Category Archives: Jeff VanderMeer

Science Friday: Cephalapod Week

From Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen

 

Like a kraken rising from the depths (or a cuttlefish emerging from the sand), Cephalopod Week is back!

Every year, during the third week in June, we take time to honor those mighty cephalopods, the clever mysterious creatures that, as professor of neurology Frank Grasso once said, are the closest things to alien intelligence on Earth. Thousands of you all over the world join the cephalo-bration by reading, watching, sharing, and getting together with your fellow cephalo-fans.

This year, we have a whole, well, octopus city of great new stories, videos, and events for you. For the next eight days, we’re going to dive deep with these amazing animals. Join us and learn about the paper nautilus that’s neither paper nor a nautilus, the Hawaiian bobtail squids and their unlikely BFF, the inky link between octopuses and the early days of underwater photography, a special undersea puppet show, and much more.

How To Join The Cephalo-Fun:

Party On Social Media #CephalopodWeekHave an octopus tattoo? A favorite fact about the Humboldt squid? Some adorabilis art? The easiest way to dive right in is to share it on social media. It’s super easy to join!

This year, Science Friday is hosting a special Cephalopod Week Facebook Group so you can all participate in the squiddy goodness. Join here.

We’ll also be beaking out about cephalopods on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #CephalopodWeek.

Read more here.

Text Source:  Three Hearts, Eight Arms, Can’t Lose: Cephalopod Week 2018

Image Source: Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen and  “Jeff VanderMeer: Science-Fiction City”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Animals, Jeff VanderMeer, science fiction

Animation: Annihilation, Utopia, and Climate Change

Video by The Atlantic

JV Animation

 

“I’m not a fan of fiction that’s totally hopeless,” says Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation, in an interview with The Atlantic, animated in the video above. “You find ways of documenting the world as it is, [with its] beauty, and you wind up redefining utopia and dystopia.” VanderMeer goes on to explain how, in writing fiction about climate change and environmental crises, he hopes to “push us out of our complacency.”

“We can’t live the way we live now,” he says, “but there are ways in which we can live in a useful and interesting and comforting and satisfying way within what’s happening.”

Author: Caitlin Cadieux

See video here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jeff VanderMeer, Literature

This World is Full of Monsters

This World copy

Cover image by Armando Veve

Jeff VanderMeer’s corpus renders the conceit “science fiction that rises to the level of literature” obsolete if not absurd.  His work is obviously literary.  His vision is original and far-ranging, and his writing, masterful and perennially astonishing.  However, one really must read a varied selection of his stories and novels to understand the sheer force of his imagination.  Though I’ve been reading and following his work only since he published the Southern Reach Trilogy, I’ve also been immensely rewarded by delving backward into his beautiful, utterly convincing, and hypnotic Ambergris trilogy.  And still, I am stunned by the imaginative range of work that VanderMeer publishes in one calendar year.

Last year, for example, VanderMeer published This World is Full of Monsters, a long and elaborate story or “novelette” about alien invasion and planetary transformation.  The story is a kind of successor to Area X, as well as a new kind of Area X in its generic and stylistic transgressions.  Much more than an extension of previous work, This World is a kind of Fibonacci series of iterations, as if every turn in VanderMeer’s imagination was followed by another, which occurred on a higher level because his psyche was somehow expanding in an organic though not quite natural manner.  I begin with a pedantic summary, but only because I think it might be of use to future readers and commentators.

At the beginning of This World, a creature disguised as a story enters the home of the narrator.  It cuddles up to him but then invades his body and psyche.  In the first part of his transformation the narrator becomes a plant creature, part human and part tree.  The story-creature plants him in the earth, and the narrator falls asleep for a hundred years.  He wakes to a transformed and utterly ruined landscape, finds his way back to his old street, and lives in the exposed, flood-damaged foundation of his former home.  There he meets his doppelgänger and learns that the “other” had taken his place and lived with his family while the narrator was asleep.  His “brother” is a monster, from which the narrator cannot extricate himself, but he eventually withers away so that the narrator can live.

Lonely, and utterly disoriented in an unrecognizable, hostile landscape, the narrator wanders aimlessly trying to decide, in an existentialist mode, when and how to end his life.  He then enters a slightly more coherent environment.  It’s wildly surrealistic and troublesome but somehow aesthetically whole.  Eventually, the hero realizes he is inside a kind of leviathan, or giant worm, where he is being schooled against his will.  What initially appears as a landscape through which the narrator moves and suffers, is actually the interior of a giant beast, sampling and digesting him in a sense.  He manages to escape, but is nearly drowned when the beast, pursuing him, falls into a lake and creates a great wave.  The narrator holds onto a single-celled creature as a life raft, but kills the creature when they reach the shore, as it becomes apparent the cell is trying to consume him.

