His Novels of Planetary Devastation Will Make You Want to Survive

Jeff VanderMeer was hiking the grassy, swamp-lined pathways of a wildlife refuge outside Tallahassee, Fla., a few years ago when he and a friend found themselves in the path of a charging wild boar. The area is a sea-level palimpsest of wetland and plains, all damp grass and grassy water, much of it as flat as the Serengeti — which made it possible for them to see the animal coming from across a vast, but still alarming, distance.

As the boar barreled toward them, growing slowly but irreversibly larger, VanderMeer felt his fight-or-flight reflexes stir — yet he and his companion still had plenty of time to discuss: Should they run, counting on the boar to wear itself out and lose speed over time? Would it be better to dive off the path and into the abutting reeds, or would they be pursued, forced to defend themselves against a full-grown, razor-toothed hog? Over a half-million feral pigs populate the backwoods of Florida, many the mottled-brown descendants of those brought to North America in 1539 by conquistadors, and though it wasn’t unusual to see them out scavenging peacefully during the day, articles about trappers whose legs had been sliced open by their sharp, curved tusks regularly surfaced in the local news. Eventually, VanderMeer and his friend decided to stand their ground, hoisting their packs like weapons — but then, the boar veered unexpectedly off the path, crashing through the thick stand of reeds and grasses and vanishing into the marsh.

The experience inspired a scene early in “Annihilation” (2014), the first volume of VanderMeer’s breakout novel trilogy “The Southern Reach.” In the book (which was made into a film starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac), a small band of women known by only their professional designations (“the biologist,” “the surveyor,” “the psychologist”) explore Area X, a mysterious, expanding zone within which the laws of nature have taken on an alien and forbidding aspect. As the group makes for their camp, they are charged from a distance by an enormous wild hog, the team’s first encounter with the modified fauna of the area. Readying their rifles and long knives as the creature draws closer, their leader shouts orders: Don’t get close to it! Don’t let it touch you! One member of the party, an anthropologist, falls victim to a fit of nervous giggling at “the absurdity of an emergency situation that was taking so long to develop.” As in VanderMeer’s real-life encounter, the beast suddenly turns from the group and disappears into the swampland, and the novel’s narrator notes its strange posture, “its head willfully pulled to the left as if there were an invisible bridle” and its expression “somehow contorted, as if the beast was dealing with an extreme of inner torment.”

The fictionalized boar charge resembles its model in the way a person resembles their reflection in a fun-house mirror: the familiar features, distorted and rearranged, are more startling than ones chosen deliberately to shock. “I would say 90 percent of ‘The Southern Reach’ is actually mimetic fiction interrupted by weird stuff.” VanderMeer told me as we walked the same stretch of trail on a calm, hazy afternoon in March devoid of boars. For his fans, both longtime genre readers and newer ones who found his work through the best-selling “Annihilation” and its film adaptation, this statement may seem counterintuitive. His body of work — over a dozen novels and novellas, four volumes of short stories and two books of nonfiction, as well as 20 or so anthologies he co-edited (many assembled in collaboration with his wife, the influential sci-fi and fantasy editor Ann VanderMeer) — is best known for its dramatic departure both from mimetic realism as a literary technique (he might narrate from the perspective of a murderous bioengineered duck or a love-struck madman) and from more commonsensical, everyday reality.

In Area X, human faces wash up on the shore like the discarded shells of horseshoe crabs and dolphins swim in perfectly synchronized pairs and look out at you from hauntingly familiar eyes. A strange being known only as “The Crawler” travels up and down the stairs of an underground tower, writing on the walls in words that are revealed under a microscope to be formed of some sort of golden moss. Otherworldly phenomena like the “shimmer,” which indicates a sort of membrane between Area X and the regular world, are amalgamations of the concrete and the unimaginable, physical artifacts that defy comprehension.

