BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’ve always fictionalized Earth’s final chapter, whether by aliens or asteroids or a nuclear blast. Nowadays, it’s the change in climate.
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: History’s going so fast, technology’s changing so fast that we are living in a science fiction story that we’re all writing together.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: So something where you can’t actually get our heads around - climate change, it’s too big for us. [LAUGHS] We’re just these dumb reptiles who just barely got upright, basically, you know?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: New York has just welcomed the warmest Christmas holiday ever, with 65-degree temperature weather.
KATHERINE DUCKETT: In the future, we’ll have a word - “winter smell” - that encompasses all of these smells of winter that we’re losing.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: “Did you see the snowdrops? They shouldn’t be out yet.” [LAUGHS] We live in an untimely time when things are starting to behave out of sync and out of joint.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s the end times, but it’s not all bad, we promise.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I’m Brooke Gladstone. And our planet - is weird.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Phoenix could reach 120°, forcing dozens of flight cancellations because many of the regional planes simply can’t fly in temperatures above 118.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The North Pole is seeing a heat wave. Scientists say it’s 36 degrees warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Melting sea ice is behind this gathering of walruses, thousands of them forced ashore, facing starvation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The weather sounds like the stuff of science fiction, as does much of what we've done to the Earth, so much so that there's a new term for our time, the Anthropocene, the “Age of Man.” And since we’ll need new words to describe our march into the Anthropocene, we ask you to conjure some up.
DANIEL LARGE: Ecolegiac, deriving from ecology and elegiac, the adjective for elegy, a lament for the dead. As a naturalist, I wax ecolegiac when I am taking in the beauty of migrating birds and feel I may be seeing a treasure that myself and humanity are bound to lose. I’m Daniel Large and I’m from San Antonio, Texas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In recent years, speculating on humanity’s earthly impact has generated tubs of popcorn thrills. On screen we’ve had Mad Max Fury Road, Interstellar, Snowpiercer, to name a few, and on bookshelves much more, with such titles as, The Book of Joan, The Bone Clocks, New York 2140, Gold Fame Citrus, Borne, Solar, The Maddaddam Trilogy, as you’ll hear.
Science fiction always explores our existential anxieties, like plague.
DONALD SUTHERLAND AS MAJ. GEN. MCCLINTOCK: If that bug gets out of there, 260 million Americans will be dead or dying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alien invasion.
[WAR OF THE WORLD]
TIM ROBBINS AS HARLAN OGILVY: They’ll keep coming. This is not a war…this is an extermination.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obliteration by asteroid.
BILLY BOB THORNTON AS DAN TRUMAN: It’s the size of Texas, Mr. President.
PRESIDENT: What kind of damage?
DAN TRUMAN: Damage? Total, sir. It’s what we call a global killer and the end of mankind.
PRESIDENT: My God.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And don’t forget the nukes. I never do.
RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR: When they are exploded they will produce a doomsday shroud, a lethal cloud of radioactivity which will encircle the earth for 93 years!.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But nowadays, fear of expeditious extinction has been replaced by annihilation by degree or degrees. As we grapple with the impact of global warming and other perils posed by the mix of technology and humanity, science fiction defines what to many of us is an inchoate fear. Those imaginings are the focus of this hour. It’s what the genre does and what the current moment demands in this era of slow apocalypse.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Oh, nuclear war, ostensibly, we can feel some amount of control over, even if we feel like it’s slipping from our control. Alien invasion, we can still fight back against that. That’s really, in a sense, fiction-wise, no different than describing some kind of war between two entities on Earth.
But the slow apocalypse, it gets into our brains. It seeps in in a way that I don't think is the same as for other things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff VanderMeer is a science fiction writer who focuses on the natural world, its indefinable essence, its endangerment and its strangeness, so much so that The New Yorker dubbed him “Weird Thoreau.”
JEFF VANDERMEER: One influence on my books has been the Gulf oil spill and it's the most intimate psychological experience that I, I have had because I'm so invested in that landscape, which is to say that while the spill was going on and when they were thinking they wouldn’t be able to cap it, there was this slow swirl in my brain every second. There was the gush of the oil in my brain. I couldn't get away from the anxiety of that. And I think that that is something that manifests in a lot of people today, psychologically thinking about this issue. It’s something they can't get away from. You don't know what to do about it. You feel a certain amount of paralysis or helplessness, in part. And so, that's something I want to actually document in my fiction. The trick of that is that fiction wants to be about action.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: VanderMeer’s most recent work is the novel Borne, which explores a despoiled world inherited by cast-off biotech. In 2014, his celebrated Southern Reach Trilogy, partly inspired by Florida, depicts nature, resurgent and relentless.
JEFF VANDERMEER: For example, in Authority when I show paralysis at an institutional level, when I show that this kind of seeps into things in ways you don't expect and the normal ways of dealing with issues can't be brought to bear on this issue, it goes against what people expect from certain kinds of tropes, what they expect from certain kinds of resolution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
JEFF VANDERMEER: And you have to go with that even if you know that some readers are not gonna want to go along for that particular ride.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Authority is the second book –
JEFF VANDERMEER: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - in your Southern Reach Trilogy, which is about a mysterious area called X, and nature there seems to be almost a conscious being. And researchers who have gone to study Area X can't quite remember anything about the expedition, if they come back. And, meanwhile, Area X is expanding. It is a place almost through the looking glass [LAUGHS] that’s starting to impinge on the ordinary world. I can't think of a better description of Florida.
