Jeff VanderMeer – Useless Astronauts – Temporary Evaluation
A foggy, muddy, crazy book
A quick look back at
Dead astronauts: a novel
Hardcover: FSG Books, 2019
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Reviewed by Al Brooke
I came to the edge of a courtyard and a strange sight. Three dead astronauts had fallen to the ground and planted like tulips, buried in their rib cages, then tipped over in their suits, the front panels torn open and rolled into the dirt. . . .
Then I realized that they weren't astronauts but just looked like astronauts because the sun had bleached the contaminant suits white, and I felt perverted less sad.
– Jeff VanderMeer, Borne (2017).
Science fiction and fantasy stories often begin in a confusing, unknown, disoriented place. The narratives begin not only in medias res, but in medios tumultus. It is the same with dead astronauts:
So they ran through the breaks, found the seams. So they ran with no memory of the city without buildings. So they navigated through two worlds: the new and the old. (3)
So it turns out that "they" are foxes. Could be. Type of. The blue one is different.
It also turns out that the reader would Really Benefit from reading Borne before picking up dead astronauts. It may not be easy, but it would give the reader a chance to fight.
Although Dead Astronauts is not a sequel, there are echoes everywhere from Borne (the blue fox, the duck with the broken wing, the Balcony Cliffs Apartments, the destroyed dollhouse, the Leviathan, Nocturnalia, alcohol Minnows, the man bear). Both books assume that ecological disasters and stupid and evil decisions leave a world full of pollution, ashes and biotech failures. The "company" left a catastrophic world in which (natural and non-) creatures hold ponds, debris and tunnels under bridges.
Dead astronauts have a semi-linear narrative structure for the first third of the novel. Then the book completes its descent into the tumult. The rest is far more difficult, occasionally poetic, mostly dark, often confusing. In some chapters, cryptic version numbers are placed on the edges, in others as in specific poems. In some chapters, the printed sections are reduced to one or two vertical inches on each page. A chapter repeats two sentences for five pages; another improvises six pages of methods of killing; Another re-counts seven pages of the joys of the foxes. There is at least one illustration that is reminiscent of the Voynich manuscript. There are chiasms and contradictions, numerologies and tiny zen molecules and more than a few lines that could be epigrams for other books:
Nothing else meant much more than the love between them. (9)
* * *
Dead astronauts were no different from living astronauts. No one could throw off their skin. Neither could ever become part of what they were going through. Suits were prefabricated coffins. Space was the grave. Better consider yourself dead. That was freedom; freed the mind to roam quadrants further than the body. (106)
* * *
Do you understand? Nothing thrives without being broken. Nothing exists without being dead beforehand. (231)
* * *
I'm crazy, you see, and I know it. And yet I know things. (244)
* * *
If I rummaged through your carcass, would I find you? (258)
* * *
But in the end, joy cannot ward off evil.
Joy can only remind you why you are fighting. (301)
* * *
The first look
Was always the deadliest
Nobody should feel responsible
for the whole world. (231)
There is occasionally clarity:
Oh, how those dead who lived in houses on lots where they had cut most of the trees loved trees. How they loved being out in the trees. The stories they told about the trees and how they loved them. Maybe because the trees didn't resist. Trees sometimes fell over by themselves as if to prove their love for the ax. The chainsaw that felled most of them was just completing the inevitable thought of a tree. (285)
The last tenth of the novel breaks into the relative hope of the tidal pools on the coast.
It is impossible not to feel that Mr. VanderMeer has packed much more that catches the eye into this foggy, muddy, crazy book. It is impossible to foresee that it will remain beyond understanding even after several readings. Dissertations are being written about this novel.
When a novel begins in medios tumultus, it takes a lot of perseverance to persevere. In the case of dead astronauts, a commitment that few can make may be required.
Al Brooke is a criminal lawyer trained in theology, literature and physics. He thinks graphically, reads insatiable and occasionally writes book reviews for The NACDL Champion and The Englewood Review of Books. His personal online presence takes place in shared locations (www.albrooke.com).