The Strange Bird and Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer

I’ve decided to do something a bit different for this week’s blog. It is going to do two reviews in one as I review two books written by Jeff Vandermeer before bringing both together. Through reading the Southern Reach trilogy, Borne and now these two books, Jeff Vandermeer has become possibly my favourite modern author and I am going to outline why.

In The Strange Bird, a novella set in the Borne universe, Vandermeer expands on the story of the elusive Magician from the Borne books through telling the beautiful, heart-breaking and majestic story of The Strange Bird. The Strange Bird is a magnificent amalgamation of bird, human and robotics which escapes from the laboratory in which it is created before following the compass which was built into it. To where, we do not know.

This book adds wonderfully to the Borne universe. Borne was the first book I reviewed on this blog and I loved it (read my review here: https://fallenfigsbookblog.com/2020/01/05/borne-by-jeff-vandermeer/ ) Often, stories based in other universes which aren’t direct sequels leave me feeling somewhat short-changed and longing for more but The Strange Bird finds the balance of expanding on Borne, while in itself being a poignant, moving book in its own right. You could read this book without reading Borne. Not sure why you would want to but you could. This isn’t some lazy cash-in or half-hearted follow up, it is a fully-fledged, brilliantly executed, story. 

The key theme of the book is freedom. How freedom is relative to what you know and how what feels like freedom can often be captivity. The way Vandermeer describes liberty is stunning and at points gave me goosebumps. His descriptions of confinement are truly horrifying and disturbed me in a way very few books ever have. This was so important to the power of the story as it really felt like something was at stake throughout the book and had me turning the pages at an almost frantic pace.

The story is a powerful and emotional one. It had me in tears at certain parts but not through some melodramatic event but simply the existence of this creature and what it must endure. The writing is crisp, clear and gorgeous to read. Of all the Vandermeer works I’ve read, this felt like the most orthodox in terms of the story structure. It is a beautifully executed piece of literature and if you are short on time it is barely over 100 pages so you can read it in a couple of days, but I guarantee it will stick with you for a lot longer than that though.

A falcon screamed down from above and speared one of the two, and peeled off to rise again before the survivor had time to evade or mourn the loss, as if there had always been one and not two.”

The Strange Bird

Dead Astronauts is an entirely different beast altogether despite also being set in the Borne universe. The book is nearly impossible to describe in terms of the story. The writing can be almost indecipherable at certain points, such is its complexity and unique storytelling style and yet it still manages to be one of the most poignant pieces of literature I have ever had the pleasure of reading. There is no set narrator, the story jumps through time and space at will but the theme and message of the story is so strong that it is easy to stick with all the same. I can totally understand why this style of writing might be off putting for some people but I thought it was incredible.

“Joy reminds us why we fight.”

When characters from Borne or The Strange Bird are referenced it is never done for the sake of it. They are there for a reason. Always driving the story in a new direction which might not be obvious but it is exciting just the same.

Through all of his writing, Jeff Vandermeer has shown that he describes the natural world better than any other living author. His passion for ecology, the environment and its conservation shines through while never being preachy or pointless. His descriptions make you want to find the most secluded spaces on earth and spent time getting in touch with nature. Page after page left me open-mouthed at the sheer beauty and dexterity of the language used to bring the mesmerising world of the story to life. The creatures are fascinating, the people horrifying and the settings stunning. It doesn’t really matter if you have any idea what is happening in the story, it is just a pleasure to spend time with the words on the page. There is no other writer who I reread as many times as Jeff Vandermeer.

“Exhausting. It exhausted to be so close to Grayson, to Chen. Ecstatic. Amazing, that intimacy. To lie down upon a bed with two others enfolded there, not cheek to cheek but the same cheek as one. Yes, ecstatic, but exhausting, exhausting, exhausting. Never alone, and Moss herself so many Mosses and thus never alone in herself either.”

Dead Astronauts

Another element of this book which is absolutely fantastic is the design. I ordered a copy from the United States and it is without a shadow of doubt the most beautiful book I own. The jacket is a psychedelic design, impossible to look away from and then when you remove the jacket the book itself is a beautiful piece of art. There aren’t many books I would buy multiple copies of but the design of this book has made sure I will be picking up the paperback. It isn’t just the cover either, the inside of the book is full of little drawings, unusual uses of space and different fonts which make it a treat to look at.

“That love must be unbending. Love must be cruel. Love must not yield.Otherwise, love meant nothing, could do nothing.”

Dead Astronauts

I found the book incredibly emotional to read. The different journeys you are taken on, the time you spend with the people and creatures of the world really is so special. Even if the writing is somewhat obtuse at times, it makes no difference to the power of the stories. Jeff Vandermeer is an absolute master storyteller.

“But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil. Joy can only remind you why you fight.”

Dead Astronauts

Jeff Vandermeer’s writing is urgent, powerful, interesting and pertinent. Additionally, he simply tells really, really good stories that are a joy to read. Science fiction might not be your thing but regardless of that I believe there is value for every single person in reading his fiction. We can all take a lot from it. These two books may be a good jumping in point as they perfectly represent what Jeff Vandermeer is all about. Go and read them. Now.  

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