SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
J. ROBERT LENNON: Thank you all for coming. I have a couple of brief announcements, as usual, before I introduce tonight's guest to you guys. First of all, if you have a cell phone with you, could you please silence it or turn it straight up off.
Jeff is going to be able to sign books tonight, but upstairs in the lounge after the reading. We're not going to do-- we're going to bring him upstairs right after the reading. You are all welcome to come too. There's going to be some hors d'oeuvres and the usual spread up there.
And finally, I want to thank Barbara and David Zalaznick, who are the Cornell alums who have endowed this reading series. All of these great readings are brought to you by them. And we adore them. So thank you to them.
Jeff VanderMeer is the author of numerous novels, story collections, and books of nonfiction, and he's the editor of many more books including Best American Fantasy, The Weird, and The Big Book of Science Fiction. He has most recently been praised for his Southern Reach trilogy-- which here's a copy right here at the podium-- a series of novels that defies description. So I'm not going to try.
But I will say that these three books-- Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, are among my favorite novels of the past 20 years. They meld ecology, philosophy, alien life, and the logic of dreams with some of the most robust and conflicted characters in recent memory. And manage to combine the narrative inventiveness of Jorge Luis Borges and Angela Carter with the creeping horror of Ray Bradbury or Stephen King.
They also honor the deep strangeness of Jeff's home state of Florida, which he has braved the northern winds to visit us from. Along with his wife, the editor, Ann VanderMeer, Jeff has brought the kind of fiction he calls "the weird" to a broader audience and to stronger acceptance by a literary establishment that was once allergic to anything that might be classified as genre fiction. In a recent Buzzfeed interview, he asked why literary and genre fiction should be separated by an invisible border, quote, "if there's some useful communication going on there. If it's all good stuff, cross-pollination and contamination is really important to the health of fiction. And sometimes it's a literal conversation too, in that writers who might never otherwise meet and talk do so because of our anthologies."
We agree, which is why Jeff's here to talk to you today. I'm a writer who cut his teeth on hard science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and I incorporate elements of all of them into my work, and increasingly into my creative writing classroom. Good fiction, unbound by the rules of representational reality, is hard to write well. It bears all the usual burdens of traditional literary fiction, while shouldering many more.
Yet, more and more of my students are up to the challenge. I always tell my classes that if you know what you're doing, then you should probably do something else. Jeff's work represents a deep dive into terrifying waters, both in terms of its subject matter and the skill and inventiveness required to write it. And I hope it serves as an inspiration to all of you today.
Jeff has a new novel coming out next month, Borne, which if I can't describe the Southern Reach books, I'm never going to be able to describe this one. So I'll leave that to him. His fiction has been translated into 35 languages and he's won many, many awards for it. We're delighted to have him here to share some of it with you, so please welcome Jeff VanderMeer.
JEFF VANDERMEER: "Now a strange mood took hold of me as I walked silent and alone through the last of the pines and the cypress knees that seemed to float in the black water, the gray moss that coated everything. It was as if I traveled through the landscape with the sound of an expressive and intense aria playing in my ears. Everything was imbued with emotion, awash in it, and I was no longer a biologist, but somehow the crest of a wave building and building but never crashing to shore.
I saw with such new eyes the subtleties of the transition to the marsh, the soft salt flats. As the trail became a raised berm, dull, algae-choked lakes spread out to the right, and a canal flanked it to the left. Rough channels of water meandered out in a maze through a forest of reeds on the canal side and islands, oases of wind-contorted trees, appeared in the distance like sudden revelations. The stooped and blackened appearance of these trees was shocking against the vast and shimmering gold brown of the reeds. The strange quality of the light upon this habitat, the stillness of it all, the sense of waiting brought me halfway to a kind of ecstasy."
I just thought we might need a benediction from somewhere a tad warmer before I began. I'd like to thank J. Robert Lennon for that lovely introduction, Lynn Lauper, Cornell, the Creative Writing Department, Barbara and David Zalaznick, of course, for this lovely reading series. And thanks also to the grad students that I talked to this afternoon who had great, great questions about environment, the environment in fiction. And it was actually really energizing to me. And I wanted to ask them a lot more questions than I had time for.
Now, what I just read from is from Annihilation, the first in the series about Area X, this strange, pristine wilderness hidden behind an invisible border that for 30 years a secret agency has been trying to explore. And it is, in fact, influenced by, as we in Florida call it, the dread peninsula. And Annihilation is set in wilderness primarily, and incorporates my real world experiences of being charged at various times by alligators, otters, wild boars, and at one point in a kind of half-hearted way, a Florida panther. And we can certainly discuss this further at the end if you have concerns or worries on that score, especially as to why one might flee an otter, which is not a very flattering profile.
Now, the first book is about Area X. It is inspired by Florida's wilderness. But the second book, Authority, and parts of the third, are more or less an expedition into the shadowy secret agency that runs the expeditions and is tasked with uncovering what's going on in Area X. And they've been trying to do this for over 30 years.
And it follows the attempts by a new director of the Southern Reach, nicknamed Control, to bring order back to an agency that's been unraveling due to all this failure. And so unlike Annihilation, Authority partakes of weird fiction, spy fiction, and other things. But there's also a weird workplace thing going on, one that mimics, perhaps on the tech level, some of the reports you've seen on the IRS and the Veterans Administration.
And just like with an Annihilation, I wanted Authority and Acceptance to be invested in the real world to reflect my own firsthand experience. So the secrets I want to tell you today are not really widely known about the series, but the fact of the matter is that the second two books are just as crazily autobiographical as the first. A lot of this did not just come to me in a flash of imagination.
The oddness of the Southern Reach Agency came from real life experience at a lot of different jobs before I became a full time writer. For example, in Authority, Control finds a plant growing in his desk drawer near a dead mouse. This happened to me. In fact, I had inherited the desk of an either fired or deceased coworker. I never found out which. And I opened the drawer and there was a dead plant and a dead mouse in the drawer.
In another case, I had just joined a company and someone who did not look particularly trustworthy asked me if I wanted to see a strange room.
