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.


Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in time“— Aren’t we all?

Slaughterhouse Five DVD 1972 Region 1 US Import NTSC: DVD &  Blu-ray

Director (THE STING, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID) George Roy Hill’s film adaptation Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is, in my opinion, that rare thing—an adaptation that’s maybe better than the original. That’s not to say that the novel is not a great book; it’s one of the great anti-war novels, worth ranking alongside Catch-22, All Quiet on the Western Front, Johnny Got His Gun, and The Red Badge of Courage, to name a few such. (Unlike most of these, it’s also hilarious.) I say, “Maybe better” because I only read the novel once, after having first fallen in love with the film, which I have screened many times. For years, I considered it my “favorite movie” and it remains a personal contender. So, I may be biased.

It’s one of those nearly “perfect” movies wherein all the pieces fit together into a seamless integral whole that is greater than its parts, wherein every scene, every action, every speech reveals character, advances the story, sets up something that follows or pays off on a prior set-up. Stephen Geller’s screenplay is a model of craft that every aspiring screenwriter would do well to study. An emotionally perfect film score augments the screenplay with performances of Bach by Glen Gould, along with Pablo Casals and the Marlboro Festival Orchestra. The sequence that introduces Billy, his fellow POWs, and the audience to the “fairy tale” city of Dresden, is a masterpiece of music and picture editing that sets up the ultimate destruction of city and citizenry ad profound tragedy.

It’s the story of Billy Pilgrim, an innocent soul, who becomes “unstuck in time” after surviving an otherwise fatal plane crash and near-death during subsequent brain surgery. Forever after, he is doomed—or blessed—with frequent and involuntary jumps between past—and future—events in his life. Much of the story is anchored in his experiences as a German POW who survives the horrific American firebombing of Dresden, as had Kurt Vonnegut. Those sequences earn novel and film their “anti-war” credentials. His “time travel” and adventure as an alien-abductee to the planet Tralfamadore qualify it as science fiction.

The film’s structure follows Billy’s jumps back and forth in time. Multiple non-linear story lines trace his life before, during and after his WWII misadventures. The jump cuts between story lines are always and ingeniously “triggered” by some story device–a situation, a line of dialog or sound effect (on or off-screen) or a visual image that associates two scenes in different story lines. The editing, by legendary Dede Allen, is flawless in its timing and precision. This structuring perfectly mimics the way associative memory works and offers a clue, or suggestion, that allows us to interpret the entire story as a figment of Billy’s multiply traumatized (by war and then by a fall from the sky into near-death) mind. In other words, is he unstuck in time or just lost in memory and imagination? The answer to that question either qualifies or disqualifies the science fiction genre designation for both book and movie. Personally, I don’t feel the need to select one interpretation or the other, feeling that holding both in mind simultaneously is itself a way of suspending time and transcending worlds.

The story is peopled by wonderful and sympathetic characters, some of them in cameo appearances from other novels in Vonnegut’s opus, like Howard Campbell, Junior (from Mother Night), Eliot Rosewater (from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine), and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord from The Sirens of Titan). Even Billy’s lifelong nemesis and ultimate assassin, Paul Lazzaro is made sympathetic by small touches that illustrate his inner torment. The German citizens of Dresden offer a gallery of humanity that is made heartbreaking by their collective doom as victims of war. We watch vignettes of everyday life, already knowing these beautiful people are doomed to a horrible fate.

Somehow, like the novel, the film manages to intermingle all this tragedy with comedy. That’s the genius of Vonnegut. He enables us to feel simultaneously traumatized while alternately laughing without either emotion undercutting the other. He mixes images and situations of horrifying reality and hilarious fantasy in ways that enrich our appreciation of both.

Whether we choose to believe that Billy travels in time and journeys to an alien planet or believe that both are his psychic defense mechanisms against life’s tragedy, our experience of his experience is entertaining, moving, and joyful.

Like Billy, we are all “unstuck in time”, consciously and unconsciously jumping continuously between past memory, present experience, and future fears, hopes and dreams. Like him, we can’t help it. We come “unstuck” from “here and now” to “there and then”, more often than not.

Like Billy, we might all do well to take to heart the Tralfamadorian teaching that,

“A pleasant way to spend eternity is to ignore the bad times and concentrate on the good.”

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!

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.


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.