Borne To Be Wild
Which seems scarier: the idea that humanity could one day snuff itself out in any number of ways—global food shortage, pandemic, nuclear disaster—or that we could mostly snuff ourselves out, creating an almost unlivable world for the remaining few? That latter is the scenario in Jeff VanderMeer’s latest novel, Borne, where a future world has been brought to its knees by ecological disaster and unbridled technological development.
The book follows a woman named Rachel, who scavenges to survive in an unnamed city constantly under siege by a mutant bear the size of a three-story building. The beast, as well as other bits of threatening biotech, are the remnants of a defunct biotech firm only known as “the Company.” Rachel is cautious, forming a shaky alliance with Wick, a fellow survivor. It’s a lonely and joyless existence—until it’s not. While out scavenging one day, Rachel finds a new piece of biotech and names it “Borne.” Borne transitions over time from being something like a plant to a sentient creature that Rachel raises like a child.
[Margaret Atwood on dystopia, CRISPR, and ‘Oryx and Crake.’]
Out of this apocalyptic landscape VanderMeer carves a story of family drama; of lines drawn between person, animal, and technology; and of humanity’s resilience even in the darkest of times. VanderMeer joins guest host Flora Lichtman to discuss his latest book.
[Read an excerpt from Jeff VanderMeer’s new book, Borne.]
Jeff VanderMeer is a writer, editor, author of “The Southern Reach Trilogy” (FSG Originals, 2014), and co-director of the Shared Worlds Writing Workshop in Tallahassee, Florida.
FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman. What seems scarier, the idea that humanity could one day snuff itself out or that we could mostly snuff ourselves out, but in the process, create an almost unlivable world for the remaining few? The latter is the scenario we find ourselves in in Jeff VanderMeer’s latest novel, Borne, where a future world has been racked by ecological disaster and misguided technological development.
The story is told by a woman named Rachel, and in the book Rachel survives by scavenging in an unnamed, heavily-polluted city. That city’s under siege by a bear the size of a three-story building. The bear is biotech gone wrong, the remnant of a defunct firm known only as the Company. But then one day, Rachel finds Borne a cephalopod-like creature that pretty soon begins to speak, and Rachel raises Borne like a child. And suddenly, this dystopian world is just the backdrop for what becomes a pretty relatable family drama.
My guest today is Jeff VanderMeer. He’s the author of the Southern Reach trilogy. His new book, Borne, is out now and he joins me in the studio today to talk about it. Jeff, welcome to Science Friday.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Thanks very much for having me.
FLORA LICHTMAN: So would you tweak my description?
JEFF VANDERMEER: No, I think that’s a great description.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Oh, good.
JEFF VANDERMEER: The main thing, I think, is that I truly came at this from kind of a science, fantasy point of view. I really wanted to deal with biotech in the moment and the way Rachel would see it, and not necessarily explain everything about it, although there are some explanations for the flying– for the bear, at a certain point.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Well, tell us about the bear. I love the bear.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, I think the bear comes from two impulses. One, I read Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, where she has a flying woman in a circus that she never explains and you never see any wires or anything. I thought that was amazing. And then Richard Adams’ Shardik, which has an amazing, brutal bear, and I read that as a teenager. And I’ve never gone back to it because I don’t want to ruin it or anything or have it influence me too much.
But then bears in general fascinate me because they’re large predators. They are omnivores, but that have thrived despite the fact that we’ve had all these problems with climate change and ecological loss.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Well, I wondered, because this takes place after– there’s a climate change reference. We know that Rachel lived on an island and that rising seas were a problem and then she and her family became refugees. And I wondered if the bear, this evil bear, is like revenge of the polar bears.
JEFF VANDERMEER: I think that that definitely is a possibility. It’s one of the things on my mind. It’s just that the adaptability and non-adaptability of certain animals. There’s also a Hanukkah bear, in that my stepdaughter– when she was seven and I was trying to learn about Judaism because I had just come into the family– did this whole spiel for 20 minutes about a Hanukkah bear and the constellation it was. And it was completely fabricated, but I then went up to the rabbi in our synagogue and actually told him the story of the Hanukkah bear, much to my embarrassment, because she was laughing in a corner. But there’s one scene at a rooftop with the bear fly against the night sky, and that’s where it came from because I was thinking about this bear constellation.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Oh, so this came from the mind of your stepdaughter?
JEFF VANDERMEER: My stepdaughter is responsible for a lot of early Borne in the book. Not later Borne, but there’s like a moment when Borne says, long mouse when he sees a ferret, and that’s something that my daughter said when she was a kid.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Borne had the best moments.
