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.

Advice from a Master of Fantastic Tales

Ray Bradbury was a prolific writer—of short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, essays, and poetry. As one title in this collection of essays asserts, “Doing is being,” you are what you do. What Bradbury did was write—at least 1000 words every morning throughout his life. As he describes it, this wasn’t work so much as play. He loved writing; it was his favorite thing to do and by his own definition of being, he was a writer first and last.

More celebrations of writing, and exhortations to write than instructions in the art, these essays do describe how Bradbury wrote and do offer some advice to would be writers. His writing process was essentially — discovery. He sat down at his typewriter—his frequent allusions to that wonderful word machine make me wish I still had one—to see what was on his mind in that moment, and started putting words on paper in a process of free association. Words led to other words and phrases and out of that stream of consciousness settings and characters emerged and the characters led him into their stories. He acted as medium or channel, not editing, not worrying about typos, spelling, or grammar, like a hound finding the scent of a story and pursuing wherever it led. Craft—editing, polishing, structuring—all happened over as many subsequent drafts as needed to finish the work. In his early career, he saw the editorial drafts as drudge work. In later years, as he mastered word and story crafts, he took more pleasure in that work.

What tips and advice does he offer, other write every day? Here, in no particular order, are the notions and ideas I took away from this first reading (I expect to reread it for inspiration any number of times):

Live in your body and pay attention. The myriad mundane details of life are a sea of sensory information. Attend to the people you see every day and the strangers you encounter. They are all characters in countless stories. Study your surroundings. They are all settings in which stories can and do play out. Observe. Render your observations as words.

Note fleeting ideas–words, phrases, and seeds of story. Keep a list and revisit it from time to time to see what might have sprouted over time. 

Feed and heed your Muse. A child of the twentieth century, Bradbury locates and identifies that source of ideas and inspiration in his creative unconscious mind. Feed it generously with books, films, series, music, art, and experience. It’s all grist for your unconscious creativity and may surface in surprising combinations as free associations that drive your conscious creativity. I would add–be mindful what you ingest As we are what we eat, for good or ill, we are also, what we read, and watch, and hear. Let your input be appropriate to your desired output. When your Muse does whisper in your inner ear, pay heed. Honor your Muse by paying attention. Write those whispers, however fragmented, and make them your secret sacred sutras to be pondered for direction and inspiration. 

Mine your personal story. Bradbury says that most of the characters in his many stories were drawn from the family, neighbors, and townspeople of his midwestern youth. They not only populated his idyllic “Greentown” novels (Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer) but also the colonists and Martian ghosts of his Martian Chronicles. We are all stories that too often we feel are too dull and prosaic to be worthy of literature or escapist fiction. Bradbury’s writing shows how the glorious can be mined from the ordinary and the oft repeated advice to “write what you know” doesn’t preclude using what you know best—your own story—as the basis for literature, even fantasy and science fiction. Bradbury lived in Ireland for six months while writing the screenplay for John Houston’s MOBY DICK. He found scant enjoyment and inspiration, so he thought, in the experience. Over subsequent years, Irish characters and settings emerged in his associative writing process that flowered as short stories and plays.

When writing stops being fun, step away from it. Give it a rest. Don’t struggle. Leave it to your Muse and play at (maybe write) something else.

Write for pleasure and the simple joy of writing. Write what you want to read. Don’t try to be literary; simply write as well as you can. Don’t write for the market, for money or fame. Write for the joy of writing. 

There’s more gold in these essays than I have recalled, and I may have contaminated some of Bradbury’s gold nuggets with my own rumination. I’ve ingested his words, fed them to the Muse and look forward to further amusement as they ferment and sprout in whispers that will drive my own play. 

The Starless Sea

Erin Morgenstern crafts a story-labyrinth

What’s your story, the one you live by, the one you are living—the one you tell yourself to live? We are all stories and we live to consume stories from and about others. Sometimes, we write and read a story about story and story telling. It’s a venerable genre and a difficult one to try, as writer or reader, requiring a sensitive touch lest it cease to be fiction and veer toward something drier, airier, pedantic. “The Starless Sea” is a story about story and story telling—a very ambitious and very complex story with other stories nested within it on multiple levels, almost like a video game.

Video games are another form of story telling. Games outsell books (and movies) worldwide. More people play stories than read them.

Erin Morgenstern has said that she immersed herself in video games while writing her books, especially this one, and it shows heavily, some say too heavily, in the book’s complex structure, which intertwines several non-linear plot lines through which characters wander in loops—lost in time and place, confused, and frustrated (as are some readers). 

