Light from Uncommon Stars, Ryka Aoki’s brilliant, weird, and sometimes secretly quite ruthless second novel, definitely belongs, at first glance, in the SF/F category. It contains not only aliens and spaceships, but also demons and magic. That is to say, it is not just Science Fiction or Fantasy; it is both Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is pretty much the most SF/F a book could be.
It tells the story of an alien starship captain, fleeing from a collapsing galactic empire, who spirits her family, including both her corporeal and AI children, away to the backwater planet of Earth, and there takes over the running of a donut shop. It also tells the story of a brilliant and extremely uptight human violinist, who in her youth has put her soul in hock to hell in return for (even more) brilliance, but through a strange turn of events is not dragged away like Dr Faustus, but instead lives to regret her choice, and to be suborned by a very cultivated demon into recruiting young violinists willing to make a similar bargain. It tells the story of a passionate and difficult love affair between these two disparate women, conceived over a donut so large it is called “Alaska,” and pursued while feeding ducks. Finally, it also tells the story of how both of their lives are transformed by the intervention of a bedraggled trans teenager, running away from an abusive home, whose apparently déclassé interest in video game soundtracks turns out, with the help of both technology and magic, to conceal the potential to save them all, both from the enemies that pursue them, and from their own errors.
And yet, contrary to what this synopsis might suggest, there is also a sense in which this book is barely SF/F at all. If we understand literary fiction and speculative fiction to be distinguished by the fact that the first works by relying on and developing our knowledge of the world we recognise, whereas the second works by implying worlds that are fundamentally different from ours in some way, and letting us draw our own conclusions about what the difference means, then it is far from clear which camp Light from Uncommon Stars falls into.
Because, despite its plethora of speculative and fantastical apparatus, both its most astonishing world-building, and its most crucial plot developments, are firmly grounded in the rules and facts of our own world, and specifically in the Asian and Latinx suburbs of Los Angeles, and the highly competitive world of teenage violin prodigies. Here, for instance, is a description of a mall in the San Gabriel Valley:
She could feel herself breathing faster as she passed the Santa Anita Plaza, a gilded shopping mall where one could procure truffle-filled dumplings, a Hello Kitty latte, and a two-thousand dollar box of Chinese bird nest.
Here, better yet, is a description of a violin repair:
There were different techniques to remove cyanoacrylate. However, each had drawbacks. A knife could catch in a clump of glue and cut into the wood. Heat could warp the wood itself. Chemical solvents could break down the glue, but they could do the same to the grain.
Passages like these display many features common in SF/F writing. In particular, they deploy a zoom-in focus on detail, an obsession with technical specificities, but in a way that is suggestive, exciting, full of possibility, almost larger than life, rather than deflationary. There is nothing of the “Kitchen Sink” about them: they sound like the author could be making this up. But, of course, she is not. Instead, Aoki is being minutely, precisely hyperrealistic. Seeing the world as it in fact is, in its glorious and busy particularity, she makes us feel like we are seeing something we don’t recognise, something better, stranger, more marvelous, only to remind us that we aren’t: this is our world.
Conversely, if this book often makes the mundane sound fantastic, the fantastic, when it appears, usually turns out to have very practical and everyday effects. For instance, the main uses the characters find for advanced alien technology are 1) to make donuts that are, nevertheless, not quite as good as those made by hand and 2) to improve the production values of some YouTube videos. Similarly, Hellish Magic is primarily deployed to win violin competitions. The SF/F elements in this book, in other words, are not central to its plot arc—on the contrary, the heart of its narrative, which is to say the stakes, the questions at issue, the things the characters want, are thoroughly earthbound. They want to find a stable place to live; to start (or restart) a career, to pursue a relationship, to transition, to get a really good bowl of Hainan chicken. Just what we all want, in other words.
