Culture Trips

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer review – a thrill ride to the brink of extinction | Science fiction books

Best known for Annihilation, his 2014 sci-fi thriller and first of a trilogy that delivered equally on genre values and philosophical depth (it was also admirably adapted into a 2018 film starring Natalie Portman), Jeff VanderMeer’s 13th novel, Hummingbird Salamander is an enigmatic eco-thriller that delivers in the same vein and on the subject of worlds – inner worlds such as the biosphere – that are coming apart.

“Impossible to tell how fast society was collapsing because history had been riddled through with disinformation and reality was composed of half-fictions and full-on paranoid conspiracy theories.”

It’s set in a near future defined by escalating climate breakdown and neighbourhood drone patrols and tells the story of Jane Smith, a cybersecurity consultant, whose staid suburban existence in the Pacific north-west of America is thrown into turmoil when an anonymous barista delivers her a message and a key one morning, pointing her in turn towards the stuffed body of a hummingbird, now thought to be extinct.

The author of this message and its mystery is a well-known eco-terrorist and corporate heiress, Silvina, believed to be dead. Jane follows the clues that Silvina has left for her, on to the trail of criminal wildlife traffickers and murky corporations.

It’s a path that puts Jane and her family dangerously at odds with those same dark forces, but she falls prey to fascination – with the details of Silvina’s life and visions for an ecological future – so that just when she might step back, she’s carried forwards, obsessively, convinced that Silvina’s story can yield a pathway out of the wider ecological catastrophe.

What does it mean, though, to be led by the dead and by symbols of extinction in a time of mass extinction? “I’d gone down the rabbit hole,” Jane ultimately reflects, “of investing the hummingbird with so much meaning and emotion. In the end, there was nothing the hummingbird could tell me more than what lay behind its eyes.”

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer is published by Fourth Estate (£16.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply

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