By Jeff VanderMeer
One of the strange and oddly delicious minds we inhabit in “Dead Astronauts” belongs to a “defiantly ugly fish … between the size of rhinoceros and whale” lurking in the holding pools of a sinister biotech company, devouring failed biological experiments: spliced-together scraps of hedgehogs and lizards, sea anemones and birds. The fish is named Botch, “after a long-dead painter.” Indeed, there’s more than a touch of Hieronymus Bosch in this darkly transcendent novel filled with phantasmagoric visions, body horror and tortured beings traversing a blasted desert hellscape. Think “The Last Judgment,” but with more animals.
“Dead Astronauts” is set in a post-climate-change-apocalypse future, though exactly when and where we are remains artfully hazy. The unnamed Company, like a malignant tumor, has spread across and corrupted not only the surrounding City but branching timelines, alternate versions of the world. Chen, Moss and Grayson, the titular dead astronauts, have journeyed across these multiple versions, dying over and over, in order to “destroy the Company and save the future. Some future.” (VanderMeer aficionados will recognize the Company and its unholy creations from his 2017 novel “Borne.”)
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of December. See the full list. ]
We meet Chen, Moss and Grayson in version 3.1, where they are doomed to die — permanently. Moss, a woman whose consciousness was grafted onto moss by the Company, has timeline-hopping powers, but she’s killed before she can transport the three to another reality. But what transpires in 3.1 ripples out to other timelines, and we catch glimpses of these reverberations as we move, in the remaining chapters, through the minds of a deranged scientist, a homeless woman named Sarah, a murderous duck with a razor-sharp broken wing and a blue fox whose charisma radiates off the page.
“Dead Astronauts” pointedly inhabits these strange, nonhuman consciousnesses. Swaths of text appear in different shades or zigzag across the page; other pages contain only single paragraphs or single sentences. Scenes are even narrated in verse: A young Botch “evaded toad and frog to scuttle-crawl between holding ponds / flop-plopped into water deft of fin / mud clear as bright sun / cavorted with others of his kind.” VanderMeer, a committed environmentalist, is a master at describing the pungent immediacy of being, say, a salamander. “The thrill of liquid against the body, the constraint of that. The way it reminds you the world matters in a way that breathing air cannot.”
Violence and horror and death suffuse the book, in a cyclical, inevitable pattern perpetrated mostly by humans who don’t value other forms of life. One section, narrated by an animal, consists only of the sentences “They killed me. They brought me back” repeated 185 times. But Charlie X, the deranged Company scientist who performs those experiments, is haunted by a father who performed equally sadistic experiments on him: “And he would stave in my skull and I would wake up on the slab. And he would drive a kitchen knife into my heart and I would wake up on the slab.” Abuse spawns abuse no matter who, or what, the victim is.
Amid all its grimness, the novel finds some small redemption in the power of love. But VanderMeer’s brilliant formal tricks make love feel abstract and unconvincing by the end, a flimsy human ideal. Late in the book, the blue fox recalls his capture by the Company, staring into his mate’s eyes as he’s dragged away from her. “The sentimental tale,” he tells us coolly. “The tale you always need to care. Which shows you don’t care. Why we don’t care if you care.” It’s precisely that ferocity that makes “Dead Astronauts” so terrifying and so compelling.