Video, podcast, and summary: “The Spooky Science of the Southern Reach — An Evening with Jeff VanderMeer”

Jeff VanderMeer, author of the New York Times bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance), joined G. Eric Schaller, Professor of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth, for a broad-ranging discussion about the scientific and philosophical ideas that inspired the series. The two friends and occasional collaborators discussed conservation science, VanderMeer’s relationship with the natural world, and the theme of extinction in “slow apocalypse” fiction, as well as the role of real-world science in science fiction. Moderator: Seth Mnookin.

Summary

Panelists

Jeff VanderMeer began with a brief reading from Authority, the second book in his Southern Reach Trilogy. The trilogy describes the 30-year efforts of a secret government agency—the Southern Reach—to investigate a mysterious region known as “Area X,” a wilderness hidden behind an invisible border that appeared overnight. VanderMeer showed a slideshow of images including moss-covered columns, marshland, industrial buildings, and seashores.  He said that the images represented both thoughts of his protagonist, Control, the new director of Southern Reach, as well as the landscape his characters traveled through. He explained that every nature detail in his books is the result of firsthand observation of familiar places, and that much of the text comes from his love of wilderness. VanderMeer said he sought to explore a number of themes in the trilogy, including the use of the uncanny to address ecological issues, the rationality of organizational systems, the relationship between technology and thought, the scientific imagination, and the role of animals in fiction. For his reading, VanderMeer selected a scene in which Control converses with Cheney, the head of the Southern Reach Scientific Division, as the two men drive towards Area X

.

After the reading, moderator Seth Mnookin said it was interesting that VanderMeer selected a section that confronts how scientists must engage with forces that may conflict with their scientific work, such as bureaucracies, job constraints, or personal issues. He asked how VanderMeer decided to portray that scientific reality.

VanderMeer said he wanted to avoid clichés about scientists. After watching his father (an entomologist and research chemist) encounter similar impediments while pursuing his research, he said he realized the importance of talking about “the constraints as well as the research.”  VanderMeer said he has worked for agencies that have failed at their task and have “sedimentary layers of technology” and “battle lines drawn between different groups,” much like the Southern Reach. This left him curious to explore the rationality of systems and human beings, which he thinks is often lost in a “dysfunctional agency.”

Mnookin then asked G. Eric Schaller to describe his collaborations with VanderMeer, both as a contributing illustrator to many of VanderMeer’s works and as a collaborator during VanderMeer’s writing and publication process.

Schaller said that he would refer to his role more as a “sounding board” than a collaborator. For the Southern Reach Trilogy, Schaller said, VanderMeer initially sent him an email asking how Schaller, as a biologist, would confront an area that had been cordoned off by an invisible and enigmatic “border.”

VanderMeer said he sent this basic situation to several scientists, but that Schaller gave him the most feedback. He hoped to learn what should happen in a scientific investigation so he could “portray what happens when it doesn’t go well.”

Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff Vandermeer

Mnookin noted that while VanderMeer’s work is fantastical on many levels, it also seems to accurately represent a scientific experience, and to be confined by the plausibility of the world VanderMeer created. Mnookin wondered about the line between these elements. VanderMeer replied that he has a different view than many people about the rationality of the human world. Even some fantastical components of his books have a basis in reality, he said, noting that people do and say bizarre, illogical things when they’re under pressure.

VanderMeer said it made him nervous to see what Schaller, a fiction reader and a scientist, thought of the work, and delayed asking his opinion for some time. Schaller recalled that their discussions usually centered on an idea or element, such as biomimicry. VanderMeer asked Schaller if anything seemed “unacceptable” or unrealistic in his trilogy.

Schaller said that he doesn’t judge the science of science fiction unless the work is “interrogating science” in some way. Mnookin asked for an example of this, and Schaller brought up the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, whom he feels does a “terrific job of incorporating science” into his science fiction. Schaller contrasted this with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a book that confronts the potential dangers of genetic engineering, and that Schaller feels “makes mistakes” scientifically. One example, Schaller said, are the “cheshires” that Bacigalupi describes as cats that are genetically engineered to camouflage like chameleons. It’s a “brilliant visual idea,” Schaller said, but in the book, around a dozen of these cats wipe out all other cats on Earth in twenty years. There was “no basis” for these invisible cats to kill other cats, Schaller said, and even if there were, it couldn’t happen in one generation. Near-future fiction is hard to write, Schaller added, because an author is “bounded by the science of today,” and the level of current technology, while extrapolating forward.

