Science in Novels with Jeff VanderMeer

Science in Novels with Jeff VanderMeer


I do think it’s very important that philosophy
and science are in fiction, embedded in some way. And organically is the best way. I’m Jeff VanderMeer, and I think I’m probably
best known right now for the Southern Reach Trilogy–Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance–which
chart the progress of this strange, creeping pristine wilderness that this secret agency is trying
to figure out what’s going on inside of and kind of stop from progressing so to speak
since it doesn’t seem to be particularly friendly to human beings. I’ve also written a lot of non-fiction, the
world’s first writing book that has almost all visual elements called Wonderbook, and
I write a lot on environmental themes for The New York Times and other publications
like that. When it comes to research, there’s a lot of
different approaches, I think, especially when it comes to the science. I truly believe that there needs to be a personal
element, so it really helps me that my dad’s an entomologist and research chemist, and
my step-mom is one of the world’s foremost researchers in lupus. My mom was a biological illustrator, my sister
is in environmental science, my daughter, Erin Kennedy, is now in environmental science. She just wrote a chapter of the World Wild
Life fund’s report on sustainability. So, there’s that. You’re steeped in it. You don’t–you don’t really think about it. You know what a scientist’s life is like,
for example, and so you don’t have to research that. But on the other hand, if I am going to do
research, specific to a book, I try to make it organic by doing that research in vast
quantities and doing it vastly before I’m actually going to start writing anything. So, hopefully I’ve internalized it, and it
comes out in an organic way. And then I can always go back and fact check
what I’ve written, but what I don’t want to do in a rough draft is be thinking too much
about the research when I need to be thinking about the characters, the situation, the setting,
and things like that. So, it just depends on the book and it depends
on the individual as to what your entry point is. I think a sense of place is really important,
in part in terms of environmental activism and all that, so… What I would recommend for people is that
you may not think there’s a place that’s your own, but even if you live in an urban setting,
in an apartment, there’s an ecosystem around you–there’s a biosphere around you. And there’s more life there than you might
expect. And you can find an entry point into science
that way or some other aspect of science in the place that you live, no matter how mundane
it is. It doesn’t have to be an unspoiled wilderness
for you to get into that mode and start exploring things in a useful way. I know from being the son of a scientist that
science is–yes, it is about facts, but it is about this sense of wonder in a way about
the universe. It’s not something that’s set in stone. Science is always changing because new facts
are always coming in. New research is coming in. I think that’s something
that I wanted to convey in my books, and that I think people should think about with regard
to science in general. It’s not this set, closed vessel. It’s this vibrant, living thing that’s always
changing in a good way, and that doesn’t make it less factual. That’s makes it more alive and more relevant. You hope–you hope that fiction can effectuate
change. I think it may just simply be more the onslaught
of Annihilation and other books as well–the fact that there’s so many now… If you can find a useful, interesting way
to use science in your fiction, it’s a real blessing for the reader.

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