While in Seattle on his extensive book tour, Jeff VanderMeer met me at a coffeehouse to talk about his new book, Borne, which the Amazon Books editors selected as one of the best science fiction and fantasy books of May.
In Borne, the main protagonist, Rachel, discovers a strange piece of biotech during one of her regular scavenging operations in the mostly destroyed city where she lives with her boyfriend, Wick. Rachel brings it home and develops an attachment to Borne that grows as she learns he is in fact sentient.
Amazon Book Review: Tell me about Mord, the giant flying bear from the book’s first scene. How did that come to be?
Jeff VanderMeer: I had this vision that just came to me of this woman that reaches out to pluck this weird bit of biotech from the fur of a giant bear. And then everything fanned out from that. I was like, “What is this thing? Why would she want it?” And then I thought, “Oh, it’s because it reminds her of her island home where she grew up before she came to this abandoned ruined city as a refugee.” And then Mord himself woke up from slumber in that first scene, and flew away. I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting, the bear flies. How’s that going to work?” But I think I had in the back of my head Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus where there’s a woman who supposedly flies—it’s her act—and you never know whether she actually flies in the circus or if there are wires. And then I was thinking of Richard Adams. He has a book called Shardik that I read as a teenager. And the bear in that just blew me away, it was so ferocious. And it seemed like a potent despot. A giant elephant shrew would perhaps not have the same effect. [Laughs]
It seemed to me that you’re exploring issues of being alone and solitariness in Borne, and also the strong attachments you can form with other creatures.
It’s a very different series from the Southern Reach. The Southern Reach is like this wall of vegetation that’s Area X, with things peering out of it. A very claustrophobic and paranoid kind of atmosphere. In Borne, I really wanted to explore what life might be like in a ruined city of the future, and what kind of biosphere and what kind of ecology would still exist. So the animals and humans are in the foreground a bit more than in [the Southern Reach]. Part of that foreground is Rachel’s relationship with Borne, the bit of biotech that begins to speak. And as she forms this attachment to Borne, I was trying to explore [the questions], What does it mean to be human? What is it that makes us human? What is it that we learn that makes us human? What is it like to try to still be your better self when you’re just trying to survive? There are many times when Rachel could just give Borne to Wick and have him rendered down for parts that could help them survive, and she doesn’t. And in part that’s because she eventually begins to believe that there could be a better future—or a future at all. So even though some of her trust in Borne is misplaced, I think it’s a very human thing for her to do.
While you’ve been on your book tour, what have people been talking to you about Borne?
Because it’s been described as a postapocalyptic novel, I think they’ve been really surprised at how gentle and sweet the core of the novel is because of the relationship between Rachel and Borne—and how funny parts of it are. I really hate novels that are kind of monotone. So even though the Southern Reach is fairly serious, the second book has a lot of dark humor in it. Here there’s a lot of silliness as Borne is growing up and Rachel is trying to teach him, and he’s making mistakes with language. And so I think that that’s what readers are really responding to and why word of mouth is so good on this book. This is a novel about people trying to connect. Even Rachel’s relationship with Wick—even though it has some ups and downs and is rocky—they are in a way still really deeply committed to making that work. One thing I wanted to do was make a story that was intensely personal while all these epic elements play out around, and try to get that balance right.
There are a lot of situations with biotech run amok in Borne. What do you think about what’s going on these days with advances like gene editing?
I think that our problems run so well past consumerism and capitalism that any kind of critique of what our problems are has to not just be about that. But it is true that we’re very market driven, so some of the more ethical questions go out the window because our tech is advancing so fast. In Borne you see the downside of that—that fact that a lot of things have been experimented on and done without much thought of that, and it’s ruined the city.
With biotech I thought it would be interesting to write a novel that’s basically science fiction from a fantasy point of view with this idea, in part, that someone in the future won’t know how to make biotech; they’ll just be living with the consequences of it. Rachel is just day-to-day living with this situation; she doesn’t have much time to think about certain implications of it or think about how it’s come about.
Annihilation is being turned into a movie. How involved have you been in that?
Alex Garland, the director, has been kind enough to keep me in the loop, but I really haven’t had anything to do with the screenplay or anything else. I think it will be a very surreal movie, but I think it will be very different from the books. There are certain things that Alex Garland is foregrounding that I had kind of in the background, and certain things I had in the foreground that he has in the background. We did get to visit the set; that was really cool. We got to visit the lighthouse set and some others sets that they built at Pinewood Studios. And what was really cool was that they were shooting the Star Wars movie [The Last Jedi] on a secret lot next door, and so there were times when Annihilation production people would take abandoned stuff from the Star Wars set and repurpose it for Annihilation. And the cast was really nice. Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson read all three books and they had these questions about them.
I think Alex Garland is still editing it. They are very carefully layering in a lot of very subtle CGI because I don’t think they want it to look CGI at all.
What have read lately that you’ve enjoyed?
Well, I really loved Lidia Yukanavitch’s The Book of Joan. And a novel is coming out in June—Amatka by Karin Tidbeck—is an absolutely amazing book about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. It’s very unique.
Jeff VanderMeer recently served as the 2016-2017 Trias Writer-in-Residence for Hobart-William Smith College. His latest novel is Borne, which Colson Whitehead called “a thorough marvel.” He is also known for his critically acclaimed New York Times-bestselling Southern Reach trilogy, which won the Shirley Jackson Award and Nebula Award. The trilogy also prompted the New Yorker to call the author “the weird Thoreau” and has been acquired by publishers in 35 other countries, with Paramount Pictures releasing a movie in 2018. VanderMeer’s nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Atlantic.com, Vulture, Esquire.com, and the Los Angeles Times. He has taught at the Yale Writers’ Conference, lectured at MIT, Brown, and the Library of Congress, and serves as the co-director of Shared Worlds, a unique teen writing camp. (Photo by Kyle Cassidy.)
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