Brief Reviews

Jeff VanderMeer – Dead Astronauts – Brief Review

Jeff VanderMeer Astronauts ReviewA Misty, Muddy, Maddening book

A Brief Review of

Dead Astronauts: A Novel
Jeff VanderMeer

Hardback: FSG Books, 2019
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Reviewed by Al Brooke

I came to the edge of a courtyard and a peculiar sight. Three dead astronauts had fallen to Earth and been planted like tulips, buried to their rib cages, then flopped over in their suits, faceplates cracked open and curled into the dirt. . . .
Then I realized they were not astronauts but only looked like astronauts because the sun had bleached the contamination suits white, and I felt perversely less sad.
– Jeff VanderMeer, Borne (2017).

Science fiction and fantasy stories often begin in a confusing, unfamiliar, disorienting place. The narratives do not merely begin in medias res, but in medios tumultus. So it is with Dead Astronauts:

So they ran threaded through the breaches, found the seams. So they ran with a memory of the City without buildings. So they navigated two worlds: the new and the old. (3)

So it turns out that “they” are foxes. Maybe. Sort of. The blue one is something different.

It also turns out that the reader would really benefit from having read Borne before picking up Dead Astronauts. It might not make it easy, but it would give the reader a fighting chance.

Although Dead Astronauts is no sequel, there are echoes (foreshadows?) of Borne throughout (the blue fox, the duck with the broken wing, the Balcony Cliffs apartments, the ruined dollhouse, the leviathan, Nocturnalia, alcohol minnows, the man-bear). Both books assume that ecological disaster and foolish and evil choices leave a world littered with pollution, ashes and biotech failures. The “Company” left a disastrous world in which creatures (natural and un-) live in holding ponds and rubble and tunnels under bridges.

Dead Astronauts has a semi-linear narrative structure for the first third of the novel. After that, the book completes its descent into the tumult. The remainder is far more difficult, occasionally poetic, usually obscure, often baffling. Some chapters drop cryptic version numbers into the margins, others are arranged like concrete poetry, several reduce the printed sections to a vertical inch or two of each page. One chapter repeats two sentences for five pages; another improvises six pages of methods for killing; another re-counts seven pages of the joys experienced by foxes. There is at least one illustration reminiscent of the Voynich manuscript. There are chiasms and contradictions, numerologies and tiny Zen molecules, and more than a few lines that could be epigrams for other books:

Nothing else meant very much anymore, except the love between them. (9)
* * *
Dead astronauts were no different than living astronauts. Neither could shed their skin. Neither could ever become part of what they journeyed through. Suits were premade coffins. Space was the grave. Better to think of yourself as dead already. There was freedom in that; liberated the mind to roam quadrants farther than the body. (106)
* * *
Do you understand? Nothing thrives without being broken. Nothing exists without being dead first. (231)
* * *
I am mad, you see, and I know it. And yet I know things. (244)
* * *
If I went rummaging through your carcass, would I find you? (258)
* * *
But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil.
Joy can only remind you why you fight. (301)
* * *
The first glimpse
Was always the most fatal
No one should feel responsible
for the whole world. (231)

There is occasional lucidity:

Oh, how those dead people who lived in houses on lots where they had cut down most of the trees loved trees. How they loved to be out in the trees. The tales they told about the trees and how they loved them. Perhaps because the trees did not resist. Trees fell over of their own accord, sometimes, as if to prove their love of the ax. The chain saw that felled most of them just completed a tree’s own inevitable thought. (285)

The last tenth of the novel breaks into the relative hope of the coastal tidal pools.

It is impossible not to feel that Mr. VanderMeer has packed far more that meets the eye into this misty, muddy, maddening book. It is impossible not to suspect that it will remain beyond the edge of comprehension even after multiple readings. There will be dissertations written about this novel.

When a novel begins in medios tumultus, it takes great endurance to persevere. In the case of Dead Astronauts, it may require a commitment few can make.

Al Brooke

Al Brooke is a criminal defense attorney cross-trained in theology, literature, and physics. He thinks graphically, reads voraciously and writes occasional book reviews for The NACDL Champion and for The Englewood Review of Books. His personal online presence is at commonplaces (

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