In Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, Hummingbird Salamander, the unnamed protagonist is presented in the opening pages with the key to a safety deposit box. Inside, she finds a taxidermied hummingbird and a note with just three words (and six dots) on it:
That gnomic communication sets off a paranoia-laced near-future conspiracy thriller; but one in which the hard edges and would-be gritty realism of the traditional thriller melt into something more bewildering, more evocative and more surreal; an inquiry into identity, a gothic family drama, a fable about ecological catastrophe and the ethics of terrorism.
As the stuffed hummingbird will indicate, those three words are nothing so prosaic as a secret code. “Jane Smith”, as she calls herself for the reader’s benefit (“if that helps”), coolly informs us straight off: “Assume I’m dead by the time you read this.” And for most of the novel, the mysterious Silvina whom she’s pursuing seems to be dead, too. There’s no obvious reason why “Silvina” should have reached out from beyond the grave to “Jane” – a middle-aged family woman with a job in systems security.
In a way, the unfolding of that mystery is a figure for how VanderMeer himself, a leading light of weird fiction and the fantastical, finds his way through his novels. He starts with what John Fowles called a “maggot”: “an image that is very charged – I wouldn’t say ‘symbolic’ because people then think of Freud and stuff like that, and I don’t like a set symbolism – that I feel has a weight, an extra meaning, connected to some sort of character in an initial situation or dilemma.”
The work is then done not at the desk, but under the duvet. “Sometimes I will tell my subconscious, you know, I want to explore this thing more. And before I go to bed, I will think consciously about the character and then wake up in the morning with some revelation.” He laughs: “Which seems like a pretty lazy way but it’s how it goes for me. I’m really a big believer in being very rigorous in the things that can be mechanical about writing and leaving to the subconscious or the organic those things that can’t.”
VanderMeer makes notes, sketches scenes, starts to get a feel for where it might go – most often while he’s gardening or hiking near his home in Florida. It’s only when he has “enough of this detritus” that he starts to shape it into a story. He means “detritus” literally: “possibly notes on leaves: I have had the weird experience out hiking, running out of notes, and having to figure out the right kind of leaf that will survive the rest of the week”.
Drafting his work on leaves is almost too perfect an image for VanderMeer, whose SF (if you can usefully call it that) seems to be in counterpoint to the science-fictional tradition that emphasises technological mastery over nature. He’s much more Swamp Thing than Robby the Robot. The work that brought him to a mainstream audience was the Southern Reach trilogy, about a wilderness area of the US that starts to return to nature in the spookiest of ways – coming under the control of a sort of quasi-sentient fungus that plays tricks with time and space – and the subsequent novel Borne, which had as its protagonist a giant, flying bear.
“I didn’t think a lot of writers were really grappling with the non-human,” he says. “We were not doing it that well. I keep up on animal behaviour studies; I read a lot of this stuff. And I would read a lot of fiction where I would like the book a lot but it was clear that, while the writer had done a lot of research on physics, they were relying on an idea of animal behaviour from their childhood. So I specifically [decided] I’m going to have a huge environmental library of books on the non-human: I’m going to let this seep into my subconscious, so that I don’t have to think about it as research, and kind of go from there.”
Even the most fantastical elements of his work are undergirded by the thing itself. For Hummingbird Salamander, for instance, he corralled a biologist friend – a colleague from a college in upstate New York where VanderMeer was a writer in residence – to design a species of hummingbird and salamander: “It was very important to me that an actual biologist create them, because it’s a more realistic novel. But then it was interesting from a narrative point of view to have to react to facts that I couldn’t change. That was the rule: I couldn’t change the facts.”
Those animals give the novel its frame: “These are two creatures that really epitomised something about the climate crisis – the hummingbird because it has to take such a long migration, which means it’s really susceptible to areas that are under drought or that have been developed. And salamanders, because they’re so susceptible to pollutants as they basically breathe through their skin. I like the idea of one thing that kind of stays put, and one thing that travels very far. And then there was the thing that ‘Hummingbird salamander’ felt right when I said it, as opposed to, say, I don’t know, ‘Hummingbird capybara’.”
