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The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

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I have a review of Simon Jimenez’s debut novel, The Vanished Birds, up at Strange Horizons. This is easily one of my favorite books of the year, a chewy far-future space adventure whose focus is capitalist systems and the sacrifices that are required to make them run—of lives, of families, of futures, and of happiness. Published at the beginning of the year, it seems to have garnered too little attention, perhaps because of its marketing—science fiction fans might have looked at the cover design and the title and assumed that this was mainstream literary fiction, whereas litfic fans might have picked it up expecting just that and been turned off by the all the spaceships and alien planets. Certainly the UK cover, where the book is soon to be published, is working hard to make sure that nobody is unclear about what the book is and isn’t about.

One thing I find interesting about The Vanished Birds is that it’s working within a tradition—the found family space freighter story—that has been getting a lot of play in recent years, probably because of lingering affection for Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

The Vanished Birds both honors the space freighter premise and dismantles it—at one point, literally. Only part of the novel is set on a ship and among a crew, and by its end both feel irrelevant to the novel’s point—and certainly to its characters. But The Vanished Birds nevertheless feels like a quintessential additional to the subgenre, because, perhaps more than any example of it since Firefly itself, it grasps that this is a premise rooted in inequality. Unlike traditional space opera, with its gargantuan time scales and equally gargantuan space objects and battles, the space freighter gives us a groundling’s view of the inhabited galaxy. Its stories are often concerned with the prosaic demands of life under capitalism, and especially for people who possess only a small amount of power within it. What The Vanished Birds is interested in is the limited choices and limiting structures that such a life binds people into, even those who supposedly enjoy the freedom of a spaceship. 

At the same time, The Vanished Birds avoids, at almost every turn, the traps of sentimentality that afflict this subgenre. There is no “keep flying” in this novel, just people trying to make a living who are drawn, almost in spite of themselves, into a bigger story, simply because it would be inhuman not to be. So yes, this is a story about a special child brought up by a bunch of misfits on a spaceship, but what the novel is interested in is the way that both those misfits, and the people they meet on their travels, have had their options and freedoms curtailed by the logic of capitalism.

What the Debby becomes instead is a window onto the corporate-controlled galaxy, a catalogue of the sacrifices and proscribed ways of life that are necessary to maintain the wealth and luxury enjoyed by the people at the top. The farmers and workers on Resource Planets, the bottom dwellers on City Planets, the soldiers who are maimed and traumatized in the cause of conquering new worlds and pacifying rebellions on them, and even crews like the Debby’s, living their lives in eyeblinks, saying goodbye forever every time they take off, because decades will have passed by the time they return.

Definitely worth a read if you’re looking for science fiction that does new things with a familiar premise, or for science fiction that talks about the nuts and bolts of how a space empire maintains itself, and the people who pay the price.

While I’ve got you, a couple other books reviews published on my blog earlier this year:

  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – in a word, inessential. Though a lot of the wit and dark humor that made The Handmaid’s Tale so indelible are still there, they’re in service of a mawkish, unconvincing sequel that adds nothing to the original, and certainly has nothing to say about our current flirtation with autocracy and religious-tinged white supremacy.
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – in which I try to puzzle out what it was that made Mantel’s Cromwell novels so irresistible, and ultimately conclude that they are the literary equivalent of a prestige anti-hero drama. (Speaking of which, see also my review of the fifth season of Better Call Saul, which wisely turns itself into Kim’s story instead.)
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