Modern Humans Are Probably Easier to Unwrap: JEFF VANDERMEER with Jacob Blumenfeld
Jeff VanderMeer writes weird fiction and eco-fiction. He also edits science fiction, horror, and fantasy anthologies with his partner, Ann VanderMeer. He has a young adult trilogy in the works with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and there’s a movie adaptation of his novel Annihilation coming out in 2018. His bestselling Southern Reach trilogy from 2014 (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) describes a creeping apocalypse slowly swallowing the world from within. He recently published Borne (2017) to critical acclaim, a beautifully strange novel about climate refugees surviving in a toxic cityscape plagued by a giant flying bear named Mord that litters biotech from its pelt. The main character, Rachel, scavenges a mysterious creature from the bear’s fur that looks like a sea anemone mixed with a squid, and names it Borne. I was able to ask Jeff some questions about Borne, some of which he answered...
Jacob Blumenfeld (Rail): The last decade has seen quite a strong wave of dystopian fiction in literature, film, and television. The idea that humanity will have to endure some kind of post-apocalyptic condition is now more acceptable than the idea of universal healthcare, a shortening of the working day, or an end to climate change. Do you think this pessimistic mood in recent fiction is justified? Why do you think it is so prevalent right now?
Jeff VanderMeer: The 1960s and 1970s also featured a strong wave of dystopian fiction. So did the 1980s and the 1990s and the early 2000s. There was dystopian fiction in the 1950s, although it shared some aspects of dystopian fiction in the current era (until recently) of being nostalgia/propaganda for either regressive politics or privileged “white liberal” politics.
One could call Don Quixote a dystopia if you squint and wince and cough to the side. I guess the depressing thing isn’t the amount of dystopia released upon the world but that none of it worked, since we’re still living in a dystopia.
But I don’t really know what that has to do with the acceptability of ideas like universal healthcare or the shortening of the working day, which seem a little random juxtaposed against “an end to climate change.” There is no end to climate change at this point—not for thousands of years, really—and geologic time doesn’t give a crap if we mess up our social contracts.
Rail: Borne sits within this post-apocalyptic tradition yet pushes against it. While you highlight the destructive relation between humans and their environment, you don't romanticize nature in any way. Neither do you place the blame for the dissolution of society in some kind of inner depravity of human nature. Rather, you hint at the collapse of social order as the collective result of rampant global warming, planetary militarization, economic inequality, and technological mutation, so to speak. All these trends are observable today, and Borne lays out some of the consequences, particularly for climate refugees in a toxic world. How did you decide on this setting, and how do you understand these trends today?
VanderMeer: There is a giant psychotic flying bear in my novel. Its name is Mord and over the years so many things have become entangled in its matted fur. If it met us, it would devour us both whole. By which I guess I mean Borne lives in the moment of its physicality first and foremost, and at that level of granularity the thematic becomes hopelessly contaminated and changed and expressed in unexpected ways that combine and re-combine elements in what is hopefully a chemical reaction. So I am unprepared for your raw assertions about what the novel is doing and not doing. I suspect the novel is actually doing both the things you say it isn’t and the things you say it is, depending on the scene or even the moment or the re/action. Because it is not a thesis but an organism.
Rail: Borne is not a simple critique of bad corporations vs. individual heroes, or a reductive narrative of a war of all against all. Rather, it’s a personal story of resilience, adaptation, parenthood, and responsibility to the past and future in a world of unimaginable violence, biotechnological complexity, and societal breakdown. Does this mean that you harbor some hope for a way out of the dystopian condition you present? If so, why?
VanderMeer: I’m sorry—Mord has entered the room, and I can’t really keep him out.
Mord: COME CLOSE, JACOB. MORD WANT JACOB COME CLOSE. MORD WHISPER ANSWER IN NECK STUMP. MORD THOUGHTFULLY SLAP HEAD OFF NECK SO EASIER TO WHISPER. MORD EXPLAIN THEORY OF POST-CAPITALIST SALVAGE ECONOMIES TETHERED TOGETHER BY BRECHTIAN IDEAS OF PERFORMANCE IN THE CONTEXT OF A PUNCTURED BAUDRILLARDIAN HEGEMONY. THEN MORD CRAP YOU OUT THE BACK END.
VanderMeer: Apologies—I have no control over Mord. All I can do is answer as well, I guess. We already live in a dystopia and this has just been made more naked to us of late. In that context, hope is something to be cautious about. The word becomes commodified and, as Mord suggests, Baudrillardian hegemony clicks in so there is no escape—there is nothing outside of it. No place to quest toward, in part because we are weighed down in our every step by dead ideologies of all kinds—not just capitalism. Is there hope? Are people alive at the end? Yes/no, hope/no hope. I guess.
