Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight
by Aliette de Bodard
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted , 2019
Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight, Aliette de Bodard's first major story collection, will be published next month, September 30, but I was fortunate to receive an ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. The link on the title is to Amazon for the hardcover, the only format available for pre-order at this time, but it's available for the same price directly from Subterranean Press. The author states on her website that since it will be a limited print run it might sell out fast, and an Amazon purchase doesn't necessarily guarantee a copy. Subterranean offers high quality limited editions, similar to what you'd expect from the Folio Society or Easton Press. If the hardcover is beyond your budget, they usually offer e-books shortly after publication. I knew there would be several of the author's favorite Xuya stories, but I didn't anticipate them dominating the collection. Twelve of the fourteen stories belong to that series, the other two are from her Dominion of the Fallen series. Eight are short stories, five are novelettes, with the last one a novella, new to this collection, thus eligible for awards in 2020. All told these stories garnered twenty-five award nominations, with six wins.
The majority were published in online zines and are still available to read free, although I'm not providing those links. I'll leave that as an exercise for anyone interested to explore and determine if this is a book worth purchasing. I'd say it is, but of course taste in fiction varies. At first I thought I'd put the titles of my favorites in bold font, then decided that would be pointless since it would include almost all of them. With the exception of the first two stories they are presented in publication order, although in that case only two months separated them, and the first was likely written before the other. I'm sure they are not in the order of internal chronology, since descriptions of technologies vary quite a bit. It is possible many years, maybe even many light years, separate the events, and certain sections of the Xuyan Empire could have developed more rapidly than others. The author admits certain time periods in this future history are still vague, waiting for other stories to fill in the blanks. What I wasn't sure about before, but know now, the numbered planets, well over fifty, are in different solar systems, and not necessarily close to each other, since the deep spaces are like wormholes or hyperspace, bypassing light years almost instantaneously. Some of the technologies recur in multiple stories, in other cases they're mentioned only once. I could search for more details on the timelines but prefer not to do so, but instead experience each story on its own. By the time I track all of them down I'll have a more complete picture. I'll give a brief synopsis of each then make some general comments at the end.
In my review of three Xuyan Novellas I mentioned ship Minds, how they were both genetically designed from human DNA but also mechanical in nature, gestated in a woman's womb and birthed the natural way. The collection opens with 2010's "The Shipmaker," the first mention of that technology, but in this case the birth does not go as planned. It won the British Science Fiction Association Award. Based on the name of the mother I assume her family was from Mexica on Earth, adjacent to China's Xuya colony on the west coast of North America. Mexica is featured in the second story, "The Jaguar House, in Shadow," which was published two months before "The Shipmaker." It was a finalist for both Hugo and Nebula awards. Not sure of the timeline, whether or not it is before Xuya became a space empire. Xuya is mentioned, and so is the United States, which I gather is only the eastern half of the continent. It details the lives of three women who take different paths and use different tactics in response to a dictatorial government. Women are the predominate characters in all the stories, either in positions of power and influence, or hopeful of reaching those levels.
Mentioned in the previous review, it seems the Xuya Empire had as militaristic a history as Dai Viet (Vietnam) on Earth. Almost every story deals with either the aftermath of a recent war or the anticipation of the next one. "Scattered Along the Rivers of Heaven" was a finalist for Locus and Sturgeon awards. It covers three different time periods, and unfortunately the Kindle ARC didn't have any section breaks to indicate a shift in time or location, in most cases not even a line break. Several times I was a paragraph or two along before realizing the story had shifted focus. I'm sure the finished book won't have that problem. Xu Wen travels from her home on Felicity Station to San-Tay Prime for her grandmother's (Xu Anshi) memorial service, which her mother refused to attend. Anshi had been a famous poet as well as a revolutionary. The story jumps from the 'present' to two past periods, during the revolution, and when Anshi was in Scattered Pine Prison. Bots were prominent in the novellas, either very small, possibly nanobots, to larger, utilized for many tasks including cleaning, maintenance, even cooking. Here Xu Wen says they were not used on Felicity Station at all, so their presence on San-Tay, especially for food preparation, was very disturbing.
"Immersion" won Nebula and Locus awards, and was finalist for Hugo, Sturgeon, and BSFA. The Immerser tech featured is not mentioned in any other story I've read so far, but that might be because most deal with Xuya cultures and the immersion net was a Galactic invention. Based on names I would say the Galactics are from the United States and/or Britain. The Galactic ambassador is married to a Rong woman, who feels so out of place with other Galactics she uses immersion to shield herself in a fabricated reality. At the same time, two Rong women are trying to disassemble an immerser in order to reverse engineer it.
"The Waiting Stars" won a Nebula, and was also nominated for a Hugo and Locus. A search is on for a Mind-ship, The Turtle's Citadel, believed damaged during a war with the Outsiders (Galactics). The ship is found, but the Mind is not in the heartroom, but it is believed communication with the Mind is still possible. On an alternate track, on Earth, Catherine feels adrift, unable to connect with her Galactic mate, and her friend Johanna is also in a depressed state. What could possibly connect these two scenarios?