All storytelling is (or can be) immersive. Narrative stories tend to be linear, sometime multi-linear. By words (or images) alone, they immerse the audience (reader) in an interior imaginative experience. The narrative storyteller controls the story line, leading the audience (reader) through the story along a singular path to a single end. Greater complexity places greater demands on the memory and imagination of the audience.

A game is a story structured for active participation by the audience (player) who enters into the story and directs branching story lines by taking actions and making decisions. Games immerse the reader in an exterior spectacle and sound. Digital art informs the player’s experience of story in a game. In a game structure, the storyteller sets the stage and characters, and plots multiple paths (story lines) for the audience (player) to follow to one or more endings. Each player directs and affects the storyline, climax, and resolution by choosing alternatives. Games are non-linear by design. Games, especially computer-based video and VR games can be complex because the game manages the complexity for the player.

In “The Starless Sea”, Ms. Morgenstern attempts to render the exterior complexity of a video game within the interior imaginative experience of the reader. In lieu of digital sights and sounds, she deploys dazzling descriptions, creating images and situations that can induce the waking dream state sought in all storytelling. The game space includes our “real” world but plays out mostly in an immense, seemingly infinite “underground” world devoted to stories and books rendered in myriad scribed media, housed in libraries of every kind, all surrounded by a mysterious starless sea. Time and space are mutable. The burden of managing that complexity falls heavily on the reader. For some readers, including me, that is a delight. Others may think she would have served this story better by designing and building it as an actual game.

“The Starless Sea” IS a game wherein the player (the reader) must solve the mystery of what’s going on in all these stories. What’s the back-story? Who are these characters and how do their stories relate? What is the meaning of the symbols–crown, key, sword, and bee—that figure so prominently? What about the cats and owls? Who or what is the Owl King? Some of those answers are provided and some not so clearly. You may need to read the book more than once to figure it out and I suspect, like a game, it has as many explanations as readers.

Most ambitiously, the story addresses the capital-M Mystery of story itself. What is it? How does it shape its audience? How does it shape the “real” world? The book is layered with nested manifold metaphors and similes that amuse, bemuse, beguile, and maybe irritate the reader at every turn of phrase, page, and plot.

Stories come to life in the telling—quicken within us or do not. We are drawn to follow the tale—spell bound, enchanted, entertained—or not. “The Starless Sea” did cast a spell upon me, did enchant and entertain and I was reluctant to see it go. I can no more provide a precise recap of its story and stories than I can for a dream. I expect / want to dream it again.

Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes

A classic tale for every age

Are you one who finds or has ever found carnivals and side shows both fascinating and creepy? Are you perhaps one of the “October” people, drawn to the fading colors and dying light of shorter cooler days? Have you tasted the tart sweetness that lies at the heart of bitter melancholy?
Ray Bradbury certainly did and poured all that and more into his classic fantasy novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Like most of his novels, this tale had its genesis in his Midwestern youth. This is one of his “Greentown” books, set in the mythologized and renamed Waukegan Illinois of his boyhood—properly paired with his Dandelion Wine, a dark autumnal shadow to that novel’s bright sunshine. It’s not a sequel but the books are thematically tied—and that’s a fitting topic for another post.
Its themes include time’s passage, youth craving maturity and freedom, maturity looking back upon youth with regret, the strained bonds of both friendship and parent-child love, and the sinful siren songs of dangerous shortcuts twixt youth and maturity and damaging abdications of maturity’s responsibilities.
Jim Nightshade, chafes under the anxious smothering care of his widowed mother and wants to grow into greater freedom as fast as he can. Will Holloway, his best friend, is in no rush, mindful of how his father’s age exceeds his mothers. That father, like many inhabitants of Greentown, rues his age, feel’s death’s immanence, and longs for paths untaken, chances not taken, energy unavailable for greater engagement with his son.
Into this mix of desire and regret, steams the ancient steam train hauling Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, something more than a carnival with mysterious sideshows, something wicked. Its steam calliope plays a siren song of dreams fulfilled and youth regained. The denizens of Green Town respond to its call, some more than others. Some dreams become nightmares.
It is indeed a pandemonium. Its sideshows display panoply of unnatural human disfigurements. Its maze of mirrored infinities can trap susceptible souls. On its carousel, time spins forward for some and backwards for others to the dismay of both. Sinister Mr. Dark presides over the shadow show and sets his eye upon restless Jim Nightshade as a fitting partner in pandemonium. Will Holloway needs his father’s help to save Jim from his own dangerous yearnings and Dark’s depredation.
I have read this novel several times at different stages of my own passage through time. As a youth, I identified strongly with Jim Nightshade’s desire from adulthood and liberation from the strictures of youth. I too wanted the carousel of time to spin me more rapidly into more exciting and dangerous adventures and indeed, it did, spinning me wildly and sometimes prematurely both to grownup delights and to mature dismay at my youthful foolhardiness. In my late maturity, I identify more with Mr. Holloway, ruing the inexorable fade of youth’s vigor and regretting some things done and even more things not done that might have been. A classic work offers itself anew to every age, within your own life and across time to different generations. Ray Bradbury wrote more than one classic and Something Wicked This Way Comes counts as one such, at least to this reader.

