(cover illustration by Maalavidaa, design by Jo Walker)
I’ve been an admirer of Jeff VanderMeer’s work ever since the wonderfully unusual novella and short story collection City of Saints and Madmen was sent to me quite a number of years ago, and since then I have eagerly awaited any new writing from Jeff. I’ve also been delighted to see his remarkable and unique working gaining a wider audience, both with the later, widely acclaimed books and the film adaptation of Annihilation, which I am sure will have helped put his work in front of new readers.
Dead Astronauts seems to me to work if you are a new VanderMeer reader; while it shares many themes with some of his previous works, most notably on the environment, the place of people in nature, the blurring of artificial lines we make between nature and human-made, between person and machine and nature, between dream and reality, the story here will work for the complete VanderMeer newbie. For those who have read his other work, however, they are likely to find those earlier experiences mean they will savour a deeper flavour from the dark currents running through this river of words.
The eponymous Dead Astronauts – Chen, Moss and Grayson – are crossing a desolate environment, on a mission which may or may not be a fruitless endeavour. It seems likely that they have, in fact, attempted this mission before, in different places and times, crossing the land, entering The City, working against The Company. They may have died and lived and died and lived numerous times in many places and eras, and like many trinities throughout myth and folklore, it feels in places like the three of them are also aspects of one being as well as three.
VanderMeer conjures a deeply immersive reading experience – the descriptions are almost of a dream-place, or a half-dream, perhaps, where notions of past and present and future, of the human and the natural world, crossover one another, drip into each other, meld, reform, reshape, changing people, animals, the land, the mental view points. It’s intoxicating and draws the reader into the same deep, changing waters as the characters; we experience aspects of their world with them rather than just ingest a straight, linear narrative, and the book is all the more powerful and effective for this approach.
Elsewhere we have the Blue Fox adding its perspective, the mysterious Charlie X (is the name a classic Trek homage? An allusion to Jeff’s own “Area X”? Both? Neither?), and a homeless woman living under a bridge by a forest. Both Charlie and the woman seem to share an unusual notebook – the same notebook? A different aspect of that book in a different reality? – which fascinates as much as it confuses. Filled with words, some understandable, others seemingly made-up, drawings and symbols, it is reminiscent of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript.
“Maybe you study that pages for days, for months, for years. Maybe seconds. The page splits your brain into before and after. Becomes meanginless to gather meaning to it. This page of a liquid language reminds you of pages from a book you were given, about the coast. In the surge of watery lines. The withdrawal at low tide, leaving spirals of tiny creatures behind.”
Trying to summarise an idea of the plot, as I would with most other novels, is, I think, fairly redundant here. Not because Jeff hasn’t crafted an intriguing, absorbing story, because he has (of course he has, he always does), but I’ve always found right from my first literary steps into his early Ambergris tales that Jeff’s writing is to be experienced, not reduced to a summary of plots and characters.
I described the style earlier as immersive, and I stand by that – this is a book as a dream-place, a meeting of the natural and human, waking and dreaming, like a dark mirror-distorted version of crossing multiple Song Lines, where the imaginary, the fantastic and the everyday all blur and shift and flow over and through one another, changing each other as they do, blurring, sometimes eradicating the artificial distinctions our species often insists on when categorising the world around us, instead putting us within and throughout that world, and it through us, a more magical place mixed with horrors and wonders. This is the sort of book that will permeate your dreams, long after you have finished the final page.
This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction and fantasy.