Jeff VanderMeer’s newest novel, Dead Astronauts, is a machine designed to generate questions, not only about the effect of humans on nature, but on the cycle of evolution itself. This novel, set in the universe of his 2017 novel, Borne, is neither a sequel nor a prequel, just another story in the same neighborhood. Biotech monsters run rampant here as an apocalypse rages, but in the midst of it all, two separate quests intersect. The mythic properties of these quests light up a tech-run world that has become completely alien from the humans who built it and cast bizarre shadows in the reader’s mind. As the technology shifts, the blue fox and his fellow questors struggle to determine how they literally transform in an unpredictable world built to be cryptic and sparse by design.
A blue fox, never named, flits into the wilderness where he gathers like foxes and promises to make them mighty and save them from the machinations of humans, who have basically polluted this entire world. Meanwhile three bipeds, named Grayson, Chen, and Moss, wander the wilderness together looking for the City. Grayson, the leader, a Black human woman, once worked as an astronaut orbiting the earth. Chen, who appears to be a human man, used to be a Company mathematician and sometimes dissolves into a pile of salamanders. Moss looks like a human woman, but often splits into a cloud of nanobots in order to pass through walls and other creatures. Little details, like the exact mechanics of how the salamanders connect together like the Constructicons from Transformers to build Chen, never materialize. All four seek the same person, Charlie X, who has built thousands of Company machines, although only the blue fox has a clear idea of what to do once they find him, and even then, seeking the same goal does not make them allies. Despite a common enemy, Grayson and Chen do not trust the blue fox or his army of foxes, and even though Moss harbors some empathy for the foxes, the blue fox is not thrilled about them, and Grayson in particular. Their mutual distrust comes from a new universal inability to separate natural beings from artificiality and to decide which one ruined the world of the City.
An intentional lack of clarity marks everything surrounding the City and its citizens. The Company that builds machines and technology in the City never gets a more elaborate name. The City itself is never specified. Actually, most of the time, the City refers to an ecosystem, a tide pool filled with lots of different creatures near the ruins of a human city rather than an actual place with a distinct culture. Characters twist meanings and dissociate from traditional definitions of terms like “City,” usually given to a human habitation, so often that the first beginnings of a completely new language begin to appear. Everything about this world feels like newer, more savage creations have been built on top of deconstructed elements. For Grayson, a human attempting to find more survivors of whatever apocalypse has killed all other humans, the quest feels so desperate that she, Chen, and Moss only continue because they have nothing left. The intrusion of alternate versions of themselves only makes the journey more confusing.
The presence of alternate universes becomes clear when Chen attacks Chen shortly after the first appearance of the blue fox. One of the Chens is a Chen from an alternate universe, and little effort is made to differentiate between the two of them. Puzzling language like characters who share names fills the City to an exhaustive degree. The ensuing fight scene between the Chens causes confusion until the originally introduced Chen wins because he has defeated several versions of himself, but the fight establishes that countless planets have been ravaged by the same apocalypse that blighted the one which is the focus of this story. Despite the strangeness of the City, uniformity and repetition pop up throughout the entire narrative. At times, the same sentence repeats over and over again for page after overindulgent page. The technique makes the feeling of shock clear in a primitive way that, while effective, can also feel gimmicky. When applied to violent scenes, it creates an over-the-top effect that magnifies the horror of the actual damage described in the passage. This repeated horror drives the four protagonists to find Charlie X, whose terrifying presence comes not from specific acts, but repeated industrial crimes against nature.
