Jeff VanderMeer would like you to know that Mord — the vengeful, three-stories-tall flying bear that terrorizes the post-apocalyptic landscape of his new novel, Borne — is not based on any living human in particular. No, not even that human. "People have said, ‘Mord is supposed to be Trump,’" VanderMeer says. "And it’s like, ‘No, no, Trump is much worse than Mord.’"
Yes, Borne is a book about a half-destroyed future city plunged into anarchy and decay after an unspecified environmental catastrophe. And the three-stories-tall flying bear that now rules it. And the alluringly strange "biotech," both organic and synthetic, that a young scavenger named Rachel plucks from the bear’s fur, and sneaks home, and raises, after a fashion, as her own child. Rachel names this creature Borne; it is most frequently described as a cross between a squid and a sea anemone, though it quickly grows, and mutates, and sprouts a bunch of eyes, and learns to talk and read, and starts to mimic different forms, different people, different facets of humanity.
Parts of this work as a grim metaphor for our current national climate; parts of this, mercifully, do not, though maybe it’d be cooler if they did. To wit, at one point the giant bear fights a giant shark, sort of: "It resembled more an iguana than a fish, with a gaping bite, an off-center lunge that seemed to admit to missing limbs," VanderMeer writes. By now Mord has raised an army of smaller but similarly lethal surrogate bears, and escalated a further-destructive war with a mysterious adversary known only as the Magician. He also has unfinished business with a nefarious institution known only as the Company, which created Mord and Borne and the environmental catastrophe, too.
You might call all this dystopian or science fiction or simply "weird." Of those three, VanderMeer might favor "weird," actually. He’d likely prefer that you see Borne as a story about love, and parenting, and climate change, and hard-fought hope that neither succumbs to the dystopia nor places blind, unreasonable faith in some future utopia. But he probably wouldn’t lead with any of that in describing the book to a stranger at the airport, and neither would you.
"Basically, the novel came to me as this image of this woman reaching out to this sea-anemone-like creature that reminded her of her past," he tells me. "And then I realized — it just came to me — that it was tangled in the fur of a bear. And then it was like, how large the bear was. And then the bear flew off. And I was like, ‘Am I gonna keep that in there or not?’"
VanderMeer is calling in from a stop on the already monthlong, coast-to-coast Borne press tour, a deluge of readings and panels and autographs and mildly goofy photo ops. He has a slight cold, and apologizes for it; his deep voice nonetheless has the sharp but soothing lilt of a professional reader/panelist/interview subject. He has thick black-framed glasses, a salt-and-pepper goatee, a cat named Neo, and biceps just large enough to discourage anyone from giving him shit about it. As a kid, he considered studying to be a marine biologist, but instead he’s been a writer for the past three decades or so, and a mainstream-sensation-sort-of writer for only three years and change. He credits a childhood partially spent on the islands of Fiji with giving him both a vast appreciation of the natural world and the vast imagination to think far beyond it.
He is eager to confound expectations, sidestep pigeonholes, resist classifications. He’s one of the biggest and best and, yes, weirdest emerging novelists of the past few years, in part because his fiction can evoke disturbing aspects of our current reality but still be stranger than anyone’s else’s fiction. He makes harrowing things sound beautiful, and vice versa. He imbues fantastical scenarios with poignant, real-world gravitas, in ways that only make them seem more fantastical. And most importantly, he keeps the giant flying bear in there.
"I actually kinda find ‘science fiction’ to be a pejorative, to be absolutely honest, only because I don’t feel like I really write it," VanderMeer says. But there were only so many ways a mere mortal — even a well-read mere mortal — could describe his Southern Reach trilogy, which beguiled and terrified and confused a ton of people, some sci-fi-conversant but many not, upon its slow-motion release by big-shot publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2014.
Annihilation came first, then Authority, then Acceptance, the releases staggered by a few months, the classic trilogy form and cool paperback-cover images pleasing to the eye, the cumulative effect harder to describe to anybody, anywhere. After I’d finished Annihilation — which Ex Machina director Alex Garland is now making into a 2018 feature film starring Natalie Portman — my wife asked me what it was about, and I failed so miserably to explain it that she almost got legitimately angry at me.
When I tell VanderMeer this, he takes the half-compliment, but also patiently supplies the description: "If I’m at an airport, and someone strikes up a casual conversation, and they ask, ‘You wrote Annihilation, so what’s it about?’, I say, ‘Well, it’s about an expedition into a pristine wilderness that’s actually kind of strange, where something’s gone wrong — they’re trying to figure out what’s going on.’ That doesn’t really sound any different than any number of thrillers, in a way."
