Saturday 14 November 2020

The Vanished Birds soars

Rich with anthropological detail and criticism of market-driven ideologies, Simon Jimenez’ debut novel is a puzzle that rewards those with the patience to figure out how all the pieces fit together.
(image via Goodreads)

The novel’s sections appear at first to be distinct from each other. Readers begin by learning about a child growing up in an early agrarian society visited by space ships about every dozen years. Next they’re swept into the story of a merchant vessel from an advanced mercantile civilization reliant on exploiting planets like the one in the first chapter. Finally, the novel becomes an adventure about the rescue of a lost crew member.

Throughout the novel, flashbacks to a near contemporaneous earth are used to convey backstory through the eyes of Fumiko, an early architect of interstellar civilization who skips forward through time by going in and out of suspended animation.

Although various parts of the novel appealed to various book club members differently, there was a consensus that Jimenez’ writing is excellent. Some of us were drawn in by the first chapter while others were worried it was setting up a more wunderkind YA narrative. Using a subsistence farmer’s point of view in the first chapter served to create context for the subsequent stories.

There was even sharper disagreement about the flashbacks. Some club members felt it was essential exposition about the failure of modern capitalism and the colonization of space, while others described the flashbacks as extraneous.

The final section of the novel, in which the plot hits a fairly frenetic pace, left some readers scratching their heads. The change in tone from a contemplative — almost meditative — novel, to an action-adventure is somewhat jarring. 
(Image via Backpage)

Space opera is a subgenre that has all-too-often fallen into the trap of focusing on technology, rather than imagining alternative ways that humans can organize themselves. One of the most appealing aspects of The Vanished Birds is that Jimenez weaves social commentary and structural critiques into the cultural setting. He’s skillful enough not to slap readers in the face with this, but rather offers enough detail that those who scratch beneath the surface will be rewarded.

Jimenez seems deeply versed in the history of the genre; at times paying homage to Ursula K. le Guin, and at others referencing Alfred Bester. In fact, the book could be read as a direct response to Bester’s The Stars My Destination, as one of the main characters in The Vanished Birds can jaunt like the earlier novel’s protagonist Gully Foyle — and at a whim can travel across vast distances almost instantaneously. Jimenez’ seems to be suggesting that a citizen’s ability to leave would be the ultimate subversion of corporate power. 

The Vanished Birds is a puzzling novel, and one whose pieces occasionally fit together oddly. But it is also  a smart and thoughtful book that will deeply appeal to readers looking for cultural criticism in their outer-space adventures. 

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