The pleasure of a Jeff VanderMeer story is rarely that of a simple story simply told. Whatever that means. Nor does it tend to have much to do with the rip-roaring fun associated with the genres in which he works. Pulpy the way horror, fantasy, and postapocalyptic fiction are pulpy but also self-reflexive and hybrid, a typical VanderMeer story delights the way a Möbius strip delights. It bends in on itself, turns itself inside-out, outside-in. Which makes sense. VanderMeer, best known for more recent novels like the Southern Reach trilogy and Borne, cut his teeth in the so-called New Weird, a genre-slash-literary movement that coalesced within speculative fiction during the 1990s and early 2000s. To this day, a typical VanderMeer story carries with it much of the New Weird’s riotous, chimerical DNA.
In many respects VanderMeer’s latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, is also a typical VanderMeer story. “Assume I’m dead,” its first paragraph reads,
by the time you read this. Assume you’re being told all of this by a flicker, a wisp, a thing you can’t quite get out of your head now that you’ve found me. And in the beginning, it’s you, not me, being handed an envelope with a key inside … on a street, in a city, on a winter day so cold that breathing hurts and your lungs creak.
Inside-out, outside-in. In many respects, Hummingbird Salamander is a typical VanderMeer story.
Except when it isn’t.
Opening with that unaccountable handoff of a mysterious key, the novel frames itself as the final confession of Jane Smith. Jane, almost certainly an alias, is comfortably middle class—a former high-school wrestler–turned–(briefly)–bodybuilder–turned–(finally)–security analyst for an unnamed tech firm. Jane has a husband, and a teenage daughter, and a life she believes satisfies her. Then arrives that key and an address with it. And in the almost empty storage unit to which the address brings her, Jane finds the two things that will derail her prior existence: an unfamiliar name, Silvina, and a dead, mounted hummingbird.
From that moment on, Hummingbird Salamander most resembles a mystery-thriller, rife with plot twists and sudden revelations. Silvina in particular becomes for Jane an obsession. The daughter of a mega-wealthy Argentinian family with property and business holdings around the world, Silvina is an eloquent ecophilosopher, an animal rights activist, or a terrorist, depending on who’s asking. She’s also, as Jane soon learns, dead. Left with more questions than answers, Jane undertakes her own investigation of Silvina’s life, of that cryptic bit of taxidermy she left for Jane, and, above all, of Silvina’s reason for singling her out in the first place. Nor is Jane alone in these questions. As her research takes her further afield and her paranoia deepens, Jane starts attracting the attention, and the crosshairs, of other interested parties.
VanderMeer’s decision to put Jane in security analysis plays to the interests of the novel. Indexing not the authoritarianism of classic dystopias but the quotidian surveillance regimes of the present, Jane’s career is a testament to security culture’s fundamental promise: to make the individual sacrosanct, to remove them completely from the possibility of contamination and danger. It’s a vision of the world that, we like to think, is profoundly comforting. At the same time, it’s also profoundly unweird—or weird only in its commitment to absolute sterility—and Hummingbird Salamander often reads like a direct refutation of that vision. Careful to emphasize security culture’s false pretenses—“You had to make the client feel insecure to force him to be secure,” as Jane puts it—VanderMeer also points to how that culture lubricates the vast, indifferent engines of extraction and profit that are, quite literally, destroying the planet.
Freak weather events brought on by changing climate.
Garbage so thick it clogs the Gulf Stream.
Climate refugees left to die at sea because they had the audacity to steal a cruise ship, that grotesque symbol of capital and casual mobility, for their survival.
All of it reduced, in this novel, to a bleak and alienating spectacle. Apocalypse mediated in bits and pieces, in byte-sized pieces, by flatscreens and smartphone apps.
And meanwhile, of course, there’s Jane, who at the start of the novel is working on a security contract for a natural gas company.
And meanwhile, too, there’s Jane, who, the further she delves into the secrets surrounding Silvina and the hummingbird, the more she finds herself becoming … not herself. Becoming less and less the person she thought she was. Becoming more and more—what?
Something different, something else. Contaminated. Silvina, but also not.
“I knew the risk,” Jane declares, “in giving myself over to Silvina’s mystery.”
For readers familiar with VanderMeer’s work, Hummingbird Salamander will recall the Southern Reach trilogy and Annihilation in particular. The similarities between these texts range from the broadly thematic—a similar fascination with slowly creeping ecocide, or at least a kind of ecocide—to the comparatively narrow. Like the biologist in Annihilation, Jane finds herself contaminated and transformed in ways not altogether unpleasant. Like the biologist in Annihilation, Jane finds herself, at one point, traumatically confronted with a “midden”—not of moldering research journals this time, but of taxidermied animals. Whether such similarities will register as welcome Easter eggs or tired retreading depends, no doubt, on the reader. Mileage may vary. Hummingbird Salamander is a typical VanderMeer story.
But I will note this: whereas VanderMeer’s previous work was content to locate the weird, the unsettling, the disturbingly transformative in a seeming elsewhere, an Area X, VanderMeer’s latest novel is not. In the case of Hummingbird Salamander, the weird, the unsettling, the disturbingly transformative are already here.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.