Exit Eden

Exit Eden No. 14 by Doug Fogelson

At what seems like a turning point in the narrative, the hero settles into a kind of temporary home, the dead shell of a turtle-like creature, and crosses the lake, very slowly because of a “glacial” current, resolved to die when he reaches the other side.  However, Dead-Shell grows a mouth and begins to speak, once again transforming the narrator.   His interior flows up and out of him and hardens into a golden “honeycomb” exoskeleton.  Now, part insect, part marine creature with fins, and part astronaut with a large glassy eye like the helmet of a space suit, he begins to accept his transformation.  (I won’t say what happens at the very end.)

Though I would not dare to assert the purpose or meaning of the story, partly because I believe it has no conventional purpose or meaning, I will mention some obvious thematic threads.  This is clearly a story about an invasion, though like the Southern Reach Trilogy invasion may be a response to gross human transgressions.  If Annihilation was prompted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, as VanderMeer has suggested, the ocean expelling humans in This World would seem to follow suit.

The narrative is also obviously about radical transformation.  By radical I mean not only that humans and other creatures are transformed, as organisms, but that there is a violation of almost every biological category.  Humans become plants, rocks become beasts, landscapes  and bodies of water are sentient creatures, and everything merges, or attempts to merge with everything else.  VanderMeer has mentioned that the story is influenced by weird biology.  This World seems not only an expression of natural weirdness, but the inability of human beings to understand and appreciate what already exists on the planet, including radical and pervasive symbiosis, because of the limitations of our analytic schemes.

Entangled

Entangled, by Joshua Mason

There is also a strong theme, throughout, of stories having autonomous existence.  The “story” line is, perhaps, the most provocative and important creative and philosophical thread.  The topic is so pervasive and the story so insistent on the ontological status of stories, it seems the reader is being provoked to consider the concept at face value.  It is generally known that VanderMeer has been thinking about story telling in the Anthropocene.  And while Humanities and Social Science scholars constantly assert that culture influences nature, they are less likely to consider stories as nature—that stories are not only tools but creatures, with some kind of unique ontological status.

VanderMeer has also suggested the post human as a descriptor for This World, and while the story certainly resonates with Borne and the Borne story, Strange Bird, VanderMeer’s work here is even more radical than that critically-acclaimed biotech fantasy.  While biotech as we imagine it might be regulated and contained, at least for a time, the biotech of story-telling in an age of information warfare and renewed American culture of lies is far more of a threat.  Genetically engineered insects and self-aware robots may become another downfall, but the world is already under siege if not defeated by malignant stories.

Echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhhood’s End, VanderMeer’s surrealistic, apocalyptic narrative plays with biblical themes and ends in ecstatic release.  The ending may be poetic justice for a race ill equipped to survive on a planet demanding certain types of restraint, or a conclusion so mythic it must be followed by a new beginning.  In either case, this is a narrative about beginnings and ends capable of transforming our existing stories about beginnings and ends.

As an experimental work of fiction, This World of Monsters is a resounding success.  It’s wildly imaginative, philosophical provocative, and plays authoritatively and productively with literary themes, forms, styles, and voices throughout.  Though I consider it a significant literary work, I’m not certain that it must be read as literature.  I imagine it can be appreciated by those who understand science fiction as a categorically experimental genre.  It may be that This World is less likely to be appreciated by readers who bring preconceptions about VanderMeer’s work, what counts as a story, or even what counts as literature, to this remarkable oeuvre.  This is a story about stories, and about the transformative power of stories, that strives to transform everything we know about them.  And to the extent that it suggests the world is full of monsters posing as stories, it may strive to transform everything we know about the world.

Circling back to literature, This World is Full of Monsters is teeming with allusions to epic poetry, scripture, and surrealism in various media and historical moments.  Ultimately, VanderMeer’s genius here reminds me of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.  It cannot be accounted for by the artist’s time, place, or culture.  It’s a kind of weird, living organism we didn’t know existed.  A work this audacious and ambitious is more than a story, or story about stories.  It’s a new world colliding with the old.

Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_The_exterior_(shutters)

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Exterior (shutters).

 

Read This World is Full of Monsters at Tor.com.

