Jeff Vandermeer's 'Dead Astronauts' spins through the postapocalypse
AP

Jeff Vandermeer's 'Dead Astronauts' spins through the postapocalypse

{{featured_button_text}}
"Dead Astronauts" by Jeff VenderMeer; MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux (323 pages, $27).

"Dead Astronauts" by Jeff VenderMeer; MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux (323 pages, $27). (Macmillan Publishers/TNS)

"Dead Astronauts" by Jeff VenderMeer; MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux (323 pages, $27)

___

What is the blue fox - a prophet, an alien, a demigod of nature, a hallucination, a genetic experiment gone wrong? If a wandering astronaut sees her own skeleton, turned relic in a city that changes form each time she enters it, does it signal her death or her immortality?

In Jeff VanderMeer's new novel, "Dead Astronauts," it's complicated.

Dubbed the "King of Weird Fiction" by the New Yorker, VanderMeer has always dodged literary categories, or mashed them up so exuberantly they seem irrelevant. His Southern Reach trilogy, for example, could be described as postapocalyptic speculative ecofiction with horror elements, more or less.

"Dead Astronauts" is a prequel of sorts to his 2017 novel, Borne, or maybe a sequel, or maybe it takes place in a parallel universe very like, and sometimes intersecting with, the one in Borne. If that makes you uncomfortable, you ain't seen nothing yet.

The first half of "Dead Astronauts" focuses on a trio of ... well, people is not exactly the word. Most human is "a tall black woman of indeterminate age named Grayson. She had no hair on her head because she liked velocity. Her left eye was white and yet still she could see through it; why shouldn't she?"

One of her companions is Chen, a stocky man from a country that doesn't exist anymore; he thinks in equations and poetry and has a tendency to dissolve into salamanders. The other is Moss, who, although she "presents" as an attractive young woman, is both a time traveler and exactly what her name suggests: a plant, albeit one that can do a lot of very unplantlike things.

In a story whose timeline folds in upon itself like an origami centipede, the three cross a barren landscape to enter the City, a ruin laid waste by the activities of the Company. What city, what company? It doesn't matter. The Company, blindly chasing profits as companies do, came to focus upon biotechnology but lost control in spectacular fashion.

The mastermind of that disaster was a man called Charlie X, who created Moss and Chen and countless other creatures, including a savage duck with a broken wing. The trio's quest is revenge upon Charlie X, a quest that they have enacted over and over, like avatars in some nightmarish video game (or fictional characters who have gained self-awareness as their author revises and re-revises the plot).

"Each had had the experience of self-annihilation," VanderMeer writes. "Chen had killed Chen. Moss had absorbed Moss. Grayson had killed them both. Moss had killed Chen. Chen Moss. Thus their intimacy had become exponential, along with their sadness and their regret."

In the second half of the book, other voices fill in their views of the story. Grayson, Moss and Chen often encountered "the leviathan ... almost one hundred years old. Called it Botch, after a long-dead painter. But it wasn't Botched. That was just a personal lexicon, the dark humor of reluctant soldiers."

The gigantic creature's purpose was to live in the poisonous pools outside the Company's facility and consume all its mistakes, manipulated organisms gone horribly wrong. Leviathan tells its story in chapters of fragmented imagery and poetry.

In the book's most linear chapters, a homeless woman called Sarah finds a journal that might be an antique, or a missive from the future, and tries to make sense of it and of her own life. We learn the wrenching history of Charlie X and the duck with the broken wing. And we hear from that blue fox, too.

"Dead Astronauts" is VanderMeer's most formally experimental novel, and his most challenging. But it also echoes his constant themes, offering us a vision of a future in which disregard for environmental degradation has the direst of consequences - at least for the species that caused it. For the foxes, things might work out.

Visit the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) at www.tampabay.com

0
0
0
0
0

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Picture this: You're waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store when suddenly you open your ears to the music playing overhead. It's "You Belong With Me" by Taylor Swift. You know, that song you pretend to hate but secretly love? Anyway, in the middle of trying not to sing along too loudly, you notice Taylor does this ... thing with the melody. You can't quite put your tongue on what it ...

As harsh criticism continues to roil Jeanine Cummins' buzzy immigrant novel, "American Dirt," publisher Flatiron Books stands by the divisive book but acknowledges the brewing backlash it has sparked. In a statement provided to the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, the imprint continued to defend the title, saying that it seeks to generate "empathy" for migrants. "We are carefully listening to ...

Cold weather lends itself to bus or train commutes. Instead of white-knuckling your way along an icy freeway, you are in a warm place with plenty of time to read. So here is an array of books, new in paperback, to tuck into your backpack for your daily journey. Don't dread the commute - enjoy it. And don't forget to thank your bus driver. "The House of Mirth," by Edith Wharton. (Scribner, ...

"Murder, Inc.: The CIA Under John F. Kennedy" by James H. Johnston; Potomac Books (343 pages, $32.95) ___ Many books touching on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy have an agenda, jumping through a series of conspiratorial hoops to bolster a conclusion already arrived at. James Johnston's "Murder, Inc.," is different: He dispassionately sifts through the evidence regarding the ...

Rankings for hardcover books sold in Southern California, as reported by selected bookstores: ___ Nonfiction 1. "Talking to Strangers," by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown: $30) Examples of miscommunication explain potential conflicts and misunderstandings. 2. "Trick Mirror," by Jia Tolentino (Random House: $27) Essays on self-deception. 3. "The Yellow House," by Sarah M. Broom (Grove Press: ...

Rankings for hardcover books sold in Southern California, as reported by selected bookstores: ___ Fiction 1. "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press: $26) A son in his late 20s writes a letter to his mother, who cannot read, unearthing a family's history rooted in Vietnam. 2. "The Dutch House," by Ann Patchett (Harper: $27.99) The lives of a brother and sister lives ...

"Hope & Heartbreak: Beyond the Numbers of the Opioid Epidemic" by Scott Brown; Red Mark Publishing (220 pages, $16.95) ___ The drugs - pills, heroin, fentanyl - are pretty similar wherever you go, but each region seems to have its own particular opioid narrative. Sam Quinones captured Ohio's opioid economy in full throttle in 2015's "Dreamland." Beth Macy's "Dopesick," published last year, ...

Even before Jeanine Cummins' "American Dirt" was published on Tuesday, a cloud of controversy was swirling around the author and her book. In recent days, Twitter has exploded with Latino and Latina writers accusing the author of everything from cultural appropriation to pandering to the tastes of a white audience to indulging in harmful stereotypes. And yet, "American Dirt" has been embraced ...

"Naked Came the Florida Man" by Tim Dorsey; Morrow (336 pages, $26.99) ___ The Florida Man (or woman) is known far and wide for his (or her) restraint, on-point behavior and mental acuity. OK, just kidding. The antics of Florida Man (or woman) are well known, so it's amazing that Tim Dorsey whose novels are tailor-made for this creature has never used the term in a title before. Each of ...

"If you need this book," Carmen Maria Machado writes on the dedication page of her new memoir, "In the Dream House," "it is for you." For Machado, author of the acclaimed 2017 short-story collection, "Her Body and Other Parties," the "dream house" of the book was a nightmare: a nondescript home in Indiana where she lived for a time with the woman she loved, in a psychologically abusive ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News