The SFF Librarian Reviews, Feb. 2021
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so every month in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s find strange new worlds together!
The early space operas tended towards heroic pieces of cardboard disguised as men, forging a new frontier among the stars and ever expanding Earth’s reach in a cosmic repeat of late-19th and early-20th century colonialism. Those could be fun as far as they went, admittedly. But I find that the best space operas – and we are certainly in an age of great ones – are those that instead choose to focus on making an intimate emotional space of a limitless universe. Certainly, we readers enjoy our fair share of planets shattering, vast fleets colliding in glorious and ‘splody battle, and ships tearing through the cosmos with FTL engines aglow with power. It’s fun stuff!
But in the end, it is very cold in space, and what gives us readers true heat and light on our journeys through it is and must be, the warmth of our hearts and our relationships to each other as human beings. After all, as David Gerrold once noted, “The final frontier is not space. The final frontier is the human soul. Space is where we will meet the challenge.” A truly memorable space opera exists on a cosmic scale and may measure itself in light-years and eons, but it still tells an inherently recognizable human story. We see this in the works of writers such as Kameron Hurley, Becky Chambers, Arkady Martine, Yoon Ha Lee, Ann Leckie, Alastair Reynolds, and John Scalzi, all of whom infuse stories of epic scope and sweep with realistic, recognizable, and relatable interactions between people.
Simon Jimenez’s debut novel The Vanished Birds (Del Rey, 2020, $27.00) follows this model. Observe the opening segment of the book: a novella-length story of Kaeda, a worker on a far-off agricultural colony (run by the Umbai corporation, which dominates human-occupied space) from youth to old age. Kaeda’s life is permanently marked by his love for trade ship captain Nia Imani. Imani captains the Debby, which makes periodic visits to Umbai-V to drop off supplies and pick up crops – time dilation from travel through the “Pocket” means that Nia’s visits come every few months from her perspective while from Kaeda’s, the time between encounters with Nia are measured in years. He ages as she, to him, remains young and beautiful and forever fascinating. Kaeda “knew time moved differently for her, but still it shocked him how much she resembled his dreams of her – how little she had aged.” (11) This heartfelt story (which could have been published in its own right as a standalone) highlights a theme of the novel – the human need to make emotional connections in the face of the endless void, and how durable those connections can be.
Much of the remainder of Vanished Birds concerns Nia’s relationship with a young mute boy. The traumatized boy arrives mysteriously out of the skies of Umbai-V one day, and an aged Kaeda ‘gives’ him to Nia when she and Kaeda part for the final time. The two form a strong parent-child bond based around a love of music and a shared existential loneliness. The other major character of the book is brilliant scientist Fumiko Nakajima, of Earth’s crisis-filled 21st century and the instigator of many of the galactic events that follow over the subsequent thousand years. (The novel frequently jumps backwards and forwards through time.) As Fumiko makes her way outwards from Earth to the far reaches of known space – herself marked forever by her own passionate attachment to a spurned lover – her fate and history become intimately entwined with both Nia and the boy in a conclusion of world-shattering proportions.
Vanished Birds is a beautifully written work, filled with characters rich with depth and life, fueled by the power of human attachments and by people’s findings and refindings of one another across the chasms of time and space. In a powerfully descriptive passage near the book’s conclusion that chronicles this power, Jiminez writes:
Seven hundredth jump. But always there was another fire in bloom, and a new chance to shout his coordinates. She would play her song, and he would find that new flame, and together, they would add another voice to the choir. Eight hundredth jump. Even when their bodies went ragged and age clawed its way down her back and made it hurt to sit upright, and the new fleets dragged the air from his lungs and he shivered in the dark, they continued. Past the nine hundredth jump, the nine hundredth fire. Time leaping from their fingers and their tongues as they chipped away at the wall, her music and his shout; his many shadow selves his chorus as their cries echoed through the flames and down the vaults of the Pocket, and made the bonfires erupt and dance. Their music was an assault. It was the moment itself. The unshakeable feeling that they were working towards something, together.375-376
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Speaking of space operas and their composers, I believe that Aliette de Bodard is truly one of science fiction’s greatest treasures. Her writing is beautiful, with a gorgeous, true sense of place and an imaginative conceit unlike any other I’ve seen in SF. Her greatest creation is her Xuya Universe: a collection of novellas and stories set in a far future dominated by Chinese- and Vietnamese-centered galactic empires. (Xuya is born out of an alternate history in which China discovered the New World and Asia escaped Western imperialism.) Xuya is populated both by humans and sentient Ais (“Minds”), occupying planets, space stations, and Mind-controlled spaceships, and governed under Confucian tenets.