Now, if you're asked that question and you have given your notice, maybe you go look at the strange room. But if you're just starting the job, you don't. And I didn't. But what I'd like to do is just give you a brief look at the secret history of my job experience now that it's safe to do, so which fed into the novel, and then do a reading from Authority. And we'll get to Borne at the end.
So to avoid you getting the bends, I'll start out with the more mundane and work my way up. I once worked as a tech editor putting city ordinances in book form. This job itself tended towards the Kafkaesque and the absurd. I had to change the legal definition of buttocks 10 times in one year, making illegal another quarter inch or so, with diagram every time. I had to put in ordinances establishing not one, not two, but three official meat byproducts for one city.
One town passed an ordinance proclaiming it a misdemeanor to double park your pickup truck on Main Street at midnight while naked and urinate on City Hall, which means that happened at least twice. The worst, though, was a loose chickens ordinance. And by that, I mean chickens that have gotten loose. A county in Florida adopted an escaped prisoner ordinance, and they adapted it to escaped chickens. So I had to basically take it and put in things like aiding and abetting a chicken, because they were too cheap-- I don't mean a joke there either-- to actually do anything else with it.
As for the employees, we were a rough lot. And by the end, I include myself in that estimation. One employee had tried to rob a bank with nunchucks, and once out of jail, was offered his old job back. The first computer expert we got because he was serving a community service sentence for hackings, so we got him for free. Our network guy moved to a nocturnal work schedule because he claimed a ghost dressed in scuba gear was walking the halls at night and he wanted to meet them.
We were all underpaid and existing in a work environment that was like Lord of the Flies with middle management. I used to get multiple calls from people pretending to be the city manager of Miami asking me to change the laws so citizens could make handguns in their basements. A lot of drunk people called us wanting changes to the law. We all began to unravel. And there was a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia that I would channel for the Southern Reach, as well as some very outdated technology.
I once passed an office only to hear two distinctly different voices. You know shouldn't do that, (WHISPERS) Yes, but you know you always do. Yes, but you know you shouldn't. (WHISPERS) But you always do. Of course, when I peeked around the corner, there was only one person in the room. Do I feel sympathy? Of course. I am sure by the end I was doing the same thing.
Some sense of all this made it into the Southern Reach, not just the absurdity, but the frailty and the disconnection. And as you might expect in a situation where there's the blurring of fiction and reality, the companies I worked for had interesting relationships to storytelling in general. At one company, I spent six weeks researching whether our indexing services could be offered to New York publishers for novels. This was because the founder of our company didn't read fiction and didn't understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
At another company, a remaindered bookstore, we had a district manager who worked during the day collecting and testing urine samples. And I mentioned this by way of explaining that he didn't read fiction either. Under his guidance, we would desperately try to find new ways to sell books. Once he decided the wall of hardcover fiction should form a pretty pattern. And we had to rearrange the books entirely out of alphabetical order only to put them back to A to Z a week later.
The week after that, he had us reorganize that entire long wall of hardcover fiction that went A to Z to A to A. But the worst was when he pulled me aside and said urgently, puzzled, that woman was just in here last week buying a novel. Why is she here again?
I did not know how to answer the question. Well, she wants to buy more novels. Him-- but she just bought one. And slowly it became clear that he thought books were like toasters or lawnmowers or kitchen tables or refrigerators. And it slowly dawned on me that I had to get the hell out of that place.
Sadly, it was to a worse place. And the ultimate blurred experience between fiction and reality came in my last day job before I became a full time writer and editor. I had won something called the World Fantasy Award that comes in the form of a statuette of an ugly ghost, that at the time I did not know was HP Lovecraft. And I had successfully hidden being a writer to that point, because it's very perilous to let a day job know that you are a writer, especially a fiction writer.
In fact, in the job interview, my manager had asked jokingly, you're not one of those who writes stuff with a black and white cover with a severed head on a mantle? That exactly described the book I had out at the time. And I said, no. No sir, it does not at all. Has nothing to do with me.
Anyway, so now they knew. Now they knew at this new job, this software company. And the founder of the company had the idea for a book that he'd always wanted to write that would help the business. And this is the idea for that book.
There would be a business process meeting going on with a client. The lights would go out. When the lights came up, the client would be dead, stabbed in the back. The rest of the novel would be our business process analysts using our patented processes to solve the murder mystery, thus proving what a good software company we were.
So he asked if I would write this. And I said, sure, because what I was doing at the time for the company was so soul destroying that this seemed much, much better. And so for six months, I would have these meetings with him where he would basically just talk about his childhood and we wouldn't talk about business processes. And eventually, he forgot about it, although I never did because he had a life-sized stuffed doberman in the corner of the office. And no matter how many times I saw it, every time I turned the corner I would jump.
And that is how I remember that particular last job. But anyway, as you might expect, these experiences left a scar. They are the kind of experiences that would make the ghost of Franz Kafka perk up and take notice. And there are others that, because of non-disclosure agreements, I am not allowed to tell you about.
But they also gave me a rich sediment of surreal experiences from which to choose when writing Authority in particular. That last day job, the same founder dude who wanted me to write the novel was kind of the center of a cult. He'd hold court with his managers and lay down some wisdom, and the managers would convey it to the middle managers. And then for months sometimes, those middle managers would lay that wisdom on us.
And it would be things like, the fish rots from the head. And so for months afterwards, I'd be just walk down the hall, trying to get some coffee or some water, and some middle manager would grab me and say, Jeff, just remember, the fish rots from the head. No one apparently realizing the irony of spreading this information, which could have led to a complete revolt. Because we were definitely not the head of the fish.
But anyway, that's why, in Authority, there's all these people saying the fish rots from the head, while Control, the main character, is so confused because he's thinking about it logically. And he's got so many things going that are illogical that he keeps thinking, but fish don't rot hierarchically, do they? Do they really rot from the head? Don't they rot from all over? Which is kind of a little bit of a metaphor for the Southern Reach.
Also in these books, I mention a strange room. There's a character named Whitby, who I named after the city that Dracula is set in, in part, or written in. I can't remember which. But anyway. And he's a longtime employee at Southern Reach. And it has kind of deformed him a little bit, all this failure and bashing his head up against the wall and being paranoid about his superiors.
