Jeff VanderMeer is known for being weird. His Ambergris books, including, City of Saints and Madmen, featured intelligent mushrooms and Annihilation, the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy which was made into a trippy Netflix film. But these books also demonstrate a deep strain of environmental consciousness. So what happens when VanderMeer turns his hand to a day-after-tomorrow thriller? Well, you get something like Hummingbird Salamander.
Jane Smith, the narrator never gives her real name, is an expert at digital security. Her life is turned upside down when a barista gives her a message from a dead woman called Silvina Vilacapampa– an envelope with the address of a storage centre and a key. As the storage centre Jane finds a box containing a preserved hummingbird and soon finds herself going down a rabbit hole trying to find out what happened to Silvina and what Silvina is trying to tell her by gifting her the hummingbird. As Jane does this, and finds herself finding more clues, including Silvina’s diary, Jane finds herself increasingly under threat and more and more isolated. But Jane has skills of her own, including as an ex-wrestler, and finds herself up to the task.
Hummingbird Salamander is a thriller but this mode is used more to keep eyes on the page. VanderMeer is most interested in making readers think more deeply about their world – what is happening to it, their place in it and what they might be able to do, no matter how minor, to stem the tide. As a result the book is full of pointed asides and observations like this one:
The hummingbird has gone extinct because of poaching, habitat loss and climate change. The wildlife trafficking cartels manufactured need – they told those inclined to buy that this or that animal was good luck or the next hip thing for the rising newly rich. They pried open the coffers of countries that would look the other way.
Europe was cocooned uncomfortable in a massive snowstorm that had killed three thousand people so far. The garbage in the Atlantic had slowed the Gulf Stream to near critical level. Some kind of contamination from the Far East would soon turn our skies green-gray, we were told. But none of this made us even blink anymore.
While readers might have to suspend a little disbelief as to how Jane lets herself be drawn in to this conspiracy so deeply and so quickly, there is some resolution that draws a more direct line between Jane and Silvina. The twists and reveals are not really the point, but the action is well handled and it does keep readers guessing. And VanderMeer does manage to bring it all together in a resolution that is both spectacularly out there, surprisingly optimistic and completely set up by the text.
Hummingbird Salamander is a slow burn thriller with a deep and troubling message. By explaining what informs his prognostications, VanderMeer paints a scary but plausible vision of the future. But the thriller element helps sell that vision. For those who already accept the potential for future corporation-led environmental catastrophe, this book gives them a call to action. Others may just go with the action, but possibly, like Jane, will end up absorbing the outrage and getting on board.