Dead Astronauts is a book by Jeff VanderMeer. You may remember VanderMeer was the man who wrote the wonderful Annihilation book and series which I loved with all of my heart. As weird and fantastic as Annihilation was, Dead Astronauts takes weirdness to an astronomical new level.
The book opens with three travelers in astronaut suits hoping dimensions. Every dimension there is the City, a terrible place at the center of various ecological disasters. In the City lurks the Company, the cause of said disasters. In some dimensions, the City and/or Company are already dead. In others they are thriving. The three travelers are trying to put a stop to both for their own reasons.
The book bounces between different characters, none of which are human as we know it. One is a sentient moss. Another is a monster that lurks in ponds. The closest we get to a human character is a space traveler who has an eye that can see the future.
With each character, we get a different way of thinking and this is where the book shines. The different creatures are so alien and familiar at the same time. You won’t look at a fox the same way again, I promise you. some characters we get multiple times as they live through different versions of reality. Each is unique and fascinating.
VanderMeer does some neat tricks with how he presents characters. My favorite is the monster that lurks underwater. His text takes up the bottom quarter of a page, leaving the top 3/4 empty. It reinforces that this creature lives deep under the service. It is a simple thing, but it helps you sink into the character.
I will say, this was a super challenging book to read. I was never on the verge of quitting, but I was often close to wondering if I would ever understand it. In the end, I think I do and I wonder if I would have been able to get the underlying themes if it wasn’t so hard to read.
As tough as it was technically to understand, the more important warning I would give about this book is the sheer grim cruelty of the story. The Company is made of bad people doing bad things to living organisms. Creatures are experimented on and murdered with a callous indifference. It is a wonderful indictment of human cruelty to those we consider less than us, and that is even before we get to the story of the poor homeless woman.
So yeah, Dead Astronauts is difficult to read because of subject matter and due to trying to understand inhuman minds in multiple realities. But, if you can make the difficult journey through the void of human cruelty, you will explore one of the greatest science fiction stories told today.