The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi prophecy and prescription for human survival

Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR to sci-fi readers) is a master novelist with a penchant for realistic (no space opera, faster-than-light starships, or galactic empire) science fiction dealing with humanity’s prospects over the next few centuries. Much of his work deals with space exploration and settlement. His Mars trilogy—RED MARS, GREEN MARS, and BLUE MARS—is an epic imagination of how humans might claim, fight over, and “humanize” a new world. I loved the Mars books and consider his novel 2312 to be one of the best depictions of human colonization of the solar system I’ve read. His writing can be categorized as “hard” sci-fi in that it is all grounded in realistic projections of current science and technology. Beyond STEM disciplines, his work also draws upon extensive research in social and life sciences. He is a polymath and a humanist.

He has turned his attention to climate change on Earth in two novels: NEW YORK 2140 and most recently THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE (TMFTF). Some critics have found fault with the former work as too optimistic. I doubt that many will say the same about his latest.

TMTF is grimly realistic, even horrifying, in its depictions of climate change and its probable impact on humans and human institutions over the middle decades of this century, which he rightly describes as an evolutionary “bottleneck” and possible extinction event for most life on Earth, including humans. It reads like a collaboration between the late sci-fi master, John Brunner (STAND ON ZANZIBAR, THE SHEEP LOOK UP) and climate activist Bill McKibben (DEEP ECONOMY: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, THE END OF NATURE). I have no doubt KSR has read both authors, as have I. The structure and style of the novel—multiple character points-of-view, interwoven storylines, and vignettes—is very much like Brunner’s work. Like McKibben’s books, it is peppered (maybe “seeded” is a better term) with densely factual non-fiction segments about numerous subjects, including the probable near-term consequences of climate change —physical, political, social, and economic—and what can aptly be called “tutorials” on geology, meteorology, monetary theory, capitalism. A recurring theme is that socio-economic inequality lies at the root of climate change and drives our resistance to do anything about it. You will not come away from this book rooting for the 1-10% of humanity that owns 80-90% of the world’s wealth and virtually runs its governments. You may also come away ashamed and embarrassed at how the political economy of the U$A is the worst offender driving climate change and likely the last adapter of any moves to halt and reverse it.

Don’t let any of this put you off! The book is ultimately albeit cautiously optimistic. It describes the many ways that science and technology can be harnessed to slow the movement of the world’s glaciers into the seas, and to reduce and even draw down the build-up of carbon that is cooking our oceans and atmosphere. It describes how the power of the world’s national banks might be harnessed to issue “carbon coins” that encourage and empower those technologies. It describes how the world’s suffering masses, not its ruling class, ultimately rise up in myriad movements to force change.

It’s also a page-turner—though you may be tempted, as I was, to skim some of the denser exposition of economic theory. I “whipped through” its 563 pages in less than two-weeks of bedtime reading. I strongly recommend reading it and hope it will find its way into a TV miniseries, though I’m not holding my breath on that. Check it out!

The Halloween Tree

Ray Bradbury and Halloween—yay!

The Halloween Tree - Kindle edition by Bradbury, Ray, Grimly, Gris.  Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

This year I wanted two things for Halloween—an appropriate Halloween read and at least a brief respite from horror, both in fiction (which I enjoy) and in life (and there seems no end to real-life horror these days). Ray Bradbury’s THE HALLOWEEN TREE, which came to my attention just at the right time, satisfied both wishes. As the title says, it’s all about Halloween and it’s a welcome alternative to horror—real and imagined. BUT—you may interject—it’s a book for kids! So? Halloween brings out the kid in me—as I grew up, it was always my favorite holiday AND I like well-written children’s books—AND this is RAY BRADBURY, one of my lifelong mentors in wordcraft and spellbinding storytelling. This neat little novel did not disappoint. It sends a group of twelve-year-old boys on a journey through time wherein they learn Halloween’s “hidden” history and each makes a profound sacrifice to save the life of a friend. It ranges from cave dwellers huddled around a fire, to Egyptian tombs and mummies, to British druids, to the Notre Dame Cathedral, to Mexico for the dia de los Muertos. Like most of Bradbury’s work, it’s limited to a kind of literary equivalent to Norman Rockwell’s nostalgia for a never-quite-real Americana and still, for all that, it’s a beautiful cascade of words and phrases by a master writer and storyteller with an expansive and generous spirit. It lifted my own spirits in this darkening season and that’s just what I wanted.