Oh, Oh, thank you.
FLORA LICHTMAN: I loved Borne.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Thank you.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Describe for listeners, what Borne is.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, Borne is kind of a terrestrial cephalopod/sea anemone that kind of grows and grows and begins to talk. Rachel finds him before he begins to talk, but he emits kind of a smell that reminds her of her childhood home, of the salt and everything. And you wonder later whether that was manufactured, because he is a product, possibly, of this company, and he may have been made for a particular purpose.
FLORA LICHTMAN: And so he’s and he becomes bigger and bigger. So he starts as this sort of plant-like–
JEFF VANDERMEER: Yes.
FLORA LICHTMAN: –Anemone-like thing, and then it’s slowly revealed that he has many other powers.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Yes.
FLORA LICHTMAN: And he’s not just a wallflower.
JEFF VANDERMEER: He can kind of change shape a bit. And he can kind of assimilate a bit from what he learns around him. So he’s kind of like a kid and then like a teenager, but very different and kind of scary sometimes, and sometimes not.
FLORA LICHTMAN: I loved hearing about Rachel raising Borne. I just felt like it was such a funny way to learn about parenting and read about parenting, because it was so absurd in many ways. It’s in this very dystopian world, but I wondered if you were drawing from your own parenting experience?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Definitely, and that’s one reason why I wrote the book when I did, which is I needed some time to think about what it meant to have been a step-dad, and my relationship with Erin and all the tricks we played on each other. At one point, we had an iguana that didn’t really exist. When she didn’t want kids to come over, she would say the iguana had gotten loose.
But anyway, so definitely that’s in there. And I wanted to have this personal drama against this backdrop, because too many times in, I think, post-apocalyptic literature, you don’t see the moments of connectivity. You don’t see the moments when people try to be their better selves. And I really thought it was important to kind of portray that, because I really feel like there’s a real complexity, even to a post-apocalyptic situation.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Well, I actually felt like that was sort of the anti Lord of the Flies, in a way.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Thank you. I like that, actually.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Oh, good. But because you think– when I started reading it, I thought, this is– I was like, this is actually refreshing because it’s the only thing darker than the news right now. But then, it actually became– it was clear that it was much more and much more optimistic story.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, I think what I want as a corrective is I always want to make sure in my books that hope is earned, that it’s not a false hope, that you’re not trying to give the reader a false conclusion. But I felt like Rachel struggles so hard and she pushes so hard, and she’s so earnest, and, I think, a nice human being at base, that it seemed like a book that would have more hope in it, just because of that.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Did you bring a passage to read?
JEFF VANDERMEER: I did.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Can we have you read a little bit?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Sure, I can. And so Borne has learned how to speak, and he’s become fairly large. And Rachel’s recovering from being attacked by someone from outside of her sanctuary, and she gets to know Borne better. And so at a certain point, Borne is restless and he wants to go out into the world, and so she begins to show him the world.
FLORA LICHTMAN: OK.
JEFF VANDERMEER: “I took him to the balcony out on the cliffs, too, but that was a little harder because I felt Borne needed the skies to be safe. I found a flower hat with just one bullet hole and a brown bloodstain to match. I found a pair of large designer sunglasses. I had the choice of putting him in a blue sheet or a black evening dress that I salvaged from a half-buried apartment. The evening dress was moth-eaten and had faded to more of a deep gray, but I chose it because I had nowhere to wear it, and it was several sizes too big for me now.
So Borne reconfigured himself to be a little longer and less wide than usual, sucked in his stomach more or less, and put on this ridiculous outfit. But it wasn’t complete enough for him. ‘What about shoes?’ he asked me, and I regretted having gone off on a rant about the value of a good pair of shoes a couple of days before.
‘You don’t need shoes. No one will see your feet.’ Probably, no one would see him, period.
‘Everyone wears shoes,’ he said, quoting me. ‘Simply everyone. You even wear them to bed.’ It was true. I’d never gotten over having to sleep in the open so often. When you slept in the open and dangerous places, you never took off your shoes.
Borne really wanted shoes. He wanted the full ensemble. So I gave him shoes. I gave him my one extra pair, which were really the boots that I’d come into the city in. He made a great show of growing foot legs and with his hand arms, reached down to put on his new shoes. From the aperture of the top of his head muffled by the hat came the words, ‘We can go now.’