And so in the novel, there's this new director of the Southern Reach, the secret agency named Control. And Whitby keeps saying to Control, much as was said to me, do you want to see a strange room? And at first, Control's like no, I don't want to see the strange room. And then they'll be in a really strange room together and Control will be like, Whitby, is this the strange room? And Whitby will be like, no. And so this dance goes on for a while.
But after a while, like anything in fiction, whether it's a gun on the mantle or whatever, if you mention a strange room, you've really got to show a strange room. So it's after hours, Control hears a weird sound in a storage room, and he goes to investigate.
"So he grasped the knob, receiving a little electric shock as he turned it, and then wrenched outward with all his strength. The door flew open, knocking Control back. A pale creature was crouched in front of shelves of supplies revealed under the sharp light of a single, low-swinging light bulb. An unbearable, yet beatific agony deformed its features. Whitby.
Breathing heavily, Whitby stared up at Control. The look of agony had begun to evaporate, leaving behind an expression of combined cunning and caution. Clearly, Whitby had just suffered some trauma. Clearly, Whitby had just heard that a family member or a close friend had died, even though it was Control who had received the shock.
Control said, idiotically, 'I'll come back later,' as if they'd had a meeting scheduled in the storage room. But Whitby jumped up like a trapdoor spider, and Control flinched and took a step back, certain Whitby was attacking him. Instead, Whitby pulled him into the storage room, shutting the door behind them. Whitby had a surprisingly strong grip for such a slight man.
'No, no, please come in,' he was saying to Control, as if he hadn't been able to speak and guide his boss inside at the same time, so that now there was a lip sync issue. 'I really can come back later,' Control said, still rattle, preserving the illusion that he hadn't just seen Whitby in extreme distress, and also the illusion that this was Whitby's office and not a storage space.
Whitby stared at him in the dull light of the low-hung single bulb, standing close because it was crowded with the two of them in there, narrow with a high ceiling that could not be seen through the darkness above the bulb, a shield directing its light downward only. A long silver ladder led up into darkness. Whitby was still composing his expression, Control realized, having to consciously wrench his frown toward a smile, wring the last clenched fear from his features.
'I was just getting some peace and quiet,' Whitby said. 'It can be hard to find.' 'You looked like you were having a breakdown, to be honest,' Control said, not sure he wanted to continue playing pretend. 'Are you OK?' He felt more comfortable saying this now that Whitby clearly wasn't going to have a psychotic break. But he was also embarrassed that Whitby had managed to so easily trap him in here.
'Not at all,' Whitby said, a smile finally fitted into place. And Control hoped the man was responding to the first part of what he had said. 'What can I help you with?' Control went along with this fiction Whitby continued to offer up, if only because he had noticed that the inside lock on the door had been disabled with a blunt instrument.
So Whitby had wanted privacy, but he had also been utterly afraid of being trapped in the room too. There was a staff psychiatrist, a free resource. Control didn't remember seeing anything in Whitby's file to indicate that he had ever gone. It took control a moment longer than felt natural, but he found a reason, something that would run its course and allow him to leave on the right note, preserve Whitby's dignity perhaps.
'Nothing much, really,' Control said. 'It's about some of the Area X theories.' Whitby nodded. 'Yes, for example, the issue of parallel universes,' he said, as if they were picking up a conversation from some other time, a conversation Control did not remember. 'That maybe whatever's behind Area X came from one,' Control said, stating something he didn't believe. And not questioning the narrowing of focus.
'That, yes,' Whitby said. 'But I've been thinking more about how every decision we make theoretically splits off from the next so that there are an infinite number of other universes out there.' 'Interesting,' Control said, although it wasn't at all interesting. But if he let Whitby lead, hopefully that dance would end sooner.
'And in some of them,' Whitby explained, 'we solved the mystery. And in some of them, the mystery never existed. And there never was an Area X.' This said with a rising intensity. 'And we can take comfort in that. Perhaps we could even be content with that.'
His face fell as he continued. 'If not for a further thought, some of these universes where we solve the mystery may be separated from ours by the thinnest of membranes, the most insignificant of variations. This is something always on my mind. What mundane detail aren't we seeing?'
Control didn't like Whitby's confessional tone, because it felt as if Whitby was revealing one thing to hide another. Like the biologist's explanation of the sensation of drowning. This simultaneous with parallel universes of perception opening between him and Whitby as he spoke, because Control felt as if Whitby were talking about breaches. The same breaches so much on his mind on a daily basis.
Whitby talking about breaches angered him in a territorial way, as if Whitby was commenting on Control's past, even though there was no logic to that. 'Perhaps it's your presence, Whitby,' Control said. A joke, but a cruel one meant to push the man away, close down the conversation. 'Maybe without you here, we would have solved it already.'
The look on Whitby's face was awful. Caught between knowing that Control had expressed the idea with humor and the certainty that it didn't matter if it was a joke or serious, all of this conveyed in a way that made Control realize the thought was not original, but had occurred to Whitby many times. It was too insincere to follow up with 'I didn't mean it.'
So some version of Control just left, running down the hall as fast as he was able, aware that his extraction solution was unorthodox, but unable to stop himself. Running down the green carpet while he stood there and apologized, laughed it off, changed the subject, took a pretend phone call, or as he actually did, said nothing at all and let an awkward silence build. In retaliation, although Control didn't understand it then, Whitby said, 'you haven't seen the video, have you, from the first expedition?'
'Not yet,' as if he was admitting to being a virgin or a unicorn. 'That was scheduled for tomorrow.' A silent shudder had passed through Whitby in the middle of delivering his own question, a kind of spasmodic attempt to fling out or reject something. But Control would leave it up to some other future version of himself to ask Whitby why.
Was there a reality in which Whitby had solved the mystery and was telling it to him right now? Or a reality in which he was throttling Whitby just for being Whitby? Perhaps sometimes at this moment, he met Whitby in a cave after a nuclear holocaust, or in a store buying ice cream for a pregnant wife, or wandering further afield, perhaps in some scenarios they had met much earlier. Whitby, the annoying substitute teacher for a week at his freshman high school English class.