The grand and exciting speculative parts do not replace, or even symbolize, these real foundations; instead (like the hyperrealistic descriptive style) they heighten and clarify them. Thus, the starship captain is a refugee, not only from a particular conflict or disaster but also from the “endplague”: the existential tendency of civilizations to collapse, a sort of sociopolitical version of the laws of thermodynamics. The violinist is not just trying to get back on stage in middle age, she is also trying to redeem her immortal soul and find out how to live a good life. In this sense, Light from Uncommon Stars seems to resemble, not so much conventional SF/F, as the magical realism of writers like Alejo Carpentier or Gabriel García Márquez.
Where Carpentier and Márquez found their “magic” in hagiography and folklore, however, Aoki draws, with equal freedom, on the common properties (call them folkloric or theological, as you prefer) of science fiction and fantasy. That these properties might seem to conflict, when all included together in a single novel (just as Catholic and Pagan figures might in more traditional magical realist fiction) is rather the point—it wouldn’t be so magical otherwise.
Aoki’s eclecticism adds to the joyfulness, the sense of glee and abandon which animates the book, but it also makes it clear that this is not a rigorous and self-consistent “hard” speculative world we are dealing with. Instead, beneath her witty and playful layer of “magic,” Aoki draws her consistency and rigor from being, like Carpentier or Márquez, seriously and directly concerned with the precise circumstances of our present world, and the histories that have brought us here.
Or specifically, to come back to where I started, that have bought LA here. Because if Aoki’s magic is common property, her realism is intensely located. Certainly, she is concerned, like much of the best recent SF/F, with issues of racism, colonialism, transphobia, sexism, rape culture, and so on. But these concerns never manifest in an abstract or metaphorical form. Instead, they are always incarnated in specific Los Angeles histories of urban planning, immigration policy, technology development, discrimination, snobbery, and aspiration.
Aoki’s evocation of these histories is deft and thorough. For instance when she needs to explain why a character might go into a donut shop looking to pee, she does not just tell us they need to pee, she gives us a disquisition on the dysfunctional design and history of the LA road system, and the sexism which undergirds it. It concludes:
Urine-filled water bottles litter the LA freeway system for good reason. The entire LA basin is filled with bathroom dead zones, often near industrial areas and freeways, where one cannot find public toilets.
Yet not everyone can urinate into a plastic bottle.
In much the same way, she will not mention a neighborhood music festival without describing the ways in which its development has been influenced over the past century by the shifting ethnic makeup of the neighborhood. She will not bring us into a violin repair shop without telling us not only what business is currently across the road from it, but what businesses had been across the road from it in the past.
This insistent reversion, in a book which theoretically licenses itself to use magic and future technology, to the real and present, is thematically connected to its representations of transness. Over the course of the book, Katrina Nguyen, the trans teenage violin prodigy, turns down offers form both demons and aliens to be transformed, effectively, into a cis girl. Nor is she willing, as a performer, to trust applause gained by magic, but only by hard work. Any meaningful transformation, she concludes, must happen through her own body, and her own music. And yet, the music she makes, her videos and performances, is nothing if not divine magic, or perhaps a form of highly advanced science:
From the darkness, Katrina willed her violin to build their world. To let there be light, let there be colors, then calculus and molecules and starlit vistas, let there be home after home after home where no one yelled and no one was beaten.
As trans SF/F has exploded over the past several years, there has been some debate between those (including myself) who have heralded the possibilities of a more lo-fi sci-fi, focused on the nitty-gritty challenges and survival tactics of individual trans lives, even in fundamentally different worlds, and those, most notably the great Charlie Jane Anders, who have defended a more baroque vision, in which empires and galaxies hang in the balance and we get to see trans people saving them. Navigating deftly between these apparent oppositions, Aoki suggests they may not be so opposed after all. If the fate of the cosmos, on the one hand, is just the sum of all our individual fates, so also our individual struggles are an epitome or metonymy of the galactic or celestial: seen from the right perspective, they are one and the same. In her vision, it is possible to have your cake (or giant Alaska-size donut) and eat it too.