The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez ((Del Rey 978-0-593-12898-5, $27, 400pp, hardcover) January 2020
Simon Jimenez’s touching, bold, surprising, gorgeous debut novel—a certain manner of postmodern space opera, despite the fantasy-resonant title—is not only the best debut novel I’ve read in ages, but simply one of the best SF novels in recent memory. I am reminded of the excitement I felt when encountering A.A. Attanasio’s Radix (1981). If The Vanished Birds is not on all the SF award ballots next year this time, then this whole damn planet is even more cockeyed than recent events would have us believe!
I am going to be constrained when conveying the plot of this story to you, since it is so full of switchbacks, surprises, unexpected circlings, resonances, and reveals that you really should experience it without foreknowledge for maximum enjoyment.
We start in a far future where galactic civilization is held together by starships that travel the “Pocket” on cosmic currents. The Umbai “corporation” rules all, from Stations to City Planets. Time dilation applies: in the Pocket, mere days pass for the travelers, while on the planets years go by.
Our initial focus is the planet Umbai-V. A simple agricultural world with its village-centered, tradition-bound citizens living for the momentous arrival, every fifteen years, of the trading ship that will take away their crop to unknown places. A boy named Kaeda enters the spotlight. For the next forty pages or so, we will watch his whole life unspool, until he is an old man (a section of the whole tale that seems almost self-contained and untethered, a novella akin to a primo Le Guin story, but which will prove to be both beginning and ending to the whole narrative arc). Kaeda’s existence is contoured around his fascination with Nia Imani, the alluring starship captain who remains forever youthful.
Towards the end of their intermittent relationship, a strange boy plummets unprotected from the sky. Surviving his mysterious plunge, the boy is shocked, confused, uncommunicative. Kaeda “adopts” him, and Nia eventually takes him on her ship when she departs for the last time.
Here we experience the first swapping of viewpoints and coigns of vantage and perspective which will recur throughout the book, as Jimenez inhabits the minds of many protagonists: Nia, the boy, and others who intersect their lives. The shifts are handled gracefully, but bring a planned estrangement each time, the disruption of what the reader knows, and the gradual immersion into new worlds.
Nia returns to civilization with the boy, having become bonded with him on the trip. And now we jump again, to the backstory of a certain Fumiko Nakajima, a genetically modified genius, a hopeful monster of sorts, living on Earth in the distant past of 2136. We learn her nature and her particular tragedy, and watch her become essential to the founding of the galactic pageant we already saw. Then it’s back to the realtime narrative.
Nakajima is still alive after a thousand years, due to frequent stints of coldsleep. She is immensely rich and powerful. And somehow she has learned of the existence of Nia Imani’s juvenile charge. The boy turns out to be pivotal to the future of the galaxy, possessed of a latent talent which I won’t reveal. So Nia and her crew are hired by Nakajima to shepherd the boy—now speaking, alert, and with a name, Ahro—on a kind of developmental Cook’s Tour of the Fringe worlds until he should ripen into usefulness, out of danger from competitors and enemies. Nakajima inserts on the little ship her personal representative, the wonderfully named Sartoris Moth.
This brings us through about the first third of the text. What follows is Ahro’s journey over several years; the blossoming of his talent; the downfall of Nakajima’s plans; the excruciations of Nia and her friends; the enslavement of Ahro by Umbai (in a particularly gruesome and surrealistic manner akin to something out of Cordwainer Smith’s “A Planet Named Shayol”); and the eventual triumph from the ashes that sees Nia and Ahro receive their benison and grace in a reunion on, of all planets, Umbai-V.
Now, not only is the worldbuilding in this book delicate, robust and clever, but the emotional arcs of all the characters are primal and mythic, like those similar paths in, say, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. Like Karl Schroeder, Jimenez delves deeply into both the structural nuts and bolts of his future—consider in Chapter 6 the portrayal of how the planet Ariadne is economically crippled by removal from the starlanes—and also into the interior lives of all his deeply individuated characters. We get the stefnally exotic and the consensually quotidian blended together, somewhat as in the work of Tom Toner.
But what really makes this book shine is the language and the style, the unique eye and heart resident behind every passage. I would be willing to bet big money that the stars in Jimenez’s personal pantheon are Samuel Delany, M. John Harrison, Le Guin, Bester, and maybe, to a smaller degree, Kim Stanley Robinson. (Delany gets slyly namechecked when Sartoris Moth and Nia bond over a work of art dubbed The Six Kingdoms: “written by a long-deceased author by the name of Samuel Palen, who was known in his time for his dense & indulgent epics.”) Jimenez’s sentences are beautifully, strikingly crafted, and I could quote something from nearly every page. Let this paragraph suffice.
In the plaza of the Painted City, below the triad moons, his eyes rolled back and his hand clutched his chest and he let it take him. He gave his body up to the dancers and the moons, the black ocean and the roar. Time inhaled its breath and stopped the movements of this world. The dancers were pinned to the air and the drinkers held in their kingly repose of goblets tipped into open mouths, while above them all the glittering streamers were glued to the sky, his last thought a guttural recognition of how beautiful it was, this frozen sea of love and action, before the power within him, that old stranger, returned, and upon a blast of light he fell away from this world; his body gone, between the celebratory beat of their drums.
The rich sensory embedding of the action also harks to Delany in particular. When you encounter a sentence such as this one—”Ahro thumbed the spit that hung from Oden’s lips.”—you are plainly in Dhalgren territory. But this is no empty pastiche. Jimenez is simply using the tools handed to him to craft his own vision.
The book’s climax—maybe a little rushed, given that the final fifty pages or so cram in an entire revolution in civilization, as well as the culmination of all the personal quests—is full-out “widescreen baroque,” to employ Brian Aldiss’s great term for space-operatic-ness. Totally satisfying and gripping.
The reader will leave this book in the same state that Nia and Ahro occupy on the final page: shattered, battered, but joyful and on the point of being remade.
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