NOTE: POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT
Borne has been described as one of the most anticipated novels of 2017, following the success of VanderMeer’s New York Times best-selling and critically acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy. The first novel of the trilogy, Annihilation, also attracted the attention of Paramount and Alex Garland, writer and director of the superb 2014 film, Ex Machina. Annihilation, the film, currently in post-production, is scheduled to be released before the end of the year. But neither of these feats seem as remarkable, to me, as VanderMeer’s ability to captivate and hold the attention of an academic audience, particular those in the Humanities who collectively hold writers to a standard set by well over 300 years of literary fiction in the modern languages. On its surface Borne seems like a relatively simple tale, certainly compared to the multi-faceted, deep-mapped narratives of the Southern Reach and, even more so, VanderMeer’s astonishing, and astonishingly underappreciated Ambergris series. But once you begin to examine Borne more closely, once you begin to unfold its surface layers, you may discover, in addition to a moving story, a series of meditations on age-old topics of being and becoming . . . the relationship of parts and wholes, biological growth, the development of a psyche, and the relationship of creatures to their natural environment, to name a few.
Borne is patently about parts and wholes. The population scavanges, salvages, tinkers, and trades in a chaotic array of very strange biotech. DIY meets dystopian science fiction/fantasy, but this is no dark green fantasy camp. “Human” actors are not just tinkerers; they are also tinkered with. Everyone is technically improved—more or less. This state of affairs generates unusual tension in relationships; considerable anxiety about wholeness, completeness, and authenticity; and almost compulsive soul searching. I am not what I seem . . . something’s missing . . . how did I get here . . . what is wrong with you . . . this doesn’t add up . . . did you see where I left my soul?
A less obvious tension between parts and wholes, though integral to the narrative, is the dislocation of individuals from any broader community. Borne foregrounds binary relationships, but in the context of general social collapse. The City, once dominated by the Company, disintegrates when the Company is destroyed by its own monstrous creation. This is one of the reasons academics are going to be talking about the novel. As American academic, Steven Shaviro suggests in his recent The Pinocchio Theory blog post, Borne is a startling illustration of accelerationist hopes and fears.[i]
In the broken city, a diverse population of hybrids survives on biotechnical scrap. The more human creatures find distraction in the usual dystopian pursuits of drugs and violence. And while the main characters, understandably misanthropic, retreat into a dark cave, they also remain complicit in the Company’s boundless abuse, and categorically ashamed.
Though literary fiction should neither serve nor accommodate philosophy, Borne’s sustained focus on the problem of parts and wholes, at various scales, reminds us of classical and contemporary problems of mereology (the study of parts and wholes). VanderMeer’s appeal to Speculative Realism, and virtual dialogue with Timothy Morton and some of the major topics of Object-Oriented Ontology, furthermore, reminds us of the very long relationship between mereology and ontology (the study of being). We create monsters out of parts, for example, but recognize them as such, perhaps, because of our intractably provincial sense of integrity.
Though every character in the novel is monstrous, the title character and the universal antagonist, Mord, are categorically more monstrous, by virtue of their scale. Borne is a briny, psychedelic, biotech blob, who grows and changes at an alarming rate. His surrogate mother just can’t keep up with him, and her boyfriend, understandably, doesn’t like the way Borne looks at him (with those eyes). Mord, is a rogue, flying-bear created by the Company to control the City. Predictably he gets too big for his britches, turns on the Company, and destroys its laboratory compound as well as its ability to control the City’s inhabitants. If the Anthropocene is an age in which human beings have substantially altered the environment, the world of Borne is a “posthuman” environment, in which human beings have fundamentally changed what it means to be human.[ii]
As a story of hybrids, Borne is also a story of folding. Human beings are folded into animals, and animals into human beings. And if we assume animals are already folded into human beings through evolutionary processes, then the technological processes of humans being folded into animals (in the novel) comprise a second fold. This figure might prompt us to wonder if human beings are also folded into animals, in a biological sense? Is the seed/code of the human present in every form of life? If not, how did we get here? Is life multiple or one? (But these are philosophical questions. Don’t pester the biologist just yet.) In any case, as Borne’s origami creatures interact with one another in an origami world, approaching, withdrawing, and turning from one another, they suggest infinite folds, a high-tech baroque fractal.[iii]
Borne, the creature, might be described as an example of technologically accelerated evolution folding in on itself. He moves from anemone to plant to animal to person to leviathan, and then somehow evolves into a giant, single-celled creature, before returning to his original state. Because Borne is continually changing shape and because the direction of his development is so unpredictable, he ultimately seems to occupy all points at once. Is he born or programmed to be everything at once? Is he some kind of super-complex, living hypercube? Or is he a really big mistake?
But biotech is more correctly about animals and machines.[iv] And indeed, animals are folded into machines and machines into animals on every level of the work. Most of the hybrids in the novel seem more animal-like—enhanced animals rather than enhanced machines—but perhaps we just don’t see the animal in the machine because we are vitalists (as well as speciests), conditioned to privilege familiar forms over unseen functions. A recent revival of academic interest in vitalism, from Henri Bergson to Brian Massumi, seems to point to the wisdom and virtue of “real life,” in response to, or possibly in reaction to, various AI turns. AI is generally a frustrating discourse, for outsiders, but the playful yet philosophically earnest, and extremely insightful, speculations of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing remind us that operating systems can be endlessly fascinating, and even charismatic, once you get to know them.
The overarching soft-tech, wet-ware bias of the novel seems consistent with VanderMeer’s Ambergris sensibilities, but thinking about cultural distinctions between nature and technology is inherent in all of his recent works. At what point, precisely, do simple tools become machines? What was forged in the iron age? What snaked in and out of the age of information? And why are we turning away from both at this point in time, going back to “nature” and “life,” so much so we don’t even question the value of the turn, even as we are more, and more intimately, bound up with and bound by technology?
