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 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, 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.
Read This World is Full of Monsters at Tor.com.
Armando Veve, Doug Fogelson, Joshua Mason, Bosch.