Perhaps now he had some inkling as to Whitby hadn't advanced farther, why his research kept getting interrupted by grunt work for others. He kept wanting to grant Whitby a localized trauma to explain his actions. Kept wondering if he just hadn't gotten through enough layers to reach the center of Whitby. Or if there was no center to reach and the layers defined the man.
'Is this the room you wanted to show me?' Control asked to change the subject. 'No, why would you think that?' Whitby's cavernous eyes and sudden expression of choreographed puzzlement made him into an emaciated owl. Control managed to extract himself a minute or so later. But he couldn't get the image of Whitby's agony-stricken face out of his head. Still had no idea why Whitby had hidden in a storage room."
Now, even after that, you have a further obligation as an author, which leads to another obligation after that. I only have time to read the obligation that follows this obligation, thankfully for you, before I get to Borne. But basically, once you've established a strange room, and if you think of things like the rule of three, it's kind of good to return to a setting that you have used. And in one case here, Control again, after hours, decides to go back to the storage room.
And he finds something at the end of the ladder, a trapdoor. And at this point, things are definitely getting worse than in my day job experience.
"The trapdoor gave with a creek. Control exhaled deeply, felt apprehensive, the ladder rungs a little slippery. He opened the door. It fell back on its coil hinges smoothly without a sound, as if just oiled. Control shown his flashlight across the floor, then up to the shelves that rose another eight feet to either side. No one was there.
He returned to the central space, the far wall, and then the slant of a true ceiling. Faces stared back at him, along with the impression of vast shapes and some kind of writing. Control almost dropped the flashlight. He looked again. Along the wall and part of the ceiling, someone had painted a vast phantasmagoria of grotesque monsters with human faces, more specifically, oil splotched and splashed in a primitive style in rich, deep reds and blues and greens and yellows, to form approximations of bodies.
The pixelated faces were blown up security headshot of Southern Reach staff. One image dominated, extending up the wall, and with the head peering down with a peculiar three-dimensional quality from the slanted ceiling. The others formed constellations around this image. And then much worried sentences and phrases existed in a rich patina of cross-outs and paint-overs and other markings, as if someone had been creating a compost of words.
There was a border too, a ring of red fire that transformed at the ends into a two-headed monster, and Area X in its belly. Reluctantly, Control pulled himself up into the space, keeping low to distribute his weight until he was sure the platform could hold him. It seems dirty.
He stood next to the shelves on the left side of the room and considered the art in front of him. The body that dominated the murals, or paintings, or whatever word applied, depicted a creature that had the form of a giant hog and a slug commingled. Pale, painted skin mottled with what was meant to be a kind of mangy, light green moss. The swift, broad strokes of arms and legs suggested the limbs of a pig, but with three thick fingers at their ends.
The head atop a too small neck rendered in a kind of gauzy pink-white was misshapen, but anchored by the face pasted onto it. The glue glistening in the flashlight beam. The face Control recognized from the files. The psychologist from the final 11th expedition. A man who had said in the transcripts, 'it was quite beautiful, quite peaceful in Area X,' and smiled in a vague way.
But here he had been portrayed as anything but peaceful. Using a pen, someone-- Whitby? Whitby-- had given the man a mask of utter uncomprehending anguish, the mouth open in a perpetual O. Arrayed to the right and left were more creatures, some private Pantheon, some private significance with more faces he recognized.
Then he found himself, incomplete, his face taken from his recent serious-looking mug shot. And the vague body of not a white rabbit, but a wild hare, the fur matted, curling, half penciled in, around which Whitby had created the outlines of a gray-blue sea monster, a whale-like Leviathan with purple waves pushing out from it, and a huge circle of an eye that tunneled out from its face, making of him a cyclops. Radiating from the monster body were not just the waves, but also flurries of unreadable words in a cramped, crabby scrawl.
As surprising and disturbing walls went, it beat the director's office by quite a lot. It made his skin prickle with sudden chills. It made him realize that he had still been half relying on Whitby's analysis to provide him with answers. But there were no answers here. Only proof that in Whitby's head was something akin to a sedimentary layer of papers bound by a plant, a dead mouse, and an ancient cell phone.
On the floor opposite him near the right-hand shelf, a trowel, a selection of paints, a stand that allowed Whitby to reach the ceiling, a few books, a portable stove, a sleeping bag bundled up. Had Whitby been living here without anyone knowing about it? Or guessing, but not wanting to really know? Instead just foist Whitby off on the new director, disinformation.
Whitby had put this together over a fairly long period of time. He had been patiently working on it, adding to it, subtracting from it. Control had been standing there with his back to the shelves for only about a minute. He'd been standing there recognizing that there was a draft in the loft. He'd been standing there without realizing that it wasn't a draft.
Someone was breathing behind him. Someone was breathing on his neck. The knowledge froze him, froze the cry of 'Jesus fuck' in his throat. He turned with incredible slowness, wishing he could seem like a statue in his turning. Then saw with alarm a large, pale, watery blue eye that existed against the backdrop of darkness, or dark rags shot through with pale flesh, and which resolved into Whitby.
Whitby, who had been there the entire time, crammed into the shelf right behind Control at eye level, bent at the knees on his side, breathing in shallow, sharp bursts, staring out like something incubating there on the shelf. At first, Control thought that Whitby must be sleeping with his eyes open. A waxwork corpse, a tailor's dummy.
Then he realized that Whitby was wide awake and staring at him. Whitby's body shaking ever so slightly like a pile of leaves with something underneath it. Looking like something boneless shoved into a too small space. So close that Control could have leaned over and bit his nose or kissed it.
Whitby continued to say nothing and Control, terrified, somehow knew that there was a danger in speaking. That if he said anything that Whitby might lunge out of his hiding place. That the stiff shifting of the man's jaw hid something more premeditated and deadly.
Their eyes locked, and there was no way around the fact that each had seen the other. But still, Whitby did not speak, as if he too wanted to preserve the illusion. Slowly, Control managed to direct his flashlight away from Whitby, stifling a shudder. And with a gritting of teeth, overrode his every instinct not to turn his back on the man. He could feel Whitby's breath pluming out.
