Open Access

The Blue Fox: Cryptic Storytelling and Nonhuman Mimicry in the Work of Sjón and Jeff VanderMeer

Chris Danta

Crypsis in the Time of Climate Change

The lyrical novella The Blue Fox (2004), by the Icelandic writer Sjón, begins with its third-person narrator noting the uncanny ability of blue foxes (a variety of arctic foxes with dark blue, brown, or gray coats) to avoid detection in the winter by blending in with their surroundings. “Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder,” the narrator muses. “When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow” (3). In ethology, this ability of an animal to avoid detection by blending in with its environment is known as crypsis. Although predators use it to capture prey, crypsis is predominantly an antipredator adaptation, a way of avoiding attack. According to the zoologist Donald L. J. Quicke: “The vast majority of animals defend themselves from predation by making it hard for predators to detect them. In evolutionary terms, natural selection has favoured those traits that reduce the probability of detection by predators.” Perhaps the commonest form of cryptic camouflage is background matching, in which “a prey animal has the same colouration and texture as the environment or microhabitat where it lives” (29). Natural historians have long noted this phenomenon of background matching. Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus observed in his 1794 text Zoonomia; Or, the Laws of Organic Life that the “colours of many animals seem adapted to their purposes of concealing themselves” (509). Both color types of the arctic fox—white and blue—are adapted for camouflage within the arctic landscape. The coat of the white morph turns from a brown and light gray in the summer to a pure white during the winter, while the coat of the blue morph remains dark blue, brown, or gray throughout the year (only lightening slightly in the winter). Blue foxes, the dominant morph in Iceland, where Sjón’s fable is set, live mainly in coastal areas without sea ice and with little snow during the winter (Fuglei and Ims 177). As Sjón’s narrator points out, this darker winter coloration helps them to camouflage themselves against the simple background of coastal rocks and stones.

Background matching is a camouflaging strategy that counteracts figure-ground segregation, a fundamental process by which “the visual system identifies image elements of figures and segregates them from the background” (Schnabel et al. 1). When analyzing a visual scene, we tend to simplify that scene into figures or object-like areas versus grounds or background-like areas. As the evolutionary ecologists Sami Merilaita and Martin Stevens note, background matching is “an adaptation that decreases the deviation in features between the appearance of the animal and its background to counteract the figure-ground segregation” (18). An animal that is background matching avoids detection by shifting from being a localizable figure in a receiver’s visual field to being a nonlocalizable part of the background. While initially a perceptual problem, this confusion of the distinction between figure and ground also has profound implications for how we think about identity. Several scholars in the humanities have discussed cryptic background matching as a way of relating to the physical environment that paradoxically deindividuates the camouflaging organism. When background matching, an organism appears to give up its individual identity to take on the identity of the thing it imitates. If the biological mimic’s model is an inanimate object in its local environment such as a stone, then the mimic’s ontological allegiance seems to pass momentarily from the realm of the animate to the realm of the inanimate.

The French sociologist and literary critic Roger Caillois was fascinated by how crypsis expresses “a tendency [of the living organism] to return to the inanimate” (Man, Play and Games 178). In his famous 1935 article “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” Caillois argues that crypsis blurs the fundamental distinctions between the organism and its surroundings, the animate and the inanimate, and the foreground and the background. “Among distinctions,” he writes, “there is assuredly none more clear-cut than that between the organism and its surroundings; at least there is none in which the tangible experience of separation is more immediate” (“Mimicry” 16). What interests Caillois about the act of crypsis is that, by undermining the distinction between organism and milieu (or figure and ground), it undercuts the camouflaging creature’s sense of identity. Simulating an aspect of its inanimate background, Caillois speculates, causes the mimic to lose its sense of individuality and vitality. “The feeling of personality,” he writes, “considered as the organism’s feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail in these conditions to be seriously undermined” (28). Just as an observing organism has difficulty distinguishing the mimic from its visual background, the camouflaged creature itself loses a sense of its difference from its milieu while it is hidden. Caillois famously describes the effect of crypsis on the mimicking organism as “depersonalization by assimilation to space.” Rather than standing out as a living figure against an inanimate background, the organism is instead absorbed into this inanimate background. Caillois notes of such background matching that “Life takes a step backwards” (30).

Notice how Caillois uses the more abstract and geometrical term “space” rather than the more concrete and earthy term “place” in his account of crypsis. According to him, the camouflaging organism becomes absorbed into an abstract and undifferentiated space when it mimics an aspect of its visual background. This abstract and undifferentiated space functions negatively to disorient the cryptic organism and to imperil its sense of self by luring it into a state of inanimation. Toward the end of the article, when he talks about “the temptation of space” (28), it becomes clear that Caillois understands this aspect of the organism’s relation to space as something negative. Linking crypsis to “the fear of the dark,” he writes that this fear “probably also has its roots in the peril in which it puts the opposition between the organism and its milieu” (30). The problem with Caillois’s analysis of crypsis is that it simplistically and anthropocentrically equates individuality with life and deindividuation with death. But why should we equate cryptic deindividuation with death when it enables prey to avoid being attacked by predators? And why should we see figure space as disorientating and dislocating when it allows cryptic organisms to avoid detection? Detaching crypsis from its functional aspect causes Caillois to misconstrue the role of the physical environment in the process.1 What he fails to appreciate is that an organism can only disappear into its visual background because it is highly adapted to a particular microenvironment. Cryptic creatures like the blue fox lose their camouflaging ability once they are transposed to a different microhabitat. It would therefore be more accurate to describe the effect of crypsis on the organism as “depersonalization by adaptation to place” rather than as “depersonalization by assimilation to space” (emphasis mine).

A more recent discussion of crypsis sees it as an adaptation to place in response to a changing planet. In the essay collection How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency (2019), the art theorist Akiko Busch marvels at how cryptic organisms fit within their physical environment and thus model to their human observers a sense of planetary belonging in a time of global warming. Busch writes of a pebble plant that was gifted to her by her husband: “It conveyed a message about finding accommodation in our surroundings. Its botanical ingenuity revealed something about the beauty, valor, and imagination of going unseen” (61–62). She contrasts the “ingenious masquerade” of the pebble plant, which has evolved to resemble a collection of stones, with the “festival of exposure that seems so central to the way we (humans) live today” (61). According to Busch, cryptic behavior offers a model of surviving climate change by adapting to one’s environment: “How we are able to become constituents of a broader landscape will gain more relevance as the earth warms and its population reaches the nine billion mark. Our deeply held values about individuality may even become passé” (80). In contrast to Caillois, then, Busch presents the loss of individuality modeled in cryptic behavior in a positive light, as embodying a sense of environmental sustainability and planetary belonging. Observing the quiet and creative accommodation of cryptic organisms to their environment has taught her that humans overvalue individuality. “Whether you call it crypsis or simply a sense of belonging,” she concludes, “the measure of our humanity may be derived not from how we stand out in the world, but from the grace and concord with which we find our place in it” (80).

Another scholar in the humanities who has recently used crypsis to think about how humans might relate more positively to their natural environment in the face of climate change is the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh begins his influential 2016 book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by discussing some examples of cryptic behavior. “Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive?” he writes. “As, for example, when an arabesque in the pattern of a carpet is revealed to be a dog’s tail, which, if stepped upon, could lead to a nipped ankle? Or when we reach for an innocent looking vine and find it to be a worm or a snake? When a harmlessly drifting log turns out to be a crocodile?” (3). In each of these three examples, something that an observer initially codes as inert background (a dog’s tail, a snake, a crocodile) suddenly rushes into the perceptual foreground by showing itself to be “vitally, even dangerously alive.” As we have seen, Caillois reads crypsis as expressing the tendency of the living organism “to return to the inanimate” (Man, Play and Games 178) because he focuses his analysis solely on the initial moment in the camouflaging process in which the cryptic creature disappears into its surroundings and must remain deathly still to avoid detection. By instead zeroing in on the subsequent moment, in which the cryptic creature suddenly moves and reveals itself to an observer, Ghosh arrives at a completely different conclusion: that crypsis expresses the tendency of the inanimate environment to return to a state of animation.