De Bodard’s latest Xuya story is the novella Seven of Infinities (Subterranean Press, 2020, $40.00); like its 2018 predecessor The Tea Master and the Detective, it’s a mystery set within the Scattered Pearls Belt (a collection of orbital habitats), with the solution pursued by a human partnering with a mindship. The human is Van, a scholar serving as tutor to a young woman of a wealthy house; her seemingly normal life conceals a great personal secret. Van’s associate is The Wild Orchid in Sunless Woods (how I adore de Bodard’s mindship names!), which – in the true detective fiction tradition – has its own shadowy past that comes back to haunt it. I’ve always thought that the best mystery fiction (I’m thinking of writers like P.D. James) is less about solving the actual mystery and more about the characters in and around the crime. That’s not to say, of course, that there’s no joy in the resolution to a puzzle, and certainly de Bodard knows how to construct a murder mystery. De Bodard continues that Jamesian tradition by focusing her sharp skills on the relationships between characters, on explorations of their pasts, and on the costs of keeping secrets from one another.
At the heart of the story are the shifting and growing bonds between Van and Sunless Woods (who, as with de Bodard’s other mindships, generally interacts with others through an avatar). Beginning as casual acquaintances (they attend the same poetry club – another example of the richness of de Bodard’s universe: mindships are treated as any human, possessing their own loves, fears, regrets, secrets, and scholarly pursuits), the two grow closer over their shared desires to escape past actions. Eventually they become lovers, and in this new passion Van finds a renewed sense of identity and confidence, and of freedom from her old choices. Van finds herself again and brings the mystery of her own self to a close, in beautifully rendered fashion:
And, gathering the strength she had left, she stood on tiptoe and kissed Sunless Woods, drinking in sheeny oil and sharp metal and the endless song of the stars – until Sunless Woods caught her in her arms, and she hung weightless and free, with nothing in the habitats holding her back anymore.169
Seven of Infinities is a story told with great grace and feeling, buttressed by exquisite and subtle worldbuilding. In those respects, it is a typical work from Aliette de Bodard.
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I suppose it may be a bit of a tease to review Firebreak (Saga Press, 2021, $26.99) by Nicole Kornher-Stace right now, since the book isn’t due for release until May. However, the novel is well worth the wait, by any measure. Kornher-Stace has written a number of well-received short stories and works of longer fiction, but she is best known to me for her YA dystopian ghost story Archivist Wasp series: Archivist Wasp (2015) and Latchkey (2018). Those two books presented – in powerful mythic undertones – a post-apocalyptic world populated by characters (alive and…less so) living in the wreckage wrought by choices made by the uncaring and powerful. That same, ever more relevant theme is woven deeply into Firebreak, along with a healthy coating of futuristic action thriller.
Mallory’s life is not a good one. A young VR gamer, Mallory lives her ‘real’ life in a collective barracks, subject to power curfews and long lines for corporation-controlled water. She and her friends work many different odd jobs (for money or for barter) in New Liberty City, an ironically named megalopolis built in the former northeastern United States and split between powerful corporations Stellaxis and Greenleaf. In this near future, everyday life is subject to corporate law and whim. NLC inhabitants live at the poor mercies of virtual corporate slavery, poverty, and deliberate scarcity, trying not to die in the ongoing (and popular) war between the two megacorps, fought with helicopters and mechsuits and other deadly weapons. It is a world where human beings are reduced to their basic capitalistic role as consumers, or even more so, as objects to be stolen and broken at the will of vast corporate entities.
When we first meet Mallory, she is finding joy and victories in her virtual life. As warrior “Nycorix,” Mal joins other players in the Stellaxis-run streaming wargame SecOps, battling enemies, acquiring newer and deadlier weapons, and competing with others for sponsors who pay in fame, money, and in-game resources. On violent virtual battlefields Mal and her friend Jessa find escape from the poverty of real life; this takes a major turn, though, when the two are let into the dark secrets behind the origins of the celebrity SecOps supersoldiers who keep countless viewers enthralled and distracted. The result is Mal’s fateful awakening to the true state of things, and a new desire to move the world around her. That world, in which people are materials and resources and assets rather than human beings, must shatter.
