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Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach Trilogy and Borne, is having a big month. His latest novella from MCD x FSG, The Strange Bird, which is set in the Borne universe, hits shelves on February 27, and the movie adaptation of Annihilation (book one in the Southern Reach) opens on the 23rd in theaters across the country. Despite his busy schedule, VanderMeer found time to speak with me about The Strange Bird, which unfolds from the point-of-view of an animal that has been constructed, body part by body part, by human hands (the book’s human characters refer to the bird and other animals like it as pieces of “biotech”).
This book, like much of his earlier work, explores some of humanity’s darkest impulses and the devastating ways we treat the natural world. Our discussion also turned toward VanderMeer’s home state of Florida, which has influenced his writing and understanding of climate change, as well as his thoughts on the future of technology and the human species as we know it.
What are you feeling in the days leading up to the movie release of Annihilation? Excitement? Apprehension?
Mostly, right now, this all makes me want to spend most of my time puttering around in the yard, fixing the bird feeders and continuing the process of re-wilding the yard. We also have a very polite possum and raccoon that come by at night and help clean up any extra bird seed. Very fond of them. My life with my wife Ann and the yard are what make me happiest—that and the writing and books. The movie is this separate entity created by someone else that will receive all kinds of responses. Which feels right, like that’s the way it should be, that it’s complex. But there is some part of me that worries about the book being obliterated by the movie. Even though I know it’s more like a wave that’ll wash over the book, and the book will still be there afterwards.
Your work is not only rife with ecological concerns—it explores some of humanity’s darkest impulses and most horrific assaults on the environment. Do you approach your work from a place of hope or despair for the future of our planet, or even our species?
Both, really, although in general I remain hopeful. We just have a lot of work to do and seem not to want to do it. For one thing, we need to redefine both utopia and dystopia in terms of how we figure out public policy and a way forward. Too many utopias read like just an excuse to keep driving SUVs and too many dystopias tend to simplify what should not be simplified. One narrative I hear more and more is that there is no wilderness left out there, with the assumption, even among liberals, that in a way there’s nothing worth protecting. The fallacy here is that there’s lots of wilderness left, whether interfered with by humans or not, and lots worth defending. It’s just that it is often rendered invisible, in part because some of us have lost a connection to the land.
The other fallacy is that that we are separate from our environment—that environment is something way over there, nothing to do with us, instead of what surrounds us. Because it’s all connected, the damage “somewhere else” ultimately affects all of us. And, finally, we tend to believe that somehow our crude hard tech is more sophisticated than natural systems, when, in fact, we often compound our problems by not thinking of ways to make our tech work with the Earth’s own systems rather than against them. Until we solve these fundamental disconnects, I don’t think we solve our fundamental problems. And as we’re seeing now all too brutally, this is a social justice issue as well because of who is disproportionately affected by climate change.
How has living in Florida influenced your writing and understanding of climate change and our human relationships with the natural world?
I lived in Fiji as a child and nature was right outside the door. The same holds true of North Florida. A three-minute drive and I’m at a public park that has a biosphere that includes owls, tortoises, and hawks and fish and turtles. A fifteen-minute drive and I’m in the wilderness. It’s also a city with a lot of canopy roads and tree cover, which always helps human quality of life, too. So to me it’s just always been part of the world. You are always part of your environment, and that environment is full of plants and animals, and moments like the one when I encountered a Florida panther several years back. In moments like those you cede control of your life to the world around you, in a sense. You develop an acute sense of observation of animals, including birds, and you over time get a sense of behavior and lifecycles. When that happens, the simplification of “nature” that occurs in pop culture and in a lot of fiction begins to seem wrong and sometimes even horrifying. And you also experience more transcendent moments in the wilderness simply because you are familiar with it and you allow it in, so to speak.
The Strange Bird takes place in the Borne universe, which is a departure from Annihilation and the rest of the Southern Reach trilogy in that it consists of a more urban environment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ecologies of cities. Do you see them, for example, as more “broken” than spaces of pristine wilderness?
I think they are seen as broken, but my point in using that terminology and writing about them is to make the stand that we need to reclaim them, that we need to nurture biodiversity everywhere, no matter how wrecked a place might seem. You see this happen in urban spaces in patches, but perhaps as things become more urgent, it will seem more important. Not to just plaster cement over everything, but to renegotiate the distance between out and in, between the urban and the rural. It becomes a political thing to render such spaces invisible too. If something is invisible, you don’t have to face it or deal with it or help it. It just isn’t there anymore. Sometimes things are rendered so by what the Internet cares about and what it doesn’t care about.
