Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer

Fantastic Literary Fiction or Sci-Fi?

Is “Dead Astronauts” (literary) fiction or science fiction? It has some of the genre tropes of sci-fi — a future post-apocalyptic dystopian setting and premise. Its unconventional — sometimes seemingly incoherent — narrative style make it far more literary than most novels in any genre, including sci-fi. Its publisher branded “Dead Astronauts” as science fiction—undoubtedly to make it more commercial. My local library catalogued it as Fiction. The library had catalogued VanderMeer’s “Souther Reach” trilogy (starting with “Annihilation”) as sci-fi and “Borne” as Fantasy. “Dead Astronauts” is (kind of) a nominal sequel to “Borne”. Go figure!

Like all VanderMeer’s work, this novel asks much of the reader. If James Joyce or Bertolt Brecht had written science fiction, it might be something like this. Story emerges — obliquely and almost incoherently —from phenomenal descriptions of characters in bizarre situations distributed across multiple timelines in alternate realities. It would take a second or third reading to enable any informed opinion on ultimate coherence or its lack. I honestly can’t offer a synopsis after a single reading.

Why read it? You may well ask! If you are seeking a conventional sci-fi story with relatable (or even clearly defined) characters pursuing coherent plot lines to a satisfying conclusion, this is probably one for you to skip. Personally, I like to be challenged. As a reader who writes, I find VanderMeer’s language cryptically enchanting— sometimes leaving me in the same state of befuddled awe and wonderment I felt on first listening to the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band”. He tosses off phrases so unconventionally beautiful that I stop in awe of the language. As a writer, I find his lack of convention truly liberating. All these qualities landed “Dead Astronauts” in the local library’s Fiction shelves and on my list of books worth reading at least twice.

Ironically, if I were not already following Jeff VanderMeer’s writing and if it were not for the novel’s sci-fi attributes, I probably would have passed on reading it. I’ve now read five of VanderMeer’s novels, beginning with “Annihilation, continuing with its sequels, then “Borne” and now “Dead Astronauts”. I’m a fan.

“Annihilation” was challenging, and each novel since has been progressively more so. Each novel has been grounded in a world further down the road to an end predicted by the first title—annihilation. In “Dead Astronauts” we are in a vision out of Yeats where things have already fallen apart; the center did not hold; Bethlehem is ruined along with everything else, and rough (genetically engineered and mutated) beasts roam the land. In that progression, the writing moves from dreamlike in “Annihilation,” nightmarish in its sequels, to surreal and disjointed in “Borne” and even more so in “Dead Astronauts”.

With each novel, at some point I asked, “Do you really want to finish reading this?” Each time, for the reasons cited above, the answer was, “Yes!” Each time I came away glad of it.

Call it literary fiction or sci-fi, “Dead Astronauts” (and Jeff Vandermeer’s writing) is a trip worth taking.

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