Named one of the best books of 2017 by The Los Angeles Times,The Boston Globe, PopSugar, Financial Times, Chicago Review of Books, Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Thrillist, Book Riot, National Post (Canada), Kirkus and Publishers Weekly “Am I a person?” Borne asked me. “Yes, you are a person,” I told him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”
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 Companya biotech firm now derelictand 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 lumpplant 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 instinctsand definitely against Wick’s wishesRachel 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.
Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor, and the author most recently of the New York Times bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy. His fiction has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales and multiple year’s-best anthologies. He grew up in the Fiji Islands and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife.
Reading Group Guide
1. At the heart of the novel is an essential question: What does it mean to exist? How did you react as you watched Borne, Rachel, and Wick consider what distinguishes humans from other animals, and animals from plants, and organic creatures from biotech inventions? What does it take to be a person: Communication? Imagination? Love?
2. How does Rachel’s relationship with Borne compare to her relationship with Wick? Did you find yourself mostly trusting or mostly doubting Borne and Wick?
3. When we first meet Rachel, has she survived based on wits or luck, or because of another force altogether? What is your understanding of the Magician and her ability to fiercely resist Mord? What has kept Mord and his proxies from achieving total destruction?
4. How does gender affect the characters’ roles? What is the effect of Rachel’s decision to use male pronouns for Borne? What is the effect of a female narrator’s voice on this storyline?
5. Eking out an existence in a desert, Rachel has intense memories of water, particularly her escape with her parents as refugees from rising seas. What purpose do these memories serve for her? How much control do you have over your own memories?
6. What is the difference between survival and salvage? If you were Wick, would you continue taking the nautilus pills? Would you want to survive under any circumstances?
7. The novel’s title (which is the past participle of the verb “to bear”) emphasizes the act of transmitting a creation. Rachel chose Borne’s name because of a story Wick told her (page 17) about a Company project: “Wick had said, ‘He was born, but I had borne him.’” How did the novel change your perception of the creation process? What makes Mord a god? Will the forces of creation and destruction (in Mord’s world and yours) ever reach a balance?
8. Rachel tries to teach Borne through books. What does he teach her, and how does he do this without books?
9. Borne morphs into a telephone and calls Rachel. He lights up the sky as a fiery dragon-size slug. He decorates his apartment with “dead astronauts” to give the place pizzazz. How did he transform your view of the physical world?
10. As Rachel reads Borne’s journal, which begins on page 189, she sees him struggle against his killing impulse while he tries to imitate her capacity for kindness. What does his experience say about basic instincts and whether they should be stifled or liberated?
11. In a podcast interview on CNET.com, Jeff VanderMeer observes that backdrops aren’t necessarily inert; the watchful eyes of the foxes exemplify this. Look around your room right now. What are the most vibrant objects you see? If they could talk to you, what would they say?
(Link to CNET.com interview: https://www.cnet.com/news/cnet-book-club-episode-1-borne-by-jeff-vandermeer/)
12. Do you predict that any real-world versions of the Company and Mord will emerge in your lifetime? If so, are you optimistic about humanity’s ability to stop them?
13. The Magician resonates with Rachel, offering a path Rachel could have taken if she had been hungrier for power. Would you have made similar choices if you were in Rachel’s situation?
14. How did the revelations in Wick’s letter change your understanding of the novel? How would you answer some of the questions raised by the letter?
15. If you’ve read VanderMeer’s trilogy, how do you think the Southern Reach team would fare in the Balcony Cliffs? What makes Jeff VanderMeer’s fictional worlds so distinctive?
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