Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds is one hell of a debut novel.
In my notes, I wrote that that “this is a weird book; not much of anything happens for the first two-thirds and then there is plot all over the place,” which pretty much does explain the pacing.
So this is going to be kind of a weird review, in the hopes that it all makes sense in the end. Spoilers will abound, sorry-not-sorry.
The first two thirds, where Nia Imani, the crew of the Debby, and the mysterious boy Ahro are traveling through the outer reaches of Umbai space reminded me of nothing so much as one of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner novels where it feels like all that’s going on is Bren having tea with Ilisidi, maybe going on a train ride with Cajeiri to the coast–and then things start blowing up and you flip back to figure out what the hell just happened, and when you do, of course it all makes perfect sense. You just hope Bren’s apartment doesn’t get destroyed again.
The book starts on a planet named Umbai-V, what is known as a resource planet. Resource planets are essentially the sf-nal trope of the Planet of Hats. And later in the book we find out how horrible that actually is–the residents of the planets get little choice in the decision to become a resource planet and when one is designated, one of the first things Umbai does is shut down all their schools.
Right, Umbai. A short interlude. Umbai is a super-mega-giant conglomerate that basically controls everything. They decide which planets will be resource planets and which ones city planets (see, Planet of Hats!). One of the ways they cemented their power was through the development of space habitats for (not all the) residents of the rapidly sliding into ecological destruction Earth–but not faster-than-light travel. Their lead scientist, Fumiko Nakajima, takes advantage of cryogenic sleep to become essentially immortal.
So Umbai-V. Nia visits there every 15 years of their time and has a lover there. Shortly before her last visit, a mute boy crash-lands on the planet, seemingly from nowhere. This is the boy who will name himself Ahro. Nia takes him to one of the Umbai habitats and that’s when Fumiko becomes involved–she offers Nia and the crew of the Debby an extremely lucrative contract to raise the boy–still mute, still nameless– outside of Umbai space for the next 15 years because she believes that somehow, he possesses the ability to move through space faster than light.
Anyhow, Nia does this and the boy grows up and names himself Ahro. He and Nia develop a bond, initially through the music of a flute, and then through words. He is essentially her son. Ahro learns all the jobs on the ship and he also learns to help the crew on their planetside jobs as well.
And when he learns to jaunt–to travel through space–and this becomes known to Umbai–that’s when all hell breaks loose.
Umbai is there to intercept them at Fumiko’s secret base, a secret based which housed 2,000 adults and children, people that Umbia murdered while forcing Fumiko to watch–because she broke her contract and therefore their lives were forfeit. It is gruesome and shocking and visceral.
And then Umbai take Ahro from Nia. And the first thing they do is take his name from him and begin to call him the Acquisition. They hook him up to machines and tubes and try to figure out the secret of his ability, which they determine is powered by his blood. They build faster than light drives powered by his blood. This, too, is gruesome.
Nia wanders space for 15 years with Ahro’s flute, playing it when she feels moved to, and being moved through space with the music as she develops a psychic connection with Ahro. Eventually, she ends up on Umbai-V and plays the flute one final time.
It’s a lot.
This is an incredibly anti-capitalist book, but it also shows how people are trapped within the system and how it’s nearly impossible to walk away.
I say walk away deliberately: there’s nothing this reminded me of so much as LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” To the point where I reread it before writing this review.
There is literally a child being tortured for the benefit of everyone else. Only a few people know that Ahro exists, and none of them are willing to even attempt to free him but Fumiko and Nia–which they do, in unintended concert, between Nia’s last attempt to contact Ahro with their flute and Fumiko’s final revenge on Umbai.
LeGuin writes of the child in Omelas that, “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.”
Luckily for Ahro, there is someone to speak a kind word to him.
I enjoyed this book tremendously–it was a slow read but very satisfying, JImenez’s prose has a musical quality to it and it felt that each section was thoroughly essential to the whole, no matter how different it seemed to be from the others. I’m really looking forward to reading Jimenez’s future work–I think he has a brilliant career in front of him, if his brilliant debut is any indication.