Review of Hummingbird Salamander: the vastness of everything

Hummingbird Salamander is a 2021 science fiction / ecological thriller written by Jeff VanderMeer. In the course of this review I will be talking about elements of the plot including its conclusion. As this is a brand new book, if you have not had an opportunity to read it yet and feel like surprise is integral to your enjoyment of fiction I’ll put up front that it is an excellent book which I would strongly recommend reading.

VanderMeer’s prose is lyrical and carefully crafted and his use of a carefully developed palette of related metaphors demonstrates a singular artist. VanderMeer is principally known as a weird fiction author. I wrote about his work previously in my discussion of the New Weird, a term he was instrumental in coining. However this book is not a weird fiction book per say. Rather than being a book about a presence that should not be this is what Mark Fisher would describe as a book about the eerie. It’s a haunted book, one in which the question of agency looms large and where the agent is most generally marked by their absence.

This is a book that tries to engage with difficult questions regarding the impact of humanity on the global environment and how humanity is impacted by anthropogenic climate change. It is a book narrated by a deeply unreliable narrator and one that confronts hauntological questions both at the level of eerie agency and also at the level of how a person can be haunted by their personal history. It is, in fact, a book that attempts to collapse the distinction between the personal and the grand by demonstrating how both the little moments in a little life and world-shattering epochal changes are both equally haunted to the point where the question of agency between the two becomes indistinct.

If you read this review further please consider yourself forewarned that I will be discussing plot details throughout.

Hyperwhat?

There are two concepts from philosophical theory that are absolutely critical to an understanding of Hummingbird Salamander: Hauntology and hyperobjects. Of the two, the more conceptually difficult one is the hyperobject. The speculative realist Timothy Morton first presented the concept of the hyperobject in his 2010 book The Ecological Thought. This is a category of objects (in the philosophical sense of the word) that Morton believes to be distinct from other objects on the basis of several criteria. The central criterion is that hyperobjects must be, “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” The category describes things with scopes so vast that they become hard to sense. We live in the thick of them and their scope is far greater than fits comfortably into a human mind.

One of the central characters in Hummingbird Salamander is Silvina, the daughter of an Argentinian billionaire. He runs his (ostensibly family) business as an empire so vast and distributed that Silvina is able to steal substantial resources from him over an extended period of time without him ever noticing. His empire is too vast in scope for even he, the emperor, to fully grasp. Silvina carves her plan out of the crannies that he doesn’t see. Silvina is presented as somebody who doesn’t have the normal limits on perception. Lights are too bright, sounds too intense. She sees everything and it terrifies her. She flees into the wilderness to escape that intensity, becomes nomadic. Jane follows her on this path and she too becomes nomadic, flees the intensity of the thriller to hike in the back-country while the world falls apart in the background. There’s a sense that this nomadic retreat is a response to seeing too much – that the mind cannot tolerate being shown undifferentiated extremity.

In Sartre’s Nausea, Roquentin remarks, “I must not put in strangeness where there is none. I think that is the big danger in keeping a diary: you exaggerate everything.” Diaries and memoirs are central to Hummingbird Salamander. Jane pursues Silvina through her diary, which she later learns is only a fragment, a sanitized version of a much vaster thing curated for the consumption of an audience with a particular viewpoint. But Jane’s recollection, too, is a diary. There’s a chance we could interpret these accounts as exaggerations. Certainly we cannot trust Jane nor can we ever fully trust Silvina. But this exaggeration permeates everything. Everything becomes too big to take in all at once. Jane is as occluded from a relationship with her daughter as she is from the plot of taxidermied animals and bioterrorism she finds herself entangled in, as she is from the green-gray haze that is filling the sky. It is all too big. The memoir, written at the end of it all, also has an effect of making the times expand and contract in strange ways. A day might get a hyper-detailed recounting. Five years roll by in a haze as if the times were too big to perceive properly. Here we begin to see what appears a critique of Morton in VanderMeer’s book. Yes, some objects are too vast to comprehend. All of them in fact. So what makes something a hyperobject? Are we not just describing an object?

Morton continues describing hyperobjects in the book, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and ecology after the end of the world, saying, “They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any ‘local manifestation’ of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity. Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time. And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge: it’s hyper relative to worms, lemons, and ultraviolet rays, as well as humans.”

