Over a prolific thirty-year writing career, Jeff VanderMeer has generated a radically creative body of science fiction and fantasy novels that grapple with humanity’s place in the universe and our relationship to the natural world. A winner of Nebula, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy awards, and dubbed the “Weird Thoreau” by The New Yorker, VanderMeer is at the vanguard of the burgeoning genre of climate-change fiction, or “cli-fi.”
His latest novel, Borne, is set in an unnamed city of the post-apocalyptic future, over which looms the ruins of a corrupt biotech firm referred to only as the Company. The narrator, Rachel, is a refugee of a nebulous but far-reaching ecological disaster, and she and her partner, Wick, scavenge for sustenance and usable technology along with the rest of the city’s inhabitants. The story focuses on Rachel’s relationship with a sentient piece of biotech she finds that looks at first like some kind of plant (later he morphs into a color-changing squid, and more) and that she names Borne. Rachel comes to think of him as her child, delighting in teaching him, playing word games with him, and protecting him from the evils outside of her compound, which include a giant flying bear called Mord, another piece of biotech gone awry. This might seem like the ideal setting for a children’s comic-book series, what with a talking techno-squid and a flying bear. But VanderMeer wields the strangeness into a poignant and ultimately hopeful meditation on love and parenthood, one that honors human perseverance even in the face of abject scarcity and devastation.
VanderMeer is perhaps best known for his Southern Reach trilogy—the novels Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. Inspired by the sights and sounds of hiking trails around his home in Tallahassee, Florida, the trilogy revolves around “Area X,” a hypnotic, mysterious wilderness of human creation. Multiple teams of scientists and explorers are sent to understand Area X over decades, but they all return damaged, if they return at all. Vandermeer’s personification of the wilds in the Southern Reach trilogy is ominous and creepy, but it also forces us to consider nature’s insidious power over us all. A movie version of Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman and directed by Ex Machina’s Alex Garland, is set for release in 2018.
In collaboration with his wife, Ann, an accomplished science fiction and fantasy editor, VanderMeer has also produced a number of award-winning anthologies, including The Big Book of Science Fiction, which features sci-fi greats alongside lesser-known authors from more than twenty-five countries. Additionally, he’s written numerous works of nonfiction, including a beautiful craft manual called Wonderbook and a more practical guide for writers called Booklife.
VanderMeer and I met for coffee recently while he was in New York with his wife to celebrate Anicka Yi’s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim museum, Life Is Cheap; Yi shares VanderMeer’s fascination with biotechnology and was influenced by his writing. Affable and warm, he spoke passionately and precisely about apocalyptic fiction, the forms environmental activism can take, and why “it should be totally fine to question the objectivity of scientists.”
—Puloma Mukherjee for Guernica
Guernica: Let’s start by talking about your new novel, Borne. Do you have a sense of when the story began to take shape in your mind?
Jeff VanderMeer: Most of my stories and novels take about six to eight years, from idea to completion. The Southern Reach trilogy is possibly the only exception; I wrote it very fast, inspired by the wilderness in North Florida. For Borne, I really started around 2007. I had this idea in my head of this giant bear and this piece of abandoned biotech that would begin to speak, and a woman who had come from an island nation to a failed city-state and who would find the biotech and think of it as her child. I wrote maybe ten thousand words back then, and stopped, deliberately, because I didn’t think that the kinds of relationships in the story were ones that fit the kind of craft and technique that I had mastered to that point.
Guernica: What kind of relationships were these? What kind of craft techniques do you believe you needed to explore them?
Jeff VanderMeer: The ones between Rachel and Borne, and then also, to some degree, Rachel and Wick. The shifts in types of dialogue and the shifts from innocence to something else in Borne, and the hard-won truths of Rachel’s relationship with Wick. Yes, there were issues of needing to have distance from some things in my own life to apply them to the novel. But also I had to get more experience with certain approaches to dialogue and to characterization. The Southern Reach trilogy helped a lot, even though it’s very different than Borne. But it helped also in terms of contrast. I realized that while the Area X books featured characters who could not connect, and often weren’t trying to connect, in Borne the characters are putting a lot of energy into their relationships, even as they try on a daily basis just to survive. That love and trust would be much bigger elements of the story.
