DECEMBER 7, 2019
IF IT’S DIFFICULT to describe Jeff VanderMeer’s work, maybe this is because the weirdness of his novels is less about the genre-bending that has come to characterize accounts of weird fiction, and more about the ways in which it seems to actively resist summary or synthesis. His novels, as one might claim is true of the larger project of the contemporary Weird, collectively attempt a kind of un-knowing — an engagement with what cannot be represented, stories that cannot be told. Rather than shy away from attempts to inhabit unknowable, often nonhuman narratives, VanderMeer’s fiction seems to acknowledge the limitations of the human while still committing to the imaginative work of exploring the impossible. Offering only partial understanding and knowledge for readers, VanderMeer’s work engages in a form of critical negativity that perhaps reflects the increasing estrangement of humanity from the ability to comprehend and act (effectively, collectively) in response to the global devastation of colonialism, late capitalism, and the effects climate change. His new novel, Dead Astronauts, perhaps the most weird yet, is an exploration into the ways in which resistance to these forces (which are embodied in the novel as the nefarious “Company”) can and should persist even in the face of impending failure.
Dead Astronauts takes place across seven (or more) versions of reality inhabited by three (or more) dead astronauts, a wolf-sized blue fox, a leviathan that matures into a behemoth, and an evil duck with a broken wing. Narrative omniscience is only partial, allowing readers (and the astronauts) moments of overlap between or glimpses from other realities. Readers of VanderMeer’s previous work will not be shocked at this cast given that the novel is set in the familiar Borne universe (which already introduced us to a giant flying bear). Dead Astronauts is stylistically unique and more challenging than any of his previous work: written in 11 sections and often narrated by biotech entities with conflicting agendas, the novel is a battleground upon which readers must witness the protagonists suffering defeat at the hands of the bad guys — over, and over, and over again.
The longest section of the novel, “The Three,” is told from the perspectives of three dead astronauts (spoiler alert, in case you missed the title): Chen, Grayson, and Moss. Their sole mission is to take down the Company, the massively distributed institution responsible for violently creating, murdering, and discarding the biotech entities that now wander the barren landscape of the City. This is the same Company that appeared in Borne, but where Borne was more tight-lipped about what happened behind Company walls, several of Dead Astronauts’s narrators provide us with a deeper look inside the evil machine, revealing the unspeakable horrors of its careless experimentation with life and the equally careless murder and disposal of biotech that results in the largely pained and vengefully motivated landscape of the City.
Grayson is the only human of the three astronauts: a black woman with one operable eye and a past that she painfully recalls. She was an astronaut who came down to this planet from the surface of the moon with the last of her fuel after the death of her crew. Upon Grayson’s arrival, she met Moss, a gender-fluid shapeshifter who is ultimately able to connect the consciousness of the three astronauts so they can feel and think as one. The third dead astronaut, Chen, is able to regenerate his own body parts; he used to work for the Company, where he was responsible for discarding unwanted biotech into a holding pond where biological entities devour each other as a means of disposal. But this Chen is not the Chen that Moss (who was also a Company creation) recruited for their missions. This version of Chen resents his work at the Company and wants to atone for the horrors of his past work. The three believe fiercely in their mission to end the Company, even though they know it is bound to fail, since they’ve been through this mission many times before. Some days they are met by the blue fox, some days by the duck with a broken wing — a bad omen that on a given timeline, things are not going to end well. Some days they run into other versions of themselves; some days they kill the other versions of themselves; some days they kill one another. But in each version of reality, they love each other with an apocalyptic fierceness palpable until the very last of the novel’s pages, which suffuses the pain of infinite failure with a kind of intensity that makes it all seem worthwhile: “All of it pushed toward their purpose, for they meant, one of these days or months or years, to destroy the Company and save the future. Some future. Nothing else meant very much anymore, except the love between them.”
Such love (without any guarantee of a better future) suggests an ecological imaginary that does not rely on narratives of futurity to justify or validate attachments in the present. In Dead Astronauts, these attachments enable the astronauts’ collective resistance to the Company as well as their intense ability to love one another. The novel therefore invites a queer reading that suggests that the absence of futurity might be central to love, to pleasure, and to politics in apocalyptic times. As the astronauts merge into each other through Moss’s ability to connect them, they become something queer and wonderful:
Limbs that couldn’t be separated, didn’t want to be separated, were not always human but more right because of it. How Moss’s kisses came from everywhere. How Chen became so giddy and silly. How Grayson’s urgency became their urgency. Held by so many and so much and never being alone, separate again, and the loss in the withdrawal of the tide, and how they would long for next time …
None would desire a future in which any one of them did not exist. Yes, they fight for the future. But they also fight to remain in the present, to remain together as long as they possibly can.
Other sections of the novel are beautiful even when they are chilling; multiplying perspectives on similar events build a complexly layered narrative. Most of the narrators have been created and manipulated by the Company, helpless as lab experiments, yet still able to feel suffering and rage and to crave redemption. Even the worst perpetrators are the result of other evils, like narrator Charlie X, an employee of the Company who is forced by his father to eat his own pet bird as a form of punishment. While the novel is fantastical in many respects, it’s certainly not whimsical; it’s a collection of narratives that startles in ways that may feel incommensurable with an injured duck or a big blue fox, but which interweaves accounts of horrible mutilation and violent retaliation on a mass scale. It’s an evil that three dead astronauts are quite justified for opposing even while knowing that their efforts will ultimately be futile:
This was the problem. You could try to live out your days and years in some remote corner, but even that place would be blighted by the Company, by what happened in the City. They would find you, in time. You would be reminded of your own unwillingness to fight against your fate.
So, what does it mean to fight for a future you know may already be lost? In such a context, questions underlying our relation to futurity become less about whether or not one can maintain hope for a failing planet and its deeply corrupted social and political structures; instead, the novel explores other forms of responses to the problem of the Anthropocene. One could argue that this isn’t a book about any particular future at all; instead, it’s about a present that has already come to pass. For many, there is already no other option but to fight fate, an imperative that suggests the strange paradox that structures both Dead Astronauts and the seemingly impossible political and ecological challenges faced at this moment around the world. The novel suggests that even something broken can be useful: “They had failed in the last City, and the one before that, and the one before that. Sometimes that failure pushed the needle farther. Sometimes that failure changed not a thing. But perhaps one day a certain kind of failure might be enough.”