There are legitimate questions that can be raised to the extent to which any one of these categories is distinct from a more typical conception of the object. In particular, a use of the conception from Being and Nothingness of an object as comprising an infinite series of appearances makes any given object non-local. The appearance of the absence of the object is as much part of the object’s existence as any other given appearance of it. “Nothingness can be nihilated only on the foundation of being; if nothingness can be given, it is neither before nor after being, nor in a general way outside of being. Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being-like a worm,” as Sartre says. If we can consider an absence of an object to be part of the being of the object then all objects are non-local. This-rock-here isn’t the complete object of the rock. I pick up the rock and throw it out of sight and it’s still the rock even though it is no longer this-rock-here. This-rock-here and that-rock-thrown-out-of-sight are both the same rock. Morton seems to be seeking an essence behind the existence of the hyperobject for its nonlocal appearances to be separated from it but I don’t think he ever really gets there.

As I said previously, Hummingbird Salamander is a haunted book. We are tortured by the thought of all the paths we didn’t walk and the choices we didn’t make. Power always exists off the edge of the page. As such everything is non-local. We have touchstones, the bag (Shovel-Pig) that Jane drags around, the eponymous hummingbird and salamander taxidermies, the ghost of Jane’s brother and her grandfather. But at the same time that she carries these everywhere they’re mostly marked by their absence. She hides the hummingbird in her gym locker then worries it’ll be missing. It is. And the absence of the object becomes as obsessive as looking at it ever was to her. The hummingbird is present in its absence, its nothingness is a component of its being.

Viscosity turns up a lot in Hummingbird Salamander. Jane finds ideas stick to her. She can’t escape her obsession with the mystery of the hummingbird and Silvina’s journal. She carries the death of her brother and her murder of her grandfather, who she wrongly blamed for the death, everywhere she goes. Jane sticks to her husband and even after she abandons him, he pursues her if only to get some closure, to understand why he became a ghost to her while the ghost of Silvina was so real. All of this takes the character of compulsion. It’s not that Jane wants to be reliving the dissolution of her first family as her second family too dissolves. It doesn’t ever seem that she really consciously desires the mystery of Silvina. “I am not a spy. Not a detective. Not caught and lost in some tangle or maze. Not lying against the mud and leaves watching over my brother’s body,” Jane says. But she can’t say what she is. And despite protesting that she isn’t a spy or a detective, despite protesting that she is not caught, she is precisely that. Caught in the tangle of Silvina’s life, her brother’s life, work and family and the family that was.

Ultimately we are left with two significant quality of a hyperobject that is not reducible to merely a subset of regular objects: its spatio-temporal vastness and that it its ontologically indifferent. Morton proposes that a hyperobject contains the qualities that make it different from ordinary-order objects regardless of the subject.At this point it might be valuable to address the nature of the hyperobject that is under examination in Hummingbird Salamander in the form of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change was one of Morton’s initial targets when he coined the concept and as much as he might be seen to have attempted to demonstrate a category of objects, a charitable interpretation of Morton’s works is that he was attempting to create a framework through which to understand why climate change is so hard to grasp and why that matters.

Hummingbird Salamander starts five minutes in the future. Pandemics happen, people wear masks, life goes on. The protagonist, Jane, carries on her life flying to conferences, failing to communicate with her family and avoiding work with only the slightest hint of anxiety projected over the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, this story is revealed to be something of a memoir or a confession Jane is producing at the end of it all and it’s unclear throughout the narrative how much of the anxiety in the early scenes of the book, when society is still sound and the wheels still turn with just marginally more grit, how much of her anxiety is what she felt in the narrated moment and how much is projected back from the moment of narration. “Somewhere along the way, for reasons I misremember, I bought a go-bag,” she tells us. She speculates what might have been the reason she got this thing before landing on her family, “I think I just wanted to protect them – from the thought, the impetus, the raging landscapes of the nightly news. Protect them from the idea I believed such a future might come to pass.”

Of course, by the time Jane says this to us, this future has come to pass. She has not adequately protected her family, has, in fact, abandoned them. Even her post-hoc speculation as to why she might have bought the go-bag contains a hint of delusion. She cannot even see herself clearly, how can she possibly see the problems facing her world. Jane is a terribly unreliable narrator. She tells us she changes details in her recounting. “You’ll never get their names,” she tells us early on. She says, “The moment I type their names, they’ll be lost to me, belong to you.” Every character in this book has an alias assigned them. We don’t see them clearly either. There’s an immediate sense in Hummingbird Salamander that everything is too big to see all at once. A secret hidden in the eye of the smallest taxidermied hummingbird contains a clue as vast as a mountain. People cannot be grasped in their contradiction or complexity. Is Silvina a billionaire’s heir playing games of power? A revolutionary? A terrorist? A sick woman working through her illness? Is she just a ghost? Perhaps she is all of these things. Jane spends chapters and chapters chasing across the country on a quest that turns out to be nothing but an apology letter from a stranger: a neighbour whose family drama impacted Jane’s life in ways far too circuitous to possibly predict. And yet in the end it is all just a single room – a missed detail – that contains the key to everything. The quest was superfluous in that Jane could have solved the mystery without it. But the reality is that she couldn’t have solved the mystery because she didn’t have the eyes to see it.

