The Weird World of Area X

Jeff VanderMeer on the Southern Reach trilogy

Jeff VanderMeer cover photoThis week FSG Originals is releasing a hardcover omnibus that includes all three entries in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. To coincide with its release on November 18th, we decided to run a series of articles this week that relate to the Southern Reach. Today, we’re asking Jeff VanderMeer about his trilogy, how it fits in with the New Weird, and what he has planned next. Jeff has done a number of interviews already about Southern Reach but none of them have examined Southern Reach from a weird fiction perspective. Be sure to check out Jeff’s answers below but also come back later this week for more articles about Area X and the Southern Reach.

Weird Fiction Review: I feel like Southern Reach really pushes the boundaries of weird fiction into new territory in a number of ways. Was that something you consciously tried to do with Southern Reach?

Jeff VanderMeer: I don’t know that weird fiction per se is known for characterization in the traditional sense, but for me the best weird tales are populated by interesting eccentrics and ne’er-do-wells who you’re interested in following as they encounter the unknown. So the first part of the answer to your question is that my first commandment was “follow the characters” and get their arcs right. I felt like the clues and revelations about the central uncanny mystery would fall into place as a result of that focus.

But there’s also no doubt that coediting the massive The Weird anthology with my wife Ann created a substrate of over a hundred years of peculiar fiction in the back of my reptile brain. Something about the speed with which we had to put the book together and read so many stories meant a lot of things got assimilated swiftly.

Added to that is the personal connection to the landscapes the characters move through, the wilderness I feel I know now to some degree. So in a round-about way, my answer is that I didn’t consciously try to push boundaries but that all of these influences came together in a natural confluence and out through the writing. Still, it’s true that I wanted to write something that didn’t bore me and wasn’t like something I’d read a thousand times before. So in terms of the pacing and editing of scenes and sections I was engaging in a form of play — playing off of the fiction I’ve read and reader expectations.

WFR: Southern Reach has been given various different labels. Most commonly, it seems like people describe it as science fiction but it’s also been described as speculative fiction, weird fiction, and just general fiction. How do you tend to describe the Southern Reach yourself? Do you still even think of it as weird fiction?

JV: This is a difficult question and one that, to me, is all in the eye of the beholder. When I think of the trilogy I think about the characters and the wilderness aspects — the aspects of expedition, and what that word means. Then I think in a secondary way about the weird fiction aspects, and then the SF elements. There’s a practical concern in all of this too. What do you spend the most time with as a writer? First the characters, then getting aspects of the weird affect correct. Last comes the SF element because that’s only on the page a small percentage of the time. It’s not that the SF element isn’t important, just that there are so many other places you spend your effort and attention as a writer. Now, for readers, the answers may be as various, but I don’t presume to speak for them. I will say, however, that FSG Originals made the entry point for readers as gentle and as wide as possible with those incredible covers and the marketing and PR for the books. You’d think that would just be about crass commercial issues but it’s really about the reading experience and how the reader perceives a book and their challenge was ensuring that a reader who might like the novels but not typically pick up SF would in fact take a chance on the novels.

The Other Side of the MountainWFR: Were there any science fiction works that influenced the Southern Reach? And do you think that reading works outside of weird fiction in other genres, etc. can help writers create better weird fiction?

JV: Any writer is better off reading voraciously and across all kinds of fiction. The more curious you are and the more wide-ranging, the more you bring back to your fiction. I’ve mostly read mainstream literary fiction the past couple of years and in the past binged on space opera and on experimental fiction and I love all of it. There’s very little I don’t like if it’s done well or in an interesting way.

In terms of science fiction, it is probably mostly on the weird side of things. For example, Hodgson’s House on the Borderlands, which holds up even today. Also “The Other Side of the Mountain” by Bernanos, a short novel in The Weird. The works of Jodorowsky are hugely influential as well as the fiction and art of Leonora Carrington. Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which has three interlocking but separate novellas also was very useful to have in the back of my head. The works of Angela Carter, Edward Whittemore, Vladimir Nabokov are always also in my mind. Stepan Chapman’s The Troika, which breaks every rule of fiction.

WFR: Do you think you’ll explore this sort of area along the fringes of weird fiction in future works? 

JV: I’m sure I will. At the moment, I’m working on a novel called Borne that is perhaps less weird and more influenced by manga and anime, or some mix thereof. I’m also working on a short story that might get long entitled “The Birdwatchers” that’s set in the Southern Reach universe. Here’s the beginning of it, just as a teaser:

Once there had been biologists here, in numbers so great that the forgotten coast shook with the aftermath of their passage. These men and women bestrode the terrain like conquerors, sent by government money in the form, it was rumored, of gold bars well-hidden that could not devalue or decay like the money kept in banks. They were thus ungoverned by the dictates of barter or of neighborly responsibility that had bound this place for so long.

