The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

We live in an era where ships can slip into the opaque folds of the universe, and sail along the fringe ripples of time. We can generate muscle tissue, & spool the threads into new limbs. Sunder continents with a single YonSef explosive device. Life has changed, but not our capacity for absurd cruelties.

When I began reading The Vanished Birds, I was unsure what to expect. The blurb didn’t prepare me for the book’s content, and hardly brushed the primary themes. Jimenez explores not just the idea of a found family, but, more importantly, discusses the ways we can be driven to hurt those we love. He has written a severe, yet tasteful, critique of the idea that the ends can ever justify the means. 

The novel opens with a sort of extended prologue, set on a resource planet whose inhabitants farm a sweet bean-paste called dhuba. The planet is contracted under the Umbai corporation, who manage nearly all of inhabited space. The planet’s inhabitants have a culture surrounding the highly anticipated Shipment Day, when the representatives of the Umbai corporation come to trade in exchange for the dhuba they’ve harvested and pounded into a delicacy experienced only by the wealthiest on the City Planets. However, it hasn’t always been that way. Once, the people on this planet had a rich, vibrant culture of which dhuba was only a small part. We see that pattern play out across multiple planets throughout the book; the destruction via economic blackmail to force a group to either conform or die. In either case, their culture and way of life is erased. 

It’s on this planet and its dhuba that we meet Ahro. He appears as a comet, striking the planet’s surface and coming from parts unknown – and I mean that quite literally. He does not speak their language. In fact, he does not speak at all. The traumas he has endured are, as yet, locked inside him. His appearance causes quite the stir, until the village’s governor, Kaeda, takes him under his wing. 

It was a boy. His body was the only one they found at the site. All else was hot and black. “He was just there,” Elby said, “lying next to the rubble.” Bruised and bleeding, but not broken, the boy was brought to the doctor’s house, where his glancing wounds were cleaned with wet cloth and wrapped in soft bandages. He was a small, skinny thing—no older than twelve. Cheeks gaunt, his flesh so emaciated Kaeda winced, worried that if the boy tried to stand, his leg bones would snap in half. But there was no fear of him standing, for the boy was in a deep sleep, unstirred even by the loud and frantic conversation of everyone around him.

For the first half of the novel, Ahro’s story is primarily told through the eyes of others. First, we follow Kaeda as he grows from a young child into an adult and the governor of his village. Kaeda’s story sets the stage for life on a resource planet, and also serves to introduce us to Nia, the captain of the ship that delivers the dhuba to and from the City Planets. Due to the way that the ships navigate time and space, the time between Shipment Days from the perspective of Kaeda is amplified to become years, whereas only months pass for Nia. The two meet when Kaeda is just a young boy, a child, whom Nia gifts a flute. Years later, Nia meets him as a young man… and they fall, just a bit, in love. Kaeda is unreserved in his love, thinking on Nia incessantly even during the years between their meetings. Nia, however, has been broken several times over and finds it difficult to access that part of herself. 

Due to the time compression/dilation that occurs during space travel, Nia has lost everyone she loves and cares for. Her small crew is all she has left in the world, really, though she’s acquaintances with the crew of other ships on similar contracts. However, when Ahro comes into her life, she’s thrown into an open-ended contract that may never end. She’s bonded with the boy, and she has begun to use him as a replacement for the family that she lost. In choosing to stay with the boy, she pushes away the crew that has been her interim family and finds herself again in the company of strangers. In Ahro, however, she finds a companion. His songs speak to her heart. 

She learned his mannerisms. How his right foot tucked itself behind his left leg when he ate, and how he picked at his nails when he was nervous. How he tugged at his hair with impatience—hair that they had by that point sheared off, leaving an inch of black on top—and how, when he dropped a plate or bumped into her or messed up whatever small task she had assigned him, his shoulders would hunch as if braced for a blow. And in these moments, she would catch a glimpse of his past. A history of silence that existed long before the trauma of the wreckage. A learned pain.

In a second thread of storyline that only occasionally overlaps with that of Nia and Ahro, we have the architect of the City Planets: Fumiko Nakajima. The Millenium Woman. Through the use of cold-sleep stasis, she has artificially extended her lifespan far beyond that of a standard human. This, however, comes with a price: each time she is awoken, she’s lost a bit more of herself and of her memories. She’s haunted by dreams of a purple-eyed woman who she knows that, once, she loved. Although she’s lost Dana’s name, she still feels her presence. When she’s not staving off the phantoms, she’s singularly focused on her projects. Ahro, ultimately, becomes one of them. 

There was a story in Dana’s face—a forgotten myth, of a deer who for one night turned into a man and made love to a human woman by a cold-water brook, in the dark heart of a forest. A strange ancestry that revealed itself in the dramatic contours of Dana’s cheekbones, her jaw—the way the lower half of her face projected forward just a nudge, a hint of a snout, and on that projection, a flattened nose, positioned just above the wide set of her lips.

Fumiko suspects that Ahro harbors a unique ability, based on his manner of arrival on the resource planet. She thinks that he is the next step in humanity’s evolution: he holds the potential to traverse the stars in the blink of an eye. To Jaunt, she calls in, a small reference to King’s short story. However, due to his age and the trauma she’s undergone, she can’t confirm it… which is why she hired Nia to stay with him and care for him at the fringes of the galaxy. 

As Ahro’s past is uncovered and the team see more and more of the resource planets, it becomes ever clearer to the reader just how much of an iron grip the Umbai corporation holds the universe in. Enclaves of artisans wiped out when they refused to kowtow to the Umbai corporations demands. Rural communities reduced from rich, vibrant communities to factories whose only use is skinning eels. And so on and so forth. 

For every mistake, a beating. A breaklet wand thrown against the rib, cracking the bone & re-fusing it in moments, leaving behind only the memory of the fracture, the body still able to perform its due tasks. A beating, for not breathing properly. It was a world that valued self-control in all aspects. Even now he could hear it: the peculiar click when the wand extended from its sheath. The red light on its tip, like an eye, and the buzzing sound, like a chitinous bug. When Nia asked him if he was okay, he flinched. “Yes,” he said.

The themes and stories told were shockingly poignant. Everyone has a trauma lurking in their past, which has caused them to make the decisions they do in the present tense. I had expected a magical realism novel with scifi flavor, and instead was treated to the horrors of capitalism run rampant. I highly recommend this book, but be warned that it is not a light or easy read. 

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