Science-fiction author Jeff VanderMeer’s books are an Audubon guide of fantastical creatures. From glow-in-the-dark fungi that spell out words to bloodthirsty bears that fly through the night sky, VanderMeer pushes past the boundaries of what’s real with plants and animals both recognizable and terrifying.
His latest invention is Borne -- the title of his newest book, and the name of a discarded piece of biotech that will eventually become a sentient being. VanderMeer creates a world decimated by climate change, where a young scavenger named Rachel finds Borne, a seemingly “half-closed stranded sea anemone” that smells like the ocean. Borne starts to grow and speak, and Rachel begins to raise him like a child. Borne yearns to become human, even as his darker impulses take over.
Paramount Pictures has already optioned the book -- little surprise, given that Annihilation (2014), the first novel in VanderMeer’s bestselling Southern Reach trilogy, is set to be released in 2018 as a movie starring Natalie Portman and Gina Rodriguez. We caught up with VanderMeer during a break in his book tour.
I fell in love right away with Borne. After a while, you forget that this young woman Rachel is conversing with a blob-like creature with multiple eyes. It feels so much like a parent-child relationship.
Those early conversations between Borne and Rachel are really those early conversations between a mother and child, as Borne kind of learns more about the world around him. And I really wanted that to feel real and personal, and I took a lot of time relating to my being a stepparent. When I entered [my wife] Ann’s household as a stepparent to a six-year-old daughter, I didn’t want in any way to try and replace her real dad, but I wanted her to feel comfortable. We would joke around a lot, and she’d say “long mouse” when she saw a ferret since she didn’t know what a ferret was, and that’s a line in Borne.
It reminded me also of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where you create this creature and in an ironic way, the creature ends up being more human in its desire to connect and to be loved.
I definitely wanted to explore what is it that makes us human. Is it the shape we take? Is it the bodies we inhabit? You see it in the news all the time: people who are struggling or displaced, who still have moments of kindness to others, and still try to form connections, even though they might be better off not doing that. But I think that speaks to something about the human condition. There are a lot of post-apocalyptic novels that are really about militias ravaging a landscape and how terrible everybody is, and I really wanted to look at how we try to connect to someone else, even in these strange situations. Rachel engaging in an act of faith and trusting, even if that faith is misplaced at times. It’s basically saying she has a hope in the future.
You write a lot about climate change. Here in the Bay Area, we have many environmental and activist groups. Many of us have been struggling with what role we can take as citizens. Do you see writing as a form of activism, or do you reach out in other ways?
I go back and forth in regards to the actual effect of advocacy in fiction, but I do think there is something of value in the laboratory of fiction, in playing out certain scenarios -- a thought experiment that you can’t really do as much in the real world. In terms of my own advocacy, it’s sad to say but in the U.S., everything is so under threat, you can choose almost anything and be of use. We’re putting some percentage of the Annihilation royalty money [into local environmental causes in Florida]. So if more movie projects come down the line, the main thing I’m thinking is I can acquire land in North Florida to protect it.
In your books, your characters live in places very isolated from other people. And yet there’s this sense they’re still hungry to connect, whether they’re human or biotech.
In the Southern Reach trilogy, I was writing about characters who really have a tough time connecting at all, and so that creates a sense of alienation. And honestly, that comes from my nuclear family, who went over to Fiji and kind of cut the bonds with extended family when I was a kid. So when I came into [my wife] Ann’s household, she might have a second cousin who had died and she was in tears, and that took me a long time to understand what that emotional connection was. So as I progressed as a novelist, there was her having more connectivity to the world than I had, and my learning from that.
You gave Ann, a well-known science fiction editor in her own right, the first draft copy of Annihilation to read while you were driving together to a conference. What happened during that drive?
I have this nervous energy when she’s reading my novels. And we were going to this conference, and I could also hear her gasping at some points. I’d look over and think, “Yes, that’s the moment when you’re supposed to be terrified or surprised.” Of course, if she hadn’t liked it, it would have been a terrible experience being trapped in the car for three hours driving down to this conference!
Jeff VanderMeer appears in conversation with Robin Sloan at Green Apple Books (9th Avenue store) on Tuesday, May 16, at 7:30pm; details here. He also appears in conversation with Karen Joy Fowler at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday, May 17, at 7pm; details here.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.