If you enjoy poetry as well as Science Fiction, you will appreciate Dead Astronauts. The novel has elements of both. Rather than sit down and try to figure out what it means, like I tried to do, I suggest that you simply allow yourself to sink into the experience of reading this like into a deep, warm bath. Some parts of this novel do rather look like they were written by a “weird Thoreau” (Henry David Thoreau), as VanderMeer is dubbed in the New Yorker – a suitable moniker since he is a writer of “New Weird Literature”. Parts are futuristic and technical, others are pastoral, others are so unusual than I don’t know what to call them. But each part is, in itself, beautifully written, word for word, or just simply beautiful. This is despite some sections being about awful things, or nightmarish, surreal situations.

Dead Astronauts – A Novel, by Jeff VanderMeer (Series: Borne Book 2, publisher: MCD, December 3, 2019, hardcover, 336 pages)

Sci-Fi and Fantasy are supposed to be largely fictional and imaginary, and VanderMeer is a writer of prodigious imagination, but this time he has outdone himself. I had a hard time finding the words to describe this novelette or short novel. It is actually 323 pages long in paperback, which does not make it a short or small novel. But some pages are just the same words repeated over and over and over. Other pages are just a word, or just a paragraph or two. I got the feeling that the first part of the novel is a narrative, and the rest is, well, whatever you think the mental ramblings of strange creatures are.

I use the term, “Sci-Fi Prose Poetry”, which I think best describes the type of novel it is. It is simply not conventional enough to meet the criteria against which most fiction can be judged.

Measured against conventional criteria

  • Characters – there are those, but not as one would think of them as people or narrators. There is the “dead astronaut” of the title, called “Grayson”, along with the other two characters, “Chen”, a “fortress-sentinel”, and a plantlike humanoid, “Moss”. There is the gigantic, malevolent “Duck” that was made in a laboratory, and the spectre of a blue fox and the other laughing foxes, and a thing called “Behemoth” which seems to be some kind of sentient fish. And someone with a weird transplanted face who lives in an alternate universe and is called “Charlie X” – and he was killed and remade by his father countless times. And then there is an abused, feral runaway who lives in a tunnel and has found Charlie X’s mysterious diary. But these intertwined narrators come and go in the novel, and often it is not clear who is talking, and what their words mean.

  • Plot – I think it is about the destruction of the world and the suffering of animals. It is also about love. But there is no series of events, per se. There is no suspense, no drama. There’s poignancy, and revulsion. But no tension – not even when two of the first three characters die, and the surviving dead astronaut wanders off into nowhere. It is too philosophical for that.

  • Themes – The back cover states that “…at least twenty percent of royalties from Dead Astronauts will be donated to the Center for Biological Diversity and the Friends of St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge”. So, that is the nature of the main theme.

  • Tone – Parts of this novel describes such horrible things that it almost makes the reader recoil. If ever you needed convincing that experimentation on animals is horrendous, read this. It will put you off your food. And if you ever needed convincing that the natural world, when not messed up by humans, is something lovely, wondrous and mysterious, also read this.

  • Settings – The main setting is the same location as VanderMeer’s previous novels in the Borne Series,  The Strange Bird and Borne. It is a planet, probably Earth, which is ruined, and a “City” which is dominated by “Company” headquarters from which all kinds of experimental bio-forms were let loose on the world. However, that is just the setting for one part of the novel. There are others that I could not make sense of – a river or the sea, a tunnel near a factory, a different universe altogether.

From writer to reader without friction

The trick, I would say, is in the way VanderMeer writes.  You might think that prose poetry is supposed to be metaphorical and wordy, with long, complicated, lyrical sentences. That’s not how he writes.

