The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez’s remarkably assured, compelling debut, opens with what feels almost like a self-contained short story. For a novel whose business is the back-and-forth traversal of a busy, populated galaxy with a vibrant and demanding economy, this first introduction positions us at the very bottom of that economic food chain, on the planet Umbai-V, a “Resource World” for the Umbai corporation. The inhabitants of Fifth Village farm, harvest, process, and store dhuba seeds for their corporate masters, whose representatives arrive every fifteen years to collect the produce and deliver it to the Stations and City Planets, where it is merely one commodity among many. Between those visits, the villagers are left alone. There are no ways off the planet except the freighters, and nothing to do except produce dhuba.
The villagers’ underprivileged status is reinforced by the strictures of the novel’s form of space travel, called Pocket Space, “a black ocean, with currents and eddies and rapids that stretched the seconds into hours and years. Some currents stretched time infinitely, and other currents not more than moments. But always, there was an imbalance of time” (p. 12). For Nia Imani, the captain of the freighter delivering dhuba seeds from Umbai-V, whose perspective will come to dominate the novel but who is here seen only from the outside, each trip back and forth takes only eight months, while fifteen years pass in normal space. Her contract straddles almost the entire life of our point of view character in this chapter, Kaeda. He first meets Nia as a child, and is entranced by possibilities she seems to offer, of a life completely different from the one he was intended for. As a young man, he becomes her lover, and as a mature man, her friend, but always there lingers between them the time when he asked her to take him away with her, and she brushed him off. In between, Kaeda lives a good life—he marries his childhood sweetheart, has a family, rises to a position of power and respect in the village, and enjoys good health and longevity. But Nia’s visits are always there to remind him—and us—of what has been taken away from him, long before his birth.
The Vanished Birds revisits Fifth Village several times after this opening chapter, skipping forward decades and even centuries from Kaeda’s time, as Nia’s journey’s through Pocket Space fast-forwards the years. We meet his stepdaughter Elby, now an old woman and a respected leader in the village, who is nevertheless twisted up by resentment of the life she was forced into—a resentment expressed through a visceral distaste for the smell of dhuba seeds that has been her inescapable, lifelong companion. Later on, we see the village transformed according to the financial needs of the company, its isolation shattered by an influx of tourists that upends its social structures and economy. In another chapter, we visit a different planet on its way to becoming a Resource World like Umbai-V, and see the early stages of the process that led to Kaeda and Elby’s limited, dissatisfied lives:
“You don’t like the Allies?”
Another spitball. “They bought us. Then they blocked our access to the Feed. That’s what Reeda said they would do, and they did.”
But Oden’s mind was elsewhere. “She said they lie when they say they want to protect our culture. That what they want is to hobble us. They’ve taken most of the schools. Soon all we’ll know how to do is fish those shavevan eels so that you traders can ship your rare inks.” He sighed. “She was right, every word of it, but no one listened.” (p. 277)
Another early, seemingly self-contained chapter takes us back a thousand years, to a dying Earth, and introduces us to Fumiko Nakajima. A brilliant but cold-hearted woman, Fumiko is hired by the Umbai corporation to design its first space stations, to which the population of Earth can relocate. But Fumiko’s lover, a sustainable technology engineer, laments that the evacuation only reinforces existing power differentials—escape will be limited to the comparatively privileged, while most of humanity will remain on Earth to slowly starve and die. And even in space and among those fortunate enough to afford a ticket to survival, the logic of capitalism still holds:
The ships dragged behind them the years, the contracts signed and stamped in undying digital ink, and the spires of City Planets were borne upward with the swiftness of bamboo, and, as it had been since the beginning, the steadfast tradition of hierarchy was continued in this fashion, the wealthy living above the clouds, and the unlucky down below. And though it was lost on no one the strangeness of this progress, of how humanity had come so far but still there were people who never saw the Stations, or even the sun, no change was made to the structure. They lived and died in the Minotaur’s labyrinth of the City Planets substrata, deep in the shadows of the glass towers, the steam plume underworks, the vomit of trash flumes, where there was no time, no progressive sign of the turn of the century or the millennia. Only the heat, and the daily stench of corpses wedged in the ventilation chutes between the streets, where they would be flashed into ash come next month’s heat cleaning, and soon forgotten, as Allied Space stretched its jaw and continued its swallowing of the stars. (p. 103)
It’s the intersection between these storylines—the thousand-year-old genius giving a corporation the means to build a world in its image, and the farmer who is the end result of that process—that brings us to the ship where much of The Vanished Birds’s action takes place. On their final meeting, Kaeda asks Nia to transport a recent arrival to Fifth Village, a silent, battered child who appeared in a cloud of smoke and wreckage. When Fumiko, kept alive through the centuries through the magic of cold sleep and rejuvenation technologies, learns about the boy, she becomes convinced that he possesses the power to Jaunt, to traverse the vast distances of space in an instant through the power of his mind. She offers Nia a long-term contract—remove the boy, called Ahro, from corporate-controlled space, raise him on her ship, and give him a place to call home, so that if his powers do manifest, he will have somewhere, and someone, he wants to come back to.
