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.

Dark: a complex tale of time travel

Like many fans of science fiction, I enjoy tales of time travel. I read HG Wells’ The Time Machine at an early age and have sought out entries in this venerable sci-fi sub-genre ever since. Over the course of my reading lifetime, concepts from theoretical physics have seeped out of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and particle physics into the popular culture and heavily influenced sci-fi in general and time-travel tales in particular, inspiring novels, screenplays, and TV series that are increasingly complex, sometimes to the point of cryptic inscrutability. Wormholes, temporal paradox, parallel timelines in parallel universes that branch off and or into our own here and now. It would be reasonable to say that sci-fi has been the main vehicle for bringing these esoteric concepts into mainstream culture.

A really good time travel story often requires more than one reading or viewing just to be understood and to figure out whether or not its time loops, parallel and intersecting timelines, and paradoxes ultimately add up to a coherent whole without “holes” in the story. It’s a challenge for the creator and maybe even greater challenge for the audience. Meanwhile, like any story, a time travel yarn must hook the audience with compelling characters, dramatic conflicts, interesting settings and situations. When it all works, it’s sublimely fantastic storytelling.

Dark, a German TV series that ran three seasons on Netflix, is tagged (on IMDb) as a “crime, drama, mystery” and it delivers on all three genres. It begins with children disappearing and the discovery of other children’s bodies, establishes a set of complex compelling characters in manifold (and confusing) relationships, and sets up a mystery of who took the children, where and whe, and why. Personally, I would tag its genre blend as “mystery, drama, sci-fi.” Like any entertaining mystery, clues abound and intrigue deepens.

The overarching ambience and emotional tone of the series is best described by its title—it’s dark, with lots of guilt over sins of the past that ripples across generations. Underlying everything is a very complex science-fiction premise that explores the paradoxes of time travel. As if its large cast wasn’t complex enough, we see many characters at two or three stages of their lives, played by other actors in scenes from past and present storylines. Sometimes they cross timelines. One of the missing children from the present travels back in time whence he grows up to father a teenage protagonist (who had been a contemportary) in the present timeline) is dismayed to discover that his girlfriend is his father’s niece, a genetic first cousin. You really can’t tell the players without a program and it’s not surprising to find a Wikipedia article on Dark that attempts to sort it all out, going so far as to lay out detailed family trees of the main characters, including some strange loops. It’s still something of a mystery to me and I’m enjoying it. It requires some effort and, in a way, adds an interactive element to the experience.

I watched this first season in 2017 and found it very absorbing and very confusing. When subsequent seasons were released, I decided to watch it a second time before starting the second season. That helped me sort things out and I still wouldn’t be able to write a coherent season synopsis that was more than a ridiculously complicated logline. In part, that’s a function of my viewing habits—I like to watch several series in parallel and don’t watch that often. As a result, it took me six months to watch every episode a second time. Some shows cry out for binge watching and I think Dark would make more sense more readily, if watched over a week or a couple of weekends.

I intend to watch the second and third season and have high hopes that coherent comprehension will emerge. If not, I may have to watch the full series again. Dark may not be easy viewing but it’s highly entertaining (despite its gloomy style) and well worth a second (or even third) viewing to grok its fullness.  

Alien & Aliens

From Horror to Action Adventure

The story told in the Alien films, at least the first two—Alien and Aliens—is a fantastic tale that combines elements of multiple genres—Sci-Fi being the common denominator. I call the tale (and both films) fantastic because the story is imaginative original and outstanding science fiction, with bizarre and exotic elements we’d never seen before in Sci-Fi movies. Both films, one forty years old and the other thirty-five still entertain without feeling dated.

One point I find interesting—which prompted me to write this post—is that, unlike virtually all the other great science fiction sagas, this one begins life as a horror movie. Then, unlike virtually all horror movies, the sequel is something else–an action adventure.

ALIEN (1979)

The original is a great science-fiction film, with artfully designed space ships (human and alien) and believably futuristic high tech (albeit circa 1978)—including an android that passes for human. Did I mention the alien? Its prime antagonist—the creature designed by H.R. Giger—is arguably the most imaginatively and artfully designed and executed—and scary—alien ever brought to the screen, before or since.

That said—Sci-Fi takes a backseat to Horror as the dominant genre. The setting and devices are science fiction, but the story is a tale of progressive unrelenting horror. By thirty minutes in—at the end of Act 1—you know—you can feel—you are watching a horror movie.