Ghosh helps us see that cryptic deindividuation is not just about life taking a step backward (as Caillois suggests) but also about life taking a step forward. The phenomenon of background matching in fact involves two perceptual illusions: the illusion of the animate organism becoming inanimate as it hides, and the illusion of the inanimate environment becoming animate as the cryptic organism reveals itself. How does this second illusion work? When the hidden organism emerges from its camouflaged state by moving, it can strike a human observer that the perceptual background itself—the landscape, the environment, the planet—has come to life and started to act as a single organism. This effect occurs because the camouflaged organism seems to act in a depersonalized way, not as an individual organism but rather as a part of the environment. When the branch moves, our first thought is that the tree is alive. Before recognizing that the branch is in fact a camouflaged snake or worm, we attribute animal life to something inanimate. While Busch reads cryptic deindividuation as a sign of an organism’s perfect adaptation to its place, for Ghosh it illustrates the demonstrable liveliness of the environment. To make this point, he offers a final, science-fictional example of crypsis in which the perceptual background of the observer literally turns out to be a single living organism. This is the memorable scene in Irvin Kershner’s 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back, in which Hans Solo “lands the Millennium Falcon on what he takes to be an asteroid … only to discover that he has entered the gullet of a sleeping space monster.” Ghosh reads the scene as a cautionary tale for future earthlings: “The humans of the future will surely understand, knowing what they presumably will know about the history of their forbears on Earth, that only in one, very brief era, lasting less than three centuries, did a significant number of their kind believe that planets and asteroids are inert” (3).

Ghosh uses the perceptual phenomenon of crypsis to explain how our understanding of the planet earth is shifting in this era of the Anthropocene, in which (as he quotes the science historian Naomi Oreskes) “humans have become geological agents, changing the most basic physical processes of the earth” (9). “Anthropocene,” from the Greek roots anthropo (human) and cene (new), is a term the atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen and the lake biologist Eugene F. Stoermer have proposed assigning to the current, human-dominated geological epoch, supplementing the Holocene, the postglacial geological epoch of the past ten to twelve millennia. Crutzen and Stoermer argue in a much-cited 2000 article for the Global Change Newsletter that the impacts of human activities on the earth and atmosphere have escalated to such a degree over the past three centuries that humankind has become a major geological and environmental force. Considering the many “major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere, and at all, including global, scales,” they write, “it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch” (17).

For Ghosh, one of the uncanny effects of the Anthropocene is a “renewed awareness of the elements of agency and consciousness that humans share with many other beings, and even perhaps the planet itself” (63). It is true, he notes, that many humans have never lost this awareness in the first place. “In the Sundarbans, for example, the people who live in and around the mangrove forest have never doubted that tigers and many other animals possess intelligence and agency” (64). Moreover, the awareness of nonhuman agency is nowhere more apparent than in ancient traditions of narrative such as the epic: “In the Indian epics—and this is a tradition that remains vibrantly alive to this day—there is a completely matter-of-fact acceptance of the agency of nonhuman beings of many kinds” (64). Central to the narrative machinery of both Western and non-Western epics is the intervention of nonhuman agents. But since the emergence of modern, industrialized society in the eighteenth century and the accompanying rise of the realist novel, these older, animistic modes of thinking and storytelling have become increasingly marginalized cultural and aesthetic practices in the West. “It was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere,” Ghosh alleges, “that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human” (66). He understands the Anthropocene as a challenge to overcome this cultural and aesthetic anthropocentrism and to recover the animistic modes of thinking and storytelling that have been suppressed in the West.

Ghosh is not alone in arguing that the Anthropocene has “forced us to recognize that there are other, fully aware eyes looking over our shoulders” (66). This is a central point in the French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour’s influential account of the Anthropocene. “As horrendous as history has been,” Latour writes in Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime,

geohistory will probably be worse, since what had remained quietly in the background up to now—the landscape that served as the framework for all human conflicts—has just joined the fight. What was a metaphor up to now—that even the stones cried out in pain in the face of the miseries humans had inflicted on them—has become literal.


According to Latour, the Anthropocene confounds the long-standing Western idea of nature as static background to human activity by revealing a world in which “the old distance between background and foreground has faded away,” in which the nonhuman environment can suddenly come to life and take on “a frenzied aspect” (Facing Gaia 74). “I use this term [New Climatic Regime],” he writes, “to summarize the present situation, in which the physical framework that the Moderns had taken for granted, the ground on which their history had always been played out, has become unstable. As if the décor had gotten up on stage to share the drama with the actors” (3). He returns to the same metaphor in Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime:

Today, the décor, the wings, the background, the whole building have come on stage and are competing with the actors for the principal role. This changes all the scripts, suggests other endings. Humans are no longer the only actors, even though they still see themselves entrusted with a role that is much too important for them.


Like Latour, Ghosh understands the Anthropocene as the moment in which “the décor, the wings, the background, the whole building have come on stage and are competing with the actors for the principal role.” Ghosh writes of the Sundarbans in his unpublished notebooks in May 2002 (which he refers to in his 2016 book): “I do believe it to be true that the land here is demonstrably alive; that it does not exist solely, or even incidentally, as a stage for the enactment of human history; that it is [itself] a protagonist” (6). In literary terms, the Anthropocene problematizes the distinction between setting and character by revealing a narrative world in which the nonhuman environment can suddenly come to life and operate as a character in the story. The literary critic John MacNeill Miller has recently observed that, because of previously marginalized genres such as the weird (with which Jeff VanderMeer is associated) moving into the literary mainstream, “nonhuman backgrounds are [now] being foregrounded like never before” (“Weird” 250). “For too long,” Miller writes,

nonhuman environments have served as the unexamined and undertheorized background of narrative activity. Yet as a growing number of critics have observed, awareness of ecology in the Anthropocene does away with easy distinctions between individual agents and static environments. … The scenery is shifting beneath our feet, but we still do not have any good sense of how to read it.

(“Mischaracterizing” 170)

Following Miller, Jon Hegglund has proposed analyzing such narratives that make material entities and environments characters in the story under the rubric of “weird narratology.” “Weird narratology, as I envision it,” Hegglund writes, “is aimed at narratives that foreground a blurring between narrative agents and material entities or environments.” According to the principles of weird narratology, he observes, “characters need not be human, settings need not be backgrounds” (34).

In this essay, I seek to contribute to the emerging field of weird narratology by examining how two contemporary literary authors—Sjón (the pen name of Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson) and Jeff VanderMeer—use the biological phenomenon of crypsis to theorize and narrativize nonhuman agency in the time of the Anthropocene. As we have seen in the first section, Busch and Ghosh both identify “our deeply held values about individuality” (Busch 80)—the human desire to stand out in the world—as something that prevents us from finding more sustainable ways of engaging with the environment. According to Ghosh in The Great Derangement, “What we need … is to find a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped” (135). My suggestion here is that the process of cryptic deindividuation provides a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we find ourselves trapped by modeling a form of depersonalized, environmental subjectivity. What makes crypsis an ideal phenomenon with which to tell Anthropocene stories is that it blurs the distinction between figure and ground, organism and its milieu, individual and collective agency. In background matching, an organism engages with its environment or perceptual background in such a way that it ceases to act individually and starts to act collectively, as an agent of the environment.