Hauntology

Hauntology is a concept that originally derives from the work of Jacques Derrida although much of the significant academic work on the topic was undertaken by people who followed after him such as Fisher. To be haunted is to be aware of the objects that are absent, the spaces left for unfulfilled potential, the choices unmade. This sense of haunting is deeply tied into the literary mode of the eerie, that Fisher describes as art that asks, “what happened to produce these ruins? This disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry?” In Nausea, a pregnant woman remarks, “There… There… The seagulls.” Roquentin tells us that there are, in fact, no seagulls. The cry may just be something creaking. This is where the discomfort of the eerie lives, and it lives, too, in every facet of Hummingbird Salamander.

Throughout the story there is a deferral of revelation of agency. Silvina haunts Jane. Jane pursues her despite all the evidence suggesting she is dead, that her mystery is absurd and goes nowhere. Silvina’s father, as an antagonist, is always off-stage. He erases digital tracks, he hides behind goons who are mostly nameless. He appears once, via webcam, and later Jane is told that the man she saw was an actor, not the agent at all. And yet there is agency. People are run over by cars. People are shot. Warehouses are burned down. Evidence is stolen and witnesses are silenced. In his absence, Silvina’s father is everywhere. And so is she.

Jane is also haunted by her past. She had an abusive grandfather and an ineffectual father. They had a farm and she says it was struggling and yet Jane goes to university. She fumbled her way into a criminology degree, failed upward into a cybersecurity job. She lives in the suburbs and has a nice house in an expensive city. She flys first class but she always tells us that she grew up feeling poor. Jane had a brother who she loved and he died. They said it was drowning. She tells us her grandfather used to drown livestock and so she believed her grandfather had murdered her brother. She murdered her grandfather.

And Jane is haunted by the words she doesn’t say. She has a daughter she professes to love but cannot talk to. She has a husband she professes to love, but she cheats on him at conferences. Has cheated before, will again given the chance. Much of the text isn’t occupied by the things Jane has done so much as her reflection on the things she didn’t do, the conversations she didn’t have: ships passing in the night.

The climax of the book makes clear this idea of agency obscured. Jane returns to the place the mystery started, believing she will be able to find resolution there. There are two men who have been involved in the various twists of the plot previous who both also arrive in this place: the (likely former) government agent she only knows as Jack and a sometimes revolutionary, sometimes dealer in contraband animal products Langer. Jane previously nearly killed Langer and she previously nearly slept with Jack but in this moment neither are her friends. She is ascending the mountain in a fog. Langer approaches her and they have a gunfight where neither can see the other. “Then a furious fire from my right, through the fog, bullets snapping into the roots, into the trunk, as I slid to the ground, unhurt.”

Jane is eventually shot but she finds Langer in the fog. She attacks him and says, “it was brief and brutal,” of the encounter, claiming that Langer had no experience fighting close and she overwhelmed him. But as she recounts the story of the fight it becomes clear it was a close thing. Both of them are injured. Langer just a fraction more-so. And Jane doesn’t kill him. Instead a bullet out of the fog does Langer in and Jack captures the injured and fatigued protagonist. They find nothing on the mountain. He lets her go and disappears from her life.

Jane disappears too, abandoning the narrative to wander the wilderness and ignore the world. It’s all too much. She abandons the quest and any attempt to make sense of it all. Eventually the increasing dissolution of the US interferes with her retreat into primitivity and she decides to go home but roadblocks and disasters prevent her from getting home. She ends up instead back at the storage “palace” where she first found the hummingbird. The lights are out in the building but one light remains on and this is when Jane discovers that the solution to the puzzle had been there, in the room, the whole time. She just hadn’t had eyes to see it.

She finds Silvina dead in a hidden bunker along with Ronnie, another person who had been tied into the conspiracy, and realizes that the ghost she’d been chasing had been alive when she was questing but is not now.

