Raw Story talks 'Annihilation' with author Jeff VanderMeer

The work of Jeff VanderMeer is as difficult to describe as it is engrossing to read. In the introduction to the anthology The New Weird -- which he edited with his wife, Ann VanderMeer -- he defined the genre in which he writes as "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy."

Whatever it is, it works -- and people are paying attention. His most recent novel, Annihilation, was published last month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG); his next novel, Authority, will be published by FSG next month. The third and final novel in what he calls "The Southern Reach Trilogy," Acceptance, will be published by FSG in September. All three novels have been also already been optioned by Paramount Pictures.

The first, Annihilation, follows a team of female scientists into a wasteland known as Area X. They are, at least, the eleventh expedition into Area X, and once there, they discover a tunnel containing, among other things, an unknown organism that appears to be writing doomsday prophecies -- in English -- on the wall with a fungus whose spores may be murderous.

In less talented hands, such a premise would border on preposterous. However, VanderMeer grounds the oddity of his narrative by sharing it through the perspective of a woman known only as "the biologist." Encounters with the uncanny in the book are filtered through the intensely curious, but still stubbornly scientific, lens of a scientist in the field.

You can read the first chapter of Annihilation here.

VanderMeer graciously agreed to speak to Raw Story about his new novels and the unusual manner of their publication between stops on his book tour.

RS: The publishing model you and Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG) agreed upon for the trilogy is revolutionary. How did it come about, and are you happy with it? Would you ever want to do something similar again?

FSG suggested it and I enthusiastically said yes. It’s a little like a convoy roaming through possibly perilous territory. A trilogy spread out over three years is susceptible to all kinds of unexpected misadventures and attacks. This way, in a nice, tight formation, the Southern Reach novels are in a position to come to each other’s aid...because they are alive, you know? Water the plant on Annihilation, give a carrot to the rabbit on Authority, and feed a mouse to the owl on Acceptance. Otherwise, they might become unpredictable and terrorize you in ways you can only imagine...

Although the media did pick up on the initial New York Times article about Annihilation and this model, many articles focused on the idea of “binge reading” as if you could now just skim books faster. But when I think of “binge watching” it brings to mind immersion and being more fully engaged with a work of art. So many times readers have to get back up to speed when the second book in a series is published, which also puts a strain on the writer to perhaps put more context into that novel than they would if it were a pure stand-alone. In that way to, this model works.

Would I do something similar again? That’s a good question. The other novels I’m working on are stand-alone, so it probably won’t come up. And I would caution that anyone adopting it as a model not mistake the speed of publication for the speed of writing. You have to build in enough time to complete the novels in the way they need to be finished.

Annihilation seems very much to be an environmental fable about a world very much, but not quite our own -- one, perhaps, that we've despoiled. Do you consider Area X to be a place we've discovered, or one in whose creation we're complicit? Or are readers supposed to become like the conspiracy theorists you discuss on page 94?

The place Area X was before it became Area X was very much a creation of human beings. Even in that wilderness, you had waste barrel dumping, other types of run-off and pollution, invasive species that would never have been there without human action. You could say Area X, whether as its purpose as a side effect, is going back in time by removing all traces of human occupation. But, to be honest, the secret agency that sends in the expeditions, the Southern Reach, hides its own secrets that pertain to what’s going on in Area X.

On page 111, you note that the pile of journals describing Area X will soon become Area X itself. This strikes me as a literal version of "contact narratives," in which what an explorer writes about an area he discovers becomes how future generations understand it. (Describing cities of gold in the "New World" leading explorers to "discover" such cities, even though they only ever existed in print.) Are these books an exercise in, call it, "creative geography"? Re-shaping the world by describing it?

I must admit my minor in college was Latin American history, and I’m sure there’s a sedimentary layer in the back of my brain that, in soaking all of that conflicted and difficult chronology, has peeked out through some of the observations in Annihilation. I guess I was also thinking of the journals from the prior expeditions as almost being like the bones of the explorers, in word form. This is where they washed up, their instruments useless, all logic revealed as merely construct to push them through the day.

And, yes, there is perhaps a parallel: explorers and exploiters who are culturally so different and from such a different landscape that the very land seems to reject them, even when they seem to have conquered it. I’m not particularly fond of missionaries or of conquerors or empires, all of which strike me as examples of dreaming poorly but, alas, doing so across a vast continuum of human endeavor, to the brutal detriment of all who push back with perhaps a more sustainable and humane vision of the world.

