In Jeff VanderMeer's "Dead Astronauts," time travelers try to rescue a ruined world
By Jeff VanderMeer
MCD. 336 pp. $27
The worlds of Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach trilogy, are fantastical mutations of our own where the effects of climate change appear in full Technicolor: Strange species - a bat-faced scientist, a humanoid made of moss - roam contaminated landscapes full of new ecosystems that are hostile to life as we know it.
His latest book, "Dead Astronauts," is an expansion of 2017's "Borne" and could read as a bizarre origin story, a sci-fi fable told generations after the Anthropocene. Layered and complex, the novel follows Grayson, Moss and Chen, the three space travelers of the title, as they try to save the world from the Company, a powerful, reckless organization that polluted Earth beyond recognition. The trio's quest has sent them to numerous realities where each time they have failed to steer clear of peril. By now, they half-know what to expect and have learned to follow a series of scripted behaviors. But when the newest sequence of events repeatedly goes off script, they realize this time is different.
Uncertainty persistently dogs these characters, but it also looms over the reader in a novel that tells a complex story using complicated, stylized writing.
VanderMeer's style here, marked by an archaic syntax and clipped sentences, is cumbersome for a reader trying to gain a foothold in this strange, new world. Take, for example, the moment we meet Grayson and her wormholing companions: "A glimmer, a glint, at the City's dusty edge, where the land between sky and land cut the eye. An everlasting gleam that yet evaporated upon the arrival of the three and left behind a smell like chrome and chemicals." Though lush with sensory details, the odd cadence brings to mind a speaker in a royal court, reading from a scroll of dry parchment.
While the ornamental style complements elements of lore peppered throughout the novel, such as the archetypal beings of the trickster fox and the lone traveler, it hampers narrative momentum. That could be forgiven if the world of "Dead Astronauts" were less convoluted, but we are, after all, hopscotching between multiple realities, timelines and character perspectives.
Some clarity arrives midway through the novel when the ever-rotating point of view shifts to Sarah, a homeless woman who can remember a time before the Company, before everything - water, air, even light - was poisoned. Here the narrative is more coherent and the style is more subdued, as if language was also vulnerable to contamination. Aided by Sarah's memories, we can begin to reconstruct how the world devolved into noxious sludge.
There are two notable landmarks in this swath of a wasted world, the "derelict" City and the nefarious Company, and they are constantly at odds with one another. Inside the Company's egg-shaped headquarters is a laboratory with a "wall of globes" that once served as a holding pen for Charlie X's experiments in biotech and looked like "large bubbles floating to the surface of the sea." The creatures he designed were sent on dangerous, exploratory missions through space-time to gather data for the Company and often wound up dead or gravely injured.
"Charlie X at twenty-seven might have lived a lifetime already," Moss thinks. "Heading up a lab, experimenting with form and function, blurring the lines of art and product. Feeling so very powerful as an orchestrator and organizer and manipulator of life."
But Charlie X's shortsightedness - his belief that "animals were objects to be manipulated as products or resources" - backfired. Eventually, the creatures he created rebelled and laid waste to the Company and nearly all of mankind.
Although Charlie X could be held responsible for dooming the Earth, he also created our hero's companions, Moss and Chen, and nearly every other character we encounter. Moss and Chen both appear human for the benefit of Grayson, but, in their natural forms, Moss is a "carpet of moss" and Chen unravels into "ribbons and rips of salamanders." Moss, perhaps out of loyalty, believes Charlie X "unwittingly orchestrated their resistance" before he went completely mad.
The rebels are led by the Blue Fox, a messianic figure who speaks to us as a "pelt nailed to a wall." The fox, like the astronauts, once burrowed through space and time "on a mission that could only end in disaster," though at the behest of the Company, rather than against it. The fox serves as a mouthpiece for morality, in ways that are predictable (humanity's thoughtless dominion over the natural world) and peculiar ("That tablecloth created by forced labor looks amazing on that table manufactured with formaldehyde in a sweatshop," the fox snarks while masquerading as a human at a cocktail party).
These are some of the morals of VanderMeer's fable, though the most valuable lesson might be a pragmatic one written for our current moment. After visiting "the very edge of the realities," the Blue Fox realizes, "if you change the enemy enough, if you wear them down, perhaps losing is good enough." This notion of hedging expectations is an apt, if sobering, takeaway from this trying parable of climate change.
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