Review: Dead Astronauts by Jeff VandeMeer

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Cover courtesy of Macmillan.

If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. The organizing principle of Dead Astronauts is not chronology, nor non-linear chronology (a book told out of order still postures itself against a fixed, correct order which the  reader can construct in their mind.) The organizing principle is ecology, iteration, echoes. I had a dream recently where someone told me they “experience things cumulatively,” which I find to be an oddly apt description of this novel. You experience this book cumulatively. The book takes place in the world of Borne, but it may as well not, because aside from the familiar post-apocalyptic landscape and the similarly surreal lifeforms that populate it, the way the world behaves is just totally different, starting with the timeline-hopping Dead Astronauts.

The second chapter of the book, and also the longest, follows these titular characters, “the three.” If not for this section, the book wouldn’t have anything close to a main plot, just lots of small stories filling in the histories of different places, the backstories of different characters. So, what is the narrative? “The three,” Grayson, Chen, and Moss, are on a seemingly futile mission to reclaim the City from the Company, a mission they’ve repeatedly undertaken across multiple alternate timelines, facing different variations of the same archetypal characters each time, often (always?) ending in failure.

But … why? This chapter was probably my least favorite—the parts of it that I liked most were the parts delving into the astronauts’ pasts, while the actual narrative through-line, this mission, just wasn’t all that compelling. What are they reclaiming the city for? What would they do once its reclaimed? The thing Grayson Chen and Moss seem to care about most is each other, not the City. Grayson and Moss may have personal reasons to want to exact vengeance on the Company, but … enh, that’s more my own speculation than anything the text explores. And unlike in the Area X trilogy, the hollowness of the mission isn’t developed and spotlighted as a theme, it just feels like flat writing.

Once the title characters get out of the way, other chapters shine a lot brighter, like that of Charlie X, a scientist at the Company with a fast deteriorating memory, or the chapter for the Dark Bird, a deadly, tortured creation of the Company. These chapters are much less narrative-focused, more non-linear and experimental (granted, even the Dead Astronauts section is far more experimental than something like, say, Borne—it’s a testament to how wild this book is that that chapter seems conventional in contrast to everything else.) Probably my favorite chapter was “Can’t Forget,” a vigorous, hateful 60 pages narrated by the Blue Fox, describing an ancestral memory of humankind’s assault on foxes, through fur-trapping and climate change up to the Company’s experiments on and exploitation of the Blue Fox as a biological reconnaissance tool. I could write a post about that chapter in itself—the use of huge walls of repeated text, the effect of actually reading through it, the defiant and truly inhuman voice VanderMeer achieves. There are a few single sentences in the chapter that floored me, simple phrases that land with explosive impact because of how the text builds up to them.

Truly, VanderMeer’s prose is great throughout the whole book, it’s as inventive as the novel’s overall structure. He gives lots of focus to the materiality of words, their sound, their weight when repeated over and over, with less emphasis on strict semantic meaning. Characters stutter out series of rhyming words, text appears in blocks with big vacuums of white space in between. Just as this world is full of characters whose striking, mythological stature transcends a more realist, psychological approach, the language often strives for force, vitality, in order to transcend the mere conveyance of information.

If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. And because of its non-linear nature, because the narrative is more a decentralized history than a single plot, it beckons to be reread, reread in pieces, in sections, out of order or over and over again. If you like VanderMeer’s more experimental stuff, definitely check this out. There is little out there like it.

Review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

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Cover courtesy of Macmillan.

 Acceptance is the final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the rest of which I reviewed a while ago, here and here. Spoiler warning for those books, I guess?

There are three major narrative threads in Acceptance, which the book alternates between by chapter—the lighthouse keeper, the Director, and Ghost Bird & Control. The Lighthouse Keeper’s story occurs before Area X has taken over the coast, though it soon becomes clear that Area X’s arrival is impending. The Director is the director from Annihilation, and her narrative takes place before the events of that book, showing the lead up to that expedition. Ghost Bird and Control (the book also alternates between them by chapter, though their stories form one continuous narrative) are entering Area X and trying to find the Biologist, their story picking up right where Authority ended.

All of these component parts are great. The Director chapters are reminiscent of Authority, getting into the oppressive, decadent world of the Southern Reach agency, a long slow burn with the “12th expedition” looming on the horizon. The Ghost Bird and Control chapters are more like Annihilation, though a bit faster, punchier—a return to Area X, with new revelations, new menacing phenomena, and a steady drive toward a mysterious objective. And the lighthouse keeper chapters feel completely new, with Saul Evans (the lighthouse keeper) being maybe the most normal character in the whole trilogy? I came to quite enjoy these chapters, settling into the small coastal town setting, getting to know Saul, and slowly seeing the gruesome shadow of apocalypse fall across everything.

However. The sum is less than the parts. Authority, the previous book in the series, was a very slow book, but I came to enjoy it, its immersive quality and careful consideration. The Director and Lighthouse Keeper chapters are, likewise, fairly slow, the characters don’t have big objectives, and they present worlds you really want to sit with. By contrast, the Ghost Bird and Control chapters are maybe the most action packed of the trilogy—if the books have been building up to anything it is these chapters, and you just want to keep reading, keep pushing deeper into Area X and closer to their goal. So the faster chapters break the immersive, slow-burn pacing of the slower chapters, and the slower chapters wreck the momentum of the faster ones.Read More »