In what follows, I examine how Sjón and VanderMeer critique human individualism and human instrumentalism in the time of the Anthropocene by developing narratives that focus on the cryptic behavior of nonhuman agents. I pair Sjón with VanderMeer because The Blue Fox, which won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2005 and was translated into English by Victoria Cribb in 2008, has deeply influenced VanderMeer. VanderMeer thanks Sjón in the dedication to his 2017 novella The Strange Bird for “allowing me to borrow one of his blue foxes.” I turn to The Strange Bird in the third and final section of the essay to show how VanderMeer’s interest in crypsis can be partly traced to his reading of The Blue Fox. Although Sjón’s fiction is not yet well known in the Anglophone world, several prominent writers in English, such as A. S. Byatt, David Mitchell, Charles Baxter, and VanderMeer, have expressed admiration for it (Anderson; Baxter). Byatt writes in her 2013 review of The Blue Fox for the New York Review of Books, “Every now and then a writer changes the whole map of literature inside my head.” I think reading Sjón has had the same transformative effect on VanderMeer.

In tracing the influence of The Blue Fox on VanderMeer, I am guided by two questions that are at once technical and theoretical, narratological and philosophical: (1) What does it mean to focus a literary narrative, as Sjón and VanderMeer do, on the cryptic blueness of an arctic fox or on an arctic fox’s adaptive ability to disappear in a landscape by mimicking a stone? (2) What does it mean, moreover, to figure the human–nonhuman relation as a cryptic or perceptual drama in which the nonhuman organism plays the part of mimic, the human organism plays the part of receiver, and the landscape acts as model for the nonhuman mimic? According to the literary critic Will Abberley, who has written extensively about adaptive resemblance in nineteenth-century literature: “[B]iological mimicry unsettled, and continues to unsettle, anthropocentric binaries between humans and animals, and nature and culture. Mimicry, therefore, offers a potent motif for cultural theorists who seek to destabilize nature and animality as categories” (“Brutal Visions” 64).3 Literary writers can unsettle these binaries, I suggest here, by placing the human subject in the position of observer, receiver, or dupe, as it is sometimes called, of the nonhuman act of crypsis.

Sjón’s Blue Fox

This is precisely what Sjón does in The Blue Fox. Sjón’s novella partly tells of a blue vixen who is being hunted for her pelt in Iceland in the winter of 1883 by Reverend Baldur Skuggason. It begins mid-hunt as its animal protagonist is background matching against a stone to avoid being detected by her human predator:

A blue vixen lies tight against her stone, letting the snow drift over her on the windward side. She turns her rump to the weather, curls up, and pokes her snout under her thigh, lowering her eyelids till there’s the merest hint of a pupil. And so she keeps an eye on the man who has not shifted since he took cover under the overhanging drift, here on the upper slopes of Asheimar, some eighteen hours ago. The snow has drifted and fallen over him until he resembles nothing so much as a hump of ruined wall.

The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.


Here the narrator presents the evolutionary perceptual drama of crypsis from the point of view of a prey animal and biological mimic (the vixen) who seeks to become inconspicuous to her signal receiver (the man) by imitating an inanimate model (the stone). We first take the vixen’s perspective as she settles into her defensive position and keeps a wary eye on her would-be attacker, who is also trying to camouflage himself by lying perfectly still on the snow. Both fox and human have come, in their stillness, to resemble a part of the landscape: the fox a stone, the human a ruined wall. After initially giving the fox’s perspective, the narrative then shifts to the man’s point of view. This shift in focalization allows Sjón to show how the animal mimic manipulates the senses of her human observer.

Cryptic organisms try to avoid detection by causing their receivers to conflate them with their models. If, as is the case in The Blue Fox, the mimic’s model is an inanimate object or a part of the environment, then the receiver’s confusion will be between an organism and its surroundings. Our perception that the organism is clearly and immediately distinct from its surroundings relates to our more general perceptions that the animate is distinct from the inanimate and the foreground is distinct from the background. As cognitive psychologists have shown, humans allocate visual attention preferentially to elements in the foreground rather than the background (Mazza et al. 201–10). In human visual perception, the foreground thus has greater salience than the background. Visual motion, moreover, is “an especially rich source of information for rapid, effective object segregation. A stealthy animal cloaked by camouflage immediately loses its invisibility once it begins moving” (Tadin et al. 2). As a highly evolved organism that is adapted to human encounters, Sjón’s blue vixen intuitively knows this. She tries to exploit the visual preferences of her human observer by shifting from the man’s perceptual foreground (as a figure moving on the Icelandic landscape) to his perceptual background (as an inanimate, immobile part of that landscape).

The vixen’s cryptic act of background matching in The Blue Fox confounds three fundamental assumptions or biases of human perception: (1) that the organism is clearly and immediately distinct from its surroundings, (2) that the perceptual foreground has greater salience than the perceptual background, and (3) that visual motion is a rich source of information for rapid, effective object segregation. To detect the vixen in the wintry landscape, the human hunter must suppress these natural habits of his perception. He must assume that the vixen is not clearly and immediately distinct from her surroundings since she may be camouflaged. He must treat the perceptual background as equally salient as the perceptual foreground. Finally, in the absence of visual motion, he must deduce the vixen’s position from the presence of her static environmental models (the stones). We see the man employ these counterintuitive perceptual strategies for object detection in an earlier moment of the hunt that precedes the novella’s tense opening scene and forms its mirror image:

Out on the stony plain the air was still and freezing hard; only the lightest breath touched his cheek. The man saw a bluish bump far to the north. He held himself still. After a while the bump began to stir. And shortly afterward a blue vixen rose from the stones.

“Ha, there she is.”

A rare beast. Dark as earth to look at, with a thick pelt and bushy tail, clearly jumpy as hell.


To spy the vixen, the man focuses on her surroundings: the stones on which he knows she likes to hide. He sees “a bluish bump” in the distance. Rather than immediately shift his visual attention away from this still object, he lingers on it, hoping that the “stone” might come to life. Indeed, it does—and he acknowledges the sighting of his prey with the wonder of an infant playing peekaboo: “Ha, there she is.” Her ability to appear out of nowhere seems as magical to him as her ability to disappear into the landscape in the first place. While it is the fox’s movement that finally gives her position away to him, it is the man’s patient and attentive surveillance of her surroundings, the stilling of his vision, if you will, that puts him in a position to see this movement.

What I mean by cryptic storytelling is storytelling that focuses on the nonhuman mimic’s ability to exploit the senses of its human observer. Cryptic storytelling seeks to attune the human receiver to the nonhuman mimic’s experience of its environment by reversing the three biases of human perception I have identified. It seeks to show (1) that the organism is not clearly and immediately distinct from its surroundings, (2) that the perceptual background is just as salient as the perceptual foreground, and (3) that static environmental features such as stones might indicate the presence of cryptic organisms as readily as visual motion. Perhaps the fundamental human perceptual bias that crypsis exposes and exploits is our tendency to privilege the living organism over its surroundings and thus the foreground over the background. In literature, we express this perceptual bias by privileging (human) character over (nonhuman) setting. In reading literary narratives, we generally pay greater attention to the characters in the foreground of a narrative than to the setting or background of a narrative. We tend, moreover, to perceive character as dynamic and setting as static. We imagine the characters in a narrative as being actors on a stage. Cryptic storytelling unsettles these deeply ingrained reading habits by shifting the perceptual attention of readers away from what is in the foreground (the individual organism, the character, the present) toward what is in the background (the species, the surroundings, the setting, the past or future). I suggest that such storytelling grants agency and dynamism to aspects of the nonhuman environment that usually escape our attention through a rhetorical process of foregrounding the background.

