilty for that and wanted to improve the city. I noted that the Magician didn’t know about the wall/portal and Wick did – he was higher ranking than her? (Then there’s that thing about Wick being biotech…) One part that really puzzled me at first was Rachel killing the Magician just like that and commenting that the Magician didn’t have any power over her because she had already read Wick’s letter. Wick’s letter mentions that the Magician acquires Rachel’s memories. Could this mean more than initially thought? Maybe the Magician has absorbed, internalized, all of Rachel’s true memories…maybe the Magician is who Rachel was before.
I thought Borne was a more straightforward book than Annihilation but maybe not, given our discussion! We never really came to conclusions, but we still enjoyed theorizing. I left out a lot of random stuff (about Mord, multiple Bornes, etc.) because this post was getting out of hand.
As we wrapped our discussion, I wondered which I book I enjoyed more – Borne or Annihilation? Just comparing comparing Annihilation (not the entire trilogy) and Borne – ooh, well, I think I prefer Annihilation for the world building and Borne for the characters. When I asked Ash which she preferred, she said the same thing! Though they’re similar in a number of ways, each book has its own strength and we recommend both. Have you read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s works? What are your theories for what was going on in Borne?