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Dead Astronauts


Dead Astronauts

“Think of me as a magician, child. Except I show you what is already there.”

Jeff VanderMeer’s neon, epic tesseract of a novel is exactly what his fans could expect of the next installment in his canon --- which is to say, something brave and consciously wild, and wholly, defiantly unexpected.

DEAD ASTRONAUTS is a companion to BORNE, with post-apocalyptic resonances of VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy. (Or would it be apocalyptic? Or ever upon the brink of apocalypse?) Here, humanity has reached its natural conclusion (except it’s not over), its zenith, its threat level. The havoc we have wrought on our environment wreaks right back.

"For those who seek brilliant, strange, intricate science fiction, there will be much joy and vindication to be found within this kaleidoscope of a novel."

There is a City, and there is a Company. The workings of the Company have produced bio-tech creations that have changed the scape of this planet irretrievably. The City had another name once, everything did. There is Grayson, who went to space and returned to find her home planet alien to her. There is Chen, who worked for the Company once. There is Moss, who is moss, and also human, and also neither. There is a fox who was forced to be no longer only a fox. But then, as the fox points out, humans named foxes, foxes do not call themselves such. “You want. Things to be words. That are not words. Could never be words.” Humans categorize, label, rationalize --- approximate. And in those approximations we create new meaning, and in those approximations we lose meaning.

This is (an approximation of) a concept at the core (if one can call it a core, when it’s really a shifting, shapeless thing, always making new shapes) of DEAD ASTRONAUTS, but it’s one of very many. VanderMeer reestablishes himself as “the weird Thoreau” here, weaving a labyrinthine mesmer out of apocalypse, purpose, translation, sublimation and hope.

Because there is hope here, too. It always feels essential to VanderMeer’s writing, as behemoth as it is. There is play in the work of his words, in his entropic tesseract of gory-glory, be calm-becalmed, the cataclysm/catechism of the duck (yes, the duck). His deconstructive modes, his repetition and reignition, are rendered with his practiced mastery. Even as they sprawl across the mutating wilderness of his story, they are rooted in intimacy, in the interplay of his characters and their relationship to themselves and the earth. There’s an affection, a tenderness, even within the scream of a wormhole, even when nothing remains and everything does (and both are equally terrifying).

VanderMeer interrogates the well-trod dichotomy between creator and creation, but he makes it fresh and strange. He explores the viscera of humanity’s relationship with the environment, and it’s wild and wonderful even as it’s devastating. There, even out there in the iridescence, is the possibility for love; it can be queer, and it can be lifesaving. There too, even out there in the iridescence, is the possibility for harm; it can be intimate, and it can be unimaginable. The simultaneity, the dissonance. The pastiche and palimpsest of what this planet always has been, what it can and will become. The futility of time, the inevitability too. The way we inscribe meaning, internalize it, impose it. Flesh and walls and wood, the things we leave behind, the things we become.

“But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil. Joy can only remind you why you fight.”

VanderMeer’s work, perhaps especially DEAD ASTRONAUTS, may not attract every reader. There are uncomfortable truths here, and challenging means of exploring them. Yet so much of VanderMeer’s appeal thrives within his unapologetic, fractal prose. For those who seek brilliant, strange, intricate science fiction, there will be much joy and vindication to be found within this kaleidoscope of a novel.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on December 20, 2019

Dead Astronauts
by Jeff VanderMeer

  • Publication Date: December 1, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250758211
  • ISBN-13: 9781250758217