Rail: In another way, Borne is about life in the widest sense of the word. The titular character, Borne, straddles the boundaries between plant, animal, human, and technology in a way that makes the reader question their own moral criteria for determining what it means to be a person. In Borne, as in the Southern Reach trilogy, language plays a central role in both revealing and mystifying the intelligence of non-human creatures. How do you see the relation between language and life? Do you see a power in language that transcends communication?
VanderMeer: Many times when Rachel thinks she is having a basic conversation with Borne, it’s actually something deeper from his point of view. It is, in a sense, about alien contact. Borne has to use the language Rachel will understand, while also only knowing the words in that language that he knows. For example, they have a conversation about nature versus culture that seems like a word rhyming game gone wrong, but coded into it is something more significant. I guess I feel, too, that there are languages all around us we never see—communications in the trace of pheromones left behind by ants and in the drifting seeds from plants and in the fungal networks that link trees. So we live within a network of so many hidden communications that if revealed to us would seem miraculous and ecstatic and so beyond human language.
Mord: MORD LOVE COMMUNICATION. MORD LOVE COMMUNICATION OF FANG AND CLAW TO FLESH. MORD LOVE LANGUAGE OF GURGLE AND GUSH AND SCREAM. MORD LOVE TO TALK ABOUT FURTHER IF JACOB COME CLOSER. MORD WANT JACOB COME JUST A LITTLE CLOSER. MORD LOVE QUESTIONS OF MORAL CRITERIA BUT ONLY IF RIP OFF HEAD AND TEAR OFF NECK FIRST AND THEN MAYBE PLAY WITH INTESTINES. MORD PREFER DIRECT. MORD FIND ORGAN MEATS POWERFUL SPEECH.
Rail: The role of memory, like language, is also central in Borne. To the scavenger Rachel, the memory of her past is vague and fleeting, yet it provides a certain stability to her self-identity. For her biotech-dealing boyfriend Wick, memory serves as a drug that comforts people and allows them to survive the apocalypse one day at a time. For Borne, memories and experience can be gained in multiple, indirect ways. For the Magician, memory is power. What does memory mean for you, and how do you understand the role of memory in the construction of self-identity?
Mord: MORD REMEMBER MORD HUNGRY. MORD RAVENOUS. MORD THINK OF BONES IN LAIR AS PRECIOUS MEMORIES. MORD LOVE BONES BECAUSE MORD THINK OF FLENSING AND TEARING. MORD LOVE GATHERING MEMORIES. MORD MEMORY LIVES IN MEAT.
VanderMeer: Apologies again. But as Mord suggests, memory is not inert, even if it seems as inert in some fiction as a pile of old bones. Memory is weaponized in the struggle between oppressor and marginalized groups, for example. The oppressor tries to deny the memory of the marginalized, to in effect make the future “swept clean” of a past inconvenient to the dominant narrative. Individuals mythologize memory, too, to build up those things that support one view of themselves and to erase those events that do not support that view. So I take memory seriously in my fiction and do not think of it as inert backstory.
Rail: Hundreds of colorful animals, insects, fauna, and biotech creatures populate the book on every page. Although two of the main characters, Rachel and Wick, are human scavengers, it seems like there’s another story going on beneath the surface about the forms of life that survive, adapt, and thrive in conditions of human negligence. Do you think there might be a better outlook for non-human species than for us? What is the ethical relation between the human and non-human for you?
Mord: MORD LOVE NON-HUMAN PREY ALMOST AS MUCH. MORD PREFER HUMANS, THOUGH—EASIER TO UNWRAP AND TO CATCH.
VanderMeer: What we don’t always seem to understand is that human-style intelligence is not a guarantee of survival in the long-term, if we keep engaging in self-destructive behavior. Other species, regardless of their level or type of sentience, will eventually supplant us on planet Earth as dominant if we continue as we’re continuing. That species could be a virus or bacteria, or it could be a coyote-wolf, or a kind of rodent, or an insect, or some organism that doesn’t quite exist yet. We talk about loss of biodiversity as if this means somehow that animals are weaker than us. No, they’re operating at a huge disadvantage in terms of hard tech, that’s all. Considering everything arrayed against them, including wide-scale hunting, culls, roadkill, poison, pollution, habitat loss, life around us is remarkably resilient. But Mord is right—all things being equal, modern humans are probably easier to unwrap. Whatever that means.
