'The Future Is Happening Right Now': An Interview With Jeff VanderMeer

The fiction writer and environmental advocate on why his work involves so much natural science—and what we can do to protect a world we seem bent on destroying.
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When Annihilation—director Alex Garland's film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel of the same name, which is the first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy—hits theaters in February, moviegoers will find themselves absorbed, and terrified, by the fictional Florida territory known only as Area X. The novel has become a contemporary benchmark of weird fiction and climate fiction, and it isn't hard to imagine the novel on screen—full of bioluminescent horrors, the bizarre powers of moss, and the grim realities of our fierce-yet-fragile natural world. But while VanderMeer's literary career has seen a meteoric rise since the Nebula Award-winning novel's release in 2014, he has been writing about many of the same topics—among them, ecoscience, environmentalism, and what he calls "weird biology"—ever since his first collection hit shelves in 1989.

In a world beset by climate change, those topics have finally found their readers, and VanderMeer's publisher seems to know it. Last fall, VanderMeer sold a new novel, Hummingbird Salamander, in addition to an as-yet-untitled short fiction collection, to Farrar, Straus & Giroux's MCD imprint, in a "major deal." (Netflix has already optioned film rights to the former.) That deal did not include another three YA novels—which will, VanderMeer says, include six-foot-tall talking marmots—that he sold to FSG Books for Young Readers earlier in 2017.

Annihilation.

Annihilation.

While VanderMeer has said the adaptation is a little lighter on some of his novel's environmental philosophies, the author The New Yorker once called "the weird Thoreau" says that thousands more copies of Annihilation have sold since the release of the movie's trailer last year. That means money in the pockets of a number of environmental organizations and causes, to which VanderMeer has pledged "a fairly robust percentage of the royalties." It has also provided VanderMeer an opportunity to lecture and lead discussions about environmental issues at universities around the country, which he'll be doing this April. As VanderMeer puts it, "the future is happening right now": With every environmental regulation loosened and every gallon of gasoline burned, we move closer and closer to a future where the environment as we know it is gone.

VanderMeer sat down with Pacific Standard to discuss that future, his books, and why "anyone"—not just science fiction writers—can write climate fiction.

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Your work places a strong focus on ecoscience and the environment. What works of ecoscience and environmental research have you consulted, if any, to make the scientific aspects of books like Borne and the Southern Reach Trilogy true to life?

This has always been my issue, so to speak—the thing that I'm interested in. And even my work in the '90s and '80s dealt with climate change to some degree, so it's hard to pinpoint, because for Annihilation and those books, I didn't have to do any research. I just had to make sure that most of the biology was OK. I actually sent it to some biologists and physicists and stuff, and just basically was along the lines of, "Is this within the realm of possibility?"

I've always written about what you might call "weird biology." I've always been drawn to animals like squid and to organisms like fungus, so when you research that, you kind of as a byproduct come across stuff that has to do with ecology and environmental issues and things like that. There are seminal texts that I remember—there's a lot of Rachel Carson's stuff that really stuck in my memory because it's very poetic and lyrical at the same time that it's evoking landscapes that, to some degree, no longer exist.

Also, my dad is a scientist—he's an entomologist—and there are certain ways that his study of invasive species, like fire ants, touches on these issues. And my daughter works for a sustainability company. She actually wrote part of that World Wildlife report on what we need to do to survive 30 years.

How has living in Florida changed your perceptions on ecology and climate change? Or has it?

I think that it's just crystallized some things for me because, before that, my early fiction [such as 2003's Veniss Underground and 2002's City of Saints and Madmen] was fantasy set in imaginary places I made up out of the different parts of places we visited because my parents joined the Peace Corps and took us all around the world. I didn't have a place I could call my own, so ecological concerns were expressed through these places that didn't exist. Whereas I've lived in Florida for over 30 years now, and I've lived in north Florida for 25, and I know these places intimately. I know the environmental problems inherent in all this, the most spectacular of which, of course, was the Gulf oil spill. In being anchored in what I now feel is a deep connection to this place, the environmental issues come out in a different way. They say all politics is local. I think all environmental issues are local, in the sense that you can empathize with the situation that's far from you and doesn't affect you personally, but when you live through it or see the effects personally, it does make a difference, and it affects how you write about it.

Last year, you worked to restore your backyard to its native vegetal state. How did that change your perspective on the human imprint on flora and fauna? What was the end result?