But if Borne wanted the fall ensemble, I wanted the full human. ‘Not until you grow a mouth,’ I said. ‘And a real face.’ The transformation took only a second. All of his eyes went away, then two popped up where appropriate, and a nose protrusion that looked more like the head of the lizard had eaten a few hours earlier, and a kind of crazy grinning mouth in that hat, in the black evening dress, in the boots. He looked so earnest that I wanted to hug him. I never, for a second, understood the gift I’d given Borne.
We went out onto the balcony. Borne pretended he couldn’t see through his sunglasses and took them off. ‘It’s beautiful,’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.’ Another new word.
The killing thing, the thing I could never get over, is that it was beautiful. It was so incredibly beautiful, and I never seen that before. In this strange dark sea blue of late afternoon, the river below splashing in lavender and orange up against the rock islands, the river looked amazing. The balcony cliffs in that light took on a luminous deep color that was almost black, but not, almost blue, but not, the jutting shadows solid and cool.
Borne didn’t know it was all deadly, poisonous, truly disgusting. Maybe it wasn’t, to him. Maybe he could have swum in that river and come out unscathed.
Maybe, too, I realized, right then in that moment, that I’d begun to love him, because he didn’t see the world like I saw the world. He didn’t see the traps. Because he made me rethink even simple words like disgusting or beautiful.
That was the moment I knew I traded my safety for something else. That was the moment, and no matter what happened next, I had crossed over into another place. And the question wasn’t who I should trust, but who should trust me.”
FLORA LICHTMAN: I loved that moment from the book.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, thanks. Yeah, that’s actually really– [LAUGHS] you’re not supposed to cry your own passages, but it’s really been difficult for me to read that, so I’ve been reading it over and over again to make sure I get past that point. Because it’s unseemly to cry in front of your audience.
FLORA LICHTMAN: We welcome crying here.
JEFF VANDERMEER: OK.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Feel free. Feel free to let loose. But no, it’s very moving, and it captures what I really enjoyed about the book, which is that you have this sort of horrifying element, and this soulful element, and also silliness–
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, thank you.
FLORA LICHTMAN: –All at once. And I wondered if you think about that balance.
JEFF VANDERMEER: I do. And it’s something that was really hard for me to achieve in my much earlier work because when you’re learning how to write and getting some kind of mastery, you’re mostly focused, or I was, on being serious. But I do have a sense of humor, and I did want it to come out. And I don’t like books that are monotone. I want– you know, life is more than one thing, no matter how harsh it can get.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Yeah that comes through. If you want to talk to Jeff, our phone number is 844-724-8255 that’s 844-SCI-TALK, if you have questions about Borne, or if you just want to talk about your own apocalyptic future that you’re interested in. I wonder if– there are so many interesting creatures–
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, yeah.
FLORA LICHTMAN: –In this book. It’s chock full, salamanders rain from the sky. You’ve got this giant bear that’s prowling around, flying around. I had this vision of you thumbing through field guides, but what was your actual process for inspiration for the creatures?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, I’ve studied biology in an amateur way for a long time. And so there’s been certain creatures I just become fascinated with, and I just study them in an amateur way for a long time. And I was surprised–
FLORA LICHTMAN: Like what?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, the salamanders, for one, which are actually the focus of the next novel. And at one point, it was fungus and squid I was focused on. And then it was meerkats. I didn’t realize that they were so small, and in an other novel, I had them at four feet tall until I saw them in perspective and realized they were tiny. And now, of course, it’s bears. I used to get a lot of dried squid in the mail from fans because–
FLORA LICHTMAN: Really?
JEFF VANDERMEER: –Of the squid stuff. I actually created a fake freshwater ‘ squid as part of a story and got a lot of trouble with the city of Sebring because of that, because I had the festival set there, and the Chamber of Commerce was getting phone calls. So things like that. So I get fairly obsessed with the animals. There are 120– I counted them, finally– animals in Borne.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Do you have a taxonomy somewhere?
JEFF VANDERMEER: I have a bestiary that the publisher is going to put online of 35 of them. I couldn’t handle doing all 120. And some of them are things like silverfish. One’s a duck with a broken wing, which turns out, in the bestiary, not to actually be a duck. So when you see that in that novel, don’t– you know, be wary of it.
FLORA LICHTMAN: I loved the biotech little animals that appear in a flashback. They’re like little chicks or something and they are from this more benign time. Things are sort of starting to go wrong. What I wondered, are you worried about biotech in particular now? Are there inventions that you’re concerned about?