Consider, once again, my example of The Blue Fox, which begins with a paeon to the camouflaging abilities of blue foxes. The cryptic blueness of the fox—the evolutionary characteristic that enables it to resemble a stone—belongs less to the individual animal (the vixen) than to the species Vulpes lagopus. It is a sign, moreover, of this species’ adaptation to its local environment over a long period. The narrator presents the character of the vixen to us by immediately making us aware of her evolutionary connection to her surroundings—of how the biological or evolutionary past lives on in the historical present. The vixen’s intimate connection both to the inanimate landscape and to deep or evolutionary time makes it seem to the man as if she exists in another temporality. Indeed, the man acknowledges this aspect of the vixen’s identity when he thinks of her as “a daughter of Reynard” (4), alluding to the red fox trickster figure of the medieval beast fable Reynard the Fox. Sjón’s blue fox, then, practices a kind of trickery on the man that is not just spatial but also temporal in nature. She hides from him not simply by blending into the landscape but also by blending into time—that is, into the ancientness of the landscape that eclipses the juvenility of human time. As we have seen, Caillois describes the effect of crypsis on the mimicking organism as “depersonalization by assimilation to space” (“Mimicry” 30). For him, the biological mimic loses its sense of individuality because of being absorbed into its spatial background. I argue here that crypsis also involves a concomitant process of depersonalization by assimilation to time. In The Blue Fox, it is as if the vixen exists both in the present moment of the hunt and in its evolutionary or mythological past because of her cryptic behavior. To put it another way, it is as if she disorients the man by bringing the evolutionary, mythological, or folkloric past into the present moment.

Cryptic creatures use what is at the edge of their receivers’ perception to hide themselves. In the case of The Blue Fox, where the receiver is human, the edge of the receiver’s perception includes fable, myth, and folktale. Sjón signals the importance of these ancient literary genres to the meaning of his story by titling the novella Skugga-Baldur, which is the name of a well-known creature in Icelandic folklore. According to one of the folktales involving this monster, from which Sjón clearly draws inspiration, “A skuggabaldur has a cat for a father, while its mother is a vixen. They are savage as the demon harriers, or foxes set on by sorcerers to maul other men’s sheep, and when shot at, the gun will misfire” (Boucher 83). In the folktale, a skuggabaldur preys on the sheep of the Hunavatn folk until a crowd of people track it to its lair in the gully of the river Blanda and stab it to death. By alluding to this folkloric monster in the novella’s title, Sjón encourages us to read the man’s encounter with the blue vixen as taking place simultaneously in two different temporalities and two different modes: in the historical present of winter 1883 and in some fabulous, folkloric or mythological past. In imagining the vixen as a modern-day incarnation of the skuggabaldur, he also encourages us to see her not simply as a passive and vulnerable prey animal but also as a creature capable of actively preying on the man—indeed, of luring him to his death.

The cryptic behavior of the vixen has the effect of bringing what is usually in the background of a realist literary narrative—the physical landscape, a sense of evolutionary folkloric and mythical time—into the narrative foreground. As she takes on a resemblance to the dark coastal stones of her landscape, the vixen seems to become a part of that landscape. She provokes a sense of wonder in the man when she moves among the stones and reveals herself to him because it is as if in this moment the landscape itself has suddenly come to life. What he previously coded as inanimate environment or perceptual background now shows itself to be animate and demands his perceptual attention. The vixen’s cryptic behavior has the effect of depersonalizing her identity so that she seems to act as part of the landscape in which she hides rather than as an individual organism. Sjón empties the vixen of individual identity and agency in this way so that she can become the site of more impersonal and ecological forms of identity and agency, such as the spirit of the landscape, evolutionary and mythic time, and the folkloric monster the skuggabaldur. As the vixen recedes into the man’s perceptual background, the perceptual background seems to come to life as a character in the story.

Indeed, there is a precise moment in which the nonhuman environment starts to act as a character in The Blue Fox. It is when the man finally shoots and kills the vixen at the end of part 1 after hunting her for days. After repeating his opening-page description of the blue vixen camouflaging herself from the man like a musical refrain, Sjón ends part 1 with the following dramatic denouement: “The fox closes her gray eyes. When she opens them again the man is gone. She raises her head. Reverend Baldur Skuggason pulls the trigger” (33). It is significant that the man is named for the first time in the text as he shoots the fox. In shooting his prey, he asserts his power over not just the vixen but also the entire wilderness. Part 3 of the novella begins: “The shot fires off. It blows away the divine peace of the wilderness like a scrap of paper. A shower of sparks bursts from the barrel. The gunpowder crack shouts: ‘HEAR THE MAN!’” (79). Reverend Skuggason gets to his feet to inspect his kill and confirms her death: “Yes, there she lies, dead as a doornail. … [The fur] appears quite intact—there’ll be some value in that” (80). Feeling quite full of himself, he stuffs the dead creature in his coat. But his sense of victory over nature is short-lived. For the mountain has heard the man and soon responds to him in kind. As he stands there,

the firearm in his left hand, his right arm buried up to the wrist in his coat, like Napoleon in the desert … the peak replied to his shot. The drift splits in the middle with such a thunderous crack. … The lower section of the drift sets off down the mountain—snatching up the priest on the way.


The gunshot-induced avalanche casts the priest down the mountain not once but twice. The first time it only buries him superficially, and he manages to dig himself out. But the second time it pays him a visit, it deposits him deep into the earth, into “a small cave—a kind of elongated hollow that had formed at the end of the last ice age when the glacial tongue lumbered over the mountain root, extracting a thirty-yard-long molar of rock” (86).

When the Asheimar peak suddenly comes to life and deposits him into the ancient cave at its base for impertinently shooting the fox, it is as if the man has traveled back in time to an age before humans came to dominate the natural world. The climactic gunshot acts as a narrative switch that instantly transports him—and us—from a realist or historical narrative (in which the human dominates nature) to a kind of surrealist folktale (in which nature dominates the human). In being cast into the ancient cave, the man is cast out of history and into the realm of folktale. The cave is not simply an inert remnant of the last ice age but also, in some sense, the lair of the skuggabaldur. It is thus as if, when the blue fox can no longer hide from the man in space, she hides from him in time by taking refuge in myth and folklore. Sjón is careful to present this paradigm shift from realism to folktale as a matter of perception. Since the fabulous events that occur in the cave are focalized through the man’s consciousness, we are never sure if they occur in reality or only in Reverend Skuggason’s mind. Sjón tells Mary Hannity in a 2012 interview:

I now see my work as realist because everything I write is grounded in at least the experience of the character, here, in earthly life. The strange things that happen in the books are what happens in people’s minds, what they experience as truth. That of course creates a hybrid, when your standard is something normalised and accepted as the only way to experience reality.