Isaac Asimov wrote this about his own writing style:

“I have an informal style, which means I tend to use short words and simple sentence structure, to say nothing of occasional colloquialisms. This grates on people who like things that are poetic, weighty, complex, and, above all, obscure. On the other hand, the informal style pleases people who enjoy the sensation of reading an essay without being aware that they are reading and of feeling that ideas are flowing from the writer’s brain into their own without mental friction.” (Isaac Asimov, “On Style”, Introduction to Who Done It?, Anthology edited by Isaac Asimov and Alice Laurance, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980.)

VanderMeer’s writing style in this novel is like that of Isaac Asimov – as if you are reading the ideas that are flowing from the writer’s brain into your own mind without friction. And this occurs even with the poetic parts and the strange formats, and the almost incomprehensible progression of scenarios, and the words that you sometimes do not know.

A very personal writing style

What particularly struck a chord with me? That would be the Behemoth, a gigantic fishlike creature that has mastered Moss’s “tidal pool rules” – note the indents and line breaks, as in the novel:

“Stay still, be small, bring the right camouflage, know good hiding places, become a symbiote or parasite, be poisonous or venomous, be able to regenerate body parts.
If you wanted to survive, reduce all motion to over long stretches of time. Trust the current. The current. The current. The species already there. How at high tide the water rippled across all of the tidal pools, even those that had been inviolate, their own tiny kingdoms, before.” (p.25)

“But: Be tiny, be motionless. Take your time. Perhaps it would not be the first wave or even the thousandth. Because direct was defended.
You contaminated the wall of globes inside the Company, then went to the Source. The portal wall, the magic mirror that led back to where the Company came from. You let it trickle in, like a slow-acting poison that was actually.
Life, again.”  (p. 25)

You can see marks of his writing style that become more obvious toward the latter parts of the book – the repetition, half-sentences, counter-intuitive word order, unusual paragraph structure, and words left out. It means that the reader must either sort the statements out in their minds, or ignore the irregularities and just read on.

Regardless of the losses suffered by everything and everyone in the story, what is felt most strongly is the loss of love. In the quote below, you can again see the technique of repeated words to emphasize the loss of a loved one:

“‘What will replace It if we succeed?’
‘Anything is better.’
But without the Company, they would not have fought the Company.
But this made them at times suspicious of their own three selves.
But they had no choice now but to go on.
In this version, birdsong filled the City, but it was just an echo of nanites created to give the illusion of bird life through ghost calls.
‘What will you miss? Grayson would ask, already knew the answer.
      I’ll miss you.

What an elegant and evocative way of putting it: “an echo of nanites created to give the illusion of bird life through ghost calls”.

Another theme running through the novel is the numbers 10, 7, 3, and 0 that are repeated throughout, what it means I still don’t know (example below).

Layout, graphics and typography

The number sequence is one way in which VanderMeer uses typesetting, layout, and also hand-drawn illustrations, to reinforce the tone and meaning of the text, like on these pages, below – note the numbering in the margins which counts down to “v.0” in the last chapter, which is also numbered “0”.

But as puzzling as the numbering is, forget about that for a moment. Just look at this line: “The blue fox’s eyes glowed and glittered with stars. Wept tiny stars like tears, which fell onto the sand and disappeared.” Isn’t that a lovely image? And “There was in their feral appetite a reverie beyond judgment.“

It reminded me of Sjón’s novel, The Blue Fox, in which he depicts the blue or Arctic fox as a mythical, magical creature of otherworldly beauty.

Another section in the novel also reminded me of a work by Sjón, namely CoDex 1962. In that very densely-structured, complicated book, Sjón uses the names of dead people repeatedly to emphasize the sheer numbers of the dead and of the reality of this macabre roll-call. As I explained in my review, the three-part book is in part like a primitive form of a codex (a scroll), with many pages that contain only lists of names, genders, birth dates, death dates and causes of death. Those pages are a kind of direct graphical expression of the names of children who were born alive in Iceland in 1962, and who died and what they died from. It’s right in your face, all those names and dates, like the engravings on a memorial wall in a cemetery.

