Book review: Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer
Hummingbird Salamander - Jeff VanderMeer
From the mushroom spore and fungus infected world of Ambergris to the mysterious dangerous zones of the Southern Reach trilogy that spread and distort reality, the visions of Jeff Vandermeer are strange and, quite literally, in a world of their own. As the originator of a new genre that you could call eco-noir, each of those series has an detective/investigator acting as a guide for the reader as they try to to make sense of the peculiar nature of a changing world. That's much the format of the mystery of VanderMeer's latest standalone (but who can ever know) novel, Hummingbird Salamander, a near-future novel that grapples with issues of climate change, natural disasters, animal extinction and pandemic crises, all interconnected and wrapped up in an abstract noir mystery that needs to be unravelled ultimately for the greater good of all mankind.
Jane Smith is not actually a detective but is involved in security. Although she is a former body-builder, she actually works as an IT security analyst, holding a managerial position in a career that has few women. For some unknown reason she is passed a message in a more traditional way that is however just as secretive and hard to break as IT encryption. A package is handed to her containing an address and a key to a storage facility out of the city. There, she finds a room with a box on a chair; nothing else. Inside the box is a taxidermied hummingbird and a note from someone called Silvina with the code words "Hummingbird Salamander".
As she has been given a hummingbird but no salamander it's evidently like a cryptic clue, a missing element that holds the key to a mystery. It's clear that there is a need for circumspection and covert activity, one that needs to be done by conventional analogue means as far as possible, since - as an IT security expert - she knows that every action, key stroke and search on an IT system is potentially observed and recorded. But where to start and what to make of this strange riddle? What soon becomes apparent is that the mystery involves a powerful corporate conglomerate and that any probing into their below the board activities could prove very dangerous indeed.
As you expect from Jeff VanderMeer, nothing is that straightforward or clear, as Jane takes her investigation down many abstract avenues, using a work conference to exploring taxidermy and antique shops as well through what she thinks are discreet computer searches. She needs to be satisfied she understands the significance of the hummingbird before she moves on to the salamander, an abstraction that sums up everything that is delightful, surreal and at the same time simple about the complexity of the abstract connections that the author uses here.
VanderMeer builds that sense of paranoid tension well, establishing a world that is slightly off-kilter and obsessed with security and keeping things hidden. There's a need to go beyond encryption into abstraction, leaving clues that only a human being with all the data can follow without leaving behind a vast data trail on the internet. It sounds like a far-fetched paranoid view of the near-future, but of course it taps into a reality that we are living with now, where technology is becoming more important and human analysis, intuition and experience is being neglected, diminishing us as human beings.
That however is just one of many topics and issues you can look for in Hummingbird Salamander, but there are many ways you can view the way it balances the fake world we have created around corporations, shell companies, illegal trade, industrial espionage and even toxic masculinity, with the impact and harm that such activities have on the natural world. Rather than just draw on the current state of the world as a means to depict apocalyptic catastrophe and extinction events however VanderMeer sees change as a way forward. We might not change the world but it could change us.
He ties these all these meaningful themes of corporate rape of the natural world, climate change, security and paranoia in a surveillance society up in a typically dense noir web of intrigue, mystery and double dealing in a distinct way that is - without wishing to pin him down, as that would be impossible - very much Jeff VanderMeer.