The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Hurray, only one more book to read and I’ll finally be done with the 2020 Hugos, glargh!

So this was an interesting novel. Good, but I can see why I never hear of it outside of this nomination, even as plugged in as I generally am to publishing and particularly genre circles. The Vanished Birds is deeply human to the point where, while you understand the motivations of many of the characters and particularly the villains, they’re mostly so irrevocably flawed that it’s hard to make yourself care very deeply about them. Our heroes shake out better, even if everyone has a decidedly bleaker and more narrow ending than you’d expect. I don’t mind a sorrowful ending — Gideon The Ninth and Jude The Obscure are two of my favorite books of all time, after all — but there’s a particular balance to be struck when trying to get the reader to emotionally invest in the proceedings, such that even an unhappy ending still needs to make you feel something more than primarily impatience with what’s just transpired.

Fortunately for our two main characters, patience is their stock in trade. Nia is a space captain running from her own past, a woman perhaps too willing to cut and run when times get emotional or tough. A sexual liaison on the resource planet of Umbai-V leads to her becoming the caretaker of a boy who falls out of their sky one day, as she’s entrusted by her lover to bring the strange child back to the galactic authorities she represents. In the span of the months-long trip home however, she and the boy grow attached, a relationship that will serve them well when one of humanity’s greatest thinkers comes to Nia with a proposition that will keep the duo together despite bureaucratic interference, at least for a few more years of travel.

Famed research scientist Fumiko Nakajima is millennia old, and still under the contract she signed with the Umbai Corporation in her youth. What she wants with Nia and the boy is top secret. To this end, she’s happy to supplement Nia’s dwindling crew for the seemingly random, entirely punishing mission she wants them to undertake. The crew members Fumiko provides are all deeply loyal to her, even tho going on this mission is a relative exile from her exalted circles. But just when it seems that they’ve finally accomplished what they set out to do, a terrible betrayal changes everything. What lengths will Nia and Fumiko each go to in order to right the wrongs of the past, and to be reunited with the ones they love?

Interestingly, the real villain in all this is the mindless devotion to progress and convenience that sacrifices the unwilling few for the oblivious many. The vivisectionists of the Umbai corporation learned well the lessons of Omelas: do not display your depravity but hide it, and the masses will gravitate to a plausible deniability instead of dissent. Yet it’s hard to fault people for only being able to do so much against the face of corporate greed. People who aren’t uber wealthy are often understandably preoccupied with trying to survive, while billionaires and oligarchs and their minions actively pursue evil in their own manufactured dark.

In that sense, this book is a success, as it reminds readers that corporate greed lies in direct opposition to a world that’s better and fairer for everyone. But I feel that TVB sacrifices clarity towards the end in favor of propping up its own elliptical structure, and starts treating characters as archetypes, further dissociating the reader from their struggles. I cared about Nia and the boy but I felt that the book closed in a place that was aiming for mythos and misstepped instead, cutting off the story where it should have continued.

This was, overall, a good read with terrific representation, and zero conflict about diverse sexualities, which is actually really refreshing! If you’re looking for sophisticated dissections of power and commerce tho, I’d recommend Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade novels instead.

Oh, and I liked this quotation from one of my favorite characters, Sartoris, enough to highlight it in my Kindle, so might as well share it here:

We live this life only once. We must live it bravely.”

Simon Jimenez can definitely write some really fine turns of phrase. I was 100% unsurprised to come to the last page of the novel and discover that he has an MFA. There’s an ambition to the structure of this book that, in the end, doesn’t quite make the sum greater than the parts of its whole: entire chunks feel lifted from different novelettes to pad out the main plot, and parts that probably deserved greater focus (the boy’s origin, especially) gain far too short shrift. Regardless, I’ll keep an eye out for Mr Jimenez’s sophomore work and see if he can live up to the potential he shows in these pages.

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez was published January 14 2020 by Del Rey and is available from all good booksellers, including

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