In the phantasmagorical fiction of Tallahassee-based novelist Jeff VanderMeer, people are often rendered as both occupier and occupied, both parasite and host. While alienation, infection, and corruption have long been his themes, it was the surreal, fungal world of 2009's Finch that first fully blended weird, commercial, and literary fiction. VanderMeer combined word-by-word craft with a "two dead bodies" noir mystery in a city under brutal occupation. Released during wars in Darfur, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan, it was as topical as his work had ever been.
Next, engaging with themes of climate change and environmental catastrophe in his New York Times-best-selling Southern Reach Trilogy, VanderMeer did not offer much hope for the ongoing ravages of the Anthropocene. But he exerted considerable imagination in illuminating our world's precarious balances and the folly of failing to see the connections between political, economic, and environmental systems.
On Saturday at Flyleaf Books, VanderMeer will discuss his new novel with award-winning anthologist and editor Ann VanderMeer, to whom he is married. Borne is a moving story told through the eyes of Rachel, a refugee eking out a living scavenging for biotech in a nameless, ruined city, laid to waste by a giant, flying, fire-breathing bear.
The emotional center is the strange connection Rachel develops with a sentient plant-pet-thing she salvages from the bear's fur. There are kaiju-film-size battles and explosions, sacrifices, love, and, perhaps, a slice of hope. Along the way is beautifully observed writing about the human and nonhuman, meaning and purpose.
INDY: "The City" in Borne is a living, breathing, changing place, one with a mostly hidden history. But you're going to let us explore a bit more of that history in your novella The Strange Bird, coming August 1 from FSG. Can you tell me about editor Sean McDonald's support of the Southern Reach Trilogy and Borne?
JEFF VANDERMEER: I think the city's history is all too familiar, unfortunately. It's a place ravaged by climate change, but also the predations of what amounts to a multinational corporation, which creates biotech and then sends it to places where consumers are well off enough to buy it. There may be fantastical flourishes and flying bears, but the economic situation is depressingly common.
As for Sean McDonald, he's an incredibly astute guy, also a nice guy, and probably not a guy I would ever play poker with. He, like everyone at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, not only loves books and publishing but he also likes finding innovative ways to bring fiction to readers. When FSG bought Borne, the structure for creating additional short fiction and releasing it quickly was already in place. I didn't know it would be a novella, though—I'd mentioned writing a couple of short stories. But when the idea came to me, it was in the form of a long adventure that boils down to the titular character trying to find her place in the world and to make sense of her existence. Sean was very supportive of this unexpected novella and loved it, and has found a great way to publish it.
Thematically, I see strong connections between the Southern Reach Trilogy and Borne. Not just how, in this Anthropocene era, we have to learn to adapt to, not exploit, the world we live in, but also the labyrinthine bureaucracies in both books, with obscure subprojects off in a room somewhere, concocting who knows what for who knows why. Is there a connection between our maladapted relationships with the environment and with each other?
It's all connected, and we delink these situations, issues, and networks at our peril, because the solutions exist in understanding the connections and coming to complex solutions, because we live in a complex world. When I think about this in fictional terms, I have to incorporate some element of that complexity. In the Southern Reach Trilogy I focused on the governmental aspects, and in Borne it's corporate aspects, in both cases tied to environmental concerns. This is because you often cannot have every element you want to explore in one novel. So the Area X books kind of put some corporate elements into a governmental setting, because otherwise I'd be juggling too much. But I always meant to comment on corporations at some point, and Borne allowed me to. The Strange Bird allows me to in a different way.
Like the Southern Reach Trilogy, Borne is also under a film option from Paramount. I know you had the opportunity to visit the set during filming of Annihilation. What's the latest on the state of both productions?
Annihilation is done and ready, I believe, and they're just deciding on a release date, probably in the first quarter of 2018. Borne is in the early stages of development, but I hope key players may be attached to the project sometime this year. I think Borne would make a fantastic movie, with the right balance of the epic and the personal. An exciting movie, but firmly anchored in characters.
Why do books, films, and art really matter when we're faced with the government we have at a time of global climate crisis? What can readers like me do with the feelings of estrangement, disconnection, and reconnection that your books inspire?
Hopefully fiction can move readers to take further direct action on a local and national level about related issues they care about, or make someone see an issue from a slightly different vantage, or move outside of a particular social media bubble to have empathy in an unexpected way. It's a difficult question, but I do think in the end striving to tell better and more truthful stories, and not just reinforcing the status quo, can be of some use.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Wild Side"