JEFF VANDERMEER: [LAUGHS] Well, I mean, you know, it’s – there’s definitely that aspect of it -
- especially because there is a mysterious aspect to North Florida, ‘cause it is still relatively unspoiled.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What you said in an interview was that there is this sense of – porousness, porousness of homes, porousness of the body; you can't separate from this thing –
JEFF VANDERMEER: No –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - just like Area X is like a “thing.”
JEFF VANDERMEER: It’s something that is actually true of our world that I also want to convey in fiction, which is that this idea of outside and inside, especially in North Florida or other places like that, is just nonexistent. There's no inside/outside for the geckos, even, which are like, you know, visible but for like mold, for fungus, for all these other things, there’s so much going on, there’s so much interplay and contamination that we don't see or don’t recognize. And this is very important to thinking about climate change, thinking about issues like pollution, where a lot of times we can't see it. Because we can't see it, we can’t visualize the causality between something that's happening and cancer deaths. We have to see it to believe it, so one thing fiction can do in its laboratory is it can make visible what is often invisible to us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s a term that you find very useful, coined by writer philosopher Timothy Morton, and it's called “hyperobject.” You see it as a way of using a word as an anchor for something that would otherwise be hard to picture in its entirety.
JEFF VANDERMEER: It does give some kind of concrete essence to something that is, by nature, kind of uncanny. I mean, there are ways in which global warming is like a haunting because it appears everywhere and nowhere at the same time. So I wanted Area X to be to humans what animals feel human beings are to them. Basically, we are a hyperobject to animals a lot of the time because we are inexplicable to them. Our actions are inexplicable. They may be inexplicable to ourselves. I always thought it was interesting if Area X had this agenda and it had its own patterns - we just couldn't quite see them all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which brings us to Borne. In this case, we’re talking about creatures that were made by scientists. And do you want to just sum up the world of Borne?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, think of it as a post-scarcity city, which we actually have several of those now, where multinationals come in and sucked out all the resources, more or less, and then left this place that people still have to live in. One day, this woman Rachel, who’s a scavenger in the city, finds a bit of abandoned biotech.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can eat biotech because it's made of –
JEFF VANDERMEER: Flesh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - flesh, blood and bone.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it is designed by human beings.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Designed by human beings and so these are castoffs from a company that has kind of more or less pulled out but left all this stuff behind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Think highly refined Island of Dr. Moreau or something.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Yes. And she, instead of, you know, rendering it down for food or for parts, she raises it as her child and it begins to speak, it, it grows and then there becomes a conflict between what it may have been and was created to do and how she’s, she’s raised the creature. Borne has a very basic vocabulary for a very long time, but he has more senses than Rachel does. He can see things she can’t see. And so, he's both not her intellectual equal and so far beyond the human that she can't really understand him, no matter what happens.
But that is one thing that fiction is good for, is trying to make that jump, that leap, and knowing that you can't quite cross that divide but making that leap gets you a little closer to a kind of empathy that I think is useful. There is often a narrative that’s being enacted by the animals in the backdrop, especially in Borne, that the human characters don't really see at first, which is kind of the way it works in real life. [LAUGHS] There's animals enacting their own narratives all the time.
What I find really fascinating is just simply that we live on this alien planet, which is to say we don't understand how everything works on this planet that we’re destroying. We don't even understand the biology of a lot of the creatures that live on this earth, even as they’re disappearing. And it’s like we've terraformed another planet and we don't understand the life on it. And that's what I want to explore, is that absurdity that we still don't get it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're concerned with global warming. Who do you think has done a good job of advocating in fiction on this issue over the years?
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, I think, obviously, Kim Stanley Robinson. There are still scientists who reference JG Ballard from back in the day. I think Margaret Atwood did a really good job in The Maddaddam Trilogy, which still holds up, and also, quite frankly, created a space for this kind of fiction on the literary mainstream side that’s very useful because it means you're reaching a different set of readers to potentially convince.
But the convincing thing is something I go back and forth on. I don't think I can convince a climate change denier. What I can do is I can possibly change the mind of the person who thinks this isn't going to happen until 70 years down the road, when a lot of scientists think it’s really going to really get bad in the next 30 years. That person who does say they believe in climate change but they think it's this far distant thing that’s not going to affect them or their children, that's the person that I feel like I'm writing for right now. You know, I get emails and letters from people all the time who say that the fiction that I've written has spurred them to be more proactive on the environmental side, and that keeps me going, to some degree.
You know, I sometimes walk down the street and I think, you know, everything here seems so permanent but it's not.
Buildings, landscapes, all of this could be wiped away in seconds. That's one thing that needs to reside in the heart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff, thank you very much.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Well, thank you.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff VanderMeer is the author, most recently, of Borne.
Coming up, two novels imagine two very different fates for the planet, too little water and too much. But first, a word.
kATHERINE DUCKETT: My name is katharine Duckett. I’m calling from Brooklyn, New York. Winter smell that encompasses all of the smells of winter that we’re losing, that metallic scent of cold, the smell of snow, the smell of certain foods. All of that will be summed up in that one word, and who knows if anyone will really understand after a while what that means.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.