Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Cover image: MCD x FSG

Jeff VanderMeer’s latest work of bleak eco-fiction is an apocalyptic page-turner

Cover image: MCD x FSG
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Hummingbird Salamander, it should be said straightaway, is a pulpy page-turner with as many twists, double-crosses, and mystery-box riddles as one of Dan Brown’s gimcrack potboilers. It’s not a fair comparison, of course, as Jeff VanderMeer is a terrific writer, while Brown struggles with any sentence above the reading level of a Highlights magazine. But in terms of plotting, it’s remarkable how faithful the latest novel from the author of the Southern Reach Trilogy is to the beats and tropes of a conventional thriller. A protagonist receives a strange clue and is quickly ripped out of their normal, domestic life into the shadowy world of terrorists and government operatives; there are rabbit holes of conspiracy and bread crumbs leading to tight-lipped sources; danger and death lurk around every corner.

And yet no one really picks up a Jeff VanderMeer novel for the fast-paced action or grabby hooks—not one of his fans, anyway. The prolific author is one of the leading lights of Weird Fiction for a reason; his often elliptical, genre-hopping bibliography is full of the sort of provocative, idiosyncratic storytelling that has netted him both literary acclaim and a popular audience, the golden goose of publishing. Success doesn’t seem to have tamed his penchant for unusual world-building and philosophical thought experiments, as his last novel, Borne (and its subsequent in-universe novellas, The Strange Bird and Dead Astronauts), can attest. At first glance, Hummingbird Salamander may seem like his most straightforward work yet, but much like the upper-middle-class businesswoman at the heart of this novel, looks can be deceiving. By the end of the story, the book’s bleak eco-fiction heart has been laid bare. The unsettling, apocalyptic worldview undergirding his narrative is as dark and foreboding as anything he’s written.

There’s a noir structure and tone to this book, a tactic VanderMeer has adopted before, albeit to notably different ends, in his Ambergris Cycle novel Finch. Its narrator, who provides the pseudonym “Jane Smith,” goes the Double Indemnity route: “Assume I’m dead by the time you read this,” it opens, promising to give us the tale of “how the world ends.” Like many things in her not-always-reliable account, that turns out to be both true and a bit of a feint, a foreshadowing of the grim outcome lying in wait. A consultant for an anonymous digital security company, Jane leads a fairly routine existence, shuttling to her drab corporate offices from the suburban home she shares with her genial husband and sullen adolescent daughter. Then one day a barista tells her someone has left her an envelope containing the key to a storage facility, which sparks a trip to a room containing nothing but a taxidermied hummingbird and a note bearing the title phrase, along with one name: “Silvina.”

Jane discovers Silvina to be the sobriquet of a recently deceased woman who used her billionaire-family connections to engage in eco-terrorism. Tracking down the origins of the hummingbird earns Jane nothing but vague threats, and in short order her gym locker is ransacked, surveillance stakes out her home, and she has guns pointed at her. But rather than return to her humdrum life, Jane eagerly torpedoes it, like Tippi Hedren in The Birds, going upstairs to investigate strange sounds despite the almost certain violence awaiting her. When, over halfway through the book, VanderMeer jumps forward in time five months to a very different set of circumstances, it doesn’t feel like a reset so much as an inevitability, a path that had been waiting for Jane all along.

Neither environmental nor cultural apocalypticism are new themes for VanderMeer, who has repeatedly interrogated climate devastation and mankind’s talent for self-destruction, increasingly weaving such concerns through most of his writing in the past decade. Extensive passages are devoted to Silvina’s marveling at the sheer immensity of the natural world’s powers, and the revulsion she feels at its sacrifice on the altar of human progress. At times, it can be jarring, this shift from conspiracy and who-can-you-trust paranoia to hectoring ruminations on animal trafficking and environmental catastrophe. But if it feels more abrupt for the reader than it does for Jane, that’s in part by design—the rupture in her life is meant to mirror the larger one taking place all around us, all the time, in ways we tend to block as a means of getting through the day. Simply acknowledging it can feel like a lecture we don’t want to hear.

But the focus remains on character, even during these meditations on the natural world, with the slow-motion collapse of society periodically intruding on the margins. In much the same way Alfonso Cuarón subtly filled in the world’s various crises in Children Of Men without ever calling attention to them directly, Hummingbird Salamander also drops flashes of color into the background: here, a TV broadcasting tales of a wildfire or economic recession; there, an uncomfortably true-to-life pandemic sends nations scrambling for nonexistent safety. These little warning flares, the opposite of grace notes, slowly build an atmosphere of increasingly grim inescapability.

Despite an ending that offers the possibility of redemption, that oppressive bleakness saturates the novel, a profound sadness and pessimism in Jane’s point of view that keeps even her biggest victories feeling pyrrhic, like winning a lottery ticket on a sinking ship. The book impresses itself on the reader because of that discomfiting melancholy, not despite it. It taps into the part of ourselves that knows things aren’t okay, that knows we haven’t done enough to try and stop the world from plunging into darkness. And it does so while delivering a crackling good yarn about a woman in over her head, dodging bullets and fighting the kind of men we know all too well from news reports and history books. “How much like some kind of ritualistic theater performance most of it was,” Jane says of her job at one point. “Of how we tried to convince ourselves the systems weren’t broken. Oh how we contorted our brains to find justification for what could have no justification. What we were propping up.” Rarely has existential despair been given such crackerjack propulsion.

Author photo: Ditte Valente