Extract of pages with lists of the dead, from CoDex 1962, by Sjón.

In many chapters, the dead children and adults gather, as a chorus of the dead would do in a Greek tragedy on a stage or proscenium, and, speaking to an invisible audience, they recite their names and deaths, and conclude with “- Dear brothers and sisters, born in 1962, we await you here.” That really sent chills down my spine, since the lists grow longer and longer every time.

In Dead Astronauts, VanderMeer uses a similar technique, by filling pages and pages with repeated words and phrases. This results in two things: Firstly, the concepts that the words on the page, the “signified” in Semiotics, represent, repeatedly reinforce the idea that the author wants the reader to understand. Secondly, the mass of printed words, the “signifiers” on the page, visually impresses on the reader the scope and intensity of the concepts. In that way, the author doubles up on the connection between the words and their meanings. He unifies the signifiers and what they signify. That’s the literary explanation for what he does. At face value, to the reader it just looks like a dense page of repeated phrases which, and by the time the reader has figured out for how long it goes on, it has already had the intended effect.

The pages of “massed” text

On the left, above, are two of the four-and-a-half pages of the same words, spoken by “the murderous child”.  I thought this narrator was the scientist called “Charlie X”, whose father killed him and brought him back from the dead, over and over, as part of the experiments done at “the Company”: “My father always said, ‘Make this into a lesson or I’ll kill it. And you. Again.” The “massing” of the text has a strong effect – the repetition of just two sentences: “They killed me. They brought me back.”

Two chapters on (not shown here), a chapter called “to the dead people” consists of another six pages just listing the various ways in which the animals were killed at “the Company” – or the way people kill and torture animals. It is graphic – I can assure you it is horrible.

And in yet another chapter further on, called “to the children I loved”, (above, right), is a list of repeated things, simple things, that foxes do. If they could speak, this is what they would say. The foxes in Dead Astronauts are simple animals, they jump, play, chase and basically just live free and do as foxes do. But we all know what people do to foxes in this world…

Prose poetry

The poetical parts of the text mostly come in where VanderMeer describes the “Behemoth”, a huge water creature. It is both a description of the creature and the amazingly beautiful and small details of the water-world in which it lives:
“behemoth satisfied by the sun upon a muddy rock / watched
the stitching of black damselflies over the bog / so little
sound leaking from their wings / how the delicate tracery
escaped / negated all behemoth would ever be / even small
even staring into a bridge tunnel, damselfly like a drone
hovering in the air / hovering in the sky / hovering in dreams
the last of the green” (pp. 216 – 217)

The meaning of the title

What does the title of the novel mean? Partly, it refers to the fact that by the time an astronaut has travelled through space and time to come back to earth in this universe, they are already dead and is kept alive and aware only by their suits. It also refers to Grayson, the astronaut, coming upon the corpses, in their suits, of three dead astronauts:
       “Grayson could not deny they lay peaceful among the clumps of desert flowers and grasses. Some of which sprouted from those helmets.
Dead her.
Dead Moss.
Dead Chen.” (p. 118)

And finally…

After all of that, what is the reader supposed to make of this?  A couple of things. But bear in mind that you’d best read it yourself.
  • It is the voice of VanderMeer telling you, the reader, to wake up. To see what the future could be if we continue to be cruel and wasteful and without conscience. The novel is what you make of this call.
  • “But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil. 
    Joy can only remind you why you fight.” (p. 301)

  • There is always love. Even when the world ends, the last thing us humans will have to hope for is love. And love comes in many guises, in many ways, between many different people, and by people for their world, for others, and for the animals that they share the world with. This means all the animals, from the sea creatures to the playful, cheeky foxes that have no jobs, no financial value, no function other than just to be. And be beautiful.

It is very good, this labour of love by VanderMeer. It is worth getting into. I challenge you to read it and not be engaged. If you are not moved to tears by the last two chapters, go check that you still have a heart.

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