It is edge-of-your-seat scary and suspenseful, set in a labyrinthine factory ship full of ducts, pipes, chain hoists, and venting steam valves. Most of it is claustrophobic with short sight lines, myriad openings on every surface, and blind corners from which something terrible might be—and often is—waiting to pounce.

Shocks and surprises abound—from the first eruption of a creature from an alien “seedpod” to clasp the first victim’s face—to its subsequent eruption from that victim’s torso at the dinner table. Between that shock and its final surprise appearance in the hero’s escape pod, the creature stalks its victims through one surprise attack after another.

It begins life as a little thing—scary but not awesomely so. It grows and morphs every time we see it, becoming ever larger (with each victim consumed) and ever more horrifying—with features like acidic blood that burns through steel, a talon-tipped tail, and telescoping fangs that extrude from its maw. As if one monster wasn’t enough, we are treated to the shocking surprise of a second—the ship’s science officer turns out to be an artificial being—with a surprising secret agenda—in which the human crew is expendable.

Every character but one—discounting Jones, the cat—meets a grisly disgusting end that fills the audience with revulsion. Did I mention the monster’s mid-story eruption from inside a living victim’s abdomen? Gross! That scene has become a movie archetype and people still talk about it forty years after the film’s release.

The sole surviving character emerges—over the course of the story—as one of the great Sci-Fi heroes in cinema and—surprise—that hero is a woman. Today we have heroic female characters all over screens big and small. In 1979—Ripley was an imaginative innovative surprise arguably breaking barriers and paving the way for characters like Jyn Erso (in Rogue One) and Rey (in Star Wars episodes 6-9).

ALIEN was a smash hit that made a ton of money and established Ridley Scott as an A-list director.

It was not surprising that there would be a sequel. It wasn’t even that surprising that Ridley Scott didn’t get to direct it—that happens all the time. What was surprising is that the sequel to a Horror Sci-Fi hit movie was not a Horror Sci-Fi movie.

ALIENS (1986) transformed archetypal Horror Sci-Fi into archetypal Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi.

Arguably, that has two likely explanations—STAR WARS (1977)—and James Cameron— the sequel’s writer and director.

ALIEN was a box office hit but STAR WARS was a box office phenomenon that grossed half a billion dollars in its release year. We are still seeing the effects of that phenomenon in movies and TV, so it would be naïve to think it didn’t figure into the transformation of alien from Horror to Action Adventure. STAR WARS was an Action Adventure Fantasy.

James Cameron had his breakout hit with THE TERMINATOR—an Action Sci-Fi movie.

Connect the dots.

ALIENS (1986)

Like most James Cameron films, this is a high-tech, heavy metal, hardware film—a city in space, a spaceship designed to look like a weapon, armored troop transports—flying and wheeled—a colony built around a fusion-powered plant that creates an atmosphere for a lifeless planet. The marines who accompany Ripley are armored and armed to the teeth with ballistic weapons, grenade launchers, and flamethrowers. 

Images and terrific sound-design conjure a wealth of believable omnipresent technology—so much that, unlike the prequel, Sci-Fi elements almost overwhelm the primary genres—Action and Adventure.

Horror is largely absent. Yes, there are alien monsters—a slew of them—hence the plural title. Yes, there are some scary and suspenseful scenes and characters do meet grisly ends—but without the visceral impact of the first movie.

This is an action adventure tale. Ripley’s story is disbelieved until all communication is lost with the small colony established—during her half-century of castaway hibernation—on the planet where her crew first found the alien (and vice versa). Reluctant Ripley is persuaded to accompany a platoon of space marines on a search and rescue mission. Setting up and launching that adventure takes up the first half of the film.

The second half is one action set piece after another. The comfort taken by the audience from Ripley’s rugged warrior companions quickly dissipates. The platoon is decimated in its first contact with the aliens. Their ground vehicle is disabled and their transport back to space is destroyed. Worse, that initial battle damaged the fusion reactor, which is now on a countdown to detonate and destroy the colony. Surrounded and outnumbered, they must find a way off planet before it blows.

Desperation demands a hero, as does an adventure. Once again, Ripley reluctantly steps into that role. Lacking real leadership, the surviving marines look to her for direction as she devises a plan and puts it into motion.

A hero must do more than lead. Ripley takes up arms and joins the battle for survival. Having bonded with the colony’s sole survivor—“Newt”—a little girl who perfectly personifies Ripley’s “inner child”—Ripley goes to great lengths to keep her promise never to abandon Newt. Keeping that promise—and leading the escape of her steadily dwindling troop—sends Ripley beyond harm’s way—into the nest of a literal “Mother of Dragons”. That sequence is one of the most brilliantly executed action set pieces I’ve seen in science fiction and estalishes Ripley’s place in the movie-hero pantheon.

