Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer review – gloriously innovative

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A genuinely innovative artwork requires time to fulfil its effect. Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts is one such work – bewildering, perplexing, original – and I would recommend that readers allow it the concentration it demands. The opening third poses as a quest narrative, a fantastical variant of the classic western: three battle-scarred gunslingers set out across an ecologically ravaged landscape in pursuit of an enemy. Our heroes are Grayson, a black woman and sole survivor of a disastrously failed mission to explore deep space; Chen, an indentured worker bound in perpetuity to an invasive corporation known only as the Company; and Moss, whose name was once Sarah, now a complex, composite organism who has been partially absorbed into the structure of the worlds they move through. The enemy they seek to defeat is the Company itself, and more specifically its agent, a deranged Dr Moreau-type biologist named Charlie X. The three are helped along their journey by Charlie’s failed experiments: the blue fox, the duck with the broken wing, the leviathan called Botch, a hive-mind of salamanders.

The astronauts project themselves through time, engaging the Company across multiple iterations in a repeating battle that most resembles a deadly game scenario. They hope eventually to stumble upon its origin story: the company before it became the Company, when it could still be destroyed. In some versions of reality there is nothing left but the Company, its grinding machinery still energised by poisoned rivers. In other realities, the Company has been destroyed and the City that serves it has been reduced to a ruin, polluted and rendered alien by vast, voiceless creatures from the quantum void. Especially treacherous are the versions of reality where life appears to be going on as normal: “Everything the Company did destroyed someone, killed someone, even if it helped someone else. The rest was subterfuge, and no suit to protect against it.”

The critique of corporate capitalism is clear to see, and this first act, strange and abstracted though it is, is not without precedent. Fans of weird literature are sure to find echoes of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Zachary Jernigan’s underappreciated Jeroun books, even Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. It is not in VanderMeer’s game plan, however, to let us get too cosy, and as the novel progresses it begins to shed its archetypes, fragmenting into a series of variously interconnected accounts from different narrators. We experience his world from the point of view of Botch, a gigantic mutated fish feeding off Charlie X’s discarded experiments. We encounter Charlie himself, a boy then man abused by his monstrous father, driven finally to madness and – like Victor Frankenstein – beyond redemption:

It wasn’t Charlie X’s fault, in a way, even though it was all his fault. Charlie X just thought in the old way. Plants couldn’t feel pain, animals were objects to be manipulated as products or resources … and it mattered little if the pure part of beauty was blood. It had become a death cult, under a veneer of what was inevitable and necessary, and anything else was illogical.

When we finally meet Sarah we discover her homeless in a world that feels disturbingly familiar, much closer to our own time than to any far future. The Company exists but still in prototype, a fume-belching, coal-fired anachronism. Sarah believes she can see demons, and it comes as no surprise when she is visited by three astronauts from the future. The mysterious visitors are looking for Charlie X’s journal, which Sarah has found beneath a bridge on a rubbish-strewn river bank.

Then come diagrams of creatures that look like autopsies or recipes. Some almost whimsical. A plant that becomes a sea anemone that becomes a squid. Others like levels of hell. Bear-men and men like bears. Scenes of slaughter you pass quickly. More “instructions” in sentences and paragraphs in a language you don’t understand. Spanish in high school and some knowledge of Russian, so you know other alphabets. But this matches nothing you’ve ever seen.

Images and leitmotifs recur, a dizzying interplay of references – the burning shed, the tunnel, the bridge – that remain mysterious and yet act as an anchor, a cumulative weight of symbolism that gradually awakens the reader to a blasted form of thematic coherence. We are offered glimpses of scenes and characters familiar from VanderMeer’s previous novel, Borne, to which Dead Astronauts is loosely linked.

The typographical games that characterise these latter sections – paler and heavier typeface, isolated strips of text on an otherwise black page, figures in the margins reminiscent of biblical verse-numbering, only counting backwards – recall Mark Z Danielewski’s 2000 metafictional horror novel House of Leaves or more recently Nicola Barker’s 2017 dystopia H(a)ppy. How far readers will tolerate such self-conscious gamesmanship will come down to individual taste. For this reader at least, this kind of formal innovation is pure catnip, an indication that as a mode of literary expression the novel is still vigorous, still developing and still important.

Far from being pointless or posturing, such devices serve as a reminder that the novel is not simply a narrative, it is also text, and that language can have an agenda apart from story. The effect of language as raw material exerts itself in ways that are not always easily explicable but – like poetry – reach beyond organised thought and into sensation. Dead Astronauts transmits its core concerns around environmental breakdown through the splintering of narrative into its component parts. The blue fox’s story, which occupies much of the last quarter of the novel, includes many pages of text that consist of the same dozen words or phrases, repeated many times with only minor variations. There is a temptation to skip over such passages, yet in their obsessive reiterations they begin gradually to take on the quality of music, a whispered continuo that is both creepy and beguiling, conveying their message with a subtextual intensity that would be difficult to achieve through more conventional means.

Climate fiction is an important strand in contemporary literature, so much so that in its repeating imagery, its insistent narrative of imminent catastrophe, it may begin to seem over-familiar and thus lose its urgency. As a writer of fantasy, VanderMeer has always eschewed the more derivative aspects of world-building, preferring instead to employ speculative conceits as a means of stretching the envelope of the possible. From his 2014 Southern Reach trilogy onwards, it has become clear there is no subject more important to him than the degrading and disastrous effect of human activity on fragile ecosystems. Employing stylistic and linguistic devices that reach beyond narrative, the author deliberately deconstructs the very concept of familiarity and forces us up against his subject matter in a way that demands we not only engage with it, but recognise its vast importance to our lives and futures.

• Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer is published by Fourth Estate (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.

Source: The Guardian
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