Image Sources:
Armando Veve, Doug Fogelson, Joshua Mason, Bosch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Jeff VanderMeer, Literature, science fiction

Entangled

By Joshua Mason at Fieldwork Studios and Not So Solid Earth

 

1 Comment

Filed under Animals, Art, Jeff VanderMeer, photography

Strange Bird in Tempe

 

IMG_2134

 

Read Jeff VanderMeer’s The Strange Bird.

Leave a comment

Filed under Animals, Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer’s Strange Bird and Animal Trauma in the Anthropocene

Layout 1

 

Jeff VanderMeer’s new novella, The Strange Bird, is ingenious, provocative, and deeply moving. At times, it’s almost too painful and too beautiful. As a Borne story, it’s also revelation. Out of the futuristic world of Borne, VanderMeer conjures a totem for the Anthropocene. A hybrid spirit strange and familiar enough to wake us from our dogmatic stupor, Strange Bird guides us into unexplored regions of literature and the psyche. While we have excluded the secret life of animals from consciousness, on some level we understand their suffering because we suffer together. Nested in Borne, adjacent to VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, The Strange Bird brings us to the intersection of animals and the Anthropocene. We’ve been here all along, but now, slowly, we’re becoming aware.

Twentieth-century techno science created a false dichotomy of lab animals and animals in the wild. Born and bred to serve the medical and biotech industries, lab animals were primarily studied as surrogates for human bodies. Knowing them was generally synonymous with killing them, and always dependent on removing them from their natural environment and social context. This resulted in a culture that “understood” animals in isolation, and through the mottled lens of human interests narrowly conceived.

Wild animals were occasionally observed in the wild, during the last American century, but more often on television programing about animals in the wild. Mass media creatures were smart, charming, dramatic, and often hilarious. Masterfully edited, as well as narrated and set to music, such representations were a form of domestication or at least spectacle, related to zoos, aquariums and circuses. The most commonplace animals of the Modern era, however, were agricultural animals, not so much on farms, or even stories about farms, but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These animals didn’t have behaviors. They were invisible.

Twenty-first century animal and environmental activism has directed our attention to the plight of animals, but unintentionally maintains this twentieth-century dichotomy by focusing on animals in captivity and, conversely, animals in the wilderness. As the earth has become increasingly urban, however, conditions for all animals have changed. Academics and creative writers are becoming more attentive to interstitial ecology and urban animals, our neighborhoods and our neighbors, but we have not generally adjusted our assumptions about animal behavior.[i]

Enter The Strange Bird.  VanderMeer’s novella is as much urban odyssey as fantasy. At the beginning of the narrative Strange Bird, a biotech marvel, escapes the confines of a lab. In flight, she navigates an unfamiliar and frightening world, and begins to understand herself in new contexts and from different perspectives. Before long she is captured by a solitary old man who admires her, but who also imprisons her. He is attached and attentive, seems to want to commune with her, but he can’t appreciate her suffering. Like other humans in the novella, he rationalizes his cruelty even as he is haunted by it.

Eventually Strange Bird lands squarely into the narrative of Borne, where she is captured by The Magician, a sadistic genius who transforms her into a cloaking device. Somehow Strange Bird survives the radical transformation and enters a kind of bardo, where she communes with other animals, alive and dead.

Throughout the novella Strange Bird appears lost and alone. The cage is no home for her, but neither is the world. She is oriented to the voice of a friend or relative (intimate, stranger, and enemy), very close to her but also far away. Told from the point of view of a hybrid, engineered animal, The Strange Bird is one of VanderMeer’s most psychologically complex and heart-rending narratives. How does VanderMeer create and draw us into the inner life of Strange Bird?

 

Borken Places

 

Part of the answer must lie in his equally well-wrought and unapologetic anthropomorphism. As VanderMeer has explained in interviews and essays, the intellectual prohibition against anthropomorphism has prevented us from speculating about animal experience.[ii] But this stance betrays Modern prejudices. At a time when the popular media assertively preach the virtues of compassion (identification with the feelings of other human beings), we are reluctant to consider the thoughts and feelings of animals because we have already concluded they are categorically different. Even imagining what animals could be feeling is considered naïve, as if early twentieth-century phenomenology and Psych 101 behaviorism were articles of faith. Anticipating such objections, VanderMeer engineers human consciousness into his main character, though he also flirts with cross-species communication throughout.

Defending the speculative/creative impulse, I stubbornly note that human beings in all cultures still strive to understand one another every day. We dream of sympathy. We recognize ourselves in others.  Sometimes, it seems, others understand us better than we understand ourselves.  This counterargument has become a critical cliché, but it is also our way of life—our culture. Even if our sense of understanding and being understood are fabulations, why should we be dissuaded from striving to understand animals in this fashion? And why have we forgotten that this prohibition is a cultural and historical anomaly?