Then there was a slight movement, and Whitby's hand came to rest on the back of Control's head, just resting there, palm flat against that Control's hair, the fingers spread like a starfish and slowly moving back and forth. Two strokes, three, petting Control's head, caressing it in a gentle, tentative way.
Control remained still. It took an effort. After a time, the hand withdrew with a kind of reluctance. Control took two steps forward, then another, another. Whitby did not erupt out of his space. Whitby did not make some inhuman sound. Whitby did not try to pull him back into the shelves.
He reached the trapdoor without succumbing to his shudder, lowered himself legs first into that space, found the ladder with his feet. Slowly pulled the door closed, not looking toward the shelves even in the dark. Felt such relief with it closed, then scrambled down the ladder. Hesitated, then took the time to lower and fold away the ladder. Forced himself to listen at the door before he left the room, leaving the flashlight in there. Then walked out into the bright, bright corridor, squinting, and took a huge breath that had him seeing dark spots. A convulsion he could not control and wanted no one to see.
After about 50 steps, Control realized that Whitby had been up in the space without using the ladder. Imagined Whitby crawling through the air ducts. His white face. His white hands, reaching out.
In the parking lot, Control bumped into a jovial apparition who said, 'you look like you've seen a ghost.' He asked this apparition if he had heard anything strange in the building over the years or seen anything out of the ordinary, inserted it as small talk, as breathing space in what he hoped was just a curious or joking way. But Cheney, the head of the science department, flunked the question, said, 'well, it's the high ceilings, isn't it? Makes you see things that aren't there.
Makes the things you do see look like other things. A bird can be a bat. A bat can be a piece of floating plastic bag. Way of the world to see things as other things. Bird-leafs, bat-birds, shadows made of lights, sounds that are incidental but seem more significant. Never going to seem any different wherever you go.'
A bird can be a bat. A bat can be a piece of floating plastic bag. But could it?"
And so the obligation I then have is to show you the murals on the wall in some form, but I'm not going to read that section. The conditions at the company that I worked for are actually kind of embedded in that section, because the last report I had is that the managers-- this is highly illegal, I'm sure. This was several years ago still-- were taking their photo IDs and photocopying them, and then putting them in the employee bathrooms with words in red like "we are watching you."
And yeah, so it was pretty bad. And then the other thing that struck me as odd is that I did the readings for Authority and the events in 2014, and in Washington DC, after I read from Authority, someone who was, at the time, pretty high up in the EPA came up to me and said that Authority was the funniest novel she'd ever read. That it was so like her working conditions.
And of course, this was deeply flattering, and yet highly, highly disturbing. So that's the Southern Reach. That's not all of it. A lot of it's like the first little thing that I read. Very much wilderness-oriented and safe for the claustrophobic.
I do have a section I can read from Borne. I think it is only about 7 or 8 minutes, so it should be all right. If you want to hear something from the new novel, that's your cue to applaud so I don't get really nervous.
OK, thanks. You're always-- Thank you. Even though it was forced and you're going to grumble about it later, I really appreciate it. It made me feel much better about a new book coming out. So I'll just read from the back. That's what I always do to begin with. This is actually one of my first readings from Borne too, so when you hate it, that's why.
In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined, dangerous city of the near future. The city is littered with discarded experiments from the company, a biotech firm now seemingly derelict, and punished by the unpredictable attacks of a giant bear.
From one of her scavenging missions, Rachel brings home Borne, who is little more than a green lump, plant or animal, but who exudes a strange charisma. And Rachel feels a growing attachment to Borne, a protectiveness that she can ill afford. It's exactly the kind of vulnerability that will upend her precarious existence, unnerving her partner Wick, and upsetting the delicate balance in the city. And yet, little as she understands what or who Borne may be, she cannot give him up, even as Borne grows and changes.
The section I'm going to read from is in Part 1, and Borne has learned to talk. And he has grown a lot. And this is all in the aftermath of an attack on the place called the Balcony Cliffs, where Rachel and Wick live. And in this attack, from people who are basically trying to steal their resources, Rachel is beaten up quite badly. And she regained consciousness with the attackers mysteriously gone. She doesn't know how.
And Borne, speaking for the first time-- which she didn't know he could speak, didn't know he was that sentient-- asking her if she's all right. And then in this aftermath of her recovering from this attack, we learn more about Rachel's journey to the city, how she's a refugee from an island that's now under water, gone through several camps and temporary homes as the world has gotten more dangerous and vulnerable. And then through a series of mysterious circumstances, wound up in this nameless city ruled by a giant bear, which is also biotech. And I'm going to read the section where she's recovering and she's getting to know Borne a little better.
"It was all a construct by then, this game of not telling Wick that Borne could talk. He had to know, because I never admitted it and Wick never brought it up. Borne became an open secret that existed between us like a monster all its own. It made me reckless, as if I wanted Wick to confront me, that somehow our relationship would be a total lie if Wick didn't confront me.
Ignoring the strain on my own body, Borne and I would race down dim lit, dust covered corridors, Borne afraid of colliding, congealing with the wall, and tripping over his own pseudopods, wailing as he laughed, 'you're going too fast' or 'why is this fun?' which just made me laugh too. When you don't have to run and you have the chance to run for the hell of it, it becomes a strange luxury.
Then we'd collapse at the end of the hall. And Borne, in addition to his usual observation that he was hungry and needed a snack-- I now let him hunt lizards and rats to blunt his appetite-- would ask some of his questions. He never stopped asking them, as if he were really ravenous for the answers. 'This dust is so dry. Why is dust so dry? Doesn't it need some wet for balance?' 'Then it's mud.' 'What's mud?' 'Wet dirt.' 'I haven't seen mud yet.' 'No, you haven't, not yet.'
I would show Borne a photo of a weasel in an old encyclopedia, and he'd point with an extended tentacle and say, 'ooh, long mouse,' which brought me quickly to the idea of teaching Borne to read, except he picked that up on his own. When we played hide and seek, I'd sometimes find him hunched up on the edge of a midden of discarded books, two tentacles extending out from his sides to hold a book, and a single tentacle tipped with light curling down from the top of his head.
