In his 2017 novel Borne, Jeff VanderMeer introduced readers to a scenario every bit as dangerous — if also, at times, as wondrous — as the flesh-mutating Area X at the heart of his beloved Southern Reach trilogy. (The first installment, Annihilation, was the basis for a 2018 film starring Natalie Portman.) The dystopian tale tracked Rachel, a young scavenger who’s raising Borne, a shape-changing creature, while evading assorted types of killer biotech (including an enormous flying bear) created by a sinister “Company.” Borne also introduced a mystery in the ghoulish form of three corpses, buried in the ground to their rib cages. Rachel initially assumes them to be “dead astronauts,” but they turn out to be a trio of unfortunate souls who died wearing contamination suits.
Dead Astronauts, a prequel, identifies the threesome as a space traveler named Grayson and two humanoid (but nonhuman) results of the Company’s routinely cruel experiments: Chen, who can see into the future and is in a perpetual fight against his own physical dissolution (at one point in the story becoming a “mound of writhing green salamanders”), and Moss, who can open doors to different dimensions and is literally made from moss. VanderMeer describes this devotedly intertwined trio’s attempts to destroy the Company across an array of realities. During their quest, they encounter powerful animal entities also referenced in Borne, such as a telepathic blue fox and a monstrous duck with a broken wing.
Then things start getting really weird.
In the latter two-thirds of Dead Astronauts, VanderMeer continues to explore the Borne universe from the viewpoints of other inhabitants, including the blue fox, the monstrous duck, and a leviathan. He even visits “our” world — or one very much like it — and follows the travails of a homeless woman who discovers a journal written by a Company scientist and transforms after she is vomited upon by a salamander (does this guy love salamanders!).
The conceit can be trying. Several chapters consist of sentence clusters repeated over and over again: “They killed me. They brought me back. They killed me. They brought me back….” Certainly, some readers may miss the (relatively) straight-forward weirdness of Borne. But the vivid and, at times, genuinely moving Dead Astronautsranks as a successful experiment — definitely more successful than much of the deranged biological tinkering it depicts. B