At first, reading Jeff Vandermeer's Borne feels like you've fallen into a dream. Any chance of a standard post-apocalyptic setting vanishes with the first encounter, dealt with early on in the dry manner of an accepted reality, with Mord.
Mord is, well, a giant bear. One that can also, in defiance of gravity and physical laws, fly. Giant, here, means several stories tall. He crunches through buildings in the broken future city, noms on its residents, and has a whole horde of smaller, normal-sized bears that follow him around snarfing up everything Mord himself misses.
This is, quite frankly, a lot to swallow when you open up a book that, on the outside, posits itself as a literary sci-fi experience. The writing itself, the words and sentences and focus, fits that description. The flying bear and its sole competition, a rabble-leader called 'The Magician', do not.
That these two elements, Mord and the Magician, feel like they could've spawned from a second-grader's daydream isn't a criticism. On the other hand, it's to the story and the setting's credit that I was pulled in despite the at-first-glance absurdity. I should've read about the flying bear bashing over buildings like a Kong rip-off and tossed the novel away then and there.
Instead, I kept reading. In part, I think, to see if Borne would top itself.
It does, reader. It does. But I won't spoil that here.
Borne does something too few 'serious' stories bother to do: it takes a ridiculous premise and does what it can to craft a world in which it could happen, and explores what such a world would be like. For most of the book, you're right there with the narrator, feeling the tension, the frustration, the caustic exhaustion that comes from living in a world where survival doesn't just mean finding food, it means avoiding mutated, crazed children that want to eat you.
Rachel, the narrator, fuels the story with a desire to take in and care for the titular Borne, a strange creature produced by the nefarious Company, a combination of cult and biotech institution that, in Rachel's eyes, largely produced the current-day disaster. Wick, Rachel's sort-of partner, gets suspicious around the ways Borne changes from day to day, and that suspicion and those changes drive the narrative. Is Rachel right to care for this hapless thing, or is Wick correct that Borne will, eventually, make the two humans into its next meal?
There are twists, there are turns. Intriguing elements arise without ever being really explained. Borne's middle, where the characters are learning to live with each other while, at the same time, understanding living with each other may be impossible, is a tense jaunt. The inevitable conclusion gets up-ended with a final third rush that, quite frankly, is a revelation rush.
Stories, particularly sci-fi and fantasy, have a tricky relationship with information. Spend too much time going over the ins and outs of your world and readers will walk away, overwhelmed without a reason to care. Spend too little, and readers will throw up their hands, unable to know what might and might not be possible at any given time.
Borne spares its explanations, letting you tangle with possible reasons for its warped universe. I bought into it slowly, in part because I wanted to see that flying bear do more flying bear things. It did, and I constructed my own framework for this world, how it worked, what our heroes wanted.
Then came the end, when the explanations demolished my framing and left me confused. The story finished, but I (and this could just be me) felt less sure of its world than I was in the beginning. I had so many questions, and the book didn't have any more pages. In some sense, the discoveries made Borne's universe more interesting, more fascinating. In another, they slipped the focus from the story's best elements to complicated ones.
Which brings me back around to the beginning: sometimes, when you have a flying bear, you might as well enjoy it.