He wants to unsettle, but he also wants to be understood. Which makes Annihilation an uncanny beast, inviting plenty of surface comparisons — to Lost, for example — but subverting expectations, scuttling grand theories, withholding easy answers. The Southern Reach trilogy’s plot, crudely stated, combines dystopia with utopia: a remote and sparsely populated piece of land (inspired, at least, by the weirder parts of Florida) has been abruptly transformed, via some cataclysmic event, into Area X, a feral and beautiful and treacherous landscape, untouched by pollution. There are two lighthouses, and a "topographical anomaly" that resembles a winding tower plunged fully into the earth, and various moaning beasts that seem partially human, but mostly not.
A nefarious government institution known only as the Southern Reach sends small expeditions into this place, seeking the same answers as the reader; Annihilation mostly tells the story of the 12th expedition, consisting of four women described only as "a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist." Fascinating and inexplicable and horrifying things happen, with enough intrigue to launch thousands of subreddits. But VanderMeer amps up both the fascination and the horror by keeping us in the vivid, all-consuming dark.
"I really firmly believe that there’s a lot of theories out there that kind of fall apart, because they want to give you all the answers, but they give you answers that the characters could never possibly have found out," he says. "The characters have eureka moments — it’s just bullshit. At the end of the day, I was literally writing about what it’s like to encounter something that’s beyond human comprehension. So the idea of explaining it all seemed like a cop-out."
The trilogy structure only further clouds the issue: Book 2, Authority, shifts the action entirely away from Area X, exploring instead the internal bureaucracy of the Southern Reach parked right outside the nebulous "border," full of petty office politics and conspiracy-theorist intrigues. It’s a perspective shift as abrupt and polarizing as, say, The Wire’s Season 2 jump to the docks, all but abandoning many of the first season’s most beloved settings and characters. But here, too, VanderMeer meant to evoke both the unknown and the known.
"Quite honestly, when I was on the Annihilation tour, one of the things I was most happy about, even though it was just horrifying, was that someone high up in the EPA came to my D.C. reading, and told me that Authority was not only accurate, in terms of the bureaucracy, but that it was one of the funniest books she’d ever read," he recalls. "And I did mean a lot of that to be partially funny, because it was based on my own experiences with the state of Florida’s bureaucracy, when I was a contractor. But that was a little horrifying."
VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania and raised partially in Fiji, before settling in Tallahassee, Florida. His father was an entomologist and research chemist; his mother was a biological illustrator and an artist. A perfect origin story for someone whose job now involves inventing feral, pristine wildernesses. (The Florida connection — where the landscape is a little stranger, and thanks to climate change, under a more visceral and immediate threat — reminds me of Miami native Karen Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia!, though that one prefers alligators to bears.)
The Southern Reach saga was his breakthrough after a nearly 30-year writing career full of novels, short-story collections, and various anthologies, most of which he compiled alongside his wife, Ann VanderMeer, a renowned editor and a huge influence on Jeff’s own fiction. (Their collaborations include Best American Fantasy, the pirate-themed collection Fast Ships, Black Sails, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, and The New Weird.) He even has a previous trilogy, the Ambergris series, whose installments came out via three different publishers; VanderMeer cites FSG’s unified and mass-market approach as a major factor in the project’s huge success.
That success is qualifiable both within his usual genre and far beyond it. Annihilation won the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award as well, huge prizes in the sci-fi and horror realms. But most of those victors don’t get Natalie Portman film adaptations, or verdant praise from mainstream outlets like GQ or The New Yorker, which in 2015 hailed Jeff as the "The Weird Thoreau."
There’s that word again. VanderMeer regards weird or "uncanny" fiction as a long and honorable spectrum, stretching from Franz Kafka to Polish polymath Bruno Schulz to British fairy-tale titan Angela Carter. "Definitely weird has been bandied about as a pejorative, too," he says. "And one thing early on is I realized I was gonna have to just ignore that — that there were gonna be some people who were always gonna be saying, ‘You’re a little too weird.’ Kind of like, trying to use it to squash your creativity."
Borne — released in April and earning VanderMeer more lavish praise — has already been optioned for its own movie. (He doesn’t seem too stressed about how his work will translate to film: "I haven’t read the screenplay, I have no control over casting, no control over anything else," he told Wired late last year when asked if the Annihilation movie will retain the book’s forceful ecological message. "What I can control is that I have the increased visibility to make a direct difference in terms of talking about these issues to audiences.") On his website, he hints that his third trilogy, an upcoming young-adult series whose first volume is tentatively titled Jonathan Lambshead and the Golden Sphere, has already attracted similar interest. This is The Guy right now. The Weird Guy, sure. His imagined universes are grotesque and gorgeous, spooky and utterly singular. But they are also, somehow, universal.
Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, who now manage a power-couple mini-empire of anthologies, conferences, and teen-writing workshops, first met as long-distance colleagues, as fellow underground literati with a taste for the macabre and otherworldly. She’d first reached out to him in the pre-internet era to ask for advice on starting a magazine. "We had a correspondence for about a year before we finally met in person," Ann tells me. "We lived in different cities, so there was also that. But I have boxes and boxes of our correspondence, and I think both of us kinda miss that a little bit, that we don’t have that letter-writing back-and-forth anymore. Emails are just not the same — you just can’t hear it. So, we do occasionally write letters to each other."