Is the novel more concerned with how language shapes the world than how the world actually is? (I'm thinking of passages such as the one on page 179, in which you discuss that the words "gun" and "sample" are meaningless outside of the notion that they're both just "aiming at something.")

Not to side step the question, but one point I’m trying to make is that language itself can mean something radically different to something that doesn’t share any points of commonalities with human beings. That language can be hacked or turn into something else. In part because our use of metaphor and simile and comparisons are so wide-spread that we don’t even realize that we’re transforming the world just by encountering it. We’re turning it into something that can be expressed through language, in ways that allow what you might call short-hand for more effective communication of concepts both tactile and ethereal. We’re so in thrall to this approach that it’s hard to even conceive of some other way.

You spend a lot of time emphasizing the fact that while "the biologist" is an academic, her knowledge comes as much from her interaction with the world -- from experience -- as from "book learning" of the sort that academics typically value. Is there a reason that you have her value what she observed with her own eyes over what she read?

I wouldn’t say she’s an academic—she’s a field biologist and then in the commercial sector, kind of against her will. Yes, she’s associated with various universities, but whenever she’s embedded in academia, she’s a bit of a mimic, using camouflage, because she in a very personal way is about an attempt of a true viewing of the world.

And even if there’s failure in that, the greater failure is to accept the metaphors and analogies of any human institution, which is like a vast high-functioning accretion of complex barnacles attached to the hull of a ship none of the barnacles can really see from their position. Or, at least, I imagine the biologist thinking, at times, in this way. Given also the way the Southern Reach operates, it’s very important to her not to fall victim to what she would think of as propaganda.

Why did you decide to tackle these issues through the almost alien perspective of academic inquiry?

Although the biologist sometimes leaves things out, I think her attempt at a dispassionate view, although no one can be truly dispassionate, is a way of counterbalancing the weirdness they account—for me. There are many practical reasons for this approach and philosophical ones, but If my narrator was someone highly excitable and prone to wild leaps then suddenly there is absolutely no striation of layers of reality or possible reality in the book. Instead, the reader would be rolling around inside of a chaotic washing machine, trying to see what’s outside the little circular window. You might feel clean, if bruised, at the end, but you’d have no sense of story.

The novel reads very much like the world it describes -- utterly familiar, yet slightly off at all points. Was that your intent? (For example, on 59, you describe "Something like a body or a person," which makes perfect sense, yet is incredibly disturbing. What is like a body or a person that's not a body or a person?)

I hike a lot in North Florida, and from a distance, things look like other things. A bat can metamorph into a bird when seen closer. A creature on a log becomes just a stubby branch. A seeming tree trunk is actually a bear. You think you are going north, but suddenly, through some daydream of lapse of attention, you get turned around.

These are, in a sense, reminders to us that the real world is stranger than we usually think. Imagine being able to spy on the processes going on around you while even walking down the sidewalk on your street—the plants employing photosynthesis and speaking to each other in chemical emissions, the ants with their pheromone trails, the fungi with their spores. Why, there’s still crowded and noisy cosmopolitan situation all around you, but you can’t experience any of it because your senses are these stunted, incomplete systems.

You’ve got eyes that can’t see the whole spectrum. A cat would laugh at your stupid sense of smell. Your sense of taste is pathetic compared to many creatures. Your sense of touch is put to shame by your average gecko. So the world is in a sense laughing at you anyway, or on some level ignoring you completely, and your sole contribution is the ability to tread too heavily on a dandelion and break its stem. So if we’re honest the world should feel slightly off at times. The world should at times reveal some glint or glimmer of greater processes ongoing. Something like a body or a person. Something like a shadow or a creature. Something like a sudden clue.

On page 100, you discuss the relation of maps to the world they ostensibly, but clearly don't, describe. This seems very much in keeping with the short stories of Samuel Beckett, which are filled with descriptions of impossible places. Are you a fan of Beckett?

From a purely practical viewpoint, maps do indeed render some things invisible and other things more visible than they should be. This is at times the main function of maps: to make some group or country seem either unimportant or, perhaps, no longer there long before this is actually so. The orientation of our North-South world on maps is no accident, not a flip of the coin, even.

