FUNCTIONALLY LITERATE: JEFF VANDERMEER with Usman Tanveer Malik
7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15 | Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. | functionallyliterate.org | free
“I don’t like didactic fiction,” Jeff VanderMeer says. “There are strong ecological themes in these books, but they’re subsumed as the foundational material. There are no characters giving long lectures about it.”
Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, the three books that make up VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, center on a mysterious environmental containment zone named Area X. The novels follow the shadowy Southern Reach agency, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy tasked with controlling and researching Area X, whose expedition members confront this bizarre landscape in an effort to understand its power.
“I believe there are limits to what science can bring us, that we need a combination of philosophy and science, a different paradigm to develop a new relationship with our environment. Area X was a way to have that discussion in a non-didactic form,” VanderMeer continues.
Released only a few months apart throughout 2014, these genre-bending novels have garnered acclaim both as profound works of speculative fiction and as powerful literary achievements; the second and third volumes spent time on the New York Times Best Sellers list. VanderMeer, who lives in Tallahassee, is at the tail end of an extensive promotional tour and will make one of his final stops in Orlando for a reading, Q&A and book signing at this quarter’s Functionally Literate reading event. (The recently released hardback edition of the Southern Reach Trilogy will be on sale through Bookmark It at this event.) In an interview with VanderMeer for Functionally Literate Radio on WPRK, I found a writer who was charming and funny while simultaneously aware of fiction’s responsibility to the modern world. The conversation covered a wide range of topics, but it’s the trilogy’s connection to Florida’s own terrain and wilderness that is particularly captivating.
“Since I’ve hiked so much in St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, that just came out naturally,” he says. “But I was also fascinated by it because this is the kind of thing human habitation disrupts without realizing it. You see what seems like separate ecosystems when they’re actually all in conversation with each other.
“What was weighing heavily on my mind was the BP Gulf oil spill,” he continues. “This ongoing nightmare was like a pressure in my head. I really think that fed into my subconscious. I just wanted to build a border around it, and that developed into this whole narrative.”
It isn’t just the volatility of a dangerous and unstable environment that finds its way into VanderMeer’s novels. The Southern Reach’s numerous failed expeditions have their roots in VanderMeer’s frustration with the inefficient performance of similar real-world organizations.
“Unfortunately, the agencies we have set up to deal with this are often incompetent,” he says. “For example, the Department of Environmental Protection for Florida, as late as 10 years ago, had separate databases to catalog land, water and air pollution. When you have basic absurdities like that, it makes it fundamentally harder to change the situation.” With this awareness, the impending environmental collapse and the pre-apocalyptic aspects of the Southern Reach Trilogy suddenly feel less speculative than one might have originally surmised. “We have to look at this crisis straight on if we are going to have what we think of as a human civilization,” VanderMeer says.
Not unlike the natural world, the deeper one digs into the Southern Reach, the more questions arise. “The best weird stories are not horror stories, they are stories about encountering the numinous, encountering something beyond yourself, and yes, sometimes it is horrific, but sometimes it has a very beautiful aspect. I think that element of ecstasy is what draws people to it,” says VanderMeer.
Therein lies the Southern Reach Trilogy’s legacy, an illumination that dissolves boundaries between the fictional and the scientific, genre and literature, the familiar and the alien – distinctions that might never have really existed in the first place.