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Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeerUK edition4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsI can remember when apocalyptic science fiction told almost nothing but stories of nuclear holocaust, a final showdown between superpowers. It all seems such a quaint notion today. These days, we’re telling stories of the quiet holocaust. The slow collapse of human civilization as we render the climate increasingly unlivable for both human and beast, all the while convincing ourselves that everything is perfectly fine, no problem.

As T. S. Eliot said, “not with a bang but a whimper.” One of Jeff VanderMeer’s themes in Hummingbird Salamander addresses people’s abundant capacity to lie to ourselves rather than face even slight discomfort, let alone adopt entirely new designs for living. You can see this going on right now in the COVID age. What motivates most of the people who refuse to wear masks or get shots, even those who deny a pandemic has happened at all, is simply an unwillingness to accept that there could be anything to derail the normalcy of their daily lives. But when the crisis hits home, rather than socially distancing itself off into some tiny underdeveloped country that the West can conveniently ignore, and it’s the shelves of your grocery store that are suddenly emptying out, what will most people do? Demand drastic changes to the systems we’ve come to rely on? No, they’ll just complain and be mad and throw blame at whichever political party they don’t like and demand instant restoration of what they’ve always taken for granted.

Wow. I suppose I’ve opened this review by setting off a massive cynicism bomb in your faces. Sorry. But the novels of Jeff VanderMeer do get you thinking about this kind of stuff. Ever since the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer’s focus on the theme of humanity’s impact on the natural world and the natural world’s possible responses to this impact has only gotten more intense. We may not be killing the planet, because the Earth will go on. But we’re well on our way to killing it as a survivable habitat.

Hummingbird Salamander has possibly the most conventional narrative of VanderMeer’s work since Annihilation, especially set against his previous book, Dead Astronauts, which was so formally experimental you could call it an anti-novel (if you wanted to impress your literature professor). And yet it may well be VanderMeer’s bleakest elegy for Mother Earth yet. Structurally, it’s even been compared to The Maltese Falcon: we have an investigator presented with a mystery that begins with a strange artifact in the shape of a bird, which propels us into a bewildering labyrinth of secrets and lies and danger. It’s like climate noir. We even get shootouts and fistfights in alleys with tough guys roughing up our hero while warning them to back off if they know what’s good for them. But to VanderMeer, these pure entertainment-value tropes are all in service of a deeply impassioned cautionary tale about our world. The book isn’t some kind of pretentious jeremiad or anything, but it doesn’t play gently with us either.

Our viewpoint narrator is “Jane Smith.” It’s a fake name for a woman with a fake life. She works as an analyst for a cybersecurity firm that probably isn’t very good at what they do, because Jane has been able to install backdoors into the computers of at least one of her coworkers. But her line of work is mostly about selling the illusion of security to corporate clients who believe their biggest threat is hackers and script kiddies. Jane has a husband and daughter and a homelife whose serene domesticity is itself more illusory than she’s willing to admit. She’s also a bodybuilder who can bench 360, which may be a response to a childhood fraught with family discord and abuse. We can’t really think of Jane as an unreliable narrator, because she’s aware of just how much bullshit has become the mortar holding the structure of her life together. But she’s achieved a kind of harmony with it, if not anything like traditional happiness.

Events are set in motion when Jane is handed a note with an address and a key. The address takes her to a storage unit, and in that storage unit is the taxidermized body of a Naiad hummingbird, a species from the Andes presumed long extinct. With the bird is a cryptic note which will send Jane, and us, on a path that will irrevocably upend her life. Beyond that, you should know little going in. But it will be a dangerous journey for her and an often baffling and frustrating one for us, because the question always lingers: why is Jane pursuing these clues, which don’t even define a clear end goal, even though the search beats her down remorselessly, takes nearly everything from her and gives little to nothing back? As Jane uncovers the facts behind an enigmatic woman, Silvina Vilcapampa, both an eco-activist and ecoterrorist, the estranged daughter of a South American tycoon, and the sordid world of wildlife trafficking and resource depletion, there seems to be little in it for Jane at all — until the loose ends finally start coming together.

All of this is set against a backdrop of the gradual decline of human society itself. Lingering in the background is news of pandemics, catastrophic weather patterns, of climate refugees seeking asylum in northern latitudes. These crises become more and more foregrounded as the novel progresses. Jane is an interesting protagonist for her lack of character rather than for any strength of it. She begins the story mostly apolitical and morally complacent, so it’s difficult to understand at first why Silvina (or whoever has left the message) has set her sights on Jane. But in addition to reasons that are eventually revealed by the plot, mostly this is following a familiar trope of thriller fiction, in which a character becomes powerfully obsessed with a mystery, for personal reasons that don’t make a lick of sense to any other character and aren’t even well understood by themselves. There’s a deep, inner lack of purpose to their lives that has been awakened by the search, and they simply cannot stop, right up to the point where it all ends, either with a bang or a whimper.