I was in the grip of a wicked fever when I finished Acceptance, the final installment in Jeff VanderMeer's science-fiction/horror epic, the Southern Reach Trilogy. As I sweated it out on the couch, VanderMeer's work, already teeming with freaky flora and fauna, was made all the more hallucinogenic and dreamlike by my fever-addled brain. The Jungian obelisk of the Lighthouse took on grave personal significance; when the aberrant animals of Acceptance made their presence known, the walls of my apartment seemed to breathe, undulating like mutant cilia. Sure, some (most?) of that was the fever, but credit where credit is due: VanderMeer has a knack for capturing the uncanny. And having recently read the Tallahassee, Florida-based writer's newest offering, Dead Astronauts (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I can safely report that it teems with the same darkly poetic prose.
- Jeff VanderMeer
Dead Astronauts, like the novella The Strange Bird, takes place in the Borne universe — first outlined in VanderMeer's 2017 novel of the same name — a fictional future populated by renegade experiments and self-replicating biotech gone rogue. It's a world in which climate change, scarcity, and disease were almost conquered by a clever marriage of technology and nature. In every timeline, though, the unnamed Company's greed outpaces its caution, and some experiment gone awry leads inexorably to the rapid dissolution of civilization.
Enter the dead astronauts, so-called because their quest is a suicide mission and because their containment suits resemble spacesuits — Chen, who used to work for the Company; Moss, one of the Company's experiments and the trio's gateway between timelines; and Grayson, the former astronaut returned to a ruined Earth. The three travel, nomadic, between timelines, hoping to find a version of their homeworld not yet beyond the point of saving. When Chen teases Moss, asking her why she can't find a peaceful paradise of a timeline where the three travelers might live out the rest of their days, VanderMeer quashes that possibility, writing, "Those timelines did not exist. The Company had tick-engorged itself across all timelines."
The Company is capitalism metastasized to its most extreme — blindly producing long after there exists clientele to purchase the product. In every world the astronauts visit, the Company is a constant, as are some of its creations — the messianic blue fox, the ages-old Leviathan who swims among the refuse of the Company's failed experiments in the containment ponds, and poor Charlie X, the Company's former head scientist, now mutated, scratching his secret equations in the dust of a dead world. The characters are variables in an equation that, the astronauts hope, can be solved to reveal a livable Earth.
With Dead Astronauts, VanderMeer succeeds in making the tried and tired tropes of a post-apocalyptic Earth feel fresh. There are no zombies, no myopically militaristic generals populating the pages. Rather, VanderMeer conjures the spectre of a world gone spectacularly and uncomprehendingly wrong.
Wisely, VanderMeer steers clear of actually outlining what wrecked the world, choosing instead to leave humankind's final act of hubris to the reader's imagination. The technique works, as each possibility seems simultaneously more terrible — and more probable — than the last. As in his cult classic Southern Reach Trilogy, VanderMeer's work in Dead Astronauts leaves enough unsaid to give the danger a terrifyingly unfathomable quality. Whatever the Company has unleashed, whatever vile creations it has wrought, leaves humans as helpless and perplexed as wildlife in the face of slash-and-burn agriculture.
VanderMeer's prose is as spare as his settings are lush, and with that harmony the writer sounds a klaxon warning of the dangers of our disharmonious existence. Dead Astronauts is mesmerizing, and with it, VanderMeer further solidifies his place on the cutting edge of America's collective nightmares.