Charlie X has been building machines that have become sentient themselves; Moss is one of these. Moss has escaped the factories in the City where Charlie X created her. She and Chen, who also once worked for the Company, act as navigators across multiple universes while they attempt to find Charlie X. Moss sympathizes with the new creatures that have become the wildlife surrounding the City. She shows empathy toward the blue fox and his followers who want to destroy Charlie X and his Company, even though Charlie X originally made her. However, Moss’s attempts to straddle both the wildness of the animals and the relative order of the Company ultimately fail. She breaks herself into a cloud of nanobots and attempts to possess the leviathan, a vicious predator in the City. The leviathan, true to its biblical name, seems to live mostly in the water, with the ability to come up onto land to hunt when necessary. When Moss attempts to redirect its energies for their cause, she can only do so after it completely consumes her. It takes on her intelligence and becomes even more savage, even though it takes a moment to realize its potential. Disappointing sections of the story feature half-blank pages as the leviathan learns to think and realizes the horrible potential it now wields. The inner battle between Moss and the leviathan pits the most formidable protagonist against a creature that only consumes and loses her to that darkness. Leaving that specific character drama blank, especially after the repetitive pages detailing Chen’s struggles with himself, drops a compelling conflict in favor of shocking villainy. While Moss can make a weapon out of the leviathan, it costs her what independence from the conflict with Charlie X she has left, and only serves to spread the evil produced by the Company. It presents a situation where there can be no empathy—or even solidarity—between natural beings and artificial ones.
The Company’s ability to corrupt natural creatures has its roots in the origins of Charlie X himself. Much like Moss, Chen, and the blue fox, the Company built Charlie as a machine to become the best at creating biotech animals and designed him to eventually run the Company. However, the process of creating Charlie turned him into a monster. It involved Charlie’s father killing Charlie and resurrecting him several times as he improved Charlie’s capacity to design and program creatures into the monster who eventually inhabit the City. Charlie recalls creating a blue fox, but it eventually escaped, as did Moss. This lack of security calls into question Charlie’s initial desires to put them to work for the Company, but the more he works the further he sinks into the work. The perversion of training a child to create monsters as a man shows most strongly in a duck created by Charlie that eventually becomes the most deadly animal in his arsenal. Charlie works again and again on the duck, because as a child it was his favorite animal. As a result, the duck eats meat more like a wolf, and not just the occasional fish. However, it also has a perpetually broken wing, as a symptom of the lasting damage inflicted upon it.
This duck frequently follows Grayson, Chen, and Moss on their journey to find Charlie X because they hope to use it to find Charlie X somehow, but instead they end up afraid that it will turn on them. Grayson’s relationship with the duck is the first of many attempts to find a common ground with these creatures that falls apart. She landed from orbit hoping to find other humans and has little idea how to deal with a world overrun by animals with strange powers. By contrast, the blue fox, transformed by Charlie X, knows it must return to its roots as a normal fox before it can gather enough creatures to overwhelm the Company. For Grayson, the realization that only the blue fox and his army of foxes can dismantle Charlie X and his horrors comes after the leviathan absorbs Moss and Chen falls apart into a mess of salamanders. All attempts for Grayson to find a comfortable middle ground fail. As her name suggests, Gray being neither white nor black, she represents the middle of a spectrum of destruction and natural harmony. The creeping return of nature, with its ability to evolve past the institutions that harmed it, leave Grayson wondering if she might be the last human in this universe as Charlie X and his Company fall apart under the attacks of the foxes. There is no place in the City for Grayson. She attempts to continue wandering in another universe, but like everything else in the City, it is uncertain whether or not she will find another human again.
Grayson’s journey through multiple universes defies easy classification or clear boundaries in its persistent struggle between nature and industry. She forges an alliance with former Company creations Chen and Moss, but their help can only extend as far as their limits. Their status as creations by the Company makes them fragile and easily confused by the Company. The Company horrors show up in stylistic decisions such as repeated or deleted sections of narrative and do their part to muddy the waters of the story. The blue fox brings an inevitable end to the conflict with an army of foxes that disrupts Charlie X’s cycle of destruction. The promise of a new world brought by the blue fox, however, doesn’t bring much hope to a world already completely new. What should be a happy ending still feels grim and foreboding. Grayson may live out her days in perpetual loneliness. The blue fox triumphs over Charlie X, but as a creature of Charlie’s, he could still be claimed as a victory for the Company. Grayson’s failure, contrasted with the fox’s apparent victory, leaves plenty of questions about the nature of solidarity and community in a world of constant destruction. It presents but one episode in an unending struggle for newness in a world where everything is continually rebuilt.