VanderMeer said that this level of detail was beyond what he worked with in his trilogy. He is aware, he added, of certain simplifications he made in the series; for example, he did not address the implications of corporations’ effect on and involvement with the environment. The series could be seen as a “form of escapism” in its avoidance of such issues, he said.

Mnookin said that he was curious about VanderMeer’s suggestion that avoiding the role of corporations in his novels could be seen as “escapism.” He asked if VanderMeer believes that fiction can simultaneously serve as a way to “interrogate the world around us” and also as a way to escape that world.  

VanderMeer said that he is tired of reading near-future fiction where most of the human population has been wiped out, but global warming isn’t a major concern. He dislikes this avoidance of a subject that “we’re in the middle of and that is so important.” He thinks authors have a responsibility to include some form of logic and realism in their work, even if it is surreal.

Mnookin asked if the panelists had noticed near-future fiction transcending the genre of science fiction and fantasy, and if so, what the impact of this was.

VanderMeer said that for a current issue like global warming, “any fiction writer can deal with the subject.” Continuing with this example, he said that the subject of global warming is “beginning to leak into everything we write to some extent.”

Mnookin brought up the near-future fiction of author Roberto Bolaño, which he said doesn’t address the issue of global warming. He asked if Schaller and VanderMeer felt that authors writing about near-future scenarios have an obligation to incorporate the realities of our world into their work.

VanderMeer said he didn’t think this was an obligation, but he believes many readers feel that novels need to consider the issue. Schaller said that a slow apocalypse is often “so gradual” that people don’t have the perspective they need to recognize the negative changes around them.

Mnookin said that the Southern Reach Trilogy seemed to explicitly reject the idea that humans have discovered everything there is to know about our world, and in doing so, highlighted the lack of control we have over their environment. This is an interesting position, Mnookin noted, because fiction writers do have control over their worlds. He asked VanderMeer if his desire for control over his fictional worlds was a reaction to the world we live in.

VanderMeer said that this was somewhat the case for the mysterious Area X, which was inspired by his reaction to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill (also known as the BP oil spill) in the Gulf of Mexico. It was very personal to those living near the Gulf, VanderMeer said, and as the oil was gushing out, many felt it could be a decades-long nightmare before the well was capped. Subconsciously, he said, he put a mental border around northern Florida to protect its pristine wilderness from the spill. It seems to be a fundamental fact that we don’t know everything about the world, he continued. We are constantly discovering new species or new biological data. It is important to maintain habitats, he added, as life is being “extinguished before we actually understand it.” He noted that if we explored our planet as if it were an alien planet, we might understand this more.

Mnookin then asked the panelists to discuss instances in which Schaller contributed artwork to VanderMeer’s written work.

Eric Schaller

G. Eric Schaller, Professor of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth

VanderMeer said he typically calls Schaller and asks him if he’d like to do an “impossible thing…by next week.” He said that Schaller usually says no, then calls back and says he’ll do it. Schaller agreed that this was fairly accurate. He said their collaborations are “multiple creators becoming enveloped by a world,” a world that incorporates objects beyond Schaller’s illustrations and extends “beyond the printed page.”

Mnookin showed several images of Schaller’s illustrations for VanderMeer’s books. For The Exchange, Schaller illustrated a mock educational chapbook based upon a festival in VanderMeer’s fictional world of Ambergris. For VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, a collection of stories and miscellanea about Ambergris, Schaller drew a comic strip about a talking squid and his human friend. VanderMeer said that a lot of these stories were “early tryouts” for themes about animals and ecology. In another project, VanderMeer asked Schaller to send him an illustration, then crafted a story from the images.

Mnookin said he was curious about the lack of “multilayered involvement” in the Southern Reach Trilogy compared to City of Saints and Madmen, which contains a variety of different textual elements. VanderMeer said his goal with the trilogy was to “create novels where the experimentation is largely invisible.” He gave the example of a section of dialogue that appears in the second book in the trilogy, Authority, which is actually repurposed from the series’ first book, Annihilation; the effect is a disquieting sense of déjà vu. Another example, VanderMeer said, was how Control frequently walks down hallways but never is present in a scene where he actually enters a room. As a result, readers only hear about these experiences when Control recounts them to his superiors.