Like any good sequel, ALIENS includes homage “reprise” elements from ALIEN that also inject new twists—

  • The crew emerging from hibernation—only this time they’re marines not civilian contractors
  • Another android science officer—only this time it’s revealed up front and the surprise comes from his good-guy heroics
  • A “bad apple” in the crew—only this time he’s human (more or less)—a corporate opportunist who nearly incubates Ripley and Newt as a way to smuggle aliens back to the company’s “weapons division”
  • A countdown clock to doom—only this time it’s not a space ship, it’s an entire colony set to blow
  • Ripley’s heroic action sequence—only this time she’s not escaping, she’s risking her life to save a child

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the penultimate reprise comes when the “Mother” alien, stows away on the shuttle and Ripley must blow her out an airlock. This time however, rather than Ripley fearfully pushing some buttons, she “armors up”—augmented in mechanical robot garb—to do battle.

The final reprise is the final scene, as Ripley settles in for another round of hibernation—this time accompanied by her most loyal followers—a wounded marine and a wrecked android, and one little girl, who has come to call her, “Mommy”.

Ripley’s character—and her hero’s journey—is the spine that unites these two very different genre movies into a fantastic tale.

WHAT MAKES A TALE FANTASTIC?

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

The name of this blog is “Eye on Fantastic Tales. Those are the stories I love most, that I want to write and write about and which I hope you are interested in exploring and celebrating here with me.

What do I mean by fantastic tales? Precise definition is always elusive and these qualifications are personal but . . .

When I say tale, I mean a short story, novel, play, film, or TV series—a fictional story however told.

What do I mean by fantastic? That’s more complicated and needs some unpacking.

The dictionary describes “fantastic” as “the imaginative and fanciful, the extraordinary, bizarre, or exotic.” For me, a fantastic tale must have some of or all these qualities. Let’s explore each, and allow me to put my own spin on their dictionary definitions.

When I say a tale is imaginative, I mean it shows creativity and invention. It tells me a story I’ve not read, seen, or heard before—or it retells a familiar tale in a way that lets me experience it as new. An imaginative tale expands my own imagination. In my schema, fantastic tales must at least be imaginative—I can’t think of one that isn’t. Imaginative is the essential quality of fantastic. However, I’ve known many imaginative tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic. Imaginative is necessary and not enough for me.

When I call a tale “extraordinary” I mean it stands out in my experience and esteem and maybe—but not necessarily in our culture’s esteem. (Some of my favorite tales are not popular.) I wouldn’t call many or even most extraordinary tales “fantastic”—but all my choices for fantastic tale are extraordinary—at least for me. So let’s add extraordinary to imaginative as my essential qualities of a fantastic tale. Are those two sufficient?

Let’s consider the others.

When I say a tale is fanciful, I mean it’s imaginative on steroids—“overly imaginative and unrealistic” or “existing only in the imagination or fancy” says my dictionary . . . A fanciful tale is imaginative and then some—it’s “far out.” There are many fanciful tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are fanciful—but many are.

When I call a tale “bizarre”—“strange or unusual”—I’m saying that the story would be very unlikely to occur in  “real life”. There are many bizarre tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are bizarre—but many are.

When I say a tale is “exotic”—“foreign” “alien”—I’m saying this tale is set somewhere and or some-when other than here and now—or else its about someone or some thing not native to here and now—a stranger in our midst. There are many exotic tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are exotic —but many are.

So, is this a long way of saying I’ll be writing about SF (speculative fiction) genre tales—Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror? Yes, but . . . Virtually all SF tales are bizarre and many—maybe most—are fanciful and exotic. They are certainly not all imaginative and outstanding—ergo, they’re not all fantastic (at least in my schema).

You will find me writing about fantastic tales from other genres—dramas, or comedies, and certainly many that are action adventures. They will all be imaginative, at least personally outstanding, and have at least one other fantastic quality.

So here are my “rules” for this blog—at least until I break them.

First, a fantastic tale must be imaginative and outstanding.

Second, a fantastic tale must be one or a combination of fanciful, bizarre, or exotic.

That’s my concept of what makes a tale fantastic, which I will try to heed and cite as I write about them.

What’s your concept of fantastic? Leave a comment and join the dialog.