Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer
An unnecessary return to the world of his excellent 2017 novel Borne, Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts is a prismatic, abstract attempt to both expand and disintegrate the lore of his previous work. “You wouldn’t understand me even if I made sense,” the book dares.
Told in the style of oozing, free-form prose-poetry, Dead Astronauts is a nearly-indecipherable literary anomaly: the novel boldly withholds typical conventions, replacing characters and plot with wisps of folklore carried over from Borne, an ecological sci-fi adventure about biotech monsters running rampant in a dystopian future. Dead Astronauts, alternatively, resists a succinct summary, and offers instead a hybrid of recognizable imagery and abstract, philosophical potential, all shape-shifting across alternate timelines.
Somewhere at the heart of the novel there is a shadowy figure in a room full of globes. If we imagine Borne as one globe, a single world — a well-tempered vision, full of characters, pulse and drama — Dead Astronauts is the rest of the room: an infinity of spheres, a collage of worlds across time and space.
Three characters explore these worlds: Grayson, Chen and Moss. They are both alive and dead, both pre-birth and post-death, and they’re tasked with traveling to investigate each iteration of this seemingly endless multiverse. “Dead astronauts,” VanderMeer writes, “were no different than living astronauts. Neither could shed their skin. Neither could ever become part of what they journeyed through. Suits were premade coffins. Space was the grave. Better to think of yourself as dead already. There was freedom in that; liberated the mind to roam quadrants farther than the body.”
These realms, like in Borne, are each cities overrun by the shadowy dealings of The Company, who had “tick-engorged itself across all timelines” with creatures who have grown like unchained leviathans. Borne had “Mord,” a skyscraper-sized bear, Dead Astronauts has a behemoth-sized fish, duck, and a murderous bird. In addition to the three travelers and the City’s monsters, a race of foxes lurks throughout each of these timelines, up to something cosmic and mysterious.
Borrowing a line from the novel, “This was the part where things began to fall apart, because they were meant to fall apart.” While written in beautiful, enigmatic prose, Dead Astronauts falls headlong through the mirror to detrimental results. One section, told in second person, attempts to ground the novel by developing a meta-thread following a woman who finds an incomprehensible journal about alternate dimensions and experiments. Maybe this is the first half of Dead Astronauts: “the first pages disturb you,” VanderMeer writes. “They are “almost whimsical…. Sentences and paragraphs written in a language you don’t understand.”
Other sections feature arbitrary layout tricks and are told from the perspective of the City’s monsters. A maybe-fox narrates elsewhere. Some short chapters feature moody lines like “They killed me. They brought me back.” cut-and-pasted over five pages. VanderMeer does this wall-of-text thing three times in the novel, later sneaking in parenthetical sentences between pastes, as if to suggest that a close reading will be rewarded. Finally, some chapters and paragraphs are adorned in the margins with version notes, like a computer program (“v.7.0” reads one later section), and a chain of numbers (10, 7, 3, 0) is alluded to throughout the book, as if it was written over a crackable code.
This story is meant to wash over its reader, and to feel like a new reading experience — some futuristic text, beyond the novel. Unfortunately, casual readers will quickly look elsewhere: without the lore of Borne and the related novella The Strange Bird, there is little here to grasp and enjoy. But in the world of Dead Astronauts, VanderMeer’s confidence prevails: he boldly leaves his readers weightless and spinning, all while providing clues for die-hards to unlock.
In one scene, a character holds a rainbow creature, similar to the titular, shapeshifting squid-monster of Borne. Pulling back a little, it sounds remarkably similar to the beautifully designed, rainbow-jacketed and intricately-decorated hardcover of Dead Astronauts. The character remarks on what the monster’s voice would sound like: “A brave voice, a voice that sounded like no other because this creature had never existed before and so he could not describe the voice to another person.” As for Dead Astronauts, the novel is similarly indescribable. But it’s not awe, nor splendor — its that sound, whatever its called, between bravery and cockiness.