Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer has been on a hell of a roll lately. His SOUTHERN REACH trilogy is on my personal list of best series in the past quarter-century, Borne (I argued) was both an imperfect book and a great one, and now his newest, Dead Astronauts — set in the same multi-verse of Borne — is quite possibly my favorite book by him yet.
That said, there’s no doubt that Dead Astronauts is not going to be to everyone’s liking thanks to its elliptical, impressionistic, poetic style. But I highly urge everyone to try it, and also recommend that even if it seems not your cup of tea early on, or if you feel too adrift on a sea of language, that you forge onward, because the book, I’d say, is more off-putting (linguistically or narratively) on the surface than at its depths, as contradictory as that may seem. And readers who do continue on will be rewarded by a novel that is more clear at its close than at its start.
Dead Astronauts is set in the same multiple realities of Borne and The Strange Bird, and while it isn’t wholly necessary to have read those works, it would help. The environment-destroying City and Company appear here, as well as several of the characters (human and non-human) seen or referenced in the earlier books, including the titular astronauts, whom we saw only as skeletons before, but who now are revealed to be adversaries across time and space of the Company/City. Their mission, along with the evolution of the Company/City into its destructive form and an exploration of what if anything may follow its own ruination, forms the plot, such as it is, of the novel.
But “plot” is probably too concrete a term. Even though one can trace a narrative, as presented the story is highly fragmented, coming at the reader through the prism of a series of perspectives. The astronauts Chen, Moss, and Grayson, yes, but also a homeless woman, a duck, a blue fox, and others. As such, while threads run throughout, the novel is more of a series of linked non-linear, almost fractal stories, which themselves run a gamut of sometimes incantatory and sometimes hallucinatory language and imagery. Even when the language isn’t as highly stylized in terms of vocabulary and syntax but is relatively straightforward, what is being described is so unfamiliar and strange it can be disorienting early on. Here are a few passages to just give a taste:
…he compared notes with Moss, because their moves through fluid state were similar, even if his was a kind of fight against evaporation or ejection and hers an overabundance of accretion, a building up.
Flesh was quantum. Flesh was contaminated, body and mind.
As creatures rose to stare at him. Stuck. And tuck and luck. And other haunted words. But not the right word. But when he
Came again the dance he did, taken to move to the side, to encircle or circle as … nothing. As nothing passed. What ghost was there he forced his mind toward, even the idea of ghost behind him …
They killed us with traps. They killed us with poisons. They killed us with snares. They killed us with guns. They killed us with knives. They strangled us. They trampled us. They tore us apart with hounds … They killed us with traps. They killed us with poisons. They killed us with snares (Where in the forest, where by the stream might you find me?) They killed us with guns …
Numbers play a role. Repetition, obviously. Poems. Sketches. Typography. Blank space. Bold face. Some passages are introduced with decreasing “version numbers” (see v.6.6 in the above examples). Experimental is certainly an accurate term for much of what VanderMeer is doing here, but I know that term can be off-putting to a lot of people, as well as convey a bloodless sort of wordplay or structural gimmickry. But neither concern is warranted here.
First, as disorienting as some of the imagery or style can be, a grounding clarity always exists side by side. A clarity of mission, a clarity of theme, of tone. For the astronauts, for instance, it’s both a sense of mission and an abiding love for one another that cuts across all the strangeness and confusing multiplicity of timelines and worlds and doppelgängers. And, as noted, things actually get easier and more clear as the book goes on.
Second, Dead Astronauts is far removed from “bloodless.” There is more than one love story embedded within. Passion runs rampant. Both the human and the non-human voices compel both empathy and horror. And underlying it all is a theme that has wound its way through much of VanderMeer’s writing — our despoiling of this world, our willful separation of ourselves from nature, our attempts to “improve” on nature, our wholesale slaughter and eradication of the others we share this world with on a scale that is unfathomable, though VanderMeer does his authorial best in finding ways to make it so via giving voice to the voiceless creatures as well as by the weight of accumulation.
Accumulation and fragmentation are perhaps the two touchstone words for this work. The individual segments of the novel are beautifully written in a lyrical prose-poem mix (though VanderMeer also throws in some actual poems), a series of brilliant facets each giving off its own kind of light on the story, and the accretion of these various segments coalesces into a moving, thought-provoking, and beautiful picture. Dead Astronauts is an ambitious and greatly rewarding work.