Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff Vandermeer has been a favorite author since I first read City of Saints and Madmen in 2010. That and its sequel Shriek: An Afterward are two of my favorite of all novels. The latter is the weird fiction answer to Pale Fire, which is very high praise. These are masterful mosaic novels. The Southern Reach novels were more straightforward narratively taken one by one, but each took a different approach to the situation and formed a mosaic of a different sort. (The movie based on the first of those, Annihilation is one of my favorites of recent years.) Vandermeer described Borne, to which Dead Astronauts is a companion novel (though both stand on their own as well), as “a Checkov play in the foreground with a Godzilla vs a giant bear in the background” (paraphrase). That’s an apt description. Anyone who read that novel would recognize the image in the title Dead Astronauts. Over these more recent novels Vandermeer’s obsession with environmental collapse have become more obvious. And yet as I read this, the things that came most to mind were not his previous novels, but Swamp Thing and the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

Dead Astronauts is a difficult novel to parse, and I found my way into it by thinking of it as a surrealist literary horror restatement of these lines from Jeffers’ Carmel Point:
“Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve."
Science fiction often posits that humanity’s destiny is in the stars as Earth becomes uninhabitable. Jeffers would have it, and Vandermeer seems to agree, that humanity is more likely to go extinct. This is a bleak point of view, but both Jeffer’s poetry and Vandermeer’s novel make it seem natural, and a source, if not of comfort, of understanding. Jeffers goes on to say that “we must unhumanize ourselves a little,” and the novel does that both in the narrative and in the prose style .

In Borne the reader was introduced to the remnants of a Biotech company that existed near a ruined town, now cranking out monsters. In Dead Astronauts the story, if it can be called that, begins with Grayson, an astronaut who has returned to earth, Chen, who used to be human, and Moss, who is a sentient being who can shapeshift, and is at least partly formed from the plant from which she gets her name (hence the Swamp Thing vibes). They are the titular astronauts who were laid out in a crossroads in the previous novel. In this book, the reader learns that the Biotech company’s reach extends into many dimensions, and the three move through those dimensions trying to destroy the company and fighting or merging with other versions of themselves. This is the first third of the book. After that, the book shifts to others and gradually it becomes clear that this is the end, not of the world, but of humanity. Various creatures, a blue fox, a giant mutant fish, the mad scientist who is himself the victim of both the company and a cruel father take center stage.

That synopsis, though, does disservice to how deeply weird the book is. Often the prose is formatted like a poem and there is a hypnotic quality to the whole thing. The narrative is not straightforward at all. Given the theme of humanity’s dissolution, narrative dissolution is appropriate. Vandermeer’s world is angrier than Jeffers; it’s as if the world is taking revenge on humanity. This is very much about how much the environment is damaged by uncontrolled capitalism. Still the book is not without hope. It is a surreal science fiction horror story or Weird Tale told as an extended prose poem.

This is the second book I’ve read this year (the first being Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey) that I’m certain that I didn’t fully understand, but that I enjoyed and got enough out of it to know that I’d be reading them again, probably next year; my initial reaction is that they are both masterpieces. I’d put this only behind the Ambergris books as my favorite Vandermeer work. That said, if a lack of straightforward narrative puts you off of a book, you should probably pass. But for me, Canon-Worthy.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 7/75

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