He would study any number of topics and had no real preference. His many eyes enthusiastically moving back and forth as he read the pages at a steady clip. I don't believe he needed light or eyes to read, but I know he liked to mimic what he saw me doing. Perhaps he even thought it was polite to seem to need light, to seem to need eyes. But the truth is, I don't really know what he thought or how he thought it, because most of the time, I just had his questions.
Eventually, I took him to Wick's swimming pool, which was Wick's laboratory. I loved the swimming pool, and perhaps that meant I loved Wick too in a way. The swimming pool originally had a skylight above it extending to the top of the Balcony Cliffs. And a divot of open space remained that Wick had contrived to camouflage from above with his illusions.
It could take a while to get used to the melange of chemicals in the swimming pool, which gave off a dank smell cut through with something spicy. Wick needed the light in the mornings to feed the rich, revolting, shimmering stew-brew to finish his memory beetles and other creations. But our shit and piss fed into it too, although the harsh smell was more of algae and peat and some bitter chemical. I'd long ago gotten used to it.
Eel like things wriggled in the mire, and the fins of weird fish broke the surface only to submerge again. 'What's a swimming pool,' Borne asked. 'A place people go into to swim.' 'But it's full of disgusting things. Disgusting things live in there. Just disgusting, really, really disgusting.'
Disgusting was a word Borne had just picked up and used often. 'Well, just leave those disgusting things alone, Borne, even if you are hungry.' And I gently slapped away a tentacle he'd begun to inch toward the water. Borne summarized for me. 'A swimming pool is a place where people like to swim in disgusting things.' 'Close enough,' I said, chuckling. 'You won't be encountering many of those when you're out in the real world.'
And then I wished I hadn't said it, because I'd acknowledged that this wasn't the real world, that we lived in a bubble of space and time that just couldn't, wouldn't last. I took him to the balcony out on the cliffs too, but that was a little harder because I felt Borne needed a disguise to be safe. I found a flower hat with just one bullet hole and a brown blood stain to match. I found a pair of large, designer sunglasses.
I had the choice of putting him in a blue sheet or a black evening dress that I had salvaged from a half-buried apartment. The evening dress was moth-eaten and had faded to more of a deep gray, but I chose it because I had nowhere to wear it and it was several sizes too big for me now. So Borne reconfigured himself to be a little longer and less wide than usual, sucked in his stomach, more or less, and put on this ridiculous outfit.
Only on Borne it looked good. And it wasn't until later that I realized he'd drawn himself up into an approximation of my own body, that I was looking at a crude, faux imitation of myself with green skin. But it wasn't complete enough for him.
'What about shoes,' he asked me, and I regretted having gone off on a rant about the value of a good pair of shoes a couple of days before. 'You don't need shoes. No one will see your feet.' Probably no one would see him, period. 'Everyone wears shoes,' he said, quoting me. 'Simply everyone. You even wear them to bed.'
It was true. I'd never gotten over having to sleep in the open so often. When you slept in the open in dangerous places, you never took off your shoes in case you had to gather your things and take off running. Borne really wanted shoes [INAUDIBLE] full ensemble. So I gave him shoes. I gave him my one extra pair, which were really boots, the ones I'd come to the city in.
He made a great show of growing foot-legs, and with his hand-arms, reached down to put on his new shoes. He had muted his skin to a shade that mimicked my own. From the aperture at the top of his head muffled by the hat came the words, 'we can go now.'
But if Borne wanted the full ensemble, I wanted the full human. 'Not until you grow a mouth,' I said, 'and a real face.' 'Uh-oh,' he said, because he'd forgotten. In those days, he always said uh-oh when he felt he had made a mistake. Maybe he was also trying to be a little difficult, a concept he'd been field testing, usually in charming ways.
The transformation only took a second. All of his eyes went away, then two popped up where appropriate, and a nose protrusion that looked more like the head of the lizard he had eaten a few hours earlier, and a kind of crazy grinning mouth, in that hat and the black evening dress and the boots. He looked so earnest that I wanted to hug him. And I never, for a second, understood the gift I had given Borne, never realized what other uses disguises could be put to.
We went out on the balcony, Borne pretending he couldn't see through his sunglasses and took them off. His new mouth formed a genuinely surprised O. 'It's beautiful,' he exclaimed. 'It's beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,' another new word.
The killing thing, the thing I couldn't ever get over, is that it was beautiful. It was so incredibly beautiful, and I'd never seen that before. In the strange, dark, sea blue of late afternoon, the river below splashing in lavender, gold, and orange up against the numerous rock islands and their outcroppings of trees, the river looked amazing. The Balcony Cliffs in that light took on a luminous, deep color that was almost black, but not, almost blue, but not. The jutting shadows solid and cool.
Born didn't know it was all deadly poisonous, truly disgusting. Maybe it wasn't to him. Maybe he could have swum in that river and come out unscathed. Maybe too, I realized right then in that moment, that I had begun to love him, because he didn't see the world like I saw the world. He didn't see the traps.
Because he made me rethink even simple words, like disgusting or beautiful. That was the moment I knew I decided to trade my safety for something else. That was the moment. And no matter what happened next, I had crossed over into another place. And the question wasn't who I should trust, but who should trust me." Thank you.
SPEAKER 2: [INAUDIBLE]
JEFF VANDERMEER: Yes, absolutely.
SPEAKER 2: We've got about 15 minutes for questions, so [INAUDIBLE].
JEFF VANDERMEER: Or concerns, or-- about anything at all, really. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I have a question about [INAUDIBLE]. I grew up in Florida myself, in Gainesville.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Yeah, oh, OK. That's where I live too.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, possibly a factor [INAUDIBLE] Harry Crews.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, yeah. Harry Crews.
AUDIENCE: He wrote some crazy stuff.
JEFF VANDERMEER: He sure did.