The long-standing, cross-cultural tendency to anthropomorphize is arguably a product of various and obvious similarities between human beings and animals. This is not only true from a biological perspective but also an ecological one. We share the same home. We are nurtured by the same planet.

I’d like to suggest that the leitmotif of habitat or home is a primary reason that VanderMeer’s novella is so moving. In The Strange Bird we can identify with the circumstances of the animal. If the storyteller is in a type of relation to the animal, he or she can help us imagine the creature’s circumstances, but perhaps that bond begins and ends with sharing a home.

Like so many of VanderMeer’s characters, Strange Bird is traumatized.  There are known and unknown causes of her trauma. Her inner life is familiar, strange, and mysterious, but readers can generally understand the experience of being imprisoned, for example. Though we may not be traumatized by such experiences, we have all had our freedom restricted, and we have all suffered as a consequence. Even if we ascent to such restrictions, through written, spoken, and unspoken contracts, we feel the tension between our competing desires for connection and autonomy.

Being conflicted, torn, fractured, and broken, are other common, potentially traumatic experiences. Particularly disturbing and provoking are VanderMeer’s first-person accounts of dismemberment. As Strange Bird is confined, tormented, and exploited by the Magician, we could and should reflect on basic bodily and psychological autonomy. How do we recognize and fail to recognize bodies in different circumstances? All sorts of relationships, perhaps even the imperatives of survival, tear us apart physically and psychologically. All animals are effectively dismembered when their bodies and brains are exploited. Even love tears us apart. To what extent, and why do we ascent to or resist various transgressions?

Most conspicuous about the main character and the story, is the fact that Strange Bird is always alone. We notice this first when she encounters other birds in social configurations. Later she begins to communicate with “the little foxes.”  This is a kind of solace for her, but also serves to foreground her physical isolation. When Strange Bird enters the narrative of Borne, she enters a second storyscape of alienation. She continues to commune with various creatures, in more or less out-of-body experiences, but Rachel and Wick are the only humans who show her kindness, who care for her.

We know from the example of the Passenger Pigeon that life and survival are intimately related to community.[iii] We also know that many animals need wide ranges in order to thrive even as individuals. All animals need space as well as society. Perhaps more significantly, each animal defines space in its own fashion. In this sense, human beings may not easily understand non-human behavior, though this may be a result of limited interaction rather than essential incapacity.

I don’t mean to suggest that The Strange Bird should function as a creative treatise on animal rights or metaphor for human suffering. Rather, I imagine the narrative as an entry point into a revelatory if not redemptive cycle of sympathy and self-awareness. As Sartre speculated in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, we label abject human beings as animals because deep down we recognize their humanity (Book I, section II, “Reciprocity, Exploitation and Repression”). Perhaps this is also why we define animals, categorically, as less than human beings, because we suspect they are not essentially different from us . . . and it’s the only way we can maintain our crumbling narrative of superiority.[iv]

As a Borne story, The Strange Bird is a creative but earnest speculation about animal behavior in the Anthropocene.  As such it’s also a story about animal trauma. It seems reasonable to speculate that animal trauma, in general, is connected to environmental degradation, survival pressures, displacement, and violence. We understand, and often repeat, the poorest populations are most affected by climate change, but we don’t generally include animals in this equation.

To the extent that animals are affected by environmental toxins, food deserts, homelessness, fast and slow violence, they may be generally traumatized.[v]  These conditions are not new. The beginning of the industrial era created terribly degraded environments for all animals, even if human beings were the focus of civic responses. Silent Spring invoked an animal totem and effectively created ecological consciousness, even if that consciousness still struggles with an imperial gaze. On some level, we are all aware of violence perpetrated by animals against animals. Bellum omnium contra omnes[vi]

What does all this mean for The Strange Bird as a new literary work by a prominent contemporary writer? I’m reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s imperative that literature in the Anthropocene should not be fantastic, because it masks real climate-change related horrors.[vii]  This may be a legitimate critique of popular dystopian fantasy, but the criticism makes less sense in the context of surrealism (qua surrealism), VanderMeer’s chief mode. Remembering that surrealism, historically, was an attempt to capture a more complete reality (a form of psychological realism), we can appreciate contemporary surrealistic literature as an attempt to include psychological strata that have been systematically excluded from realistic representations.[viii] Enter the unconscious.