I felt I might ruin it by writing it too early. I thought about the structure and characters for a very long time, writing in bits and pieces. Then I wrote it in earnest starting around the beginning of 2015, by which time everything about the characters had crystallized in my head.
Guernica: Rachel comes off as more hopeful and accepting of her circumstances, even as a scavenger in a ruined city where danger lurks around every corner, while Wick, her partner, is a seething, well-informed cynic. What went into shaping those characters?
Jeff VanderMeer: That was among the things I needed to think about. Wick had been, at one point, part of the system that more or less destroyed the city. He is invested in the past of the city in a way that Rachel isn’t. So the landscape is much more haunted for him, in an odd way. For Rachel, I wanted to write about a competent person who, in difficult circumstances, is always still trying to struggle forward, doing her best. For me that would come from the way she was raised. That brought me to her parents who, even as they were becoming climate-change refugees, were always teaching her how she could have a life amid all of that. They were trying very hard to do the things necessary for her to be well grounded even in these desperate situations. Thinking of Rachel’s mental state was a challenge too, as she has her ups and downs—moments of depression, dissociation from herself because of circumstances she’s in. All of which are very natural reactions.
Thinking about the dynamic between Rachel and Wick was an important challenge too. I wanted their dynamic to be tangled and fraught, and realistic. I wanted their relationship to ground the book, especially since I knew the reader was going to gravitate to Rachel and Borne, who have a more direct mother-and-child dynamic. Like it is for any couple, there is more mystery in Rachel and Wick’s relationship, grounded in their respective histories.
Guernica: Leaving the city unnamed was very powerful for me as a reader; it indicated a sort of epidemic proportion of ecological collapse.
Jeff VanderMeer: It’s funny how more and more there are absences that help me find the right distance or closeness from which to tell a story. With Annihilation, I didn’t have character names and that actually helped me know the characters better. Every time I assigned a name to a character in that trilogy, I knew them less. And also, the lack of names means they get subsumed by the landscape to some degree, or seen as at the same level as the landscape, which made sense in Southern Reach trilogy.
But with Borne, I wanted the relationships between the characters to be the foreground. So obviously it was very important to have names. But for the same reason, the company, or the city, had to remain unnamed. That to me helped the characters stand out from it. It also did give the impression of the pervasiveness of it all, that it almost doesn’t matter what the name is.
It is interesting also to me that the behemoth nature of multinationals that are basically above the law, or more powerful than governments, allows a fiction writer to call an institution like that “The Company” and it’s not too unsubtle. These companies set up factories in post-scarcity cities, where governments are weak and basically suck out resources and leave the local population destitute, more or less. Those products go to places and people who are richer, who can afford to pay for those products. So as much as there is a giant flying bear in this story, there is a thought about the real economics underlying it all.
Guernica: The unnamed city also seems to be teeming with life of a different kind. There are feral children who are only partially human, and a lot of other plant and animal life. This was evocative for me, as a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction tends to dwell on life being completely wiped out rather than emerging differently.
Jeff VanderMeer: That was a deliberate choice too, because as you said, I find you just don’t see this in post-apocalyptic fiction. We have this romanticized idea in our heads that the only kind of ecosystems that count are the ones that are relatively unspoiled. It’s disheartening how much of a political device—and how violent—it is against people, places, and animals when politicians and corporations decide to build over a broken, so-called “abandoned” lot to “revitalize” it. They get it done on the backs of people and ecosystems getting completely destroyed. An example that I give sometimes is: they’re going to be building solar panels in a desert area, and this is ostensibly a good thing for solar power somewhere out West. But they’re doing it on the backs of a lie, which is that this area of desert is completely uninhabited, and, of course, it isn’t. There’s actually an ecosystem there that, once you have twenty miles of solar panels over top of it, will in fact be killed off. And so I see this as a very political issue of rendering invisible spaces that we just don’t want to know about, but where people and animals are still living.
