Book review: Only the Astronauts, Ceridwen Dovey

A highly imaginative collection of tales about inanimate objects in space.
Only the Astronauts. Image on left is a head and shoulders shot of a white 30-something woman with hair pulled back, a big smile and a black jacket with raised collar. On the right is the book cover, largely grey with two pink clad astronauts on the far left and right the one on the left looking in towards the other's back, and the one on the right looking off to the right.

Only the Astronauts is a series of strange and interconnected short stories from the author of Only the Animals and Life After Truth. In her latest collection, Ceridwen Dovey demonstrates, once again, her unrivalled capacity for imagination, for creating a story where most of us would see only detritus.

Dovey fearlessly finds the limits of fiction and bounds over them as if they don’t exist. The collection defies categorisation, and is uniquely narrated by a range of objects in space, including a mannequin and – most notably – a group of tampon astronauts known as “tamponauts”.

At times poignant and at others amusing, with this collection Dovey takes us to the edges of the universe. In the opening story, ‘Starman’, we’re introduced to a mannequin in a spacesuit of the same name, launched into space by Elon Musk in 2018. 

Starman returns in the final story, where he meets Voyager 1, carrying a visual and auditory summary of humanity known as the Golden Record. The piece, titled ‘Hackgold | Hacksilver’ contains one of the most striking lines of the book: ‘[t]hese emotions make their lives worth living. Without these extremes of feeling, there would be no point to being alive.’ This line captures the essence of Dovey’s latest body of work, because it is in these stories told by inanimate objects that the depths of our grace and greed are revealed. 

Dovey considers, for instance, our culture of sexism and misogyny in ‘We, The Tamponauts’, using a play about menstrual products (tampons, as well as a menstrual cup) to illustrate the challenges faced by people who are not men. As Dovey tells us, the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, sought to ‘leave the doctrine of biology at the door to the spaceship,’ but tampons were ‘the embodiment of everything she had tried to overcome’. It was only later that she could recognise ‘the resilience of the female body’ and only much later that she could begin to see herself through something other than the punitive lens of patriarchy, and that the writer’s tampon protagonists could do the same.

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A reflection on capitalism, Only the Astronauts is a valuable addition to Dovey’s eclectic and impressive body of work. Drawing on real historical events and figures allows her to provide readers with a series of poignant and profound reflections on the nature of humanity: who we are, who we could be and what we may look like from the outside.

Only the Astronauts, Ceridwen Dovey
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9781760896775
Format: Paperback

Pages: 288pp
Publication date: 7 May 2024
RRP: $34.99

Laura Pettenuzzo (she/her) is a disabled writer based in Naarm. Her words have appeared in SBS Voices, ABC Everyday, Mascara Literary Review and The Guardian. She is also a member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.