(“Interview with Sjón”)

Badly injured from his fall, cut off from the world and awaiting death, Reverend Baldur drifts in and out of consciousness over the course of five days until he is suddenly awakened by the sound of someone calling out to him: “Ho! Reverend Baldur! Baldur Skuggason! Ho!” (95). It is the vixen miraculously returned to life and speaking to him from inside his clothes. To the man’s great astonishment, “the vixen sprang forth onto the floor of the cave. She spun in a circle, plumped down on her rump—and began to lick herself like a house cat” (96). The vixen licking herself like a house cat is the first sign we are given of her connection to the folkloric skuggabaldur, whose father is a cat. The second is the vixen’s newfound immunity to gunshot. After licking the bloodstains from her pelt, she then proceeds to spit out the shot such that “bloodstained lead ricocheted around the fissure, and great sparks flew from the rock where the shot struck” (97).

Sjón tells Michael Barron in 2016, “I think it is more or less impossible to write a novel that is devoid of mythical or folkloric elements” (“A Novel Without Myth Is Impossible”). In my reading, the mythical or folkloric elements of The Blue Fox serve an ecological purpose: they re-empower the nonhuman animal and the natural world over the human in the time of the Anthropocene. As Baxter astutely observes: “Sjón’s tales are quite hospitable to ghosts and spirits, mythic deities and quests, along with metamorphoses from the human into the animal and back again. All these remnants of an earlier, mythic world have been renovated and placed before us as if the entire process of disenchantment had somehow been reversed.” Sjón transports the man from the human- and technology-dominated present of the nineteenth century to the mythic and folkloric past, so that, like the vixen, he too can experience what it is like to become a cryptic part of the landscape. Where the more realistic part 1 of The Blue Fox concerns the vixen’s assimilation into her environment through her cryptic background matching, the more fantastic part 3 concerns the man’s assimilation into his environment through his fabulous transformation into a fox.

Here we must finally note the nominal connection between the skuggabaldur and Baldur Skuggason. Skuggabaldur comes from the Icelandic skuggi (shadow) and Baldur (the Norse god of light). While the god of light precedes shadow in the case of the reverend’s name, shadow precedes the god of light in the case of the name skuggabaldur. The vixen’s main role in the story, one might say, is to bring darkness to the light—that is, to bring the theologically minded man back down to earth by reversing the two parts of his name. As we have seen, the text associates light with human technology through the recurring image of flying sparks (from the priest’s gun and the regurgitated shot ricocheting around the cave). This imagistic motif continues in the subterranean cave, as man and beast debate about another kind of flying spark: electricity. Reverend Baldur opposes the new technology on theological grounds. He cannot accept that

electricity, which is created by the friction of the smallest atoms of the world, which form the kernel of God, should be transmitted via wires and cables, here, there, and everywhere, even into factories where it would be used to drive machines. … But if electricity is the building material of the world,” the vixen responds, and light its revelation, compare the first book of Moses, and God himself is light, though perhaps we can’t see this with the naked eye—like the pitch-black rock that surrounds us—well. … Surely the transmission of electric power ought to be desirable in the eyes of the Church, and its servants, if it is the Almighty Himself who shines in the lamps.


The reverend refuses this materialist reduction of the human to the technological and of his god of light to the god of electricity. “Do you really believe, Madam vixen,” he shoots back sarcastically, trying to reassert human exceptionalism, “that the radiance from these electric bulbs of yours can penetrate the human soul?” (100). Before she can answer him, the priest plunges “his knife deep into the vixen’s breast” (100). As the lamb discovers in Aesop’s fable “The Wolf and the Lamb,” no amount of rational argument on the vixen’s part can save her from her predator’s bloodlust.

The reverend’s knife finally succeeds in killing the vixen-skuggabaldur, where his gun had failed. The priest surveys his kill for a second time, now full of Icelandic superstition: “The corpse lay limp in his hands and he discovered that the skin was strangely loose on the body; a sure sign of a witch’s familiar” (101). As the man’s actions become more and more surreal and incantatory, it becomes apparent that he has lost his human mind: “The priest stripped naked. He gouged the fat out of the skin bag and greased himself from top to toe. Then he dressed himself in the hide, which proved so roomy that its forelegs reached the ground” (102). Sjón’s narrator here alludes to the magical idea that humans can shift their shape by wearing the skin of another animal. “In the medieval Icelandic sources,” Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir observes, “one finds references to men and gods changing their form by putting on the hamr of a certain animal, but the word hamr can mean both a pelt/skin and a shape” (279). After putting on the fox’s hamr, the delirious man plucks out and eats its heart. “He swallowed the slimy fox heart—and as if he’d been struck by lightning the thought flashed through him—OUT! Reverend Baldur dug himself out of the avalanche. He used both jaws and claws, he no longer knew his name, he just scratched and gnawed, gnawed and scratched” (103). Reverend Baldur Skuggason’s process of cryptic depersonalization is now complete. The two parts of his name are reversed, and he is ready to be assimilated into the landscape as a fox rather than a human. “The closer the priest came to his goal,” the narrator tells us, “the less man there was in him, the more beast” (103). When he exits the cave, he engages with his environment no longer as a human but through the sensory perceptions of a fox. Hearing a fox bark from the stony ground at the mouth of the valley, “Skugga-Baldur pricks his ears at the call. There’s no mistaking the scent, it’s a vixen in heat. Lust burns in his eyes, he puts his best paw forward and sets off down the fair valley; he will be the first to reach her. It is spring before the days of man” (104–05).

VanderMeer’s Blue Fox

According to Ghosh in The Great Derangement, “By no means are the events of the era of global warming akin to the stuff of wonder tales” (73). To treat the events of the Anthropocene “as magical or surreal,” he argues, “would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling—which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time” (27). But a text like The Blue Fox shows how contemporary writers can address the issue of the human domination of the natural environment through nonrealist genres such as the folktale, fable, or myth. One of Sjón’s abiding influences is surrealism—he was a founding member of the neosurrealist group Medúsa—and his novella critiques human technological dominance of the natural world by superimposing the magical, folkloric past onto its historical present of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps no contemporary author demonstrates how the events of the era of global warming are “akin to the stuff of wonder tales” more forcefully than VanderMeer. VanderMeer has recently gained international prominence for his apocalyptic science fiction about the Anthropocene. Joshua Rothman famously dubbed him “The Weird Thoreau” in a 2015 article for the New York Times. The literary critic Finola Anne Prendergast notes that VanderMeer’s 2014 “Southern Reach trilogy may well be the vanguard of prominent eco-literary-genre hybrids, which will make science fiction and overt environmental ethics more acceptable to contemporary literary culture” (336). VanderMeer’s fiction is remarkable for how it tries to comprehend contemporary issues such as climate change and habitat loss surrealistically through the lens of ancient and nonrealistic genres, such as fantasy, fairy tale and fable. “I think that a realistic world view doesn’t get you anywhere,” VanderMeer notes in a recent interview. “When you think about how they’re creating robots out of frog embryos right now it feels like you need something beyond the normal. Surrealism and fantasy permeating science fiction are what I turn to for thinking about these issues” (“Annihilation Author Jeff VanderMeer”). His recent trilogy of postapocalyptic novels set in the same fictional world—Borne (2017), The Strange Bird: A Borne Story (2017), and Dead Astronauts (2019)—illustrates this method of comprehending the present by mixing surrealism and fantasy with science fiction. As Laura Miller notes in her review of Borne for the New Yorker: “With the toppling of the old forms of order, Rachel, Wick, and the other residents of the city have been plunged into a primordial realm of myth, fable, and fairy tale. Their world is a version of the lost and longed-for territory of fantasy and romance, genres that hark back to an elemental, folkloric past roamed by monsters and infested with ghastly wonders.”