Despite The Vanished Birds’s quiet beginning on Umbai-V, and its foray into the distant past with Fumiko’s story, our arrival on Nia’s ship creates the impression of a familiar sort of story. The short-range space freighter, ferrying goods and passengers of varying degrees of legality and respectability, shepherded by a no-nonsense captain and crewed by a diverse array of characters who squabble and clash but ultimately think of each other as family, has become a popular setting for SF stories in the last decade or so. Some reviewers site the genesis of the form’s popularity in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002-2003; film continuation Serenity, 2005), the short-lived but beloved TV series whose influence over genre writing has only increased as the writers who imprinted on it in their youth grow into prominence. But just as important, it seems to me, is the form’s versatility. Whedon himself used the premise twice, adding a Serenity-esque ship and crew to his script for Alien: Resurrection (1997), where their sole purpose was to encounter horror and be consumed by it. Becky Chambers, in her 2014 novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, used the freighter’s setting to tell a twee tale about acceptance and solidarity. In Tillie Walden’s 2018 graphic novel, On a Sunbeam, both the ship and space it moves through are phantasmagorical, semi-biological and semi-alive, creating a dreamspace in which to set a tale of coming of age and self-discovery. And in shoestring-budget TV shows like Killjoys (2015-2019) or Vagrant Queen (2020-), the semi-legality of the setting is dialed up, the better to deliver fighting, sex, and formfitting leather outfits.
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. Nia, who, despite Kaeda’s romanticizing of her life on our first introduction to her, is less a paragon of freedom than a cog in a neo-colonialist machine, is the perfect guide to such a setting. She is thoroughly embedded in the company’s machinations, and for the most part, indifferent to the injustice that her participation in the system enables. But she’s still human enough to want things for herself, as when she clings to Ahro, and upends her life for the change to continue raising him.
Jimenez studiously avoids the sentimental pitfalls of his premise. We are, after all, treading in familiar waters—the Special Child, raised and educated by a motley crew of misfits whose rough demeanor conceals deep love. But Nia’s ship, the Debby, isn’t some oasis of acceptance, whose crew is happy to make sacrifices for its innocent, vulnerable charge. Nia takes a while to warm to Ahro, and as she herself admits, her decision to take him in and accept Fumiko’s contract has as much to do with a late-thirties panic over the solitary existence she’s crafted for herself, after a lifetime of avoiding ties and obligations, as it does with the boy himself. And when she accepts the contract, her crew, rather than falling in behind their captain, react with varying degrees of rage and disgust. Most of them quit the ship rather than commit to a contract of more than a decade, and the Debby embarks on its mission to raise Ahro with a crew of ringers provided by Fumiko, whose loyalty to Nia is provisional at best.
One effect of this choice is that we get to watch the found family—that staple of the space freighter premise—form, as Nia and Ahro tentatively develop a parent-child bond, and as Fumiko’s agents slowly find themselves at home on the Debby, their loyalty to a distant figure who had saved them from the rigid stratification and capricious corporate justice of life under Umbai slowly giving way to fellow-feeling and camaraderie. But Jimenez never allows the Debby to become a world in its own right. It is always subject to the demands of the capitalist systems it moves in, scrambling for jobs on the fringes of Allied space, balancing on a knife’s edge of semi-legality, never entirely trusted in outposts where the company might show up at any moment to stake its claim.
