It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the genre of climate change fiction is booming. As predictions about the longevity of our Earth become bleaker, more authors are turning to literature as a tool for activism. Climate change thrillers in particular are a phenomenal opportunity to lay out the risks of climate change with urgency and a call to action. “Hummingbird Salamander” by Jeff VanderMeer tries to do exactly this, but instead gives readers a hollow, subpar thriller filled with climate anxiety but little actionable substance.
VanderMeer is a notable author of “weird fiction” and thrillers with a focus on the environment. His memorable 2014 novel, “Annihilation,” was adapted into a motion picture in 2018. “Hummingbird Salamander,” released on April 6 of this year, follows Jane, a middle-aged suburban woman working at a cybersecurity company. Jane’s routine-driven life is shaken when she receives an envelope with a key from the barista of her favorite coffee shop. The key leads to a storage unit containing a taxidermy hummingbird, and the novel quickly turns into a race to follow more clues left for Jane by the deceased and mysterious Silvina Vilcacampa. Jane is thrust headfirst into a mystery ripe with criminal corporations, wildlife trafficking and bioterrorism.
“Hummingbird Salamander” has an interesting premise, and the first third of the novel is engaging. It has the feel of a typical thriller, full of unnamed characters and bizarre clues, but with the added unique threats of bioterrorism and illegal animal trade. I almost anticipated a novel similar to Richards Powers’s “The Overstory,” which also focused on environmental arson and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019. Yet, “Hummingbird Salamander” quickly turned into a disappointing shell of a thriller with no real stakes at play. Even with an urgent environmental message, the writing is too obscure to capture the reader’s attention or hold together a decent plot.
Part of the problem is that Jane’s mystery has no defined goal or endpoint. She searches tirelessly for clues that she could just as easily ignore, as doing nothing wouldn’t affect her life in the slightest. Jane justifies the urge to continue by saying, “But the truth is, I enjoyed the sensation as much as I enjoyed badly lit bars and unfamiliar men, as if losing your balance was a kind of pleasure.”
Fair enough, but the excitement of following a mystery that doesn’t concern you usually dissipates after threats are made on your life. “I continued because I had lost everything, and the only way I could make sense of life was to investigate the mysteries of others,” Jane reflects. Ironically, as Jane has already lost everything, VanderMeer slashes the novel’s stakes and creates a hollow protagonist with nothing left to lose.
Almost more damaging than the novel’s skeleton plot is the overly pedagogical writing. For an author described as “the weird Thoreau” by The New Yorker, VanderMeer can do better. Sentences in the novel are often short, abrupt or incomplete. “In a rush: of a sudden, the end of the week. Gasping inside from that,” VanderMeer writes of the end of Jane’s workday. Unconventional sentence structure is a welcome addition sometimes, but overusing it makes the novel nebulous and hard to read. After working hard to understand the hidden meaning in every other line, I found myself detaching from the convoluted plot.
While the plot and writing are lacking, the novel does have some highlights. In focusing on wildlife trade, VanderMeer does a good job critiquing corporations, especially environmental polluters. “You couldn’t untangle the passion from the logic, the underlying philosophy from the technology,” VanderMeer writes.
Bill McKibben, author and environmental activist, brings up a similar critique of corporations in his book “Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.” Corporations, McKibben argues, have a one-track mind, similar to a bee colony. It’s easy to understand the cruelty of corporations when you realize that their sole focus is profit.
VanderMeer does an equally strong job painting a post-apocalyptic world suffering the aftermath of climate change. He writes about wildfires, extinctions and pandemics in a stark and urgent way, making it easy for readers to imagine the future of our Earth. “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,” VanderMeer writes in an eerie foreshadowing of our modern world.
However, this world building isn’t paired with a call to action or reasonable solutions for the reader. VanderMeer’s post-apocalyptic world is bleak and desolate with little hope of change — it has long passed the point of no return.
“We must love what has been damaged, because everything has been damaged. And to love the damage is to know you care about that world. That you’re still in the fight,” VanderMeer says. A noble sentiment, but we need more than love to save our planet.
“Hummingbird Salamander” has good intentions, but ultimately falls short as an eco-thriller. The novel has a strong start and interesting premise, but complicated plot elements and a hazy writing style make the novel hard to enjoy. Keep reading climate change novels, but skip this one.
Daily Arts Writer Trina Pal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.