The careful, exacting strangeness of these images sticks in the mind like a burr, stirring unexpectedly in your consciousness many days after reading. For this reason, VanderMeer’s novels exert a persuasive “reality effect” all their own. The phantasmagoric creatures and places can be difficult to find in mainstream literary fiction — where nature often appears as ornament, as atmosphere, as a backdrop to unfolding human drama. Like Melville and Thoreau, who invested their descriptions of early American wilds with an expansive vitalistic otherness, VanderMeer stages encounters with a nonhuman world that refuses to yield the foreground. This gesture takes on new significance in a time of ecological crisis and climate catastrophe: It reinscribes the fullness of the world we live in, an urgent reminder of how much life we stand to lose.

VanderMeer, who is in his early 50s and has a neatly-trimmed graying goatee, wore waders and a windbreaker in deference to the quick-changing weather of this rainy patch of Florida coastline. He laughs easily but not at length, and his intelligence has a restless quality, moving swiftly from one thing to the next. Quiet and friendly, he spoke in quick, clipped sentences as he showed me around the western reach of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, an ecological hub bordering the Gulf of Mexico that contains many different habitats —from pine flatwoods and sandhills to swamp forest and open water— and ranks in the top 10 in the nation for biodiversity. Though Everglades National Park is 22 times its size, the density of rare and endangered species in St Marks is nine times greater.

As we walked the mown trail, the landscape to either side a patchwork of thick wiregrass and glassy, rippling water, he held binoculars to his eyes, searching for a spot he wanted to show me, where a pair of great horned owls recently kicked a bald eagle out of its nest. (Sure enough, when we found it, the viewfinder revealed two distinctly owl-shaped heads poking out of the top of a great shallow bowl.) All around us were organisms that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jeff VanderMeer fiction: a spiny, two-foot wide thistle, marbled green and purple in a hallucinogenic pattern; rough-backed alligators still as waterlogged wood; thin-necked, elongated birds; shaggy, top-heavy trees that appeared to sprout straight up from the water, rooted in current. “I find parts of this landscape look very primordial,” he said as he looked out over the water, “and even when they’re not still, they give off a kind of stillness.”

VanderMeer attended to his surroundings with unusual care — crouching to capture a photo of a white, orchidlike flower, pausing when he spotted a bird or mammal on the path ahead of us so it could clear out calmly, without fleeing. “Annihilation” was inspired by this landscape, but the novel he is currently writing is actually set here: an eco-thriller about animal trafficking inspired by the pine forests and salt marshes of the Panhandle, with a major emphasis on salamanders. In conversation, we circled back again and again to the ways human activity impacts animal life. He told me about a trail near the St. Marks Visitor Center that had to be closed because the foot traffic was startling the ducks, who took flight so often that they burned through their winter fat. A few years ago, VanderMeer traveled to upstate New York to help band saw-whet owls, but the conservation effort took a dark turn: some of the tagged owls were released near larger owls, which ate them immediately. “I’m fascinated by these scientific studies, because the scientists themselves change the animals’ behavior,” he told me. “Musk oxen, for example. They found that when they tranquilize and band them, they go into a deep depression. They don’t go back to the herd for the longest time.” With a glint of mirth, he added, “I mean, if you think of it, it’s almost like getting abducted by aliens.”

VanderMeer has founded his writing career on exploring the wilderness of the strange, the stranger forms of strangeness that live on the brambly margins of conventionalized narrative. It’s a strangeness that bears a certain kinship to the wild Florida spaces near where he grew up and the moody, shifting terrain we’ve been navigating this afternoon — eerily still and eerily alive at once.

Born in Pennsylvania to parents who enlisted in the Peace Corps when he was 3, VanderMeer spent his early years with his parents and younger sister in Fiji. The VanderMeers lived by the sea in Suva, the capital, while his father taught chemistry at the University of the South Pacific and his mother worked as a freelance biological illustrator. Near the city was a volcanic peak that offered a reliably cool breeze and a view of the city and sea below; otherwise, the climate was warm and humid, and he spent time by the water staring at the tidal pools, filled with an ever-changing selection of life — moray eels and anemones and brightly-colored starfish. They eventually settled in Gainesville, Fla., where his father worked as a U.S.D.A. scientist and went on to win awards for his research on the hormonal systems of fire ants. An overgrown man-made pond sat in the backyard of their rented house, and VanderMeer watched from nearby as turtles colonized the murky water, seemingly materializing out of nowhere.