Human consciousness, often understood as self-consciousness, has long performed a gate-keeping function. Because humans have a degree of consciousness about their own intellectual processes and emotional responses, we often assume that non-human cognition and affect is categorically different. Similarly, we tend to equate communication with conscious human languages. But human cognition and affect is also, arguably (and perhaps even primarily), unconscious. [ix]  Human communication is also partly unconscious as evidenced by language acquisition in children, who speak grammatically long before they have any concept of grammatical rules, and by studies on body language as a primarily mode of communicating intense emotions.[x]

Unconscious communication has been the purview of writers for well over a century. But all the arts engage the unconscious—consciously and unconsciously. Aesthetics might even be described as a paradigmatic unconscious value system. And while art, like language, is generally considered a uniquely human enterprise, we also know that many animals, birds in particular, sing and dance to attract mates. How is this essentially different than the conscious and unconscious behavior of  human “peacocks”?

In the context of Borne, The Strange Bird traces the terrible beauty of animal trauma in the Anthropocene, not as a surrogate for human trauma, but as a creaturely condition that directs our attention to the ubiquitous effects of climate change. If trauma can be communicated through non-verbal behavior, it may be an appeal to all animals. Artists like VanderMeer seem to hear that call, but are they uniquely aware of animal suffering, or uniquely responsive? I imagine that many of us are more aware of our collective suffering than we know. VanderMeer may not speak for non-human animals, but he surely gives voice to the unconscious.

*

The novella is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073TSB1TW

*

[i] See City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness, for example. Also see VanderMeer’s comments in his recent essay, “Moving Past the Illusion of Control.”

[ii] See “Moving Past the Illusion of Control,” above, as well as this Gulf Coast magazine interview on Borne.

[iii] The species became extinct because individuals can only mate in large flocks. See this Smithsonian Encyclopedia entry.

[iv] As DePaul philosopher Peter Steeves suggested at VanderMeer’s 2017 Earth Week address, perhaps we can’t ultimately define or understand animals because we strive to know them by comparison to human beings, whom we define by comparison to animals. (We can’t know non-human animals because we can’t know ourselves.)

[v] See Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor and VanderMeer’s comments on war and ecological degradation in his Environmental Critique article on Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology published here.

[vi] Read VanderMeer’s Finch, as well as his other Ambergris books, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: And Afterword.

[vii] See “Amitav Gosh: where is the fiction about climate change?” in The Guardian.

[viii] See this Met summary of surrealism.

[ix] The revival of the unconscious by the neurosciences and the influence of affect on cognition have become common knowledge in academic discourse. An interesting recent book on these topics is Richard Nisbett’s Mindware: Tools for Smart ThinkingIn a recent conversation, VanderMeer noted that we anthropomorphize animals in various sorts of propaganda, and I wonder if this is a marker of (social) media aesthetics as an unconscious economy.

[x] See this short Cambridge article on unconscious language learning, and this Princeton piece on body language and intense emotions.

 

Image sources:

Macmillian, https://us.macmillan.com/thestrangebird/jeffvandermeer/9780374714932

YouTube,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5stee_pAAU&feature=youtu.be

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Animals, Climate Change, Jeff VanderMeer

When Talking Canines Took Over New York

By Jeff VanderMeer

Re-posted from The Atlantic, May 9, 2017

dogs960

Twenty years after it was first published, Kirsten Bakis’s extraordinary novel Lives of the Monster Dogs still has a lot to say about the entwined destinies of animals and humans.

When Kirsten Bakis’s novel Lives of the Monster Dogs was first published in 1997, it was translated into multiple languages, adapted for the stage, and included on the New York Times Notable Books list. Among other honors, it became a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction and won the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel. In a year dominated by juggernaut explorations of the human condition—like Don DeLillo’s Underworld—the novel’s level of success seemed destined to accord it cult status. But 20 years later, as it gets a much-deserved reissue, Lives of the Monster Dogs feels undeniably like a classic.

What makes all this perhaps surprising is that the novel is so strange, if beautifully so, imagining as it does a breed of humanistic dogs, the result of brutal experiments, that walk and talk and attempt to coexist with polite society in New York City. The novel comes to us in the form of journal entries, excerpts from an opera, and other “real” evidence, framed and explained by Cleo Pira, a woman assigned to write a magazine article about the dogs. Her explorations delve into the past, including the hideous experiments of the 19th-century Prussian surgeon who created the monster dogs. The horror and unease in the narrative derives in part from its verisimilitude in conveying the grotesque and in part the blurring of the animal and the human, resulting in a fascinating exploration of both.

Read more here.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Animals, Jeff VanderMeer, Literature, Uncategorized