In the summer of that first year they established their headquarters in the ruins of the ghost town, a bivouac of scientists unprecedented for that place even when it had been alive. As they spread out across their migratory range, the biologists as observed by the locals began to carry out a series of arcane rituals. They shoved pieces of swamp grasses and bits of bark into vials. They put up tents out in “the field” as they called it, even when it was just black swamp. They used binoculars, scopes, and microscopes. They took readings with innumerable peculiar instruments. At times, they stopped in their labors to swear about the heat and humidity, which did not endear them.

The biologists tagged many living things — at least one of every creature that moved and breathed across the pine forests and the cypress swamp, the salt marshes and the beach. They took fine nylon nets and set up capture zones for songbirds, running clod-stepped to the rescue of what they had themselves endangered. Fragile wings and fragile beaks, heads to the side; small eyes looking up at giants that held their bodies in half-closed fists. They tagged so many things, had brought so many tranq darts, that the blue caps removed from the tips still showed up years later in the marshes, along the river bank or crushed into the gravel of the dirt roads.

In their heyday, at the zenith of their powers, some said their boot prints outnumbered the tracks of deer and raccoons and otters on the salt flats.

But over time, the effort that had quickened slowed, the impulse behind it dulled, and the biologists began to die out. Their mobile tents that had once dotted the camping ground near the lighthouse began to disappear. The sounds of their idle conversations before expeditions in the early morning became muted and infrequent. That last spring there might have been a hundred of them and by the fall only four or five. It was a mass extinction created by lack of grant renewal, a matching funds disaster, and a moving on of government attention, that great eye roving toward other lands and foreign wars.

WFR: At its core, the Southern Reach is a story about the search for knowledge. In the first book, the biologist is looking for answers as to what happened to her husband; in the second book, Control is trying to undercover the secrets behind Area X and the Southern Reach; and so forth. In this respect, it’s reminiscent of works like Goethe’s Faust and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand.” Did other works or perhaps real-life events influence this theme?

JV: Aren’t we all seeking answers? To be glib for a second. But also serious. Part of the effect created by the weird is about seeking answers but not necessarily finding them. You could say the second half of that equation is just as much part of what the weird espouses. To be willing to say you don’t get all of the answers, ever. In that way, the weird is oddly aligned with certain forms of mainstream literary fiction where the story has an open kind of ending. Yes, some weird fiction ends with a twist or a full-on revelation. But the best stuff keeps open the blissful possibility of never knowing everything. We are defined in a sense by our inquisitiveness, and with inquisitiveness comes the arrogance that we are in control and thus have achieve peace of mind through knowledge. Whereas writers have been telling us for ages that’s a false comfort. At some point, the universe reveals itself to you as uncaring and your place in it none too secure. Which is just fine. There’s comfort in that, too, because it’s the truth.

WFR: Have you gotten any indication that Southern Reach might be helping to boost weird fiction readership and might be exposing readers to weird fiction that haven’t read it before?

JV: It’s really hard to quantify. I do know I’m getting a lot of “I don’t usually read SF/horror/fantasy but liked this” reactions. I certainly hope it makes readers pick up more weird fiction. I think it’s a category that’s definitely got affinities with writers who read in the general fiction category can get on board with — they mostly know Kafka and Borges and writers like that. And it’s not at all far into weird territory from there. And, again, I feel like publishers being smart about how they package and market weird fiction is half the battle. If you put a book cover in front of a general reader that screams “messed up” that’s going to turn them off. It’s as simple as that. No amount of saying “yes but that shouldn’t matter” is going to help you. It’s one of those useless territorial battles to say “I must define this as core SF/F/Horror or I’m betraying my ideals.” Instead, it’s better to listen to readers and to speak to them in their language, not impose yours. The fiction itself is still the same.

WFR: Looking back, what were some of your favorite weird fiction elements that you included into Southern Reach?

JV: I’ll try not to spoil too much, but simply point to these elements: hand-hair, mountain moving, weird wall, mound of journals, smashed mosquito, and cell phone.

Area X OmnibusWFR: Tell us about the new Area X omnibus. Is the text revised? Who did the cover design for this book?

JV: I did cut about three pages from Authority and trim some other sections a tad in anticipation of a continuous read from those who pick up the omnibus. I also altered just a couple of little things in Annihilation and Acceptance for continuity reasons. Rodrigo Corral did the cover design.

WFR: With the success of Southern Reach, do you plan to devote more time toward writing?

JV: I’ve been a full-time writer since 2007, but that has included books I’ve edited being part of the equation, as well as nonfiction. I don’t think that’s going to change. Fiction is my first love — the most personal thing to me — but all evidence to the contrary I’m a fairly slow writer and need other projects in between to keep me stimulated. So expect The Big Book of SF, another big anthology, co-edited with Ann, and a new coffee table book in the mix along with the next novel. All of this feeds into the fiction anyway.