AUDIENCE: And [INAUDIBLE] and strange photographs of something [INAUDIBLE] to school in creative writing. [INAUDIBLE] future creative programs and [INAUDIBLE] graphic novels, [INAUDIBLE].
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, the question is about creative writing programs and the division between genre and mainstream. And I would say that when I was going to college at the University of Florida, I did feel like there was a much stricter divide. And so I took my creative writing instruction at that time from an English teacher named Jane Stuart. It was the daughter of Jesse Stuart. And she was my English teacher, but I would sneak her manuscripts and she would read them.
And I have to be honest, Harry Crews was kind of in that phase where everyone was kind of looking at him from afar thinking, do I really want to engage with that dude? So that was really the main reason why I didn't pursue a creative writing degree at Florida. But what I would say is I hate thinking about this as a monolithic thing.
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of universities in this country with creative writing departments that have varying views on, quote unquote, literature versus speculative fiction and all that. And I would say that I see a trend towards there being more of a blurring of boundaries and it not mattering as much.
And I think I would date it back to Margaret Atwood's science fiction anthology, where that kind of broke things open and made things kind of acceptable on one side that hadn't, and vice versa. But I've spent my entire career dodging this question because I don't like the question. I don't think it's that useful.
I prefer to speak in the language of the people that I meet, whether they are on the mainstream side or on the genre. And to find those individual authors everywhere that I think are idiosyncratic, interesting, doing exciting work. And then try as much as possible to blur those boundaries myself, in aid of what you're talking about, which is basically making sure there is communication between all different forms of art on various different levels.
And making it clear to creative writing students, to artists, that you can be all of these things. You can do all of these things. There's no reason why you can't. You don't have to think about these boundaries. Then when you meet someone whose boundaries are so rich in that way, those are the people that I decide are not going be part of my circus. And I just veer around them.
Now, some people are not in positions where they can veer around them. And those are the ones that need the most reinforcement, that if they're doing something strange or out there but they're not getting reinforcement for it, that it may have nothing to do with them. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Can we hear the otter story?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, the otter story. Well, I mean, obviously, if you get charged by a wild boar, that's dramatic material for a novel. And it's in Annihilation. Just to give you some context for otters, in part because it was so strange, the boar-- and we'll get to the otter in a second-- charged from a long distance away, and we were on this raised berm. And so we had a long time to think about what we were going to do, which is not what I would have thought would happen when you're being charged by a wild boar.
So there was a strangeness there that was good for the novel. Otter, not so much, because the silhouette of that just doesn't look good. But basically, if you're out hiking in North Florida and an otter charges you, number one, there may be something seriously wrong with that otter. Number two, if you know anything about otters, they are just one big muscle. And they are complete a-holes. Otters are complete a-holes, I'm sorry.
They are nasty. Keepers at the wildlife place in Tallahassee have to be real careful going into that pen, because those otters will beat the living crap out of them. So that's why. My wife, who grew up in Miami and she is very kind in following me on these hikes, was like, oh, it's a cute otter. Why aren't we going to pet it? I'm like run, run!
And on that same trip, this is a side note, but we saw an eagle pluck a duck out of a lake. And Ann, God bless her, said, nothing bad's going to happen to that duck, is it?
So it's quite the dynamic when we go hiking. She's going to kill me for telling that story. And you know-- so yeah, so the otter one, I'm waiting for some kind of comic novel to come around where I can insert that, because there's just no way. I could have blown the otter up. Making an animal gigantic can sometimes help. But it could make it more absurd too. So you really have to be careful on that score.
And you can tell, also, that if I could have found a use for it I would have, because even those Whitby sections, they're horrifying, but they're meant to be also weirdly, awkwardly funny in a dark way, because a lot of the office situations were very that way. That awkward kind of British style of embarrassment humor kind of comes into play a little bit. But yeah, that's the otter story. Mm-hmm.
AUDIENCE: How far did you get writing the first novel about the software [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, this is-- I'm just a terrible employee. My thought was if I gathered interview after interview after interview with management that I would maybe not even get around to writing it. That it would take so long to accumulate all the stuff. The real kicker, and why it-- so I never actually wrote a line of the novel, because also, every time that I sat down to write it, I just started laughing. I just started laughing and laughing, thinking this is the dumbest f-ing thing I've ever had to do.
But the kicker was during the interviews, it became quite clear that we had basically taken all of our processes from a large company that one of the people had worked at. I mean, they weren't proprietary in any way, so there was really nothing to solve the murder mystery with in a proprietary way anyway. And if you'd sat in on any of our meetings, you'd be really surprised to learn we ever solved any of our clients' problems in the first place, let alone a murder.
So yeah. I'm sorry, there's nothing I can post on a blog now. You, sir, in the white shirt.
AUDIENCE: So you said [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Do I put them in there to help the fiction or make my life more absurd? It's a really good question. I mean, that's kind of paraphrased, but the idea of that as a writer you kind of seek that out, it's like, yeah, this terrible thing's happened to me. I'm going to write about this. Yeah, if it could just get a little more absurd, maybe I can just nudge that guy a little bit and it'll just become nuts.
I can definitely-- it's not really that calculating. It's just that it does, I think, for me at least, lend an element of calm to things that might otherwise be a little frazzling, like getting here from Tallahassee, for example. The guy who spilled water all over my seat didn't say anything about it, so I sat in it when I came back from the lavatory, then accused me of stealing his iPhone, which had just fallen down into his pocket. The Delta counter with the person behind it who was so tiny that none of us could see her and she wasn't using an intercom, so we just heard this like whispering, muttering voice, because it was a weird space. And I was like, I was totally back in Whitby land for a while. And losing the bags, and then the wild ride here with a driver who didn't like roads.
And so all this stuff is like, you're like, if I survive this, yeah, OK, that particular detail, the fact that he doesn't like to put his hands on the steering wheel, that could be interesting. But you don't seek it out. The key to being a writer with a long career is to lead a fairly boring life, except when you can't. And a steady one. Mm-hmm.
AUDIENCE: So those who follow your internet writings [INAUDIBLE] your public board, know that marmots are very close to your [INAUDIBLE].
JEFF VANDERMEER: Marmots, yes.