But I am a fan of Beckett, especially early and middle Beckett, when he hadn’t yet quite stripped down everything to one exorable blade so sharp it can cut you before you even really understand you’ve been opened up. I like the dirt and the squalor of some of the earlier material, before Beckett Uplifted or Ascended or in some way became an empty cathedral. An empty cathedral is a beautiful and awe-inspiring thing, but so too is the grout between the tiles if you look at it closely enough. Say, under a microscope. Belacqua might have been hopeless, but he lived in a world that was full of color.

To build on that, since all we have is what she's written, are you trying to say something about our ability to judge the decisions she's made or actions she's undertaken? (Especially given the fact that by the time she writes this account, she's long ago "remembered that [she] had been someone else.")

I like very much that none of the expedition gets a physical description or a name, so you have to “judge” them or assess them by their words, actions, and interactions—as well as, in the biologist’s case—her memories of the world beyond. What actions are by their very nature unethical or unworthy no matter what the context? Which are in a gray area? Which are actions that in a normal context would be monstrous but that you feel you yourself might undertake in the context of Area X? There’s a practical reason they have no names, to do with the metrics behind the expedition, but it also does a lot of other work.

I know from Facebook that you read literary theory, so I wondered if Walter Benn Michaels and Steven Knapp's "Against Theory" argument -- in which they claimed that words "written" on a beach by the action of waves wouldn't be "real" words, merely "marks" that resemble them -- factored into your description of the "mysterious words" that you describe on pages 27 and 28?

That’s a good question. I have read that argument, but hadn’t thought until you brought it up that the words on the wall came from reading it. One thing I believe in fiercely is the physicality of things that happen in books, that subtexts that stick up out of the story are like bones that have been cracked and broken by accident and the marrow showing means you need to get the book to a hospital straight away. So there is a physicality of the words and a practical aspect to them, as revealed later, but, again, a lot of things have been “hacked’ by Area X.

What is it with creepy lighthouses lately? Between you and Brian K. Vaughn's Saga, I may never be able to take a leisurely drive down the Pacific Coast Highway again.

They tend to lend themselves to stories about crackpots and iconoclasts because they’re isolated and they almost all have rich and sometimes mysterious histories. Loners become lighthouse keepers. Lonely stretches of coast often become riddled through with myths and rumors and speculation. I love lighthouses, especially since my research into them. I visit every one I encounter—and especially along the Pacific Coast Highway. They’re repositories of a destabilized and imperfect history, a history that’s often about outsiders and people who didn’t make it into other history books. Preserved in these towers that now often lie silent and empty, and which sometimes also are a beacon pointing out some remote and wild place. I don’t want to romanticize them—they also harbor rats and many lighthouse keepers were just boring weirdos, but there is something about a lighthouse that I find compelling.

Fun fact: truly ancient lighthouses used a bonfire on top of an open plateau-like space, or just stuffed three fatty birds on a spike and lit them on fire for a beacon. Very efficient, if perhaps ridiculous looking to a modern eye.

Feel free to write about anything else that you think would be of interest to Raw Story readers. Barring that, feel free to tell me what happens in the next book, because damn it, I don't want to wait until May.

I’m a big fan of the Semiotexte books, and found much in the work of writers like Jean Baudrillard and books like the Invisible Revolution of use in writing these novels, especially Acceptance. As for Authority, it is an expedition into the Southern Reach, much as Annihilation was an expedition into Area X. It also contains these three passages, which should not necessarily coexist peacefully in the same novel, and yet they, I believe, do:

  • "Like, if someone or something is trying to jam information inside your head using words you understand but a meaning you don’t, it’s not even that it’s not on a bandwidth you can receive—it’s much worse. Like, if the message were a knife and it created its meaning by cutting into meat and your head is the receiver and the tip of that knife is being shoved into your ear over and over again..."
  • To reanimate the emotions of a dead script, he had started thinking of things like “topographical anomalies” and “video of the first expedition” and “hypnotic conditioning”—inverse to the extreme where ritual decreed he hold words in his head like “horrible goiter” and “math homework” to stop from coming too soon during sex.
  • Megalodon mad. Megalodon not happy. Megalodon have tantrum.

[Image of Jeff VanderMeer via Facebook]