October the First Is Too Late

October the First Is Too Late - Wikipedia

A fantastic science fiction tale by Fred Hoyle

This is a novel from my youth, I first read it in college, and a book from my youth also, I still have the Science Fiction Book Club edition from the same era, one of the few books that have survived successive purges of my personal library over the years. On an impulse, while waiting to pick up a new novel on hold at the library, I picked it up to reread. I’m glad I did. It’s a story about people and societies displaced in time, not exactly time travel but in that sci-fi vein. For me, reading it again was also a kind of time travel, as it awakened memories of reading it and my life and times in that distant era, half a century past. The book, unlike some I’d loved in my youth and not so much in my maturity, stand the test of time (that word again). Fred Hoyle was a distinguished astrophysicist, the first to recognize that we (and everything) are made of star stuff, elements forged in stellar nuclear reactions and dispersed in nova and supernova explosions. His parents were both musicians. His scientific background makes his science fiction truly “science” fiction. Science and music both permeate and inform this novel of a work that’s a patchwork of cultures and places from different eras in which the protagonist is a composer and pianist. One scene in particular, a contest between piano and lyre in a temple of Apollo in the golden age of Athens stayed with me over the years and decades and prompted me to read again. Somewhat to my surprise, it’s still available on Amazon. I recommend it if you like subtle nuanced science fiction.


SHADOWPLAY: a fantastic novel

SHADOWPLAY is a fantastic tale based on real people and historical events.

It satisfies three of my criteria for a fantastic tale—it’s imaginative in its evocation of life and love, outstanding in my reading experience, and exotic in its depiction theatrical life in late 19th-century London—and one additional criterion that I’ll come top presently.

Two of its real people were famous 19th century actors—Henry Irving and Ellen Terry—now largely forgotten by all save students of the theater. Irving was the most celebrated actor of his time and the first actor ever to be knighted (by Queen Victoria). Terry, also famous, was the most beloved and highest paid actor of her day, who became a Dame of the Realm in her latter years. The third—and principal—character was largely unknown in his lifetime and is now quite famous as the creator and author of Dracula—Bram Stoker—who managed Henry Irving’s theater company and career, and died penniless.

The narrative unfolds as the elderly Ellen Terry reviews and relives Stoker’s diaries, journals, and letters as she prepares her own memoir. Stoker is our eyes and ears on the life and times of these three friends, with Terry’s intermittent narrative providing counterpoint and an external perspective on Stokers’ difficult life.

Much of the text traces the slow evolution of Stoker’s Dracula. Readers and viewers of the Dracula tale will recognize many character and place names from Stoker’s famous work in these pages, though without any explicit connections. They are all grist for Stoker’s imagination as he slowly births his masterpiece.

This was London blanketed with industrial “black fog,” living in terror of “the Ripper”. This was theater illuminated in gas lamplight, with elaborate sets and mechanical effects. These were actors and theater folk living perpetually at the edge of their means for love of their crafts, their children, and each other.

Joseph O’Connor immerses readers in that world, in the lives of those people, and especially in the heart and mind of Bram Stoker, tortured by unfulfilled desire for literary success, by love and hate for his difficult tempestuous employer Henry Irving, and by unfulfilled love for Ellen Terry. Time, place, and people come alive in our imagination through elegant and evocative prose.

I already mentioned imaginative, outstanding, and exotic as fantastic qualities of this story. It has one additional aspect of the fantastic—it’s fanciful— a ghost story—or at least there is a ghost in the story. The storied Lyceum Theatre in London, refurbished by Irving (and Stoker) to house his theater company was haunted—by the spirit of a young girl named Mina—another famous name from Dracula—its courageous heroine. Glimpsed by many over the years, she watches over Stoker as he labors on his novel in a forgotten attic high under the theater’s eaves. I have read many ghost tales and have never read a more imaginative description of subtle manifestation of spirit in the world or the world as experienced by a disembodied spirit. You can feel Bram Stoker unconsciously immersed in that spirit as he writes.

If you love historical fiction, the theater, love stories about complex beautifully written characters and their interwoven lives, the work of Bram Stoker—or the insinuation of a subtle ghost story into a larger work, then you may want to check out SHADOWPLAY.

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