The first Jeff VanderMeer book I ever read was The Steampunk Bible. I still enjoy flipping through its pages. It’s a beautiful book. Steampunk, as a genre, seems to have slipped out of favor a bit, but it was my entry into a lot of the science fiction I enjoy, and some of the sci-fi I’m trying to write.
I’ve continued to read VanderMeer’s work as he transitioned toward being more well-known for the books he writes versus the books he edits, including the Southern Reach Trilogy, the first book of which, Annihilation, became the basis for a motion picture.
His latest work feels not tangential, and not parallel, either, to the Southern Reach books. They aren’t in the same world, but they’re about the same ideas. Or maybe they are the same world. Close enough, anyway. With his work, it can be hard to keep your footing, sometimes. Things can be dreams, or maybe different realities, or maybe your eyes have been reprogrammed with worms. Either way, wherever you are, you’re glad you’re there.
The Strange Bird is a story told in the world of Borne, VanderMeer’s post-eco/bio/apocalyptic novel about the Company’s experiments gone horribly wrong. These aren’t steampunk stories. They’re fleshpunk. Everything is gribbly and gross, pulsing with life or ripe with death, and that makes everything beautiful, too.
Southern Reach has some of the same qualities, but Borne and the two books that follow it–Dead Astronauts and The Strange Bird–go all-in. For me, it feels like these books emphasize poetry over plot, and maybe that’s why I enjoy them so much. Stuff is going to happen: scary, terrible, hopeful, defeating, victorious stuff, but it’ll all be breathtaking.
VanderMeer’s language and imagination are remarkable. The way he brings humanity to the inhuman–no matter what the creature in question is or isn’t–illuminates the concerns all living things share and makes his underlying message about the costs of abusing the natural world all the more powerful.
The Strange Bird speaks in a language all her own, but it’s impossible to ignore what she has to say.