The success of Southern Reach, he says, was both a boon and a source of slight irritation: “How can you look askance at something that does so well? But you know, I’d been a full-time writer for seven years; and in some ways, those seven years are what I’m most proud of. I had books that did well enough to continue publishing, which is the usual state for a writer. In the US, I think, the Southern Reach trilogy … there’s over a million copies in print. In my book before that, I think it’s maybe 20,000 copies. It was still very jarring to have had a career where I won a number of awards and had books that got critical acclaim, and have like an interviewer say: so what does it feel like being a success after being a failure?”
Annihilation, the first book of the trilogy, was made into a trippy and widely acclaimed 2018 film by Alex Garland, though VanderMeer giggles cagily when I ask what he made of it: “That’s always such a weird question,” he responds eventually, in a notably high-pitched voice, “because I love Alex Garland’s body of work … but it was so unfaithful to the book. There were no environmental themes, and some other things I thought were important were missing …” He goes on to say generous things about the film, and the way it expanded his audience, but it sounds to have been filed under “lessons learned”.
That said, as he sees it, Southern Reach’s success “definitely changes who I could reach with an environmental message”. VanderMeer’s environmentalism is at the heart of his work and his life. He has just joined the board of the Apalachicola Riverkeepers, which works to defend a vital US river system, has used social media to crowdfund the purchase of sensitive parcels of land, and royalties from Hummingbird Salamander are going to an organisation called Trespass, which campaigns against wildlife trafficking. He says he hasn’t the temperament to stand for elected office, but politics – of a deep green stripe – are a close concern.
“I try hard not to turn it into a coherent story about my life,” he says when I ask him how his ecological concerns and his fiction developed. “But it is true that growing up in Fiji, as a kid, all I remember is this amazing bounty of nature, and being raised by the sea. And then moving to Florida … we live in a place in north Florida here where – I didn’t even know this a couple years ago – it is the 10th most biodiverse place in the US, and 30th in the world. It’s getting up there to Amazon rainforest density.
“But there’s also this weird feedback loop with Annihilation, where I began to get these invites to science departments to talk about environmental issues in a way I hadn’t before.”
The plot of Hummingbird Salamander draws its protagonist into a world where wildlife trafficking and environmental terrorism are complicatedly entwined. Its pole star, Silvina, is a figure who seems to be involved in both. At one point, his narrator writes: “It was hard to think of Silvina as ‘terrorist’ or ‘murderer’ compared to the people she’d been fighting.” How far outside the law, I wondered, does the need to save the planet give you licence to go?
“It’s useful that a novel can be a laboratory of things that haven’t happened and maybe shouldn’t happen,” he says. “But it’s still useful to explore.” VanderMeer points out that a plethora of “new restrictions and laws”, some of them opportunistically hatched after 9/11, constrain environmental protest: “Even things like chaining yourself to a tree might mean you’re in prison for 10 years. In Florida this very week they’re trying to pass an anti-protest bill that means that if you even step into the street from the sidewalk, you could be arrested during a protest about anything, including environmental issues, and be in jail whether you were in any way violent or not.”
That hummingbird, by the way, goes way back. When VanderMeer was eight years old, he had what he calls a “hallucinogenic experience” in a hotel on a mountainside in Cusco, Peru. Ill with altitude sickness and asthma, spaced out with oxygen treatment, he looked out of the window and saw two hummingbirds courting on the wing. “It really felt fantastical just because I was completely out of it while I was seeing that – and they disappeared before my parents came into the room. I think I’ve been kind of trying to make sense of that experience ever since.”
Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer is published by Fourth Estate (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
This article was amended on 16 April 2021, to correct the spelling of Silvina.