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‘Hummingbird Salamander’ offers visceral thrills

April 20, 2021
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There’s a tendency to think of genre fiction as somehow less than, even though we’ve always known that some of our most gifted writers happily appropriated some of the tropes and themes inherent to sci-fi or fantasy or thriller or horror or what have you.

Our foremost practitioners of genre work have shown themselves capable of embracing and elevating the precepts and preconceptions that define their genre of choice, all while also showing themselves capable of both literary and ideological excellence.

Jeff VanderMeer is one such practitioner, an author dubbed “sci-fi” because no other label fits. One of the best-known luminaries of the so-called “Weird Fiction” school, VanderMeer utilizes the tools that genre gives him to create works that are very much their own thing, even if recognizable elements appear within them.

His latest is “Hummingbird Salamander” (MCD, $27), a bleak and dystopian piece of ecologically-charged speculation that marries the seemingly casual world-building at which he excels with a twisting, conspiracy-laden puzzle box of a thriller. He’s so gifted at placing character-driven narrative at the forefront while parceling out details about the world in which the narrative takes place – this is just another example of his tremendous talents at work.

VanderMeer’s affection for the natural world – as well as his concern for its future – plays out regularly in his books; “Hummingbird Salamander” is no exception. Through his vivid imagination and visceral descriptions, he creates people, places and events that lodge themselves in the mind of the reader, sparkling with bright colors that are both beautiful and poisonous.

Jane Smith – she adamantly refuses to give us her real name – is a security consultant for an unnamed firm. Physically imposing and detail oriented, she’s quite good at her job. She’s got a family at home – a husband who’s a realtor and a teenaged daughter who is embarrassed by her mother in the manner of teenaged girls since the dawn of time. It’s a bland, relatively quiet life.

A life that is upended with the arrival of a simple envelope.

The envelope contains a key to a storage unit. Inside that storage unit is a box. Within the box is a taxidermied hummingbird – a bird that, like many others, is believed to be extinct. The only other clue is a hint that there is a salamander in similar condition that she must find.

From there, it’s down the rabbit hole. Jane finds herself swept up into a far-ranging conspiracy. Silvina, the now-deceased woman who left the note, is an alleged ecoterrorist and one of the heirs to the industrial fortune of the mysterious Vilcapampa family. After just a brief period of investigation, Jane’s life is completely upended – she is threatened by assailants both known and unknown, put under surveillance and forced to go on the run.

And yet, she simply can’t let it go. For reasons that not even she can articulate, it becomes vital that she figure out what Silvina expected from her. And so she embarks on a journey that takes her on the road and on the run, to abandoned industrial properties and crumbling eco-tourist attractions. She encounters those who would harm her, those who would help her … and a surprising number that would do both.

All of it in service to a mission that she doesn’t understand, at the behest of a dead person that she has never met. And yet, all that matters is uncovering the truth.

In the background, a picture of the world in which Jane lives is gradually painted. It’s a world where rising sea levels have wreaked havoc on coastal cities and where hordes of the displaced are moving en masse in search of somewhere else to go. Commandeered cruise ships packed with climate refugees wander the ocean, with nowhere to go. Economic recessions and pandemics. And yet, for many, life goes on, following everyday routines even as it all begins to crumble.

Again – this is all playing out secondarily to Jane’s story. VanderMeer’s understanding of just how much backstory to lay out at a given time is exquisite; often, it’s just a stray snippet of a news report or an offhanded “everyone knows”-type reference. It’s a wonderful way to develop a rich, full world without bogging things down with exposition.

He’s no stranger to this kind of end-stages bleakness, either. He’s explored our limping finish previously, whether via ecological disasters, humanity’s irresponsibility or both. “Hummingbird Salamander” is no different, with the author deftly weaving his condemnatory warnings into the narrative. We get rapid shifts from conspiratorial ramblings to ruminations on environmental responsibility, yet it all fits snugly into the literary structure that VanderMeer has built.

Ultimately, though, the book is driven by character. Everything we see is through Jane’s eyes – the book itself is structured as a journal of sorts, an effort by our protagonist to make sure her story is eventually told, even as she faces down the looming specter of her own death. She is affable and capable throughout, often surprising even herself with her ability to handle the bizarre circumstances into which she has been thrust.

“Hummingbird Salamander” is another exceptional piece of work from the pen of Jeff VanderMeer. His unique combination of descriptive acumen and deeply-held ideology creates fiction that is challenging and thought-provoking. There’s no one else quite like him out there – and that’s a good thing.

Last modified on Tuesday, 20 April 2021 09:05

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