This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer.
The king of the New Weird genre has swung for the fences with this experimental work set in the same world as his 2017 novel Borne
. Exploring technology and ecological apocalypse, this book is an avant-garde warning about our current abuse of the planet and all those who inhabit it. — Mary S.
Increasingly, reading Jeff VanderMeer is like tripping balls with a version of Richard Feynman who’s been bioengineered with the brains of Rachel Carson and Hieronymus Bosch. From the Annihilation Trilogy
to Dead Astronauts
, VanderMeer has been edging away from an anthropocentric perspective that naturally gives the reader some purchase in his text toward a collective narrative that is at once expansive and limited. Each book produces more compelling, nonhuman personalities (aquatic beings with human faces; a flying bear; the plant-not-a-plant Borne; a messianic blue fox; a duck with a razor wing; a giant, tortured fish; a gender-fluid being made of moss; and on) that push on the reader’s understanding of what being in the world can look and behave like, but these creatures are also confounding, their backstories incomplete. In her LA Review of Books
review, critic Alision Sperling observes that “VanderMeer’s fiction seems to acknowledge the limitations of the human while still committing to the imaginative work of exploring the impossible.” That VanderMeer makes such experimentation with form and content gripping is a testament to his fascinating, formidable vision.
The result of VanderMeer’s knack for combining a very loose plot (in this case: destroy the Company, repeatedly, in different timelines and alternate realities, and always futilely) with characters one can barely envision or understand, and yet somehow still sympathize with, is, as reviewer Arkady Martine puts it, “a compulsively absorbing confusion.” In Dead Astronauts
, the reader meets Grayson, Moss, and Chen, the dead astronauts from Borne
. A trio of time-hopping, brain-melding combatants who fight the Company for a better future — though the meaning of “future” in a multidimensional world is unclear — Grayson, Moss, and Chen are bound by a singular purpose and a deep love for one another. The primacy of their bond is surprising within the violent, ambivalent world of the novel, in which the ravages of the company and the enormity of the natural world make individual relationships seem small and inconsequential. And yet it is love that keeps the trio marching through time to fight the Company, and the absence of love that perverts Charlie X and the dark bird, the novel’s villains. While it would be wrong to assert that VanderMeer’s message is one of love conquering all (it fails, each time), it’s interesting that amid the hellscape of Dead Astronauts
, love is the greatest currency.
It’s possible (though possibly wrong) to interpret VanderMeer’s Annihilation Trilogy as a story about nature winning against human misuse and destruction, while maintaining room for the human; it’s a narrative that we, living in ecological precariousness, cling to. Borne
and Dead Astronauts
dispense with any comfort that the environment as we know it can recover from humanity. Instead, the world of these novels is populated by the dead, half-alive, and cruelly bioengineered, mostly biological “waste” asserting claim to pain and memory. Despite being rooted in suffering, VanderMeer's apocalyptic vision is not without a silver lining: as the blue fox notes, it may be a cruel world, but it is one increasingly unshackled from human taxonomy and action — and in that, it is insuppressibly and terrifyingly free.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here