In the final section of this essay, I want to show that VanderMeer not only borrows one of Sjón’s blue foxes for his story but also expands the dramatic scope of cryptic storytelling to encompass the planetary in the Borne novels. While Sjón challenges the human domination of the natural world on a small scale in The Blue Fox by transforming its central human protagonist into a fox, VanderMeer challenges the human domination of the natural world on a massive scale in the Borne novels by transforming the entire planet into a postapocalyptic and posthuman landscape. In Borne, he depicts a kind of aftermath of the Anthropocene, in which humanity has almost destroyed itself through its misuse of biotechnology. “The novel is set in a ruined city abutted by a Company building that, now failing and broken,” VanderMeer writes, “once churned out biotech and sent it to more stable realms. Meanwhile, people in the City like Wick, the Magician, and others survive by using the Company’s cast-offs to create their own home-grown biotech” (“Borne Bestiary”). Cryptic background matching has become a necessary survival strategy for both humans and nonhumans in this surreal postapocalyptic environment. As ex-human Moss summarizes the new laws of the jungle, or the “tidal pool rules,” as she calls them, in Dead Astronauts, “Stay still, be small, bring the right camouflage, know good hiding places, become a symbiote or parasite, be poisonous or venomous, be able to regenerate body parts” (25). At the beginning of that novel, the three astronauts Moss, Chen, and Grayson wear “their camouflage, so that they appeared only as a glimmer against whatever backdrop they moved across. Faery mode, Moss liked to call it” (27–28).

Whereas human or humanoid characters such as the astronauts and the Magician require physical and technological supplements—a suit or cloak—to “bring the right camouflage,” nonhuman characters such as the foxes and the Strange Bird use their own bodies to background match. The foxes are the cryptic subjects par excellence. Living where the desert meets the City, they cryptically merge with their surroundings: “They were the colour of sand, which might shift and stall, pass between the paws unnoticed, but would never not be there. Would never become weathered down because it was already what it was meant to become” (Dead Astronauts 3–4). Like Sjón’s blue vixen, VanderMeer’s foxes mimic an ancient and fundamental part of the landscape. This adaptive connection to their environment gives them a completely different perceptual experience of the world compared with the human characters. While the human characters remain isolated and individualistic figures, disconnected from each other and their environment, the foxes connect to their fellows and their physical environment as if they are plugged into a computer network. They not only know each other’s will via some form of distributed cognition but also communicate telepathically with other animals in the landscape. Where VanderMeer’s foxes differ from Sjón’s blue vixen is in having been technologically altered by humans. VanderMeer makes his foxes anthropomorphized pieces of biotech partly to indicate the extent to which humans have transformed the planet and partly to help him imagine their perspective. As he remarks to Nick Duerden in an interview about Dead Astronauts: “I like writing from non-human perspectives. But you can’t get into the consciousness of an actual fox because, of course, that would be incomprehensible. The trick is to write about non-human characters that have been altered by human beings” (“Jeff VanderMeer on Dead Astronauts”).

By starting from the postapocalyptic position that humans have lost their place as dominant species on Earth, VanderMeer focuses readers’ attention on the nonhuman forms of life that survive in the City. “I’ve been calling [Borne] a book about ‘life in the broken places,’” he writes, “which admits to how much we’ve changed the planet while also acknowledging that, despite this, life continues to survive even in very devastated settings” (“Moving Past”). In describing the novel’s genesis, he notes: “Once I had this ruined city and this Company, I thought, What lives in the cracks of this place, and how might it have agency? There’s a story in the backdrop of biotech and little creatures—that have their own stories that come to the fore towards the end of the book” (“Powell’s Interview”).

Characteristically, in VanderMeer’s fiction, something is always happening in the background of the story that eventually comes to influence the central action. This is a source of its weirdness. VanderMeer delights in playing with his readers’ perceptions of foreground and background and in showing how what is going on unnoticed in the narrative background determines the perceptions of characters in the foreground. In a 2019 interview, he discusses the importance of the perceptual background in his work:

There’s a writer I love who writes short stories, Joy Williams, where in the backdrop, because she is big on ecology, anytime an animal appears it is actually doing the thing that it would do in that circumstance. And so she’s very aware of the fact that animals in the backdrop should not be furniture or something inert, that they can have some kind of power, even if they’re not the center of the story. So I think about that a lot. My prior novel, Borne, if you look at the backdrop you can read an entirely different story involving the little foxes that run through it.

(“Ann and Jeff VanderMeer”)

Like Williams, VanderMeer makes sure the animals in the backdrop of his fiction are not mere props but have power to act, even if they’re peripheral to the main story. In this regard, he sees himself as telling two stories in Borne, one in the narrative foreground, the other in the narrative background. On the one hand, he tells the central story of the first-person narrator Rachel, her partner Wick, and the titular biotech metamorph Borne as they struggle to survive in the City while being terrorized by a rampaging five-story flying bear called Mord. On the other hand, he tells the peripheral, cryptic story of the little foxes that subsist in the City along with the central characters and occasionally aid Rachel, Wick, and Borne in their fight against Mord and the Magician.

Given that his father is an entomologist and his mother an artist and onetime biological illustrator, it is perhaps unsurprising that VanderMeer’s backgrounds are quite literally teeming with nonhuman life. VanderMeer pays tribute to the complexity and diversity of the marvelous creatures existing in the background of Borne by appending an illustrated biotech bestiary to the novel. In this aptly named “Teems’s Bestiary,” he describes the little foxes, which are not native to the City and have been cognitively modified by the Company:

Certainly, foxes of all types have in the City exhibited atypical behavior or coordinated group behavior in stalking prey or they simply engaged in pranks—the pranks themselves indicative of higher-order brain functions and possible strategic analysis. According to legend, fox antics include … foxes that steal a scavenger’s salvage and then return it later (perhaps changed in some subtle way) … and foxes that at times warn scavengers of the approach of Mord, or appear to do so.


Like Sjón’s biological blue vixen, the biotech foxes in Borne are trickster figures, cryptic creatures that playfully deceive human scavengers by moving undetected between the perceptual foreground and background. The secret leader of these foxes is none other than the blue fox:

Scavengers tell the story that the blue fox was the secret leader of all the foxes and that the Magician kidnapped him [for her experiments] out of spite because he was so beautiful and because she feared the foxes he led and worried that they might make common cause with the great bear Mord. But the blue fox, even held by the Magician’s power and only a head upon a wall, could not be killed, for the blue fox did not truly live within our world. The blue fox had slipped over from elsewhere so that even if it should appear to die, it could never really die—not its heart, not its mind.


Like Sjón’s vixen, VanderMeer’s blue fox is as much a creature of myth, folklore, and fable as it is a real or scientifically modified fox. According to the character of Sarah/Moss in Dead Astronauts: “The creature puts you in mind of a comforting children’s fable. There are always clever talking foxes. Helpful foxes. Smiling with their teeth” (162). Like the vixen-skuggabaldur in The Blue Fox, VanderMeer’s blue fox exists in a different temporality from that of the human, cannot be killed in ordinary ways, and has the monstrous power to lure humans into its alternate universe. “‘If you see a blue fox,’ people in the City tell their children, ‘you must laugh as if you have heard a joke—and then … you must run for your life, for otherwise that blue fox will pull you over into his world’” (Borne 340).