JEFF VANDERMEER: I think, as we begin to experiment more and more, there’s this kind of corruption of the idea of animal versus product. And so the Company is basically creating products that are in animal form, and so I do think we have some ethical issues going on that we have to think about.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Like what? What are you concerned about?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, I mean, I do– I am a believer in animal rights in part because it’s not that I believe in animals over humans, it’s that I believe that their fate and ours are interlocked, in part, because of habitats and the fact that we need to preserve the wilderness out there for our own survival, as well. But they’re the ambassadors, and we haven’t quite worked out a relationship with them. And as animal behavior scientists can tell you, more and more, we’re seeing that we understand animal intelligence as being more advanced– maybe not like ours– than we thought. Bird brains, we’ve just discovered, are twice– have twice the capacity that we thought, for example.
FLORA LICHTMAN: I’m Flora Lichtman. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Let’s go to the phones. Mason in Columbia, Missouri, do you have a question?
MASON: Yeah. Hi, thanks for having me.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Sure.
MASON: Yeah and Jeff, congratulations on the new book.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, thanks.
MASON: I thought Annihilation was terrifying, by the way.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment.
MASON: Yeah, absolutely. Great book. I look forward to the new one. So just in thinking about a world where there’s just a small fraction of people left to live in the face of some huge apocalypse, I think about electromagnetic pulse, the EMP that either comes naturally from the sun or can be emulated by a nuclear warhead a couple hundred miles above the atmosphere–
JEFF VANDERMEER: That sounds terrifying.
MASON: Yeah it is. And that essentially shuts down all the electronics within a huge, thousand-mile radius. Anything it’s not solid state, so cars, refrigerators, computers, you name it. So that’s a scenario that kind of terrifies me. I was wondering if you’ve ever tackled anything like that in your writing?
JEFF VANDERMEER: I haven’t really tackled that. I do think that that certain images can stand in as metaphors for things. For example, the giant bear in Borne, you know it’s literally itself, but then also figuratively, it kind of stands in for the dislocating thing on the horizon that upends your world. You know, it might as well be a giant bear, whether it’s that or a nuclear disaster. It just simply overtakes your world and kind of reworks your brain, I think.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Thanks, Mason.
MASON: Thank you.
FLORA LICHTMAN: One thing I really appreciated about the book is that you have a lot of strong women characters.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, thank you.
FLORA LICHTMAN: It was told– the main character, the storyteller, is a woman, Rachel. And I wondered if you had a process for– if it’s different writing, for a woman, writing for a woman’s voice, rather than a, yeah.
JEFF VANDERMEER: It just really depends, I think, on the circumstance. I need to know the character. I just need to know the person as much as possible. But then I have to think about the certain kinds of constraints that many women face, just going through their daily lives, and try to be as true to that as possible. So she’s in this relationship with Wick, this bioneer in the book, which is a fraught relationship for a variety of reasons. But there’s also other dangers and things that she thinks of that are totally invisible to Wick.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Right. Did you identify more with Rachel or Wick, especially when it comes to parent– to child-rearing?
JEFF VANDERMEER: I think with Rachel because you could say, in some ways, later in the novel that some of her trust in various things is misplaced, but I think that that’s still our better selves. And I see Rachel as a fundamentally decent, but also kind of hard-edged person. And I really admired her, and it was very easy to write in that voice after a while, just because I knew what she would do in any circumstance, basically, I thought.
FLORA LICHTMAN: So the book paints a dark picture of the future. Are you optimistic about our future?
JEFF VANDERMEER: You know I’m optimistic because I know there are so many people that I meet when I go around– I speak at environmental conferences sometimes and stuff– and I see the passion that scientists have, and I see how many people who are experts are working so hard on these problems. And so I have a lot of hope.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Really?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Yeah, I do. I do. And in part, it’s also because of the fact that I think that it’s not going to descend into militias. I do think there will be pockets of resistance and things like that, and I I’m heartened by the resistance I’m seeing right now. So I’m hopeful that our better days are ahead of us, but I do think that we have a lot to overcome to get there.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Before we let you go do, you want to give us any kind of preview of the salamanders that are in store for us in your next book?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, you mean next? Yes, I’m working on a book called Hummingbird Salamander, in which a woman discovers– is given a key to a locker with a taxidermied hummingbird and salamander in it. And it descends down the rabbit hole into eco-terrorism, wildlife trafficking, in a kind of near-future situation.
FLORA LICHTMAN: All my favorite things!
JEFF VANDERMEER: Of course.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Thank you, Jeff.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Thank you.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Jeff VanderMeer is the author of the new sci-fi novel Borne.
Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.