Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, Dead Astronauts, has the feeling of a mosaic. Up close, you can marvel at the deft selection of each element, each word and sentence, and appreciate how it interacts with its immediate neighbors. From much further back, taking in the book as a whole, scenes and themes snap together. Seen from anywhere in between—a single page, a single chapter—it’s a riot of discrete, disconnected units. Beautiful, certainly. Sensical, certainly not.
Of course, sense—along with other conventions like plot—is not what you look for in VanderMeer. The author of the Southern Reach Trilogy and Borne, he’s worth reading because his visions of humans and the world they inhabit are less Hopper than Dali, or really, Hieronymus Bosch, who in Dead Astronauts lends his name to a leviathan charged with gobbling up failed biological experiments cast out of laboratories. (Technically the name of the hideous fish, like most things in Dead Astronauts, is corrupted—Bosch to, almost too fittingly, Botch.) Like Bosch, VanderMeer has imagined Hell, a dead world of the dead, tortured and still bent on torturing one another. A fresh horror made of old mistakes.
Fans of Vandermeer will notice bits of his older work echoing through Dead Astronauts. For one, there’s the dead astronauts themselves, who are a mystery mentioned passingly in Borne, but mostly there’s the nameless Company and the nameless City. If you’ve only read the Southern Reach (or seen Annihilation), think of the City as an inverted Area X—rather than a reclaimed, unpolluted alien wilderness, the City is a manmade bog of chemicals, egg-shaped buildings, and twisted, tortured, gene-spliced creatures made by a biotech firm, the Company. In Dead Astronauts, we mostly inhabit the minds of a strange trio trying to defeat the Company: Grayson, the leader, a woman with a blind eye that can see things no one else can; Chen, a man who sees the world in terms of equations and who is maybe made of salamanders; and Moss, who lacks consistent form and gender and possesses great and mysterious mental powers.
The characters around the trio, the dead astronauts, are even stranger, but also more folkloric: Botch; a messianic blue fox; a broken-winged duck; the antagonist Charlie X, a bad man with a worse father. At times, to infiltrate the City, the trio adopts a disguise they call “faery mode.” An addict mother reads fairy tales to her daughter, but the morals are never the normal ones. A father forcing a son to eat his own creations carries shades of Ancient Greek myth. The feeling of fable is common in post-apocalyptic fiction—the extremes of the future echoing the extremes of the past, and playing grace notes of nostalgia overtop the horrifying setting. VanderMeer isn’t doing space Western or ersatz Aesop, though. His morals are never the normal ones either.
If Dead Astronauts has a message, it’s not something so clear as “respect nature,” or “don’t let hunger for innovation outweigh decency,” or “don’t surgically replace your son’s face with a bat face.” Dead Astronauts is impressionist, stream of consciousness, jazz. VanderMeer fills whole pages with the same lines, repeated over and over: “They killed me. They brought me back. They killed me. They brought me back. They killed me.” He fills more pages with all the words that rhyme with “duck.” That’s why it’s so difficult to cleave a part from the whole, why you can talk about a moment or an image or the entire work. The story, such as it is, is elusive, given to tangent, to mad jumps in time and universe and perspective, each new bit of plot unfolding as if its predecessor were only half-remembered and poorly understood.