Guernica: I read Borne as hopeful overall, but I suppose I’m an optimist.
Jeff VanderMeer: It’s interesting, the difference between readers who find Borne ultimately hopeful and those who don’t. To me, it is hopeful that there are still people alive who are able to make some kind of a living and make some kind of a life for themselves. A lot of the creature comforts and the things we take for granted, which are actually part of the reason we are in this situation, are not sustainable, especially at current population levels. And so, it’s not just simply a matter of changing over to solar. It’s a matter of changing our philosophies. Of learning to live, more or less, mid- or post-apocalyptic, whatever apocalyptic means.
Guernica: Do you think eco-fiction as a genre is having a resurgence now?
Jeff VanderMeer: We should feel an urgency about our environment and what’s been done to it by human action and inaction. I wouldn’t say there’s a resurgence—I think it’s been with us all along, and especially since the 1960s and 1970s, but it is true that there’s almost a subsection of the bookstore devoted to it now. Personally, I’ve been addressing these issues in my long and short fiction since the late 1980s—basically since the beginning of my career. It may be simplistic to say the amount of such fiction being published now is reflective of individual writers feeling affected by climate change or seeing the effects of climate change across the planet, but sadly that’s the likely reason. Even though writers are supposed to, I think, render visible what is often invisible. Which is to say, what took so long? Why did it take so long? And how do we explore ecological and climate-change issues in fiction without being subverted by the marketplace and just becoming more escapist storytelling for readers to consume? The question of whether eco-fiction can make a difference is still an open question with no answer. As much as dystopian writers like J. G. Ballard pushed the envelope on these kinds of issues in the 1970s, as much as they were incorporated into the mainstream, you can’t necessarily say that the warnings they gave have mattered much in the face of corporate greed, for example.
Guernica: Have you seen evidence of books like yours serving as a call to action?
Jeff VanderMeer: I have received emails from readers who have said that they were emotionally impacted by the books, and they feel they are more environmentally aware and energized to do more. So that’s hopeful to me. It is at least evidence of what I’m trying to do—trying to convey very intense emotional experiences by being very close in on character points of view to make you feel it in your body. That’s one way to get the point across, by evoking a visceral response.
I have also been able to do a lot of talking about the environment because of these books. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that climate-change fiction will change the mind of a denier because most of the deniers I’ve met are basically in a cult situation. It’s a faith issue. It’s not a rational issue. There’s no fact that’s going to change their mind. They simply believe in the cult of climate-change denial and it somehow feeds into the rest of the mythos of their own life story. But what I do think and hope is that the severity and urgency of our situation will be apparent from my work, to someone who believes that the climate is changing irreversibly but has the timing of it wrong. Someone who believes that we will not be impacted for another century, when scientists are looking at a much shorter timeline of, say, thirty years.
And I find myself in this bizarre position in which everything I write and talk about is pretty much about this issue, the environment. It feels a little too comfortable, because at the end of the day I can rationalize that I’m doing my share. I don’t know if I actually am, I don’t know if I should be more of an activist than I am. But at the end of the day, everybody needs to do those things that they’re most likely to continue doing, and that aren’t going to burn them out.
Guernica: For the Southern Reach trilogy, you contacted scientists to assess plausibility. Did you do the same for Borne? What were their responses? Do you worry about how your work will be received by scientists?
Jeff VanderMeer: Borne is more like science-fantasy in that I didn’t care about realism in the usual way. Rachel, the narrator, is at the ground level of experiencing, for example, the effects of a giant bear that started out as biotech created by a company. She’s not a scientist and she’s not concerned with the bear’s origins so much as she is about the threat the bear poses. So this allowed me to create extrapolations and juxtapositions that did not require massive amounts of explanation of, say, biotech. This, frankly, mirrors the ways in which biotech is beginning to enter our lives—the fact that gene splicing is becoming so easy a layperson can do it. And thus in time biotechnology will, for worse or better, become a bit like using a smartphone. We do it, and it seems to some degree miraculous, but we don’t know the inner workings—lots of ethical and moral questions are being dropped by the wayside, unanswered, with little or no engagement, as a result.
