The Gremlin’s Library: Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer


I was confused, mildly curious and definitely tempted by the first chapter. I was not prepared.

God fucking damn.

Dead Astronauts is the literary equivalent of that one scene from Neon Genesis Evangelion – well, okay, there’s multiple. But the one that I can’t stop thinking about is the notorious “mind rape” scene with Asuka. Honestly it has a non-zero number of similarities with NGE, thematically and in terms of being surreal in a way that somehow, impossibly, makes you care. 

Sitting back for a moment, this book makes the Borne universe all the better. I haven’t read Strange Bird yet, but I remember being slightly dissatisfied with Borne’s ending. Dead Astronauts, however, takes this ending and runs with its implications – the idea of multiple Cities, multiple Companies, the disease of capitalism winding its way through multiple universes. The “dead astronauts” of the title are Moss, Chen and Grayson, three lovers of infinite potential and strange powers. Grayson is the actual astronaut of the three; Moss is some sort of time-travelling lichen-ish being, and Chen is part salamander. (Or something. This is Vandermeer.) The three of them are trying to stop the Company and prevent its destruction of the world, and in a more normal or standard story, that’d be what they do.

This is a more complicated story that that. it’s told non-linearly, and is less concerned with the ultimate fate of the Company than with how it got there. Moss, Grayson and Chen are all important, but so is the blue fox – one of the Company’s creations that broke free – the broken-winged bird that serves as its sentinel, and its current owner Charlie X. The book gets more and more demented as it goes, and some sections are more coherent than others.

Here’s where Dead Astronauts surprised me, though; Vandermeer’s horror always mixes the human with the strange and biological, but Dead Astronauts goes full throttle. Sarah comes up about midway through the book, and she is schizophrenic and homeless, as well as the survivor of some absolutely horrendous child abuse. This pales in comparison – SOMEHOW – to what Charlie X was put through at the hands of a father who enjoyed killing things only to bring them back again…because he enjoyed the act of killing. The disjointed, psychotic writing style just makes this hit all the harder, with literary tricks like five or so pages of “first they killed me. then they brought me back. then they killed me. then they brought me back.” over and over and over again. It’s a character study book, set against a backdrop that serves as a fiery diatribe against capitalism and the destruction of the natural world just by its existence.

So, a full trigger warning for this book, which is long enough that I did not put it in front of this review:

-Child abuse and murder**
-Tricking a child into killing somebody else**
-Ableism (specifically sanism)
-Religious delusions
-Forced… cannibalism? Consumption of sentient things? It’s bad yo**
-Mind control and influence
-Sense of inevitability
-Animal abuse and torture**
-Experiments on animals and people**
-Brain trauma/injury
-Body horror**

I also need to emphasize that most of these, but particularly the ones with ** on them, are not minor – they’re significant parts of the plot and can’t be skipped or tuned out of. If these are going to trigger you, don’t read it! You will live if you don’t, so please don’t upset yourself.

Dead Astronauts is an incredible, time-jumping, heartbreaking novel that really should be advertised as literary horror as well as science-fiction. Highly recommend – with provisos.

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