AUDIENCE: Are very close in conjunction with [INAUDIBLE] and the upcoming marmot is a Jonathan Lambshead [INAUDIBLE]. What do marmots mean to you [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, I have to be honest, the first time I saw a marmot, I was like, that is the largest squirrel I've ever seen. And I actually saw my first marmot for real up here in the Finger Lakes District when I was teaching at Hobart and William Smith, this last semester at [INAUDIBLE]. I just fell in love with them. And it also happened to just be at that moment when I was working on novels.
And sometimes when you're working on something, it's like the entire world that's around you, whatever you see that kind of stands out just gets absorbed into it. And I would be seeing a marmot at a rate of about 1.9 marmots every three days. And Ann was actually being driven a little bit to distraction because I'd be like, Ann, I haven't seen a marmot today. Is there any chance we could drive around this area? There might be a marmot.
And then I learned that marmots actually hibernate after a certain point. And also got told a hilarious story by a biologist who had a marmot in her lawn that she didn't want there, but she couldn't bring herself to dispose of the animal in any way. So she just transported it, made it an invasive species, to another lake, which was really bad behavior by a biologist.
So I heard little stories about marmots and I started working them in. And suddenly there was a talking marmot in the Jonathan Lambshead books, which is the next thing that I'm working on. And that led to something really serious, which is a history of burrowing animals. Because during times of planetary crisis, a lot of species have survived by living underground.
And that made me think about, if you actually had a talking animal, and it wasn't Narnia-ized, so that it preferred a constitutional monarchy to a witch, a fascist witch, which is the choice some of us may, at a certain point, think that's a pretty good deal. If you had a real talking animal with its own agenda, what would that government look like? [LAUGHS]
But also, that there's this entire land underneath, say, in this case, it's France, that isn't the country of France, but the country of these marmots. And that may sound ridiculous, but it's just like mining the idea as far as it can possibly go. So I just find them very enjoyable and unstressing. Like after the events of the last couple of months, if I look at a marmot, or our cat, or go feed the birds, those are the things that make me not want to punch a wall.
So I guess that's all I've got. I just think they're cute. Sorry. Terrible answer. The sangfroid of the marmot, the tie to Revolutionary France, the history of the marmot in Socialist theory.
AUDIENCE: So you have all these great stories and things, or great surrealist elements in your work. So I'm just wondering how you go about distinguishing effectively incorporates [INAUDIBLE] versus absurdity for absurdity's sake when you're in the process of writing and deciding what to put in.
JEFF VANDERMEER: That's a really, really good question, what you put in, what you don't, when you already write in kind of a Kafkaesque, surrealist zone. Well, for one thing, you generally don't put in dreams, because they exist at the same level of detail and reality as the reality of the story, so they de-stabilize it. And if that happens, then nothing matters in the story.
The reason there are dreams in the Southern Reach is because they're not actually dreams. They're actually manifestations of Area X. So that's one thing. The other thing is that you do, like in the Area X novels in Southern Reach, I did go through and say, OK, this might be a step too far. I went through very carefully with my editor and we're like, what is interesting and resonant thing and what is a distraction from that?
And that even meant reorganizing a little bit. Like the moaning creature in the first book, originally there was a reveal of that, what that was in the first book. But my editor said, well, that's too surreal in that moment, because we're still recovering from something the character has gone through emotionally. And as a result, plopping this in here is destroying that, that reader's attention on that, and also their attention on the next very delicate little scene that comes right after.
So that is something I think about a lot. And it's one reason why it's harder to, I think, when a writer has a surrealist tendency, or even an absurdist one, to identify their talent early on, because they're going to be much wilder on the page. They're going to usually be very much trusting their imagery and their prose. And they may not be that structured.
And so one reason that I teach when I do teach is to help those students especially realize you're not actually doing anything wrong. You're just probably developing your writing in a different way, and some of this other stuff will come to you later. Mm-hmm.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering maybe the movie that's coming out, Annihiliation [INAUDIBLE], how much [INAUDIBLE] or how you feel about it [INAUDIBLE].
JEFF VANDERMEER: The question is about the Annihilation movie and how I feel about it, and will they stick to the material. And all I can really say at this point, not having seen the movie, and having skimmed the screenplay because I'm still working on one last Southern Reach novella and didn't want the contamination, is that it is as surreal as the books, if in sometimes a different way. And there are scenes that are different from the books that are, I think, true to the spirit of Annihilation.
And then there are other changes because it's a visual medium. Like, for example, when the husband is carted off to the Southern Reach by security, that's actually dramatized in the movie, whereas it's just a couple sentences in the book. But there's an interiority, especially to Annihilation, that'd be really hard to capture. And so he has had to pull out, [INAUDIBLE] director, things that are just summarized a little bit and dramatize those.
In a way, it's fertile territory, because there's whole scenes where the biologist, because she doesn't give a crap about dialogue or reporting what other people think, where again, it's just summarized. So he has carte blanche to basically explore that. How do I feel about it?
It's very surreal. It's very disturbing at times. I obviously can't complain about it. I'm not. But it's very strange to have written something in such a personal way, in such a concentrated period of time, that you didn't even know was a novel at first. You're like, I handed it to my wife and I'm like, is this a novel or is this a random thing about four women just wandering a landscape?
So it is very strange. It's very strange that it's actually taken this turn. And I think the main reason it has is because the one thing that is definitely, I guess you would say, genre about the book is that it stacks various science fiction and weird tropes very thickly throughout. And so there's some recognitions there, I think, for movie people who like things like The X-Files and stuff like that. How are we doing on time? One last question?
SPEAKER 2: Yeah, let's do one more.
JEFF VANDERMEER: OK, one last question. No pressure.
AUDIENCE: Have you ever see an actual strange room [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFF VANDERMEER: That guy had done so many strange things up to that point, that no. No, I never went to that strange room. You know what, if I'd gone to that strange room, I never would have written about it. Well, thank you very much.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
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Jeff VanderMeer, NYT bestselling fiction writer, reads from his work on March 16th, 2017 as part of the Barbara and David Zalaznick Reading Series at Cornell University.