According to Mark Payne in his recent book Flowers of Time: “Postapocalyptic fiction is political theory in fictional form. Instead of producing arguments in favour of a particular form of life, it shows what it would be like to live that life” (2). In the Borne novels, VanderMeer develops a truly nonhuman form of political theory by imagining what it would be like to live cryptically. In contrast to human political subjectivity, the cryptic political subjectivity of the foxes presupposes their bodily adaptation and psychic connection to the environment: “They were creatures from the broken places. They were insurgents that no one could see. They schemed in the desert and danced and yipped for the joy of it because they were free and no one saw that they meant their dance to be the city’s dance and for the city to be free” (The Strange Bird 82). When VanderMeer’s foxes act, they seem to act impersonally, as if from a great distance away and on behalf of something other than themselves. Like Sjón’s vixen-skuggabaldur, they are “gods of the shadows” (Del Faro Stocks), existing cryptically in the backdrop to affect the action in the foreground.

By far the most cryptic character in the Borne novels is the blue fox, who moves in and out of the narrative frame over the course of the three novels and who often acts when out of frame. The blue fox is a mysterious presence in Borne, referred to simply as “the fox” and described by Borne as “always on, like a lightbulb” (78). When Rachel encounters “the familiar fox” late in the novel, she tells it to go away, only for it to disappear before her very eyes: “The fox did something with fur that clearly wasn’t fur but some trick of bioluminescence to resemble fur … and slowly faded, bit by bit, until she had indeed gone away. But only by disappearing in front of me” (201). Borne tells Rachel earlier that it was the fox who advised him to hang the three besuited dead astronauts on his bedroom wall to “jazz up the place” (142). In a dark irony, the first time the blue fox is described or named as such, it is literally part of the backdrop: nothing more than a head hanging on the wall of the Magician’s laboratory. The Strange Bird, who focalizes the third-person narration in The Strange Bird, spies the fox on the Observatory wall when Charlie X delivers her up to the Magician in that text: “A blue fox head glowed from the slanted side wall. Though it must be dead, a trophy, the eyes stared at her and the mouth moved to yip. … In the backdrop, the blue fox” (53). Even though part of the backdrop, the luminous blue fox head gives the Strange Bird the uncanny impression of life. As we know from “The Borne Bestiary,” the human villain of the story, the Doctor Moreau–like vivisectionist referred to as the Magician, has nailed the blue fox to the wall as a trophy and warning to others.

Even though it “glowed like a lamp because the Magician had turned it into a lamp” (61), the fox is not yet dead and continues to influence the action from its peripheral position. The blue fox head consoles the Strange Bird during her imprisonment in the Observatory by acting as a beacon of hope and focal point of spiritual identification for her. The Strange Bird thinks to herself at one point that it “looked down and gave her the light she could not give herself, as if the true sun” (81). The blue fox head helps its fellow piece of human-animal biotech survive the trauma of being turned into something “more useful” (62) by the Magician: a camouflaging cloak. As the sadistic Magician operates on her without anesthetic, the Strange Bird loses awareness of everything else in the room, except “the head of the fox on the wall, staring benevolent down on her, shining with that blue, unfading, eternal light, that beatific agony, and the compass that still lived within her and pulsed in secret and had hidden itself from the Magician” (65). The “compass” or “beacon” is a device implanted in the Strange Bird by the human scientist Sanji that compels her to seek out her biotechnical twin at a lab located somewhere in the southeast of the Borne world. The Strange Bird fixes her thoughts on the compass and the blue fox head during her transformation because these two things remind her of her nonhuman nature and connect her spatially and emotionally to other nonhuman beings.

Lending The Strange Bird its fairy-tale quality is the fact that, after she escapes from the underground laboratory in which she was created at the beginning of the text, other characters in the story are always trying to show the eponymous bird her supposed true nature. The Old Man thinks of her as beautiful and so shows her her reflection in a mirror. The Magician thinks of her as useful and so turns her into a camouflaging cloak. While her human captors cruelly instrumentalize her, thinking of her only in terms of what she can do for them (represent beauty, provide camouflage), the curious foxes approach the Strange Bird on her own terms, as a nonhuman animal with a certain perceptual experience of her environment. When they first visit her in the Old Man’s prison, they “ask her questions about where she [came] from and what it felt like to drift so far above the Earth” (24). In contrast to the humans that restrict her physical movement, the foxes try to show the Strange Bird who she is by making her aware of what her body can do. When they put the idea in her head that she might escape from the Old Man “by becoming a ghost” (24), the Strange Bird discovers she can spontaneously background match: “she would grow very still and those neurons of her brain that lived natural in her feathers would alter her camouflage, dull the iridescence, practice matching the exact hues and tones of the prison cell” (26). Wick later explains to Rachel that the Strange Bird’s remarkable feathers can take on the texture and color of any background because they are mixed with cephalopod: “Nervous system modified. … Neurons redistributed, not just in what was the head, but in the feathers, which are a hybrid, contain cephalopod. That is why she can still think [after being transformed into a cloak]—her brains are all over her body” (95).

VanderMeer is fascinated by how cryptic organisms such as the biotech foxes and Strange Bird exploit the perceptual blind spots of their human receivers. As Sjón does in The Blue Fox, VanderMeer uses the theme of crypsis in his work not just to illustrate the limits of human perception but also to show how the nonhuman world is alive in ways we cannot fully understand. As we have seen, human receivers can experience crypsis as a sense of surprise that something they perceived to be inanimate or coded as background turns out to be “vitally, even dangerously alive” (Ghosh 3). The first-person narrator of VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation, the biologist, reacts in this way to Area X, when she notes: “I had the unsettling thought that the natural world around me had become a kind of camouflage” (98). Here it occurs to the biologist that the mysterious Area X may be a single cryptic nonhuman organism that hides itself by manipulating her perceptions. The fact that Area X, a piece of alien biotech that has crash-landed on the earth, can exploit human perception and transform matter confuses readers about the distinction between character and setting. As Hegglund notes, Area X “is both a backgrounded frame that we are likely to code as ‘environment’ or ‘setting’ as well as a narrative actant or figure—a character of sorts” (36).

My claim is that VanderMeer uses the foxes similarly in the Borne novels to confuse the distinction between character and setting. His Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction contains a pictorial allusion to these fictional foxes: an illustration by Kayla Harren titled “Clever Foxes,” which depicts a cute, sandy-colored fox camouflaging itself among some collapsed concrete blocks in a landscape while looking somewhat menacingly at the viewer. VanderMeer captions this illustration: “When is a character also part of the landscape? How do we differentiate? What does camouflage tell us about place?” (240–41). The cryptic foxes in the Borne novels confuse the distinction between character and setting not just by merging at will with the landscape but also by acting as the landscape’s eyes and ears. If we think of setting as what locates a character, then the foxes fulfill a similar role to setting by locating and tracking other characters in the landscape. The first time the Strange Bird sees one of the foxes, it is tracking the Old Man: “Closer by, etched in the crosshairs of her extra perception … a fox, atop a dune, curious and compact and almost like a sentry watching the Old Man’s position” (22). Each biotech fox acts as a kind of location sensor or tracking device that conveys data about the location and activities of other organisms in the environment to the rest of the group.

This is what the blue fox has been doing in the backdrop of The Strange Bird: monitoring the Strange Bird’s status while she is imprisoned in the Magician’s laboratory. Just as she is about to give up all hope and life after being worn out from years of serving as the Magician’s living cloak, the blue fox head surprises the Strange Bird by suddenly coming to life before her and telepathically communicating a message of hope to her:

What new thing was this, or was it old? Clustered behind the fox’s eyes she knew now peered down many foxes, some of them familiar from the dune outside the Old Man’s prison.

The blue fox head spoke in yips and barks. They did not speak in what was recognizable as speech, but still she knew the meaning.

We cannot help you, but we can track you, if the beacon still burns, and it will stop pulsing if you die, and you are close to death.


