About The Author
Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor, and the author most recently of the New York Times bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy. His fiction has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the Library of America's American Fantastic Tales and multiple year's-best anthologies. He grew up in the Fiji Islands and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife.
His latest book is Borne. A ruined city of the future lives in fear of a despotic, gigantic flying bear, driven mad by the tortures inflicted on him by the Company, a mysterious biotech firm. A scavenger, Rachel, finds a creature entangled in his fur. She names it Borne. At first, Borne looks like nothing at all- a green lump that might be a discard from the Company. But he reminds Rachel of her homeland, an island nation long lost to rising seas, and she prevents her lover, Wick, from rendering down Borne as raw genetic material for the special kind of drugs he sells. But nothing is quite the way it seems: not the past, not the present, not the future. If Wick is hiding secrets, so is Rachel - and Borne most of all. What Rachel finds hidden deep within the Company will change everything and everyone...
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Matt Blackstock talked to Jeff about why he is not interested in writing 'disaster porn', how you cannot reach positive outcomes if you don’t correctly identify the problems and why it's a fool’s bet to think we can outstrip destruction with progress.
Author photo © Kyle Cassidy
Questions & Answers
Borne is set some time in the future, where the world has fallen into a dystopian chaos. Why do you think as a species, humans cannot be more optimistic about our future?
There’s actually a lot of humour in the novel, in Rachel and Borne’s relationship, especially early on. I think humour and absurdism are important in dealing with serious topics. But the physical laws of the universe aren’t laws we can somehow ignore or change. So I think it’s entirely appropriate for hope and optimism to be framed in the context of scenarios that are dystopian. Otherwise, you’re trading in escapism on a topic that right now, today, has real-world implications and, in the case of climate change, is ruining real people’s lives. I’m not interested in writing disaster porn, so to speak, but in Borne to explore how people manage to survive and find love and to live meaningful lives despite changes to the environment. Borne is ultimately a hopeful novel, one that explores difficult but loving relationships, with a lot about what I would call rebirth. But, no, I’m not interested in supporting a neo-liberal capitalist view of progress being good for us.
How much research did you do for the novel? Were there any particular books or articles, or people you spoke to before beginning the novel?
That’s hard to talk about just because in working on a nonfiction book on storytelling and climate change, I’ve read hundreds of books about scarcity, weird weather, our relationship to animals and other related topics. My hope is that all of that forms sedimentary layers in the back of my brain and comes out organically. But also because just as the Southern Reach trilogy was science fiction by way of the uncanny, Borne is speculative fiction by way of fabulism. So it’s not in any way meant to be a hard science approach, but to get at some psychological truths through exploring biotech and what it means to be human.
The Company is the malevolent biotech firm whose actions have infected and ruined the city in which the story is set. The Company feature as the ‘bad guys’ in what I thought was an underlying environmental message throughout Borne. I was wondering if you think fiction, especially Sci-Fi can influence people to think more about their actions, and have a positive effect upon the world?
First of all, we have to stop supporting even seemingly benign companies that are actually doing great harm to the world. We cannot think of ourselves as somehow separate from our environment — so, for example, when fracking destroys the environment, we need to think of it as fracking more or less at war with us, attacking us, killing us, not just “nature.” Because it is. You cannot reach positive outcomes if you don’t correctly identify the problems. Optimism to me is about knowing the true lay of the land, the true contours of the landscape, to build a future that lasts. Which is really what Rachel is trying to do, in fits and starts, in Borne.
Rachel and Borne’s relationship is comparable to that of a mother and child, the way she feeds Borne and teaches Borne about the world. I was struck how she mothered and protect Borne, and I wondered if this was written as a reflection or prediction of our dealings with technology?
A lot of those early conversations as Borne grows and learns to talk are based on my conversations with my daughter and grandson, and the sense of wonder that comes from talking to someone who doesn’t have the same filters as an adult, in Borne’s case made more obvious because he’s not human. I was really thinking about what we mean by human versus non-human and exploring related themes.
The destruction of the world depicted in this novel comes from our craving for advancement. Do you think our progression through the use and invention of more and more impressive technologies will guide humankind to a better tomorrow, or a great fall?
It’s a fool’s bet to think we can outstrip destruction with progress. It’s progress that’s brought us to the precipice — and let me frame that in a business context. Most of what we do that devastates the environment is bad business and means that companies that engage in this behaviour are not using best practices. All of our advancements are built on hidden costs — on the deaths of animals and of the environment we inhabit. Until we can break that cycle, we won’t have anything like best business practices, and that applies to the development of new technology.
If we keep thinking of the resources we sometimes literally burn up and litter the landscape with as anything other than a terrible cost, we’re still in the same boat. With a hole in the hull. But what I am hopeful about is the actions of individual people who care about the Earth and care about the fate of their children — scientists and others who are working hard not just to change the paradigm but the way people think about these issues, my own daughter, Erin Kennedy included. I’m so proud of her and I’m hopeful because of her — she’s in environmental economics and wrote two chapters of the recent World Wildlife Fund report on sustainability over the next twenty years.
Can you tell us about your writing day? Do you set yourself any particular targets in regards to word count? Do you have a special place to write?
I have neither. I’ve been a published writer since I was fourteen and over the past thirty-plus years I have slowly divested myself of any habits or special places or target goals. I write anywhere I can write when I’m inspired to write, and I make sure that even on days when I don’t write I am thinking deeply about what I want to write next. That’s what works for me — to always be engaged with story in my head.