Mnookin asked if the name “Control” was a reference to the head of British Intelligence in John le Carré’s “Smiley” novels. VanderMeer said that the name is a “term of art in secret agencies,” but le Carré’s novels were the “best example.” Mnookin noted that le Carré’s Control was the “polar opposite” of the character Control in Authority. VanderMeer said that he wasn’t convinced of the name, but that “the character told me that’s what he wanted to do, so…I ceded control to Control.”  Authority became a “slow burn espionage novel” that replaced espionage with bureaucracy, he said. The book also has a dark humor that readers of the first book in the trilogy may not have expected, he added.

VanderMeer has also published Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction andThe Steampunk User’s Manual: An Illustrated Practical and Whimsical Guide to Creating Retro-futurist Dreams, both of which seem to indicate a “deep engagement with nurturing creativity in other writers,” Mnookin said.  He asked if VanderMeer saw this as essential to his role as a writer.

VanderMeer said that growing up, he saw a writer as someone who “did all kinds of projects.” Before writing fiction, he wrote poetry and edited a literary magazine, he said, and for him, it “always seemed natural to operate as part of a community.” He and his wife are also driven to “heal the divide” between genre and mainstream fiction. He is currently working to compile a large book of science fiction published internationally between 1900 and 2000. The project, which includes the work of Latin American and Russian authors as well as authors from outside the genre of science fiction, has become “much more radical than we thought it would be,” VanderMeer said. Several stories were translated into English for the first time; VanderMeer said he was both “excited and dismayed” to find some wonderful stories among these previously untranslated works, because it made him believe that there are many stories that haven’t been “part of the discussion” for English language readers.

Mnookin asked if this was different in science fiction than for other genres or fiction at large. VanderMeer said he did think it was different, because historically, there has been a “science fiction ghetto,” and people familiar with a variety of world literature might have limited exposure to science fiction.

Mnookin then opened the discussion to members of the audience.

Dan Schmidt said that he felt ambivalent while reading the Southern Reach Trilogy because he was torn between enjoying the mysteries presented in the books and wanting everything to be explained. He asked VanderMeer how he decided how much of the story to reveal.

VanderMeer said he hates trilogies that end with the “copout” of the protagonist suddenly solving the whole mystery of the series. He tries to make a character’s arc “as complete as possible in each book,” he said, so that there is some sense of closure. He said he debated about how many layers to reveal, and trusted his editor’s input. There are many answers in the final book, he said, but he added that the second book made readers paranoid that these answers aren’t actually true. Schaller noted that the answers of the third book aren’t given in a traditional way: instead of a “reveal” at the very end, the mysteries are uncovered in a tangential way.

Josh Goldman asked VanderMeer what the Séance and Science Brigade, a mysterious team of researchers in the Southern Reach trilogy, are actually doing as they explore Area X, as the story is never told from their point of view.

VanderMeer explained that the Séance and Science Brigade uses science and paranormal activities to explore the forgotten coast. The Brigade was inspired by a stone garden he saw in Miami, which shows information about constellations during eclipses, he said. When he visited, there were both psychics and physicists taking readings, and he thought the scenario provided an interesting way to discuss pseudoscience. He said he is currently working on a story involving the Séance and Science Brigade that precedes the events of the Southern Reach trilogy, and could see writing a longer piece focused just on this team.

An audience member commented that Acceptance, the final book in the trilogy, touches on the regrets of many characters. He wondered if VanderMeer was experiencing a grieving process himself while writing the book.

VanderMeer said that several emotional factors came out in his prose. He “felt deeply” that it might be his last time writing about the Florida wilderness, and he thinks this feeling was expressed through his characters. In particular, he said, he struggled with having to stop writing about one character, the psychologist, with whom he most identified. He added that he was writing the final book during winter, which added an emotional context to his work.

Mnookin found it interesting that VanderMeer associated most with the psychologist’s character, because she seemed unsympathetic in the trilogy’s first book. VanderMeer said he always planned for the reader’s view of the characters to “change to some degree,” but he hadn’t realized how much the psychologist would change. Another character, the biologist, was the easiest for him to write, he said, adding that much of her story was inspired by his own experiences growing up.

Adam Conway commented that a lot of Authority seemed to focus on language and a failure to name things properly. Some characters had multiple names, and he found that he became “more sympathetic” with a character depending on how she was named in the chapter breaks. He asked VanderMeer where this interesting approach came from.

