Wild Authors: Jeff VanderMeer

It’s time to spotlight authors thinking and writing about global warming. Let’s start with Jeff VanderMeer, who tackles environmental issues in his novels. As a reader, I was so influenced by the Southern Reach Trilogy that it motivated me to read other authors and concepts described in the new weird, weird, or ecological weird fictions. I began to see this vast road open up before me, not just in ways of thinking about climate change in literature but deeper, systemic issues that we as a people have as barriers to be really turned on to nature itself. Timothy Morton‘s object-oriented philosophy and hyperobject thoughts began to scratch the surface for me (this went way beyond VanderMeer’s trilogy in a way, though he used some of these literary devices in his novels; kudos to him for getting my interest so piqued – I have a dozen books on order of similar literary explorations).

The idea of charnel grounds and all this other “weird” stuff brought me back to square one. Weird things aren’t so much weird sometimes but natural; however, we are disconnected from natural worlds due to the safety of our usual comfortable, familiar environments with four walls and climate-controlled rooms. Climate change is a huge concept that is already changing the world now, and it’s uncomfortable to realize, hard to grasp, and difficult to conceptualize.

Michael Bernanos’s The Other Side of the Mountain, in VanderMeer’s The Weird anthology, continues to haunt me to this day because it takes the reader out of familiar environment and presents a conundrum, a suspense. Genuflecting trees, predatory flowers, etc. Amazing words page after page, yet they were simply natural wilderness events in the ecology of the story itself, and Bernanos painted the scenes as a poet would.

Same with VanderMeer’s Southern Reach novels: the wild has taken on a mysterious turn, and something unknown and scary begins to scratch at the door, beyond which lie our climate-controlled sensibilities, making us both gasp in horror yet continue to turn page after page in the need to get to “what is it”…similar to “what is the monster” or “what’s down the hatch” in the television series “Lost.” VanderMeer creates new mythologies in story-form, and it works so well that I am curious what readers decide later. Are they going to feel sorry for Area X? If so, what about all the similar Area X’s in our real world that have been caused by humankind’s ruinous habits when it comes to nature?

VanderMeer seems to not be huge on which genre label to use for Southern Reach, but his blog suggests that one genre being just for climate change is misleading, since authors often choose to describe their work in more genres than one and may not be wedded to labels as much as they are to the exploration of going past such classifications and boundaries. This presents an interesting theory to me – and it’s only my opinion here – that if climate change is a hyperobject, can we narrow it down in fiction to a classification? I don’t have an answer to that.

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“Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) explores ecological and global warming issues through the lens of the mysterious Area X, a pristine wilderness separated from the rest of the world by an invisible but potent barrier. In some sense, Area X is to humans as humans are to animals, a laboratory for interrogation of human inconsistency and absurdity within a Baudrillardian hegemony.” —University of Florida, “Imagining Climate Change“. Also, Wired has Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy novels on its October reading list, and I’m looking forward to the post-discussion.

See Eco-fiction’s interview with VanderMeer. He was been named the 2016-2017 Trias Writer-in-Residence for Hobart-William Smith College. His most recent fiction is the NYT-bestselling Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) from FSGwhich won the Shirley Jackson Award. The trilogy also prompted the New Yorker to call the author “the weird Thoreau” and has been acquired by publishers in 28 other countries, with Paramount Pictures acquiring the movie rights. VanderMeer’s nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, 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. His forthcoming novel from Farrar, Straus and Giroux is titled Borne. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife, the noted editor Ann VanderMeer.

Jeff’s Southern Reach trilogy‘s first book, Annihilation, is being made into a film by Alex Garland, which is very exciting. Writer’s note: this movie came out in 2018. My review of it is at SFFWorld.com. I also explored ecology in weird fiction at SFFWorld.com.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Eco-Fiction.com on October 9, 2016.

(Photo by Kyle Cassidy.)

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Eco-Fiction.com and Dragonfly.eco, sites that explore ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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