by Alexander Pyles
An undulating, coalescence of image and feeling, DEAD ASTRONAUTS is a living work. It tests you. Tricks you. Seeks to entice you deeper into its secrets. From the puzzle of numbers to the various words and sentences that have lighter shading, this story refuses to be domesticated or caged in any way. Do not mistake this for its primary purpose. It remains as a lifeform that gathers itself up to only be shattered and then gathered up once more with each succeeding chapter. It hopes to maim the reader in order to eschew their settled perceptions. This isn’t a straightforward narrative, this isn’t a straightforward novel, but why should it be?
The Company looms as foreboding as ever in the City, but even as an antagonist, it resides in the background. Three rebels journey to the City, they have come from somewhere and nowhere to defeat the Company. Lingering in the margins are various characters both familiar, but not. A madman, both creator, and victim of the ghosts that haunt him. A murderous bird that resembles a duck yet is much more. The leviathan, once a fish, holds a secret in its deep pools. And finally, the messianic blue fox that slips through reality on an undertaking of its own.
For readers of BORNE, the Company is a foreboding entity, one that both brings the apocalypse and seeks to dissect it. Yet, this is not a novel that must be read after BORNE, it can be read before, it can be read after. DEAD ASTRONAUTS is both a prequel and a sequel at once-more on that later. Our rebels, Grayson, Chen, and Moss are not your typical triumvirate of freedom fighters. Altered by the biotech that pervades the land, all of them have been altered, changed, and transformed into something completely other. In the case of Moss, they have merely ascended to a new way of being entire. The other figures and creatures may resemble some that were mentioned in passing from Rachel’s diary in BORNE.
It would be easy for one to say this book appears to comment on the climate crisis and the idiocy of humanity’s hubris over Earth. Does the novel comment on these and other related themes? Yes, but it offers something so much deeper than that. By his handful of non-human or almost not-human perspectives, Vandermeer presents a creation at its closest and heartbreakingly intimate value. This is the world. Our world and what have we done in return? What can we do in our present moment, our present time to do something constructive? How can you matter when the Earth will go on for far longer than anything built by humanity? The true question underlying all of this would be, is humanity capable of an Earthen empathy? It appears to be Vandermeer’s ultimate goal, which brings out why this novel is such a rich and strange thing.
The formatting of the book bends and twists, from the steadily sinking of passages from the leviathan to the sharp piercing prose of the blue fox, and the flexing, fluid whispers of Moss, there is not a single voice that does not challenge your preconceived reader bias. The perspectives are numerous and ever-shifting, refusing to stay held down by definitions or rules. Words flow and some even fade to a lighter hue at irregular intervals, hinting at a deeper puzzle to be understood. An invitation. A tease. Instances of new realities are given margin labels such as v.4.3, v.4.4, etc. Rather than simply stating a phrase is repeated, the phrase is repeated for pages upon pages, forcing the reader to repeat the phrase again and again in their head. Even some perspectives change the shape of thought, as the leviathan’s tale is told in two parallel passages upon each page, only to sink to the bottom of the pages until finally falling away. All of these irregularities and nuances combine to not only generate a visceral experience on the pages but to illustrate that our medium of the story is, at times, poorly presented.
Yet, what does all this mean for Jeff Vandermeer’s most recent release? It is by far his most marvelous approach to the novel form and one that sets a new bar for experimental storytelling, one that forces readers into understanding perspectives that are not human. BORNE was an outside eye looking in, instead, DEAD ASTRONAUTS is that eye. Breaking from the traditional linear novel narrative, Vandermeer creates a novel that rubberbands back and forth across timelines. In some ways, this story is told in reverse or is it in order? The reader is left stumbling around in the prose, which for initiates to Vandermeer may deaden their enjoyment. Clarity is something gifted to the reader, not taken for granted, but when Vandermeer gives clarity, the lines are startling: “Flesh was quantum. Flesh was contaminated, body and mind.” Or, “Everything that promised glory became gory.”
Understanding may be the ultimate goal for Vandermeer when it comes to humanity becoming cognizant of its place on Earth, though who can say? DEAD ASTRONAUTS is foremost an experience to carry the reader to that understanding and to take the form of various living or not quite living things. Dark birds, foxes, and human-created, but not human-controlled biotech is loosed in these pages.
Given the highly abstract nature of Vandermeer’s prose, it would be easy for the topical reader to assert crude analogs or symbolism onto the narrative. What do the Company’s machinations say? What does each of the astronauts present about humanity? How does the Earth come to save itself? Yet, all of this is chaff. This story is more than something solely gives readers a lesson, a pleasurable experience. It is a well to fall into, to be immersed in, to drown in. This is not a book predisposed to brief or light reading. It is a book that urges you to return, to understand it, to empathize with it. It is, after all, a living thing.
“You say why save an empty Earth…But it’s only empty to your eyes. It’s only empty because you helped make it so, and thought nothing of it.”