In some ways Borne, the character, doesn’t evolve very much at all, and this might be an indication of his limitations as a hybrid. What machine, part or whole, could match the fathomless history of life? While many readers will undoubtedly become attached to Borne as a child-like figure, sacrificial lamb, and/or distant relation of Southern Reach’s Crawler, Borne remains, for the most part, an empty, inverted vessel. He can take on any form and contain multitudes because, in his absurd versatility, he remains formless and empty. He’s not really up to the task of a relationship with anyone, though there is a moment . . . of heartbreak. For some reason (it was sudden and surprising for me), we feel Rachel’s love for Borne most keenly when she is forced to abandon him. She can’t bear to leave him, but he can’t evolve beyond his monstrous impulses, though he clearly wishes he could. Grow up. Stop acting like a two-year-old. But two-year-olds don’t have regrets, and neither do machines. In the end, Borne, becomes a misfit among misfits, but also a hero, and a sacrifice. And in this sense human.
Mord is a colossal menace form the start, and seems much less complicated, but he’s also a sleeper. Once you get past the frenzy of trying to make sense of him . . . once you overcome the compulsion to put him back into the author’s psyche to understand how he was conceived and nurtured, you might discover you actually like him. Compared to Borne, Mord has too much substance, but there’s something charismatic about his matted mass. He’s solid, genuine, unapologetic . . . even sincere. You always know where you stand with him. You know he could and would stomp you, given the chance, and you know that he should. No ethical prevarication.
At the same time Mord also presents a conceptual riddle. He’s a bear—grumpy, willful, wild, and out of control. He eats and sleeps a lot, has really bad breath, and mostly bad hair days. Like Borne, biology seems to be his dominant trait. However, he doesn’t seem to have emotions (except for an undifferentiated rage, hardly recognizable as feeling). And his mode of flight, makes no sense whatsoever in an animal world.
As a flying bear, Mord is categorically mechanical, and yet barely “real.” Without the Company, it seems, he would have no reason to exist. Without their avarice, manic sense of proportion, epic resource grab, and complete lack of accountability, he would not have left the drawing board. Truly, Wick’s discarded fish, even a giant walking fish—sitting on the porch drinking lemonade—beats a flying bear, every time. I remain anxious about VanderMeer’s freedom, but admit there’s ultimately something compelling about the combination of the mammoth animal and enormous machine in Mord. Biotech at this scale becomes a difference in kind. A different kind of biotech. A different kind of novel. A different world.
The jump in scale from minnows to Mord, in Borne, invites us to first notice, then see, and subsequently reflect on the still larger, ecological scales of biotech in the novel. Not only Borne but Borne’s world is a biotechnological monstrosity. Biotechnical creatures, great and small, cannot be contained in a lab, inside a built environment, or outside of an ecological space. And biotech weapons certainly can’t be contained. Anything created in a lab is already part of the environment. There’s no inside and no outside. And before you know it, you have a toxic biological and cultural soup that can only evolve toxic creatures.
So there’s a lot more than biotech, as we know it, being folded in this dystopian laundry. There are ecological folds—water, chemicals, soil, and vegetation in unsustainable proportions. Geological folds in the salient caverns and crevices. Institutional folds within the Company. Folds in time and space, in worlds within the novel, intertertextual folds. And ecology is folded into geology, and into the ruins of culture. Time and space are folded into characters, worlds, and texts. Vandermeer’s brain, folded back on itself, unfolds freely in the text, and we too are brought into the fold. We open each drawer of this ornate cabinet, curious, reckless, guilty, but also compelled. Unfold a letter addressed to someone else, and watch incredulously, as the cyphers themselves begin to unfold.
I am not what I seem, but I made you whole. You are not what you seem. Do not forget. We can outrun them.
We can outrun ghosts?
Borne’s different scales of biotech, and stretches of the imagination may challenge fans of VanderMeer’s weird realist, Southern Reach Trilogy, and even sadden some broken-hearted refugees of Ambergris. One might worry that VanderMeer has abandoned his post as a virtuoso world-maker, painstaking literary craftsman, and ambassador of a brave, new American avant-garde. One might worry . . . if one had become too attached to the diamond-tough characters, dazzling descriptive passages, and old-world pacing of the Ambergris and The Southern Reach books. While not as rich as these previous works in some ways, Borne seems to point in various directions at once. And this is both exhilarating and frightening. The compass needle spins wildly as we enter a new territory. Do I wake or dream? Am I hypnotized, or mad? Can I trust our leader? A distant shriek, barely animal. Saints preserve us.
Reading and writing fold minds over time. Communication suggests—perhaps guarantees—another type of fold. Bare existence. And conversely, bare existence might guarantee communication. We gravitate toward dialogue, even internal dialogue, with a sense of purpose, while understanding (surely) that it never ends. We can close a chapter and a book, but we can’t outrun ghosts. And even those pages we will never read, leave a trace in cultural memory.
[i] Acclerationism is a popular socio-political concept expressing the hope and expectation that capitalism will accelerate beyond its capacity and suddenly collapse, bringing about radical change.
[ii] Though the distinctions are not at all clear in any context, the term “transhuman” usually represents an anthropocentric, futuristic ideal of overcoming human limitations, while the “posthuman” denotes a more critical or value-neutral worldview, which calls the concept of humanity into question.
[iii] I’ve borrowed this conceit from Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. However, folding and unfolding as approach and withdrawal might also be considered in the context of Graham Harman’s 2011 The Quadruple Object.
[iv] What kind of speciest would get so excited about animals being folded into humans in the first place?