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One Trio’s Mission to Save Humanity

One Trio’s Mission to Save Humanity

Jeff VanderMeer, author of the novel Dead Astronauts, seems to have gleefully taken to the nickname “the weird Thoreau.” The moniker was first assigned to him by The New Yorker writer Joshua Rothman, and like Thoreau, VanderMeer tends to center on humankind’s connection to the natural world. His work is undoubtedly weird. Little is as it seems in his novels. There are giant flying bears, lighthouses that might also be tunnels, and a talking fox that may be the messiah. VanderMeer is unparalleled in his ability to bring to our ears the songs of such strange worlds, from the animals that inhabit them to the soil itself.

At times in Dead Astronauts, the book’s sprawling nature seems connected with VanderMeer’s other work. It’s as if the same literary universe, expansive cast of characters and creatures, and unique perspectives have united toward a central aim. At its best, Dead Astronauts is an avant-garde and gorgeously textured story that demands to be proselytized.

VanderMeer’s debut as a novelist came almost two decades ago, though I first became aware of his writing five years ago, with 2014’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. VanderMeer has been as prolific as ever in recent years, leaning more and more into his unique authorial tendencies, at once naturalistic and anything but. Starting with 2014’s Annihilation (the first book of the aforementioned trilogy), VanderMeer’s output has been like watching the increasingly psychedelic productions of the Beatles in their later years, or perhaps more accurately, the progressively experimental and artful albums of the late Scott Walker.

Dead Astronauts once again steps into the setting first presented in Borne and later continued in the novella The Strange Bird, which introduced a near-post-apocalyptic world where an omnipresent Company’s products wreaked havoc on the ubiquitous City. Dead Astronauts returns to this City, or a version of it, to explore the fates of three characters whose corpses were only briefly touched on in Borne. The book opens on the eponymous “Dead Astronauts” Grayson, Moss, and Chen, who have been traveling across parallel universes and time-lines while attempting to stem the harm caused by the Company. It’s an inherently ecological undertaking, and a project preeminently focused on what it means to exist in a world that humans continue to destroy as the result of capitalism and climate change. VanderMeer explores humanity’s relationship to nature as we attempt to reconcile the harm we have caused. 

The trio’s mission is never made directly clear, though they get to work completing the steps that seem most familiar to them. The plan, however, quickly goes awry, leading Grayson, Moss, and Chen toward a moment that sends the novel splintering across perspectives, time-periods, and outcomes. We’re drawn away from the group for the remainder of the novel (barring some of the final moments). Instead, we journey into the perspectives of a giant fish creature who lives outside the Company building, a messianic fox that the three “Dead Astronauts” encountered earlier in the book, and a vagabond living outside the City who seems to live closer in time to the inciting moment of societal collapse.

VanderMeer’s unique characters and perspectives are a huge part of his draw, and in Dead Astronauts he asserts his place at the top of the food chain. While other attempts have been made in ecological fiction to give voices to more non-human roles, such as in Richard Power’s excellent The Overstory, no one does it better than VanderMeer. Part of his process is juxtaposing the rigidity of humankind against the flexibility of nature to permeate, change, and evolve. VanderMeer’s characters are often more than human, either through intense expertise or something truly extraordinary. VanderMeer’s characters aren’t limited to a small palette or vocabulary. Even the central ensemble in Grayson, Moss, and Chen exist on the edges of our perception, and are a diverse crew, defying traditional gender roles and understandings.

VanderMeer’s ability isn’t only limited to his character creation. It’s also showcased in the very construction of the book. Dead Astronauts is one of the most innovative novels I’ve read all year, playing with form, layout, and type. Many chapters open with a sort of poetic snippet. Some passages are accompanied by a version note, suggesting a shifting chronology. Characters may be faced with competing thoughts, which are represented by gray type, almost fading into the background of the pages. A few sections of the book carry a paragraph or two per page, and at one point in the novel the prose gives way to poetry. Even in the opening chapters, which will be most familiar to readers of modern fiction, VanderMeer plays with words and repetition in a way few other prose stylists dare attempt. The novel is sort of a plea to slow down and notice what you might regularly gloss over. It forces this sort of care on the part of the reader. The overall effect is delightful.

Because VanderMeer is such a good writer, it’s fun to watch him play. Not every section worked for me, but like the “digressive” sections of Moby-Dick, they all contribute to the ambiance of the work. Yet there are some halting moments. While not a direct sequel to either Borne or The Strange Bird, Dead Astronauts relies heavily on the concert between these works, and even as a reader of the preceding work, I found myself forgetting relevant information until I referred back to the earlier pieces. I’m sure a reader unfamiliar with either of the previous stories will see the brilliance showcased here, but it’s through the harmony of these works that the full resonance is revealed.

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I found myself nearly moved to tears by more than one section of the novel. An earlier scene showcasing some of Grayson’s backstory is particularly poignant, as well as the whole section told from the perspective of Botch, the fish outside of the Company building. It’s so vibrant and visceral that any difficulty in understanding the mechanics of the world for new readers can be forgiven. While the shifting perspectives is one of the prime strengths of the novel, the transition away from Grayson, Moss, and Chen can be a bit jarring. Without the context of their previous missions, it’s hard to gauge how dramatic a failure this attempt was for them.

While the three “Dead Astronauts” and the messianic blue fox are worthy competitors, perhaps the beating heart of the novel is the vagabond. Related in the second person, we see her interact with a modified life-form: a recognizable and strange sort of salamander, unique even among the dozens of other such experiments in the book. Unlike Grayson, Moss, or Chen, the vagabond is as human as we are, which is what lends her interactions with this creature such weight. As her relationship deepens with the salamander, so do her interactions. The two develop a kind of communication beyond a shared language. It’s here that the central project of the book is laid bare. “You can never ask what it wants or what it needs. All you can do is try to understand what exists in the body. Try to feel what it’s like to live in the water. What it means for a body to communicate with the world so intensely, so directly, for the world to be so up against you that you and it are the same thing.” With the beautiful work VanderMeer has put into Dead Astronauts, I’ve never felt closer to that understanding.

Dead Astronauts
By Jeff VanderMeer
Published Dec. 3rd, 2019

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