Originally published: April 2021
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Publisher: MCD Publishing
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller, Mystery, Dystopian Fiction
There's very little you can know for certain when diving into one of Jeff VanderMeer's novels. You can expect to be taken on a wild ride somewhere. You can expect characters to not be who you think they are (I trust Jeff with no one until a book or series is finished). You can expect to know a little more and see the world a little differently when you're done with one of his books.
But... what genre are you going to read? What part of the world (or the multiverse) will you be in? Will it feature an autocratic Aleister Crowley, a rambling bureaucracy bumbling its way through an inevitable, beautiful apocalypse, or a rampaging, despotic bear? All are equally likely. VanderMeer's books can be a shelving nightmare for those of us constrained to categorize titles. While he often ultimately lands in science fiction or fantasy, his work would be just as appropriate in mystery, thriller, or even, at some points, horror. Depending on the novel, it can check any number of boxes.
That being said, this frazzled bookseller ultimately placed this fast-paced eco-thriller in the place you would often look for VanderMeer's work—in science fiction. But if mysteries and thrillers usually get your blood boiling and your heart pounding, don't hesitate to wander across the aisle and pick this one up.
Narrated by "Jane Doe," a security analyst who elbowed her way up through the "boys' club" of digital infrastructure security, this is a story on the edge of an apocalypse. Jane falls into an international intrigue when she receives an unusual gift from a recently-deceased daughter of the head of several South American multinational corporations. Labeled an "eco terrorist" in multiple countries (including the United States), the circumstances of her death begin to look very suspicious when her gift, the taxidermied body of a now-extinct hummingbird, leads Jane into an investigation that puts her family, her career, and even her perception of her own personal history at risk. What is her connection to this woman? Why was she given this odd (and illegal) gift? And where the heck is the salamander?
When I think about this book and the paths of reflection VanderMeer's narrative leads me down, one phrase that comes to mind is the adage "the personal is political." In the context of this book, one could just as easily say, "the personal is environmental." We tend to think of these large-scale ideas, like politics and the ecosystem, as things so far outside us that they aren't a part of us or a thing we can even begin to hope to influence.
If we asked her, Jane may agree that there is a lot about the damage we and our predecessors have done to our society and our ecosystem that is beyond our control at this point to stop or fix. However, the reality is that these ecosystem changes impact us in personal and, as Jane experienced, sometimes in surprising ways.
In a recent interview for The New York Times, VanderMeer said, "I enjoy books that don't care if I think they should have a moral function. Personally, I believe it's more important that books be laboratories and experiments and it's up to the reader to be moral." Jane, the Hummingbird, the Salamander, and everyone in between definitely don't care what you think of them. Silvinia, the catalyst for Jane's personal series of disasters, couldn't care less what you think of her, either—she has her own plans that don’t really show themselves until the book’s last pages. Instead you, through Jane, are left only with the reality in front of you. Sweet memories and sentimentality stripped away, your only real choice is to decide how you respond to this strange new dystopia.
This book is a series of experiments in survival, and what you choose to accept and how you choose to handle the unavoidable reality that meets you. In Hummingbird Salamander, you don't get the luxury of deciding whether you get to answer the Trolley Problem & decide who or how many live or die. All you get to do, in the end, is decide how you live with the aftermath.