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Review: Climate collapse comes for the spy thriller in Jeff VanderMeer’s sly genre game

Portrait of a man standing among flowers
Jeff VanderMeer, whose latest novel is “Hummingbird Salamander.”
(Ditte Valente)

On the Shelf

Hummingbird Salamander

By Jeff VanderMeer
MCD/FSG: 368 pages, $27

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In pulp genre narratives, ecological collapse is generally something you can fix with a well-placed bullet. When big-budget Hollywood action slam-fests like “Avengers: Endgame,” “Aquaman” or “Charlie’s Angels” address environmental issues, they do so by framing ecoterrorists or (less often) greedy corporate polluters as supervillains who need to be punched out. Empowering stories about defeating bad guys in heart-pumping firefights are ill-equipped to grapple with the bleak reality that we, as a species, are currently drowning ourselves in our own excrement.

Literary fiction dealing with the same crises has often engaged with genre to a more pointed purpose — both to leverage its pulp excitement and to show how poorly it addresses real catastrophes. Ling Ma’s 2018 zombie plague novel “Severance” slows all the living dead tropes down as the world eats itself not in fury and terror, but with a kind of indifferent shrug. Claire Holroyde’s recent “The Effort” gathers supergeniuses to divert an asteroid only to have humanity fail anyway. And Jeff VanderMeer‘s latest book, “Hummingbird Salamander,” uses spy fiction to show how spy fiction can’t help us when the sky falls in. Or heats up.

VanderMeer is best known for the weird literary science-fiction and elliptical environmental themes of his most famous novel, “Annihilation” (2014). On the surface, his latest is a more standard effort, bound by the spy and detective genres. Like your favorite Hollywood blockbuster, “Hummingbird Salamander” features ecoterrorists, evil corporations, a race to defuse doomsday weapons, gunfire, fisticuffs, action sequences and hair-raising escapes.

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But like Ling Ma and Holroyde, VanderMeer introduces all this genre fun mostly to subvert it. Our superspy detective hero finds the truth, and that truth is that superspy detective heroes are mostly useless.

“Hummingbird Salamander” is set in a near-future of neighborhood drone patrols and a more advanced climate catastrophe than our own. Its hero and narrator, Jane — six-foot-tall suburban mom, cybersecurity expert and former bodybuilder — is minding her own business one morning when a barista delivers a message and a key. The key leads to a box that contains a taxidermied hummingbird of a species that may be extinct. It was left to Jane by a mysterious corporate-heir-turned-ecoterrorist named Silvina, the absent center of the novel, with whom Jane becomes more and more fascinated and more and more emotionally entangled.

Book cover with a hummingbird on it
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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As with the protagonist of “Annihilation,” Jane’s conventional exterior is a thin façade over a bolus of alienation and idiosyncratic obsessions. An odd, paranoid, genius bruiser, she slides into the violent world of international corporate espionage like a caged animal returning to the wild with a sigh, then a frightening, guttural noise. Following the trail Silvina left her, she shrugs off her ties to her job, her husband and even her daughter, burrowing deeper into the nuances of illegal wildlife trading and into her own past, even as the country and the world disintegrate around her.

One of Jane’s mysterious antagonists suggests Silvina may have sent the hummingbird to answer the question: “Will some giant-ass, middle-class suburban woman with no clue about anything be moved enough by the plight of the planet to…” do something about it? The antagonist has a point; part of what the novel is doing is showing how humans are connected to the rest of nature even when we’d rather not think about it. The planet on which Jane gets her coffee from some barista is the same in which the last hummingbird dies in a dwindling forest. Silvina wants to “overturn the comfort of the everyday with the knowledge of what would come.” The secret interconnections of the spy novel map onto the secret interconnections of the natural world. And the unfurling plot mirrors the unraveling ecosystem.

The novel isn’t just about how we’re too involved in the quotidian to notice a crisis, though. It’s also about how our empowerment fantasies are particularly ill-suited to deal with that crisis.

In the beautiful if overladen “Migrations,” by Charlotte McConaghy, animals are vanishing and a troubled woman follows the last terns to Antarctica.

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Jane’s job is something of an empowerment fantasy in itself. She sells cybersecurity, providing people with an illusion of safety and agency over out-of-control threats. But she also embodies that fantasy, striding in the footsteps of many heroes who start out as unassuming bores before suddenly discovering a shocking capacity for violence: Mild-mannered Peter Parker, bitten by that irradiated spider; Geena Davis in “The Long Kiss Goodnight”; most every Robert Ludlum protagonist. The dream is that when the crisis comes, you suddenly find you’re stronger than you thought. You can save the world!

Jane is stronger than she thought — blessedly underestimated by corporate spies and eco-terrorists. But the solid thunk as she bashes heads together rings unsettlingly in a narrative that seems increasingly, eerily divorced from the real action. Jane’s quest attenuates as the novel grinds on, months and years falling around her like bodies in a plague year. The final antagonist isn’t a criminal mastermind but the devastating future. Pollution in the Atlantic messes with the Gulf Stream, plunging Europe into a winter storm that kills thousands. The sky turns gray-green. Jane’s narrative drifts across the years, noting each loss with an abstract nostalgia. Husband gone, daughter gone; job, friends, mentees, society. Human contact.

In VanderMeer’s “Annihilation,” ecological rebirth results from a kind of external dimensional invasion. Something lands and rewrites the earth, turning it new, strange, terrible and perhaps more sustainable. “Hummingbird Salamander” never provides a vision like that. The animals of the title, bird and amphibian, are both dead before the book begins and they aren’t resurrected. Where in “Annihilation” life changes into life, in this novel life just … dies.

That’s not to say the novel is hopeless. Jane’s confused, tentative faith in and growing love for Silvina is not exactly for naught. But the book’s redemption isn’t imaginable in the terms of a pulp spy novel. VanderMeer and some of his peers struggle with genre because they understand that the ecological crisis is also a narrative crisis. When all you have are the old stories, how can you speak a new ending? “I may not know what happens next. Or even recognize it,” Jane says. And the novel ends there, with the hope of a future she can’t describe, like a wing that beats too fast for the human eye to see.

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Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.

The author has been everywhere, in life and fiction. “A Children’s Bible” passionately fuses the two: “You’ve gotta be Chicken Little sooner or later.”


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