Against a backdrop of ongoing ecological and social collapse, one woman—a security consultant of sorts, though not that sort of security—loses her grip on her job, family and life after she responds to the provocation of a note pressed into her hand as she exits a coffee-shop. The note points Jane toward Silvina, the somewhat shadowy scion of a South American family business empire cum crime syndicate, who seems to have at some point turned the tables and switched sides from wildlife smuggling to ecoterrorism and informing on her former associate… hard to be sure, though, as information is scarce, besides a brief obituary in Argentina. For reasons she can’t entirely understand or explain—at least not at first—Jane follows Silvina’s first letter to a run-down self-storage establishment at the foot of a mountain, in one locked unit of which awaits a taxidermied extinct hummingbird.
The hummingbird is the first in a long chain of mysterious enticements into a story never entirely revealed, yet nonetheless teeming with violence, paranoia, psychosis, revelation and despair. The story is Jane’s final confession, we find, and that form of narrative—as well as the particular circumstances and situation of its being written—mean that we are left trying to trust the account of someone who, by their own repeated admission, went through periods of manic delirium and serious injury in the pursuit of her own great white whale, trailing up and down the Pacific coast of the United States, her former life—lives, plural, even—left long behind, but nonetheless clattering in her wake like tin cans tied to a stray dog, simultaneously seeking the solution to the mystery and revenge for a slow murder committed in plain sight, namely that of the planetary ecosystem.
Or, more plainly: Jane has confessedly become somewhat (more) mad, making her something of an unreliable narrator. This, plus the noirish thriller dynamics of the plot, are something of an echo of the work of Vandermeer back when he was a rising star in the sf/f firmament (and the then-contemporary “New Weird” scene), but not yet the author of a series of books that were turned into a Hollywood hit (the Southern Reach / Area X trilogy, which became the move Annihilation): unreliable and unwilling (and unhinged?) protagonists with detective-like instincts connect Hummingbord Salamander to Finch, for instance, though the latter’s creepily organic surrealism and fungal leitmotif has here given way to a style and affect that I repeatedly found myself thinking of as somewhat Gibsonian.
Which is not at all to say that Jane’s escapades herein read like a late-phase William Gibson novel, but rather that there’s something sufficiently similar about them to provoke the comparison: not just the short cut-scene chapters, but the sense of a protagonist who skips desperately like a flat thrown stone across the surface of a society whose depths, beneath a calm and glossy surface, are soon shown to be ever less placid, teeming with monsters and polluted by capitalism; protagonists with agency, of a sort, but nonetheless caught up in (and living at the sufferance of) the money-backed agencies of others, and those in turn caught up in the diffuse agency of the ultimate in (un)preventable disasters. The big and obvious difference would be that Gibsonian endings have lately become increasingly easeful (if not exactly happy, as such) for their lead characters; Jane’s end, by contrast—even as her mystery is solved and her revelation achieved—would be hard to describe as satisfying for her (though it is perhaps the ending that she, and we the reader, most deserve, given our complicity in the contextual conflict for which the plot is mirror and metonymy).
It is, to be frank, bleak as all hell—and the one chink of utopian hope seems to me to have been set up precisely to undermine the concept of utopian hopes in both the technological and the critical mode (as well as, I think, to echo some images deployed from another point of vantage entirely in the more recent novels Borne and Dead Astronauts). This is not a complaint, to be clear: after the wholesome but exhaustingly naive techno-utopianism of a recently-read solarpunk anthology, it’s almost a relief to read a book so unflinching in its diagnosis and extrapolation of the metabolic rift, and of the institutional and social architectures behind which we’ve tried so hard, individually and collectively, to conceal it from ourselves. It’s also far more on the nose with its critique than the more metaphorical Southern Reach books: Hummingbird Salamander leaves a lot less room for interpretation, at times feeling a little heavy-handed in its channelling of Jane’s descent into ecological guilt from an (uncomfortably familiar) initial position of wilful myopia and refusal to consider the systemic consequences of the late-capitalist lifeway.
But there’s a deal of subtlety here, too: Jane’s work in the marketing and management of corporate data security places her far closer to the pinnacle of the system she eventually turns to tilt quixotically against than she ever seems to consciously realise, and the fragility and fictionality of the security she used to sell (not to mention the confection of the threats it is sold to protect against, a very C21st superimposition of poachers and gamekeepers, all in the name of a profit not merely parasitic but saprophytic, fed by death and decay) mirrors the fragility and fictionality of the sense of security with which we surround ourselves, while beyond the windows of our air-conditioned cars and our centrally-heated homes, birds disappear from their continent-spanning migratory cycles, and amphibians fail to return to the long-since-developed-over ponds and rivers where they had hatched and mated for tens of thousands of years.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the sense of how Jane’s descent into darkness might be seen to stand as a miniature of (and/or a final coda to) that greater deep-time decline of her world, our world—which is of course also the world of hummingbirds and salamanders and pangolins and tigers and many many more—is not so plain as it might have been. But to bridge the systemic and the intimate in such a way is a big ask for fiction in general, and perhaps particularly for a fictional form chosen to quite literally embody not only that collapse of certainty and security and buried mistakes presumed moved on from (always already the most ubiquitous of the fictions we tell ourselves), but also that abyss of existential despair that is revealed when the illusions are finally punctured beyond repair. To have made it any more obvious might have broken exactly the most important illusion.
In that sense maybe we might say that Vandermeer has in fact achieved what ecocriticism has long asked of authors, albeit perhaps not quite in the way they hoped it might be delivered: in Hummingbird Salamander, he has managed to make the experience and revelation of systemic climate collapse under capitalism horrifyingly, inescapably personal. And in doing so, individual resistance is depicted as futile, self-destructive and effectively impossible, ultimately unable to deliver even a sense of one’s own sins absolved—a depiction all the uglier for its uncomfortable ring of truth.
A fine, fast read, but really not a happy one.