Hummingbird Salamander – An idea that won’t go away

Reviewing Jeff Vandermeer’s latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, Jack Pickering finds not only a thrilling and unsettling work of climate fiction, but also a genre bending critique of modern capitalism and its destruction of nature.

cover of the novel 'Hummingbird Salamander' by Jeff Vandermeer

Hummingbird Salamander, the latest novel by Jeff Vandermeer is pure thriller, haunted much like its unnamed protagonist by the spectres of ecological collapse, political violence, and the weight of the past.

The protagonist, going by the alias ‘Jane’, begins the book by informing the reader of her likely death. What follows is a tale of the events which led to Jane’s potential demise, beginning with the strange gift given to her by Silvina, the leader of a mysterious eco-terror group. This sparks a slow-boiling investigation in-between, then steadily instead of her day job as a security consultant, eating away at her comfortable job and family life, just as the world similarly begins to dissolve around her.

As this is a thriller, and plot details are clearly important to the enjoyment of that genre, I will not mention any more about the plot in this review. Besides, the themes and tone of this book are fertile enough. Vandermeer provides a pessimistic snapshot into a deeply alienated America, driven to its limits by Silicon Valley techno-fetishism and the security industrial complex. In this world of middle managers and private security contractors, characters are not only alienated from their work and each other but from the very environment they rely upon. Building the same tension and dread that pervades his more overtly fantastical narratives like the Southern Reach trilogy, Vandermeer constructs a frighteningly plausible near future. In this novel, there is a clearer focus on the mundane wreckage of diverse lives and places wrought by modern capitalism. Possible near-future technologies are woven into the story as scathing critiques of techno-optimist narratives, and considerable humour is brought to bear in satires of the security-industrial complex.

Hummingbird Salamander provides a taut and understated commentary on life lived during a pandemic. It also offers insight into the emotional impact of political violence fostered by cult-like groups, armed militias, and the paramilitary state. As the character thinks about the details of her investigation and plans her next moves, she navigates through a world dominated by the paranoid rituals of security, and the specific anxiety that comes with an advancing pandemic. At the same time, omens in the form of animal corpses, repurposed, revalued or left dead by the side of the road lead our protagonist from deeper into an underworld uncomfortably close to her old life, carefully concealed by a veneer of middle-income respectability.

In Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff Vandermeer is preoccupied with the personal and social meaning that can be gained, the horror and/or ecstasy that results from processes of self-dissolution or annihilation into nature. It is the unspeakable transcendence that sits at the heart of his fiction. These stories very often become that of an individual unmooring themselves from the culture around them as they become attuned to other ways of being. They make no prescriptions apart from a resounding call to pay attention, to focus on how our society and its norms are rooted in forms of extraction from nature. They challenge us to take seriously the demands and implications of social change, the importance and necessity of social-ecological thinking.

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