Guernica: You’ve described climate change—and indeed Area X, the mysterious wilderness central to the Southern Reach trilogy—as a “hyperobject,” something that is everywhere and nowhere. Can you explain?
Jeff VanderMeer: I think that Area X was formed in my mind by the BP oil spill, in that it was something that was in my head that I couldn’t get out. My subconscious wanted to somehow protect that area. In a way, that makes sense because the BP oil spill was a hyperobject—something of unknown intent and size and pervasiveness. It’s creating all kinds of effects in the Gulf that we won’t know the full effects of for generations. It’s still out there. It’s an ongoing process that becomes visible at times even though it’s mostly invisible, and points again to this whole problem with combating climate change. It’s so many things that are invisible. I hadn’t known the term when I wrote the Southern Reach trilogy, but I was referred to Timothy Morton’s book, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, after the book was released, and then I began to think about how well it fits.
Guernica: At a talk at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination in 2015, you said, “It’s important not to over-deify scientists and scientific organizations in general, especially in areas that require rather more speculation than others.” I found that quite radical.
Jeff VanderMeer: It should be totally fine to question the objectivity of scientists and, as the artist Anicka Yi has noted, the power structures in scientific institutions. The physical laws of the universe are objective, but human beings in any context are not. That includes with regard to science. Why have there been so few women scientists in many branches of science until recently? Why do so many women give evidence of unequal treatment? To some extent, the supposed objectivity of science has given a lot of extra cover to very subjective and eccentric approaches to exploring aspects of ourselves and the universe around us. That’s fertile territory for fiction writers, or at least for this particular fiction writer. The irrationality of human beings, the illogic of decision-making, which I’ve seen firsthand in institutions that supposedly make decisions based on objective logic. Once you realize there’s less logic in human institutions than you once thought, you see the narrative potential in just about everything around you. Sometimes, in fact, it seems as if the human world runs on inefficiency and erratic behavior.
Guernica: You and your wife, Ann, recently won the Locus Award for the Big Book of Science Fiction, a delightful anthology of science fiction through the ages. Can you tell me a little bit about your collaboration?
Jeff VanderMeer: We both do each other’s jobs on this, but sometimes the form it’ll take is I’ll go out as the advanced scout and I’ll gather all the stories together and I’ll basically skim through to discount things. Ann then reads more carefully and we’ll debate because she might really hate something that, for some reason, stuck out to me. Then I’ll reread it, and if I really like it, I’ll stick to my guns and we’ll have a little chat about it.
In general, we tend to have a similar sensibility. For the Big Book of Classic Fantasy we’re about to start, I’m really fascinated by the decadent era, British and French writers and the surrealists, and bringing into the fantasy tradition amazing stories from those writers who are fantastical, even though they’re not necessarily known for writing stuff that has a fantastical element.
We ebb and flow in terms of what we take care of and don’t. Sometimes I’ll be busy writing on a novel, so she’ll do more of the work. Sometimes I will spend a flurry of weeks doing nothing but the anthology work. I will say that it definitely takes a toll.
Guernica: Did growing up as a scientist’s son influence the type of fiction you’ve written over the years?
Jeff VanderMeer: My father ran a fire ant lab for a long time as an entomologist and research chemist and someone who studies invasive species. Before that, he studied moths at Cornell, and he studied an invasive rhinoceros beetle in Fiji. I think I got a complete picture of what the lives of scientists are like. My father is of the opinion that if scientists are allowed to follow their nose, eventually it results in something. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. What I came out of it with, in a non-cynical way, was that the scientific process is as messy as anything else. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just the way it is.
At the same time, of course, my dad would have a lab, my mom would have a studio and her art. I think the juxtaposition of those two things was very important in making me both a kind of logical, methodical writer and then also someone who was willing to let the surrealism and the kind of stream of consciousness and subconscious hold sway. I think I was really well served in that regard. I also saw the dangers of being on one side or the other of that divide. My mother wasn’t illogical as an artist; it’s just logic was very different for a painter than it was for a scientist.