With the yard, nothing would grow because it rejected the traditional grass lawn. We were putting a lot of money and unnecessary additives and stuff into the soil, and after a while it seemed counterproductive anyway, so we turned it into kind of a meadow, trying to keep out as many invasive and non-native species as possible (although there's some invasive species where there's absolutely nothing wrong with them).

I think what was more instructional to me has more to do with a fundamental disconnect in how we view even our urban environments. One of our neighbors actually complained to the city, and we got this warning and were told we were going to be fined [for our yard work]. Certain plants were considered weeds and certain were not. Even if the weeds had been in a straight row and 10 feet tall and could be considered some kind of garden, they would have been fine. But there was a very arbitrary distinction about what was actually considered a healthy lawn. It was perfectly fine to completely bomb your lawn with pesticides and unnecessary fertilizer and traumatize the plants with unnecessary pruning, but if you try to actually create something that is not your normal lawn, suddenly you're not in line.

It re-affirmed for me the absurdity of how we go against the natural systems in our world. There are these very complex systems in the natural world that work wonderfully well and do all kinds of things—including [make] water and aerate and irrigate the land and all that—that we go against with our unnatural systems, and then we act like this is the natural way that things should progress without actually understanding these complex systems that we're destroying. We need to stop pretending there's a nature and there's an us, because we're rapidly in this space that's narrowing, where we'll one day realize that there is no separation, but by then it'll be too late.

It seems that local government and the tax bases supporting them often don't even think about conservation as a priority, if they think about it at all—and it seems like that's something you came across when you were just trying to let your lawn grow.

It's something that's actually, on a larger scale, expressed in The Southern Reach. You see it in a ridiculous fight, for example, between Georgia and Florida over water rights for the river that flows into the Apalachicola Bay in Florida. The way it's going right now, that entire ecosystem is going to be severely damaged because Georgia's controlling that water, and yet that's not just an ecosystem problem. It becomes an issue of employment and economics. It becomes a possible social justice issue. We often don't see the connectivity in these things.

I stress things like the hidden cost of doing business and complex systems because I don't want to be mistaken, somehow, for saying that we need to have some hippie-dippy back-to-nature revival. I'm not saying that we should go to some pastoral existence necessarily. I'm saying we're damaging a lot of things we don't understand that are vital to our own survival, and that animals in our environment are vital to our survival.

Do you think science fiction and speculative fiction are particularly well equipped to address present environmental issues?

I don't think it's a particular domain of science fiction. I think it's something where we all have areas where we default to foundational assumptions that we should be questioning. I have my own spots like that, I'm absolutely sure, but it's certainly not when it comes to animal behavior science and things like that.

It's an issue for discussion because I think mainstream literary realism is just as well equipped. And I do want to push science fiction writers to think more about these issues because science fiction can also fall back on old defaults of plot and trope that are not useful to exploring these things. Sometimes you need new fictional modes. You hear the term cli-fi, for example, and I've heard some science fiction writers say, "Well, why do we need that when we have the term 'science fiction'?" Well, because it means climate fiction, and anyone can write climate fiction. It's not necessarily science fiction—it's not necessarily set in the future! And the reason is that it's happening right now. Climate change is happening right now. The future is happening right now.

I would also say that I'm seeing more and more mainstream literary writers writing in that space without necessarily writing science fiction. I think it's a good thing, and I think there needs to be more of a dialogue between "science fiction writers" and "mainstream literary writers" when there is that divide. I don't personally see that divide, I don't personally acknowledge it, and in my friendships and who I read I just don't really give a crap. But for those who feel like they're on one side of a divide or another, it can make communication difficult, and can make people not be in communication, and think that the "other side" is not actually dealing with issues that they are [dealing with]—if you actually read the work.

What is one specific piece of advice you would offer young people on a small step they can take to effect a positive cumulative environmental impact?

My daughter, Erin Kennedy, who works on this stuff for the World Wildlife Fund, would say the top two things are drive less and eat less meat. Quite frankly, those are the two immediate things. They're still true, in terms of the impact on the environment and global warming.  But the other thing I would say is, if you can find something in your local environment that you truly love, that you truly care about, that means something to you, and you can do something to preserve it—I know it sounds like a small thing, but it means to me a lot in the moment, every day, to make sure that our backyard is a good greenway. That the midnight possums and the midnight raccoons that come through don't find our yard to be a difficulty—that they find it to be a place that they can find some food and pass through peacefully. That during the day, the birds are taken care of—that the migratory warblers that are coming through now, in this extreme cold, have enough food, enough suet, for the journey. It's a small thing, but it's really important.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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