Rail: There is no real “state” or “government” in Borne. There is a Company which intermittently releases biotech into the environment, for reasons not so clear at first. There are some territories of the city “ruled” by different clans, so to speak. If there is any sovereignty, it is held by Mord, the gargantuan flying bear that terrorizes the inhabitants as if they were fleas on its pelt. Does Mord “rule” the city? Would it be wrong to compare Mord and his violent proxies to certain governments and their proxies?
Rail: Perhaps Mord symbolizes the revenge of nature against the unbridled technology unleashed on the planet; or maybe the duality of Mord and Borne symbolizes the necessarily ambivalent status of technology and nature, both of which can be turned to malevolent or benevolent purposes. These extra-ordinary beings can clearly be read allegorically, but there’s also a push against that in the book, to just take them wondrously as they are at face value, as forces of nature. How allegorically should one read these beings? Are you saying something about the conflict between nature and its self-conscious reflection in the technological developments of human beings?
Mord: MORD SYMBOLIZE BIG GIANT FLYING BEAR THAT WANT TO KILL AND EAT YOU.
VanderMeer: All I have to say about this is that we would be better off exploring bio-mimicry and abandoning certain kinds of hard tech, going into areas of soft tech that seem not to cut against the grain of the natural world. The Earth is a remarkable place—a series of linked ecosystems with complex processes and cause-and-effect underlying everything that we still don’t entirely understand. Every time we crudely work against that, we tend to screw ourselves over, and everything else with us. The only limits are our imagination, and the will and money to push forward to a different ideology, a different approach. We can cover the Earth in solar panels, but if our ideology doesn’t get beyond capitalism/anti-capitalism we may still be doomed.
Rail: Is there a difference between biology and technology to you?
VanderMeer: There had better be a difference. Part of the problem in my novel is that the Company doesn’t distinguish between animal and product. We already think of many animals as just products or inert objects, and this is a major hindrance in ethical/moral terms and in terms of our own survival as a species, for the way we plunder habitats because we’ve engaged in propaganda about the fauna and flora in those habitats. As it becomes easier and easier to manipulate genes and as the market drives that acceleration, we ignore the implications at our peril.
Rail: The economy of the nameless city in Borne is structured around scavenging, black markets, and biotech. What kind of economy is this? Is this an undeveloped post-capitalism in which survival is still dependent on the old products of the market, or is this something new? How do you see capitalism and the economy in your fiction?
Mord: MORD BARTER. MORD TRADE. MORD TRADE FANG IN FOREHEAD FOR MORD CLAW SHOVED THROUGH CHEST. THEN MORD PAY BACK LOAN WITH DEVOURING OF ALL FLESH BETWEEN FANG AND CLAW. MORD FIND THIS HAS A CERTAIN ECONOMY.
VanderMeer: There has to be something that moves beyond our current ideologies—all of them. A new thing that perhaps recombines the best aspects of all systems (we already have examples of this in some places) or just is based in a new relationship to the world around us. But of course in my novel the Company is clearly like most multi-nationals that come into a situation where they have the upper hand and suck the resources out of an area, offering short-term jobs for the locals and then abandoning the area, which is then often left in a dysfunctional or corrupt situation, with failing systems due to the theft. We’d like to think that’s a capitalist situation, but of course the Soviet Union and several other situations tell us that is only a partial answer. We want it to be true only because then the solution would be, on some level, “simple.”
Rail: The central relationship of the book focuses on a non-traditional family with an adopted child who grows beyond its dependency on the mother for adventures of its own, to the mother’s dismay and pride. In a sense, one can read the story as a straightforward tale of the struggles of parenthood—albeit, where the child is a sea-anemone-squid-mutant in a world of giant flying bears, biotech gangs and magicians. Do you consider this a story of parenthood? Or particularly, motherhood?
Mord: MORD LOVE PARENTS AND MORD LOVE CHILDREN. MORD NOT CARE WHICH.
VanderMeer: Yes. No.
Rail: What are some of your inspirations? Any recommendations for our readers?
Mord: MORD INSPIRED BY ENTRAILS.
VanderMeer: I’m very much enjoying the latest Catherine Lacey novel The Answers. Weike Wang’s Chemistry is very intriguing so far. As is Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through from a couple of years ago.
Rail: What’s next for you?
VanderMeer: A young adult series with a talking marmot.
Jacob Blumenfeld is a writer, translator, and philosopher based in Berlin. His popular writings have appeared in the New York Times, Viewpoint Magazine, and most frequently The Brooklyn Rail. His academic writings have appeared in the Hegel Bulletin, Marx-Engels-Jahrbuch, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Idealistic Studies, and the Marx & Philosophy Review of Books. He edited and contributed to The
Anarchist Turn (2013, Pluto Press), and recently co-translated Communism for Kids (2017, MIT Press). He is currently researching the concept of property from Kant to Marx.