This is neither a utopia nor a dystopia but an imaginative extension of catastrophes we know. VanderMeer presents us with a bizarre world, and it is the reader’s process of discovery to find the familiar within it. The result is impressive, but also baggy and uneven. The ideas often work harder than their delivery in the writing, while the Mobius Strip plot and formal experimentation will frustrate as many readers as they will enthral.
A genuinely innovative artwork requires time to fulfil its effect. Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts is one such work – bewildering, perplexing, original – and I would recommend that readers allow it the concentration it demands... Climate fiction is an important strand in contemporary literature, so much so that in its repeating imagery, its insistent narrative of imminent catastrophe, it may begin to seem over-familiar and thus lose its urgency. As a writer of fantasy, VanderMeer has always eschewed the more derivative aspects of world-building, preferring instead to employ speculative conceits as a means of stretching the envelope of the possible. From his 2014 Southern Reach trilogy onwards, it has become clear there is no subject more important to him than the degrading and disastrous effect of human activity on fragile ecosystems. Employing stylistic and linguistic devices that reach beyond narrative, the author deliberately deconstructs the very concept of familiarity and forces us up against his subject matter in a way that demands we not only engage with it, but recognise its vast importance to our lives and futures.
...there’s more than a touch of Hieronymus Bosch in this darkly transcendent novel filled with phantasmagoric visions, body horror and tortured beings traversing a blasted desert hellscape. Think “The Last Judgment,” but with more animals.... Amid all its grimness, the novel finds some small redemption in the power of love. But VanderMeer’s brilliant formal tricks make love feel abstract and unconvincing by the end, a flimsy human ideal. Late in the book, the blue fox recalls his capture by the Company, staring into his mate’s eyes as he’s dragged away from her. “The sentimental tale,” he tells us coolly. “The tale you always need to care. Which shows you don’t care. Why we don’t care if you care.” It’s precisely that ferocity that makes “Dead Astronauts” so terrifying and so compelling.