You Cannot Trust Your Senses: Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts

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One of the – many – great things about Jeff VanderMeer’s books is that the cover art is often just as gorgeous as the words within, and Dead Astronauts, his latest novel, is probably the most dazzling so far. The US hardcover – pictured above in my clunky attempt to take a photo with subtext and impact – is a neon shout of colour from the dustcover alone, which then peels back to reveal its pearly white underside and, on the hardcover itself, metallic blue swirls of organic design, along with some actual text from the novel. A wonderful little detail I noticed is that while reading, the pink endpapers cast a glow on the glittering white flap of the dustcover as it sits half-open in my grip. A small but beautiful detail in a book that’s full of such things.

Dead Astronauts is about… I don’t even know where to start. This doesn’t have a single, easily-defined plot or concept that can truly encompass the breadth and depth of story growing in its pages. This is set in the same universe as his previous novel, Borne, and although there is connective tissue between the two, one can be read independently of the other. In its broadest strokes, Dead Astronauts encompasses a fight against the faceless, nefarious, world-ending Company, in an entirely different kind of post-apocalypse – not empty or desolate but absolutely teeming – where biotech runs rampant and dimensions are multiple and nothing – I repeat, nothing – is what it seems.

Divided into a series of vignettes, each of which take conventions of voice and structure to strange new levels, the largest chunk of the book follows the titular trio of not-altogether-human companions/lovers as they attempt, across multiple realities, to beat back the Company and its horde of monstrous, sometimes unwilling denizens. They lose and they lose and they lose, and they keep trying, their realities fractured and fracturing as they traverse a new version of their world with every attempt. They are Grayson, Chen and Moss, and their bond is tenderly evoked in these chapters, the endless, maddening repetition of their failures strengthening their unique dynamic. Although we know from the book’s title – and their presence in Borne – that the trio dies, their quest and its demise reverberates throughout Dead Astronauts. This is particularly true for Moss, who is fluid in gender and form; she can transform into a carpet of budding moss, and her transformation blooms across several other sections of the narrative, anchoring the story in ways that don’t become apparent until the book’s final, quietly revelatory scene.

Among other characters are a sentient blue fox, a homeless woman who forms a bond with a giant salamander, a scientist employed by the Company, a sentient leviathan, and a malevolent duck that isn’t really, exactly a duck. Nothing in this book is really, exactly what it seems, narratively or linguistically or even literally. The reader’s perception of the novel, the characters’ perception of their world, and the world itself, all exist in a state of constant collision and change. It’s a novel untethered from such pedestrian constraints as genre or category, spanning sci-fi, horror, fantasy, literary fiction and love story – and all of these evoked in ways you haven’t seen before. The absurd merges with the surreal and the horrific, the beautiful, the intimate. The violent and dark and sorrowful. The hopeful and the exhilarating.

Multiple narratives collide with one another, each subsequent section or chapter narrated from a different – and most often nonhuman – point of view, each one illuminating the story’s overall geography a little more, a little more. Dead Astronauts is a book whose perspectives and fragments piece together a greater picture as it progresses, but the story also obfuscates and confounds as often as it reveals.

What VanderMeer can do with language, how he shapes it, is astounding. He plays with words and puts his own sentences through strange and beautiful metamorphoses, transforms the way you think of inflection and style and even thought itself. And that’s what this book is all about – change. Metaphorically, linguistically. Literally. A character becomes a swarm of salamanders, or a carpet of flowers. A duck is not a duck, a monster is something much more complex. Gender and shape and love are all utterly mutable.

There’s a lot of hope in Dead Astronauts, with its diverse and inclusive cast of characters, its exploration of animal consciousness and environmental concerns. So much of it is beautiful and tragic. So much of this story, too, is anger, and an anger I can relate to, an anger pointed towards the destructive obliviousness of humanity and its – our – insistence on repeated patterns of behaviour, our contradictory treatment of anything nonhuman, trying to help it out or conserve it but only on our terms and only needing to because we fucked it all up or hunted it down or killed or tortured or obliterated it in the first place.

VanderMeer writes about, and from, a variety of nonhuman perspectives in a way that feels authentic, but he also captures the human with such delicate urgency, the way we bond and the way we fail and fight and die, that it’s almost too much to bear. There’s a sense of deep pain in Dead Astronauts, and a real self-reflective darkness that seeps to the surface at times.

I’ve been a manic Jeff VanderMeer fan ever since City of Saints and Madmen. His work is always an absolute pleasure to read. Not only entertaining but complex, challenging, confronting, original, beautiful, heartbreaking and sublime. Dead Astronauts was all of these things, but perhaps, for me, a little less entertaining. Often, its complexity eluded or frustrated me. Some of the more experimental chapters were admittedly a little difficult to get through, and as I was reading I felt like some aspects went right over my head. This book requires work, but that’s a good thing. Like all genuinely ground-breaking works, it wasn’t an easy read. But the more I think about it, several weeks after turning that last page, the more it’s burrowed into my brain, colonising me with its weird imagery and its frankly gorgeous examination of nature, and cruelty, and love.

The ideas and concerns he explores aren’t necessarily things we don’t already know, but I can guarantee we’ve never heard them being said like this. VanderMeer doesn’t hit you over the head with a big glaring “message”, he gets your blood boiling with the horrors perpetrated, he breaks your heart with the consequences of them, and he wraps it all in a crazy, exhilarating story. He captures ideas and moments and tiny little aspects of things in a way I feel like nobody, living or dead, has ever thought of. His work truly comes across as having been written/narrated/constructed by something that isn’t human, that doesn’t have the same thought patterns or make the same assumptions as us, the unavoidable ways we think about and build our perception of the world around us, and the things in it, and the interactions between the two.

There is so much to recommend about this book, and so much to feel in awe of. VanderMeer has broken what we know of as story, cracked it open and spread it out across the expanse of Dead Astronauts, let it grow into something truly vibrant and new. This is a book full of secrets and hidden things, a puzzle to be poured over again and again.

If you look at the trajectory of his work over the years, it’s like VanderMeer is heading somewhere utterly beyond our comprehension, shedding skin after skin and changing his form as he travels. But even if I can’t always understand or appreciate the stops he takes along the way, I’m hanging on until the end, into whatever strange places he wants to take us. Following this “map that does not know its borders.”

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