The terrible thought. The unthinkable.
That as Hellmouth Jack and I searched and searched and searched for this place atop the mountain... that Silvina had been down here, watchin us. Observing us through the pebbles at our feet.
That she had still been in the world the. That if only I had been smarter, more savvy, more observant, I would have come up those steps into her secret place to find her alive.

It appears Silvina and Ronnie both died from an injection. Silvina’s grand project wasn’t a bio-weapon but rather an attempt to engender a new and trasformative relationship between people and the world.

In front of her like an altar, that odd medical station, which had three tubes for syringes held within a clear polymer container, radiated the cool hum of climate control. Two were missing. One of the two lay cracked on the floor beneath Silvina's dangling hand. It took no imagination to guess that Ronnie had taken the second.
Whatever it was, Silvina had thought it would change the world. Each was a different "approach," according to the documentation. Each promised radical transformation. Each promised contamination until you would see the world so differently. And as you walked out into t he world what had captured you would capture others and they, too, would be transformed. "We must change to see the world change."

An antidote to indifference

In the Denma Translation of the Sunzi, Kimmer Smith and James Gimian talk about the significance of perspective to understanding the ancient text. They start by describing how the Sunzi details complexity, how it demands the impossible, “because all things are interconnected, you must know each one, and how each one affects each and every other.” They describe a world where, “everything is in touch with everything else, always in movement.” They believe this dynamic and interrelated view of reality was the metaphysical basis of classical Chinese thought but they posit that different schools addressed it in different ways. Confucians focused on ordering the chaos. Taoists with riding its flows and breaks like a surfer. But Sunzi was mostly interested in an ontological response to complexity. “We must measure it from where we ourselves are standing. Here is a seemingly trivial example from a recent Chinese children’s book, in which a squirrel is trying to figure out whether it is safe to cross a stream. To him, it is a raging current, and he will drown there. But the stream is only up to the fetlocks of a horse.”

This perspective treats ontology as being positional; much like our relativistic idea of time, what is revealed and what is occluded depends on point of view. Jane returns to the mountain in a fog and finds nothing. She returns again in a blackout and finds the key to the secret. Silvina prepares three drugs to change perception. One produces a sense of ecstasy and then death. The second produces a sense of “completion” and then death. The third might transform the world. Or it might not. And it might depend on Silvina’s ark to repopulate the world. It’s left ambiguous. We cannot know because Jane’s memoir, her confession, ends there. We cannot know because we don’t have the point of view to see that end.

In the end there’s no such thing as a hyperobject. Everything that makes a hyperobject unique falls away, one by one, until you’re merely left with the infinity lurking behind every single object and the sense of ontological indifference – that rarefied nihilism enjoyed by the speculative realists that posits that every perspective, that of the person that of the stone and that of the air through which the thrown-stone flies, is essentially equivalent.

Except this isn’t true at all. As Hummingbird Salamander tells us again and again, perspective is highly contingent and our ability to grasp an object, the parts of an object that can be revealed to us, are intrinsically dependent on a form of subjectivity, and specifically one that can change. As Sartre discusses in Being and Nothingness, a person would only be aware that a friend was not in a restaurant if they first knew to look for the friend there. That absence is an appearance of the being of the friend that is revealed by a consciousness directed to the task of seeking out the face of the friend. All consciousness is consciousness of something which means that it will, by necessity exclude other things. However we can direct consciousness to be of one thing or another. If we are observing an army we can read its grain manifests, its marching orders and the faces of its soldiers or we can stand back on a hill and see that army all as one thing. We may occupy a position where climate change seems too big, where we can’t see it for its vastness. We might be a frog in a slowly heating pan of water unaware of the temperature change. We might be haunted by the decisions we didn’t make. “We must change to see the world change,” but of course the world changes all the time. As Jane abandons her co-workers, her family, the ghosts of the family she abandoned before, her ties to conspiracies, even her quest, she changes and in her transformation things become clear. Her grandfather never killed her brother. He was an awful man but he was ultimately just a fading old shell murdered for nothing. Her brother wasn’t a martyred saint. He was a poacher who died because he saw crimes he shouldn’t have. Silvina was never a bioterrorist; she might have doodled bombs in the margins of her journal but her ultimate plan was to give people the tools to see the change in the world.

Everything is too big when you really look at it. We are bound in subjectivity and as such we will always miss things. We will gloss over things, change names, allow things to go out of sight. We’ll decide problems are too big and refuse to look at them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can move to a different position. We can look with different eyes. The fixity of ontological indifference is a mistake: a surrender to inevitability and apologia for inaction. We must change how we see. We must change to see.

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