Firebreak is a book we sorely need right now. In this age of corporatization and ever-increasing economic inequality, it is a necessary call to revolution. Mal’s story is an action-packed, pulsating truth revealed to her in pixels and bullets, by the loyalties of a small group of friends, by the holes in the world left behind by disappeared victims, and by acts of pure and simple human compassion. Her story is one of resistance afire with hope, hope that people can stop being things and that truths can stop being lies. That revelation is easily lost – it needs to be discovered again and again throughout history. But it always is, in the end. As Mal describes 06 and 22 (two of the supersoldiers, and her unlikely allies), they are “both heroes, in the end, of nothing they were expected to be”. (399) The little people are expected by their oppressors to be one thing; revolution lies in them determining to be another. That choice is at the heart of Firebreak.
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Rebecca Roanhorse is building a body of work at once both exciting and important. The Hugo-, Nebula-, and Campbell Award-winning Roanhorse is a major voice within a growing chorus of Native voices in science fiction and fantasy, and that alone would make her work worthy of note. But even leaving that fact aside, her work is lovely, her words are beautiful. And with her latest novel, Black Sun (Saga, 2020, $27.99), Roanhorse presents us with a new kind of epic fantasy, based on a blending of pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica. Roanhorse makes her literary motivations clear in the book’s acknowledgments: “So much of epic fantasy is set in analogs of Western Europe that I think most readers believe that all fantasy must be set in a fake England in order to even be considered epic. Happily, there seem to be more and more epics set in secondary worlds influenced by various cultures in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, but it still seems incredibly rare to find a fantasy inspired by the Americas. I think part of the reason is the persistent myth that the indigenous cultures pre-conquest were primitive and had little to offer, when the opposite is true.” (451)
Roanhorse’s “Sixth World” duology (2018’s Trail of Lightning and 2019’s Storm of Locusts) depicted a post-apocalyptic America drowned under rising oceans, centered on the legends and cosmologies of the Navajo people and featuring a kickass female Navajo monster hunter grappling with her own role in the tribal stories being played out around her. Her 2020 YA novel Race to the Sun also brought Navajo legend (in particular the story of the Hero Twins) to a modern fantasy setting. Black Sun is yet another step in Roanhorse’s journey towards becoming what Ken Liu calls “the epic voice of our continent and time”. The novel is not a straight retelling of any particular legend or description of any particular culture; Roanhorse is too imaginative for that. Rather, she weaves different aspects of Mesoamerican cultures into a work of epic and fabulous worldbuilding that uses those cultures as seeds, which change from their original form into new flowers of a different kind of beauty.The novel (the first of a coming trilogy) is set on and around the landmass called The Meridian, where the city of Tova is the mightiest power in the region. The city is preparing for an event holy beyond reckoning – the Day of Convergence, where a solar eclipse will occur during a winter solstice. Tova will see the coming together of the three main characters: blind Serapio, a young man groomed by his mother from birth to be an instrument of vengeance by his people the Carrion Crows against the Sky Made clans; Xiala, fierce captain of a ship that sails the wide Crescent Sea and a member of the Teek people, whose heritage sets her apart from so many (and who, by the way, is a queer woman of color, a relative rarity in fantasy); and the Sun Priest Naranpa, a woman born in poverty who now sits atop the Tovan religious hierarchy and battles rival priests and factions for control. Roanhorse imbues her characters with deep reserves of honest emotion, whose actions and reactions seem truly earned through their particular circumstances. The reader cares greatly about what they do and why, something not always a given in epic fantasy. Furthermore, Roanhorse’s Meridian feels very lived-in and real, not merely like a colorful backdrop to amazing adventures. Developed worlds and characters are hallmarks of Roanhorse’s work in general, and Black Sun is a fine addition to that trend. May this book and its upcoming sequels be worthy harbingers of an increased focus on Americas-based fantasy, as Black Sun is already a worthy addition to the Native fantastical canon.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. The author and editor have worked together in the past on another publication. No review copies were arranged by ARB.
The cover image is by Tomáš Matouš.