I have to say that The Strange Bird might be the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve read by you. What inspired you to write from the perspective of an animal, or more specifically, a piece of “biotech?”
On one level, The Strange Bird came to me very organically. There’s a mention of the Strange Bird in Borne, and it always nagged at me. I thought there was more to the bird’s story, that there might be something very poignant and complex going on. Once I had this kind of ecstatic vision of a bird escaping from a laboratory, and the cadence of the language of that, I was set. Although until I realized there was something human there, too, I didn’t have the story arc. I’ve always experimented with non-human viewpoints, but here I hope I found a way to wed the unusual to the emotional.
But directly to your question—with gene-splicing and the blurring of the difference between art and science, I feel we’re entering territory that is ethically fraught. When we think of living things, what is “product,” what is “art,” and what is “entity”? Given how badly we’ve treated animals on this planet, this is an ever-more crucial question that determines who we want to be as people: Our best selves or our worst.
In both The Strange Bird and Borne, humans have all but destroyed themselves with technology. What are your thoughts in general on the way our technology is advancing? Are we going to annihilate ourselves, or will technology help us to get out of the environmental (and humanitarian) mess we created?
Technology will either adapt to the complex systems of the natural world or we’ll definitely destroy ourselves. So much of our tech works against those natural systems and ultimately our quality of life. There’s a lot of magical thinking out there, presented as common sense, that boils down to “we’ve gotten out of a bind before, so we will again.” Personally, I find that kind of thinking to be about as irrational and useless as it gets, but you see it repeated in articles about, for example, how agriculture has to change to feed everybody. But there is also nothing the human imagination cannot accomplish if the push is in the right direction, and you do see a lot of forward thinkers using natural systems as the basis for solutions, too. A lot of what we need to do has already been developed or thought through and if we could get away from the idea that everything has to be monetized we’d be a lot closer to practical solutions. In my opinion.
You are able to conjure horrific imagery that is, surprisingly, also quite beautiful. I’m thinking of the beauty of Area X in your Southern Reach Trilogy, certainly, but also of your descriptions of biotech in Borne and The Strange Bird—the colors, the shapes, the textures, and the glowing brightness. That combination of horror and beauty feels rare, even in works by other speculative fiction writers who attempt to describe ecological disasters. I suppose this is more an observation than a question, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the perverse beauty of ecological destruction.
I once read a short story by a well-known writer who hadn’t lived in the city he was writing about; it had a first person narrator. The writer, through this narrator, described the pollution from a factory in a way that was beautiful and also complete bullshit. Because anyone who actually lived in a fucked-up city full of pollution would not stop to admire the beauty of what was killing them. And if they did, it would say something very specific about the character that was lacking from the depiction in this story. All of this is to say: I don’t find ecological destruction beautiful, and it’s also often false to character—it tells you more about the author.
But I do think that in the midst of degraded eco-systems and in post-apocalyptic situations, it isn’t just all dire. You find people who are still trying to help other people, who still believe in connection, who still have hope. And you do have situations where there’s a disconnect between the destruction and the way it presents. Beauty isn’t moral. It doesn’t signify that way, or shouldn’t. Also, of course, even in the midst of destruction, animals carry their grace and their fortitude with them. Because, in the end, just like us, they are trying to live.
What’s next for you? Anything you’d like our readers to pick up or watch out for?
I’m excited about Netflix optioning my next novel Hummingbird Salamander, with Michael Sugar, who won an Oscar for producing Spotlight. I’ll serve as an executive producer and creative consultant. I’d also like to give a shout-out to the awesome Volumes Bookcafé in Chicago and their fundraiser. Finally, I’d like to bring this book list I did for The Strand in New York City to readers’ attention. It includes some of my favorites.
Feature photo courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Other photos courtesy of Jeff VanderMeer.
FICTION – WEIRD FICTION
The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer
MCD x FSG
Published February 27, 2018
Jeff VanderMeer’s New York Times-bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy has been translated into more than thirty languages. The first novel, Annihilation, won the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, was short-listed for a half dozen more, and has been adapted into a movie to be released by Paramount Pictures on February 23rd, 2018. His latest novel, Borne, is the first release from Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s new MCD imprint. And his work continues to explore themes related to the environment, animals, and our future. The New Yorker has called VanderMeer “the weird Thoreau” and he frequently speaks about issues related to climate change and storytelling. His nonfiction appears in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. With his wife, Ann VanderMeer, he has edited several fiction anthologies, including The Big Book of Science Fiction. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.
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Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.
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