Not lately, probably: The VanderMeers are only now emerging from the Borne book tour, a whimsical jaunt with a traveling-roadshow vibe, what with the stuffed animals and giant-bear woodcut. "I think I’m good," Ann reports. "I haven’t killed my husband yet, and we’ve been on the road 31 days, and we got six more to go."
All of Jeff’s novels are dedicated to Ann; part of their marital lore is that she first read an early draft of Annihilation while the couple drove from Tallahassee to Orlando for a conference, making her a captive audience, but him a captive artist, too. "Normally, when he hands me something, he leaves the house," Ann says. He needn’t have worried. "I was completely and totally blown away. I had never read anything like that before in my life." Which is saying something, for a couple with a steampunk collection in their CV.
They complete each other, is the less science-fictional way to put it. In approaching either Jeff’s work or a third party’s, Ann explains, "I think one of the differences is that I’m looking at it from a reader’s point of view, and I’m looking at how a reader is going to connect to different things, and focusing a lot on that reception. Whereas, a lot of times, when my husband is looking at fiction, he’s looking at what the writer is doing, the beauty of their language, the use of the words, the turn of phrases."
In the case of Borne, that made Ann more a big-picture consultant than a line editor. "As I was writing it, I would tell her about certain situations and character relationships," Jeff says. "And we would kind of hash it out, and I’d be like, ‘This is what I’m thinking about,’ and I’m wondering if she had any thoughts about what it might actually be about."
What they both thought Borne might really be about — despite the giant flying bear, and weird biotech creature, and sense of apocalyptic doom — was parenting. Jeff cites his stepdaughter, Erin — a researcher and author focused on environmental issues — as a major influence on the novel. When a young Borne calls a weasel a "long mouse," that’s a classic Erin line.
The book’s plot is significantly more straightforward than the Southern Reach trilogy: Borne and Rachel grow to tentatively understand and even love each other, but Borne also grows unmanageable, and various cataclysms, emotional and otherwise, are inevitable. The mood is vibrant but stern, yearning but bleak. "I don’t know, it just happened," Rachel says, trying to explain to Borne how things got this way. "Everything everywhere collapsed. We didn’t try hard enough. We were preyed upon. We had no discipline. We didn’t try the right things at the right time. We cared but didn’t do. Too many people, too little space."
The book evokes plenty of pitch-dark fictional timelines, from The Road to The Handmaid’s Tale, but Jeff, who is very much on the record as anti-Trump, is careful not to cite recent history as his sole inspiration. "We’ve been living in a dystopia for a long time, and Trump has just exposed that," he says. "So you know, some people have felt it less, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a dystopia."
Borne ends on a hopeful note, but not exactly a triumphant one: Jeff stresses the need for any optimism to be hard-won. "What I don’t want is, I think if you hand your book to someone who’s displaced by climate change now, for them to go, ‘Oh, this reads like utopia, you really fucked up,’ or ‘You’re really just living in a bubble.’ So there is hope in the book, but it comes at a great cost."
But it’s the more sentimental Borne-Rachel conversations that mark Borne as unique — as another phase of VanderMeer’s ongoing breakthrough. The moment that hit hardest for me is a Rachel realization that comes too late: "I’d been teaching him the whole time, with every last little thing I did, even when I didn’t realize I was teaching him." Most parents come to that jarring conclusion, albeit usually under less dire circumstances.
Ann cites a different passage, one that brings her — and, she says, Jeff — to tears even now, when he pulls it out at readings. It’s when Rachel first brings Borne back outside and shows him the ruined landscape in full: the dilapidated and destroyed buildings, the poisoned river. Which Borne finds beautiful, and causes Rachel to find beautiful again, too: "He made me rethink even simple words like disgusting or beautiful."
That’s Jeff’s job, too. "That was just so strong for me, because I feel like that explains how another person can change you," Ann says. "How they can just totally rock your world and turn things around in such a positive and beautiful way."
These novels are not Twin Peaks monuments to inexplicable psychedelic confusion — the emotions are painfully lucid, even if the logistics aren’t. VanderMeer offers mesmerizing new things to look at, but also new ways to look at the old ones. "When people ask Jeff that question about, ‘Is there hope?’, I always think of that scene," Ann says. "Because if you can have such a strong emotional change in somebody, and it’s that whole feeling of love — I just feel like there’s no better way to describe what that feels like than what I see in that scene. I’ve read a lot of books that talk about love, that try to show you love, but I have never, ever seen it expressed exactly that way before." The VanderMeers don’t mind if you find all this a little weird, just so long as you understand that to them, it’s also true.