Through “a welter of images,” the foxes communicate their crypto-political mission to the ailing bird: “their struggle, their planning, how they had escaped the Company, how they had their own vision for the city and how the Magician was their enemy” (81). This promise of support reinvigorates the Strange Bird. She arrives at certain realizations: “That if she consciously allowed them in [to her mind], the signal would grow strong. That she must not die, that she must let them in” (82). The foxes then join telepathically with her: “Now as the Magician went about her war, her task of conquering the city, the Strange Bird could feel the foxes beside her, shadowing” (82).

“All too often,” VanderMeer writes in an essay he published on the same day as The Strange Bird, “we want to only see animal life for how it can be of use to us or be commodified, without acknowledging that animals have purpose that is theirs and theirs alone. Until we learn that lesson, we will continue to threaten our own existence on this planet” (“Moving Past”). The Strange Bird is a powerful rebuke of the human instrumentalization of nature in the time of the Anthropocene. Where the Old Man and Magician see animal life only for how it can be of use to them, the foxes recognize the Strange Bird as having a purpose that is hers and hers alone. They help the mutilated bird rediscover her place in the landscape by allowing her to experience the landscape virtually, through their eyes and ears. In a climactic scene near the end of the novella, the Magician curses her bad luck when she and her living cloak are attacked and badly injured by some Mord proxies (normal-sized bears in the image of Mord) as they travel toward the Company Building. The Magician rants at “how preternatural the bears’ tracking skills had been” (86). As it happens, the foxes have been invisibly manipulating the scene, leaving clues about the Magician’s location for the Mord proxies to find. When the Strange Bird instinctively shuts down her senses after being injured in the attack, the foxes act as “her eyes and ears instead” (87). She hears what the Magician says and experiences the scene

from the vantage of a fox sneaking close, saw through the fox’s eyes. How the Magician was invisible and the cloak was invisible, but for a flickering blue flame across the top of the cowl that only they could see, that was the Strange Bird’s beacon. She had imagined it as red … but it was blue, blue as the fox head on the Magician’s wall.


As she adopts the foxes’ perspective in the scene, the Strange Bird sees what has remained invisible to her human captors: the compass or beacon that is her soul or purpose. As Sjón does in The Blue Fox, VanderMeer colors this indestructible essence of the nonhuman animal that remains imperceptible to instrumentalizing humans a cryptic blue.

As I have underlined in this essay, cryptic storytelling brings what is often in the background of realist literary narratives—nonhuman animals, the natural environment, nonhistorical senses of time, nonhuman sensory perceptions—into the perceptual foreground. Focusing readers’ attention on these aspects of the nonhuman environment, making them come alive to readers as characters in the story, involves the concomitant rhetorical gesture of backgrounding the human. Sjón and VanderMeer invoke the time scales of evolution, myth, and fairy tale in their work to signal the temporal contingency of the human world. Sjón momentarily clears the earth of humans by having Reverend Baldur Skuggason transform into a fox and travel back in time to “spring before the days of man” (105). In the Borne novels, rather than returning to a time before humans, VanderMeer imagines a time after humans.4 As Rachel observes at the end of Borne, humans no longer dominate the postapocalyptic landscape: “The strange, forgotten animals abandoned by the Company live among us, along with their insatiable curiosity, like Bornes that want nothing from the old world. They need nothing from it. They are their own captains and lead their own lives, although there are still humans who see them as food, as expendable. In their fearlessness, I find a kind of solace” (317). As we have seen, the exemplar of this “fearlessness” and this “solace” is the blue fox, who is at one time or another in the Borne storyline: a fox, a tortured experimental subject of the Company, a time-traveling astronaut, a crypto-political leader of the foxes, and a trophy mounted on the wall of the Magician’s laboratory. Dead Astronauts begins with a fable about how the blue fox came to lead and politicize its brethren. The blue fox, who has been experimented on so much by the Company that it can travel through space and time without suit or ship, miraculously descends from the stars one night with “a flare of blue” to appear before the tremulous sandy foxes: “With a familiar grin of fangs. The blue fox. Larger than them by half. Projecting to them what he wanted to project. Love. Power. Fate. Destiny. Chance. Showing them another world. Another way” (4). The blue fox prophesies the coming of the Company and convinces the other foxes to follow it: “There will be a terrible price to be paid. But I will pay it. If you follow me.” This messianic message has a galvanizing effect on the other foxes: “It focused their thoughts through the prism of the blue fox’s mind. Now their play had purpose” (4–5).

I read the blue fox as embodying not just a certain crypto-political subjectivity but also the spirit of cryptic storytelling. Crucial to the meaning of the Borne novels is the fact that the cryptic foxes in the background know and perceive things that the human characters in the foreground do not and cannot know and perceive. “Unlike most human characters,” Marco Caracciolo observes of The Strange Bird, “the foxes appear aware of Strange Bird’s mission, including the function of the beacon” (131). Similarly, in Dead Astronauts, the blue fox knows that the “dead astronauts” Grayson, Chen, and Moss are doomed to fail in their valiant quest to destroy the Company. “Moss believed: The blue fox was aware of its brethren across all the paths [in time]. Moss believed: The blue fox often knew them [the astronauts] before first encounter” (30). The foxes—and particularly their leader, the blue fox—represent a kind of knowledge and perception that belongs to something older and wiser than humans: the landscape, the environment, the earth. The foxes’ connection to a time before (or after) humans came to dominate and destroy the earth’s environment enables them to carry out their crypto-political mission of liberating nonhuman life from human instrumentalization. What the blue fox ultimately symbolizes—even in its mutilated state of being a head mounted on a wall—is the indestructibility of nonhuman animal life. In an essay on cryptic storytelling, it seems fitting for me to give the last, defiant word to VanderMeer’s fabulous blue fox: “You say why save an empty Earth? … But it’s only empty to your eyes. It’s only empty because you helped make it so, and thought nothing of it. There is no end to us. Only to you. You’ll never understand that. You’ll never understand that without us, you don’t exist” (291).


  • I would like to thank the Australian Research Council for supporting research activities related to this project under the ARC Future Fellowship grant “Future Fables: Literature, Evolution and Artificial Intelligence” (FT200100914). I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers of Contemporary Literature for their helpful advice for improving this essay and to Oscar Danta for helping me spot VanderMeer’s blue fox in Borne.

  • This open access article is distributed under the terms of the CC-BY-NC-ND license ( and is freely available online at:

  • 1 Interestingly, Caillois renounces his earlier position on crypsis in a footnote to his 1961 book Man, Play and Games: “I no longer view mimetism as a disturbance of space perception and a tendency to return to the inanimate, but rather, as herein proposed, as the insect equivalent of human games of simulation” (178). See Cheng for a discussion of Caillois’s theory of mimicry.

  • 2 Before Latour, the Australian philosopher Val Plumwood criticized the tendency of humans to treat nature as the unimportant background to their activity in her 1993 classic Feminism and the Mastery of Nature: “The natural world and the biosphere have been treated as a dump, as forming the unconsidered, instrumentalised and unimportant background to ‘civilised’ human life; they are merely the setting or stage on which what is really important, the drama of human life and culture, is played out” (69).

  • 3 Abberley discusses the theme of adaptive resemblance in nineteenth-century literature in detail in Mimicry and Display in Victorian Literary Culture.

  • 4 Robertson (143–58) discusses how VanderMeer depicts “life after aftermath” in Borne and The Strange Bird.

This open access article is distributed under the terms of the CC-BY-NC-ND license ( and is freely available online at:

Works Cited