VanderMeer said that much of this came through his characters. He recalled having his own conversations in a workplace setting, working on a project with respected colleagues in an illogical manner. There are variables that come together, he said, where a situation makes sense on one level but not another.

Another audience member asked VanderMeer how much he plans out the novels he writes ahead of time, and how much he discovers as he writes.

VanderMeer said that when he agreed to a three-book deal with his publisher, he wasn’t sure if he would write three or five books. Authority, the middle novel, “ate up 30 years of stuff,” he said, much of it summarized. As he writes specific scenes, there are many things he doesn’t know, he said, and things change as he writes. One day, an experience with two friends in a coffee shop worked its way into the scene he was writing. But he does need “some kind of structure” to begin with, he said.

Mnookin asked about the trilogy’s unusual publishing plan, which had all three books published in one calendar year—February, May, and September of 2014, respectively. He asked VanderMeer how that came about.

VanderMeer said that the original offer letter from his editors included every detail of this plan. He called it the “most brilliant offer letter” he’s ever received. Mnookin then asked if VanderMeer worried about the second book being less successful than the first. VanderMeer responded that the second book in a trilogy is “susceptible” because it does not offer all the answers to the mysteries of the series. He was relieved that the first book, Annihilation, did well after its release, he said. There was some drop off in sales after the first book but the other two are still selling very well.

Mnookin asked if Annihilation, which is being developed for the screen, would be the first movie in a trilogy. VanderMeer said that was the plan, though he could envision each movie having a different director and a different scriptwriter.

Mnookin said he was struck by the range of racial and sexual perspectives in the trilogy. Sometimes, Mnookin said, a character’s race would not be indicated for hundreds of pages, and when it was, it forced him, as the reader, to confront his expectations. He asked if VanderMeer consciously decided to present such a diverse set of perspectives, and how he decided to reveal the characters.

VanderMeer said that once he decided to make characters nameless, he decided not to give them physical conditions in the first book besides gender. He didn’t include ethnicity until the second book, he said, to “jolt” the reader out of the mental picture they had formed in the first book, which also served to highlight the difference in tone between the first two novels in the trilogy. VanderMeer said that he’s written about non-white characters for a while, and that all his far-future stories include non-white characters because a future that’s all white “doesn’t make sense.” He tries to do a “better job of writing books for a wide audience,” he said. When some readers thank him for including diverse characters, he said, he tells them not to thank people for “things you should already have.”

Mnookin asked VanderMeer why he thought the trilogy would be the last time he wrote about the Florida wilderness.

VanderMeer said that while writing the series, he had no idea whether or not the books would be successful. He wrote the first book “on automatic pilot” while ill with bronchitis, and then asked his wife if it worked as a novel, he said. He didn’t have any expectations—he didn’t even have expectations by the time he was writing the third book, and advance reviews for the first were beginning to come in. Despite the publisher’s commitment to publishing the trilogy, he thought it could be possible that the third might not be published if the first book was received poorly. He almost ran out of steam while finishing the last book; while writing a final scene, he felt “something switch off” in his brain, he said, and he wasn’t sure if the writer’s block was temporary or not. He forced himself to open a book about supernatural phenomena and record an image, and after about a paragraph, he found he had the scene he needed in his head. Then, he said, “the novel was done.” 

The collaborators

Sarah Schwartz

About Sarah Schwartz

Sarah Schwartz was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She spent her childhood getting lost in redwoods and stories, collecting wood sorrel and novels, and learning how to identify constellations and split infinitives. Dreading that someday she would have to make a career decision between the sciences or writing, she studied both fields at the University of California, San Diego, where she earned her B.S. in Environmental Systems while taking Revelle College’s rigorous Humanities series and as many writing courses as possible. She has worked in laboratories at UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, learning about bacterial aging, natural sunscreens, neonatal hypoxia-ischemia, marine sponge biochemistry, and what to do when you set the ethanol on fire. These experiences fostered her deep respect and appreciation for scientific research and professional scientists; they have also left her eager to keep studying, supporting, and contributing to the natural and physical sciences. Though her primary interests lie in the areas of environmental and human health, Sarah hopes to explore various fields and interdisciplinary challenges, and to generate a broad dialogue about important, exciting science. In her free time, Sarah loves to bake, sing, hike, and obsess about Giants baseball. Thesis: Owning the Code of Life: Human Gene Patents in America

 
 

Share this Post