In his junior year of college, VanderMeer dropped out to spend more time writing fiction. The creative-writing department at the University of Florida was closed off to more fantastical avenues of writing, and he was already working on building a community of his own, based around a reading series he had started with a friend. When writers came to town for the university’s reading series, VanderMeer would approach them and ask if they’d be interested in doing another reading afterward not far from campus. It was through this reading series that he met Ann Kennedy, now Ann VanderMeer, who edited the avant-garde fantasy publication “The Silver Web” and worked as a software manager — a trailblazer in two male-dominated industries.

VanderMeer began to publish regularly with genre magazines and presses where his work was something of an outlier: surreal, Borgesian screeds and offbeat fantasy tales that confounded some fantasy readers because, even though they were set in otherworldly, imaginary places, nothing particularly fantastical ever happened there. Like a mad scientist, he mixed and recombined genres, concocting peculiar hybrids like “Finch” (2009), a “fungal noir” about a detective assigned to solve the murder of a “grey cap,” one of a race of mushroom-like spore-based entities that seized control of the city after a long and destructive period of human infighting. His works often overgrew their intended boundaries, with first editions issued in paperback, followed a year later by a hardcover edition twice as long and crammed with additional material — and sometimes artifacts like votive candles and dried mushrooms, the fictive story lines spilling out of the page and into three-dimensional reality.

Though this earlier work was always obsessed by nonhuman life and the complicated links between people and place, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the nearby Gulf of Mexico provided an urgent ecological frame of reference for VanderMeer’s work. In “The Southern Reach” and his follow-up novel, “Borne” (2017), he focused on depicting large-scale, catastrophic environmental change through unsettling, bizarrely touching transpositions. Beneath the enigmatic surface of Area X is a deeply familiar dynamic, with loss of habitat and loss of world driving a certain melancholy acceptance in those who visit the area. Its exact nature is never fully explained, nor is it clear that the contamination of our world by a new one means an end to human life — but the wildlife that thrives in the area exudes an un-animal-like presence, and the people who occasionally return from exploratory missions are different, emptier, with a distant stranger’s understanding of the facts of their own life. Area X is to human beings what human civilization has often been to other species: a spreading, transformative force that renders a once-familiar world hostile and unpredictable.

“Borne” is VanderMeer’s take on a post-apocalyptic narrative, a humor-soaked fable about parenthood and sacrifice that eschews almost every convention of the genre. Post-apocalyptic novels often resemble modernized, cynical variants on the Western, parables about society told at the scale of hardened individuals roaming inhospitable terrain — but VanderMeer’s foregrounds the revolutionary potential of caring for others, focusing on the relationship between Rachel, a woman who survives by scavenging a city ravaged by the activities of a nefarious biotech company, and the motile, plant-like, vase-like creature that she finds on one of her expeditions. The creature, whom she names Borne, soon begins growing, changing, speaking and demonstrating both acute intelligence and an ominous potential for violence. There’s also a huge flying bear named Mord that terrorizes the city, extracting every scrap of nutrition from the surface with the aid of vicious, regular-size flightless bears known as Mord-proxies. (At one point, VanderMeer casually mentioned to me that Mord is based on a former friend. “Mord?” I asked. “The flying bear? Is based on a real person?” He just nodded, already moving on to some other subject.)

Though there is plenty of darkness and destruction in these books, they surge with emotion, humor and an irrepressible life force — an argument for using literature not only as a delivery mechanism for ominous warnings but also as a way to remind readers of those feelings, joyful and fierce, that drive the desire to survive. “We won’t have gotten to the point where literature is fully representing the situation until we have something that is dark, but also has real humor in it, maybe even very disturbing humor,” VanderMeer told me. “But until we actually have all of the emotions, we’re not really being honest about it.”

