Rachel is a scavenger who lives in the ruins of an old apartment building with Wick, a former employee of a biotech firm called the Company. The environment is a complete wreck. Rachel spent much of her childhood as a climate refugee, forced to leave the island where she grew up and then moving from place to place until her parents were gone and there was nowhere left to go. Now, finding clean food and water is a struggle, a struggle made worse by Mort, a giant (as in three stories tall) flying biotech bear who comes after anyone who crosses his path.
So that’s the situation when Rachel finds, buried in Mort’s coat, a weird plant-like creature that she decides to bring home. The creature, who she names Borne, turns out to be conscious and able to communicate. Rachel teaches Borne about the world, feeling a strong connection to him and a desire to nurture, despite Wick’s fear that Borne may bring danger to them both.
Danger does come, from many quarters. There’s a woman called the Magician who’s somehow connected to the Company, there are children trained to kill, and there are Mort’s proxy bears, able to get into places Mort can’t go. Borne proves to be helpful against some of these dangers, but there are still questions.
The world Jeff Vandermeer creates is complicated, and there’s a lot about it that still isn’t clear by the end of the book. But Rachel is focused on day-to-day survival, so it makes sense that she might not understand all the tech, beyond what it does, or all the inner workings of the Company and the society around it, both past and present. Vandermeer keeps us focused on her point of view, so there’s a lot we don’t understand. But we understand enough to appreciate how high the stakes are and how alone Rachel is, even when she has Wick and Borne as companions.
The action is slow to build, with much of the early part of the book focusing on Borne growing into himself. But there’s always menace around the edges, not just because of the violence all around but because Rachel and Wick have set up a life that simply isn’t sustainable in the long term. At some point, it will end. It’s just a question of how and when.
One of the book’s big concerns is what it means to be a person. That question is most obviously applied to Borne, as he seems to have a complete human consciousness but his form is nothing like a human’s. The world of biotech has made the distinction between animal and tech hard to discern. And sometimes the people act in ways that seem entirely inhuman. It’s a world where the usual definitions have broken down.
I’d like to be able to say that the book says something profound about the nature of humanity or of life but I don’t know that it does. Rachel’s history seems all too pertinent today, as the waters warm and the ocean rises. And I think there’s something in the question of how we treat those who are different, but potential dangers, like Borne. But none of this is particularly deep. To me, it’s mostly just a good, weird story. Not one that I loved, but one that interested me enough to stay with it and that surprised me several times along the way.