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.
Jimenez’s prose is is lyrical and dreamlike, slipping effortlessly into a character’s point of view, dropping a potted history in a paragraph, telling a novel’s worth of backstory in a few pages. This makes The Vanished Birds not only a beautiful read, but an effective tool for conveying the breadth of the universe it is set in, and the inescapable reach of capitalism in every corner of it. On one planet, a former town of musicians, now abandoned, the last resident explains to Nia how the company’s methods enforce its control:
“When they refused the offer, the company went the long way around. Ariadne lived on trade, the food that was brought in from offworld, the tools for repair. So the company took away trade. They diverted the trade route that ran through here. Flooded the market with cheap duplicate works ‘inspired’ by the original creations. Started rumors of crime and infestation. Bribed big-name traders to take their business elsewhere. Slowed things down to a trickle over twenty years while one of their representatives whispered in the ears of Ariadne’s governing body. Told them it wasn’t worth the holdout. And then they left, along with everyone else.” (p. 208)
Lingering over all this is the possibility of the Jaunt. The use of the term to describe the psychic ability to traverse distances in an instant was, to the best of my knowledge, originated by Alfred Bester in The Stars My Destination (1957), a Count of Monte Cristo-esque tale of a commoner’s revenge against the great and good who had used and discarded him. Its hero, Gully Foyle, is a crude, barely-literate, violent man whose ability to Jaunt across space not only gives him the power to take revenge on the upper strata of his society, but allows him a panoramic view of that society’s various levels that eventually raises his consciousness, transforming him from self-interested social climber into a revolutionary. A quick google suggests that hardly anyone since Bester has used the term in the same way (one honourable exception: the 1970s children’s SF series The Tomorrow People). So one must assume that Jimenez’s choice of it in The Vanished Birds is a deliberate one, especially given the novel’s strong theme of inequality and social stratification. And indeed, when Ahro finally demonstrates the ability to Jaunt, the first reaction of his crewmates is to imagine how this new capability will change the capitalist order of their society.
“It’s crazy,” Em said. “‘Side from Fumiko, I’d never been this close to someone this important. He might change the course of human history. Make folding obsolete.”
“No more lost time,” Sonja said.
“Can’t even imagine it,” Royvan said. (p. 303)
But Ahro is no Gully Foyle. Far from a revolutionary, or even a dashing anti-hero, he is a naive boy whose coddled upbringing, away from the reality of Allied Space, has left him completely unprepared for how the company might view him—as a piece of intellectual property to be dissected, analyzed, and used. Instead of being a socially leveling technology, the Jaunt is quickly monetized—those tourists arriving to destabilize the lives and economy of Fifth Village—and made proprietary. The final segment of The Vanished Birds sees Ahro fully dehumanized, even as the ship that was his home is crippled and turned into scrap. It is the final dismantling of the space freighter premise’s promise of freedom. Instead of Whedon’s “Keep Flying,” we have the cruel reminder that within the system of capitalism, no one is truly free.
The final chapters of The Vanished Birds are spent in a fevered anxiety for some semblance of triumph. The novel’s scope narrows to Nia, trying desperately to reach out to her son over the span of years, and Ahro, barely conscious, aware only of a choice between a quick death and the slim possibility of finding his way back home. After three hundred pages of far-ranging travels and a panoramic view of the novel’s futuristic society, it’s a bit of a letdown for the story to boil down to just this—two people who have lost so much, trying desperately to get back to each other. Even if revolution wasn’t on the cards, one might have expected a grander concluding statement on the universe we’ve spent so much time in, not just these two characters. Still, when the smallest bit of happy ending that Nia and Ahro can carve out for themselves arrives, it can’t help but satisfy. The story of the space freighter, after all, isn’t one of changing the world, but of finding the people with whom one can live in it. Even with the ship itself gone, The Vanished Birds holds on to that family, that home. The hope it offers us lies in that reunion.