His new novel, “Dead Astronauts,” is the culmination of this line of reasoning, a wild, lyrical, ferocious book that pushes to the foreground several figures only dimly visible on the periphery of the story line in “Borne.” Protean in structure, the book leaps between different forms and genres, transforming from adventure story into neo-gothic horror into a searing monologue from an animal that cannot die. The narrative follows characters enmeshed in a dystopian system (a many-tentacled biotech firm known as the Company) but fighting against it. They fight with literal tooth and nail, but also through less overt means like infiltration and exfiltration, espionage and sabotage and an oddly intimate form of psychological monkey-wrenching. In the book, the characters’ varied efforts are mostly failures, but often hearteningly partial ones whose effects spread rhizomelike across other timelines and alternate realities, revealing weaknesses in the Company’s structure and showing others a possible avenue of attack. It’s an immersive, fantastical adventure, but also a compelling allegory for the role of individual resistance in the face of seemingly intractable planet-sized problems like climate change.

“I do think we value success too much as a benchmark,” VanderMeer told me, “Because, first of all, that freezes us from doing anything, and then when we get at least partway, we don’t credit ourselves with that.” His own narratives are skeptical of the heroic solo win, the myth of the singular individual with a plan that can change everything — instead, VanderMeer depicts the stubborn and repetitive grind of working for change, the bitter setbacks and increments of limited success that nevertheless hold the potential to move the needle in the right direction. He thinks less about making the argument for a particular course of action than about stoking the sort of powerful emotions that readers can carry out of the book and into their own lives to fuel acts of resistance: love, empathy, defiance and especially anger.

“I hope people do get angry reading ‘Dead Astronauts,’ if they’re not angry already,” he said. “I just wanted to make some things visible that seem like they’re invisible. You watch HGTV, and someone is buying a house on the beach. They’re like, ‘Let’s go see the endangered turtle compound.’ The erasure is monumental and ongoing, and it is one of those things that freezes me up. I have to disconnect from that, or I literally will jump off a cliff someday. But that’s the problem: Even the house has opened me up in ways that made me much more vulnerable, because I care so much about that damn place now.”

The house Jeff and Ann VanderMeer moved into last spring is nestled within a central Tallahassee neighborhood that feels as though it is a long drive from any city. The two purchased the handsome midcentury house, a short drive from the modest ranch they had lived in since 1992, after “Annihilation” was optioned for development. Inside, it is high-ceilinged and light-filled, the living room governed by the presence of a long, twisty, futuristic-looking couch selected in part so that their cat, Neo, would have some interesting shapes to climb on. The walls are covered with art, a Dali print and several works by friends, and the furniture is organismic, soft-edged slouching pods and honeycombed structures (they researched biomorphic design, seeking out shapes that mimicked natural structures). In her office, Ann shows me human-height stacks of books and photocopies, meticulously organized and annotated, ready to be absorbed into their next co-edited anthology, the “Big Book of Modern Fantasy.”

The house backs onto a sloping plot of land that ends in a ravine, thick with vegetation, snaking through the back lots of the other neighborhood houses. Jeff and Ann are working on rewilding their portion of the land — a gradual process, documented on VanderMeer’s Twitter account, where they identify and remove invasive species like air potato and nandina, replacing them with native species from local plant nurseries. Ann and Jeff lead me through the yard, pointing out native ferns planted uphill and close to the deck to absorb the rainwater draining off the slanted roof; for groundcover they’ve planted butterweed, a quick-growing yellow-flowered native of the area that should spread fast enough to claim large swatches of ground before the invasives can return. By the fence, Jeff shows me the Ocala anise planted in a neat row earlier that week, and Ann encourages me to smell the sweet-scented native azaleas. Standing meekly on its own is a young, recently planted Torreya pine — a rare species that grows only in a local state park, where the population is threatened by a spreading fungus.

The logic of rewilding is simple: The plants that formed the original, native ecosystem are more nourishing to the insects and birds that already live in the area, so bringing them back means more bugs, which means more birds and reptiles and mammals, which add up to a healthier ecosystem and a general abundance of life. It’s like finding missing puzzle pieces, putting them in place and completing the picture. As I looked out over the ravine from the deck above, I could see small yellowish songbirds zipping between the trees, and humming insects flit by, illuminated by shafts of sunlight falling through the canopy of trees above. A diffuse, melodic fog of birdsong hung over the scene. “One cool thing about living on the edge of a ravine — you get to see the birds approach from the top down into the bottom where the feeders are. Some swirl down like dead leaves. Some plummet. Some hover. Some stitch their way horizontally. Some kind of jump off into the blue,” reads a typical Jeff VanderMeer backyard tweet. Below it are the replies from followers, many of whom have begun to rewild their own yards, following his example.

It was pouring warm, heavy rain on the March morning when VanderMeer met a team of biologists to go searching for the larvae of the frosted flatwoods salamander, an endangered amphibian that lives in a narrow band of habitat east of the Apalachicola River. Everything in VanderMeer’s creative process seems to lead to salamanders these days: He often gets stuck on a particular animal and uses it again and again. There’s one gigantic salamander and hundreds of regular-size ones in “Dead Astronauts,” and another fictional species that he developed in consultation with a biologist plays a large role in his next novel, “Hummingbird Salamander.”

The more he learned about salamanders, he told me, the more they came to symbolize the vulnerability of living beings to our own thoughtless environmental contamination. “I think the thing that got to me was that they absorb so much stuff directly through their skin. So it really is a physical dramatization of what we’re doing to the planet, when they’re endangered, when they’re not well,” he said. “There are so many things we do, and we just don’t even realize how we’re harming things, you know? You could put a frog — I saw a picture of a frog someone had put a plastic cap on, a tiny plastic cap, and that could hurt the frog.”

In photographs online, the larvae are odd-looking and almost impossibly elegant, a perfect compromise between orchid and lizard. Their broad, flat, gently smiling heads are surrounded by a ruff of reddish, feathery gills; the thin-limbed bodies end in a broad, tapering tail the shape of a willow leaf. VanderMeer had seen the photos and videos, but he needed to draw from the feel, the form, the sheen of the real thing as he wrote the larvae into his next novel. A biologist fitted me with a pair of stiff, knee-high rubber waders and asked whether there might be any soaps, fragrances, sunscreens or other potentially harmful chemicals on my skin that I could accidentally track into the wetlands habitat.

In the passenger seat of a ranger’s S.U.V., VanderMeer wondered whether they’d seen any unexpected changes to the behavior and breeding patterns of the salamanders. Months earlier, a storm surge from Hurricane Michael forced saltwater from the gulf into the freshwater ponds, and nobody was quite sure how it would affect the rare, sensitive species. “We had live adult salamanders, but we’re not finding any larvae this year,” said Terry Peacock, who manages the refuge and leads the team of researchers and interns. In the driver’s seat, she guided the vehicle in and out of deep, mud-slick depressions in the road. “Which is disturbing. But we’ve had so much rain that a lot of their places where they would have laid are underwater. We don’t know if we’re not trapping in the right place, because they may be more dispersed over the landscape than what we would normally have.” She and VanderMeer talked about the unusually warm winter, the unusually short research season and the unpredictability it lent the whole enterprise. A running joke between them is that “the salamanders don’t read the literature” — the species has not been thoroughly researched and may not behave according to existing accounts; they might be more resilient or more vulnerable than scientists imagine.

The troop of biologists waded into knee-deep marsh followed by VanderMeer, camera in hand, each of them uncertain whether they would find what they were looking for. If they found salamander larvae in the brackish water, among the tufts of razor-edged sawgrass, it won’t mean that the species has survived the weather disruptions undamaged. If none were found, this day or the next, it wouldn’t mean that they’ve been wiped out: There could be nests in unknown locations, in new marsh undisturbed by visitors or researchers alike. In “Dead Astronauts,” the slow, gradual death of a Leviathan created by the Company to consume its rejects frees a niche in which other species can thrive. VanderMeer writes: Undigested life lived among the holding ponds. Little fish ate the algae between the scales of the Leviathan and he did not thrash or twist to dislodge them, to scoop them up in his jaws. The dreams receded. The holding ponds grew shallow. The little foxes that existed at the fringes of the Behemoth’s territory prospered. What old thing is new again? Though hope may be too strong a word for it, the unexpected, unpredictable resilience of life endures in VanderMeer’s work: the spirited uncertainty of extinction, the unflagging uncertainty of survival, the thing with feathers a kind of hope in and of itself.

Alexandra Kleeman is a professor at the New School and the author of the novel “You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine.” Her next novel will be published by Hogarth Press.

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