"Memorials" concerns a woman recruited by Perpetuates (deceased but living a virtual life thanks to mind-mapping technology) to acquire the mem-implants of others. She thinks they are using the implants to enhance their own existence, but she doesn't really care, she just needs the money. She has a change of heart and mind when the authorities ask for her help with a sting operation.
"The Breath of War," a Nebula finalist, is quite a bit different than any of the other stories. Both the author and wikipedia say it is part of the Xuya Universe, but it verges more toward fantasy, or maybe... It's another story that covers different time periods, another that deals with a war, which may be over but rebel factions still terrorize some areas. Rechan is pregnant, very near to term, but she desperately needs to get to the mountains to reconnect with her breath-sibling. I may have totally misunderstood this story, it may be an allegory, the breath-sibling just a symbol. But if I read correctly, one of the other characters Rechan interacts with, talks to, is another person's breath-sibling. Meaning that other person carved her out of stone. If we can believe the narrative, Rechan carved her breath-sibling in the mountains years before, then left it there. Only she didn't carve it into the semblance of a person. It's a space ship. Or it's all in her imagination. It will take several more readings to be sure.
"The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile" is not the only story that reflects the author's family history, their emigration from Vietnam, the chaos of war. Thien Bao is a young girl caught up in the panic of evacuation as rebel ships attack the station. She had always had recurring dreams of being a ship herself, in orbit of other planets, other stations. She is separated from her mother, grandmother, and second aunt, and for a brief time is sheltered in the palanquin of Lady Oanh. She is later able to reunite with her family, but she continues to be bombarded with messages that seem to be coming from one of the ships. Whoever is talking to her calls her Little Sister.
"The Dust Queen" is set on Mars, but I have no idea where along the timeline it is. The title character is Bao Lan, a performance artist known for her manipulation of Martian dust. She is old and feeble, her daughter comes to Mars from Earth to take her home. Bao Lan calls on the young Quynh Ha to "rewire" her, to delve deep into her memories and draw out the ones from her youth, when she lived on Earth, so that those memories would be strongest when she sees her home again. Quynh Ha is at first reluctant, not confident enough in her abilities, afraid she would damage Bao Lan so much she would never be the same again, never again have the talent she perfected on Mars. But it's what the Dust Queen wants.
"Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight" won a BSFA award and an Ignotus in Spanish translation. It begins immediately after the funeral of Professor Duy Uyen, who had been a Grand Master of Design Harmony. Her son, Quang Tu just wants to shut himself away in his compartment and be alone, but his sister has other ideas. His sister, the Mind-ship The Tiger in the Banyan, is upset that he allowed their mother's mem-implants to be given to her assitant, Tuyet Hoa, who is attempting to complete Duy Uyen's final project, the construction of a unique new station to be used for experimental agriculture. He didn't really have a choice since that transfer was authorized by the Empress without his knowledge, thus his depression.
"A Salvaging of Ghosts" is about "divers" who go into the deep spaces to salvage derelict ships and recover bodies. The description of what happens to the bodies is strange, another element that comes close to fantasy, and I was wondering why it wasn't mentioned when Long Chau and The Shadow's Child recovered the corpse in "The Tea Master and the Detective," written two years after this story. Or if it was, I missed it. Another re-read is in order.
"Pearl" is another that jumps back and forth between time periods, and another that features a technology not mentioned elsewhere, as far as I've read that is. Remoras are another type of tech, similar to bots, but bigger. Pearl is a remora built by other remoras, specifically Teacher and Slicer, presented to Da Trang to be an aide in his studies for the imperial examination. Pearl is able to attach itself to Da Trang, to impart information to him, and in some sense I think it actually controlled him. This is the last of the Xuya stories in this volume. The other two are in an entirely different realm.
"Children of Thorns, Children of Water" is a novelette, originally offered as an incentive to readers who pre-ordered the second Dominion of the Fallen novel. It was later published online at Uncanny, and was a Hugo and Locus finalist. I enjoyed it, even though I know very little about the events that preceded it, only that it is set in a post-apocalyptic Paris, with fallen angels vying for control of various Houses in the desolate city. There are mortals working for the angels too. The collection's final story, the novella "Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness," is set in House Silverspires, with current Head of House Selene, her assistant and lover Emmanuelle, and the former head, Lucifer Morningstar. The author has not updated the recommended reading order on her website to include this one, but I feel confident it follows "Children of Thorns, Children of Water." Not sure if it precedes or follows the second novel though. Dominion of the Fallen now consists of three novels, only the first of which I have (but yet to be read), along with eight shorter works. I do intend to catch up on them one of these days.
In conclusion, this is an amazing collection, highly recommended. Even though there is a repetition of themes, the variations of character, location, and plot keeps them feeling fresh and intriguing. At least in the Xuya Universe, the consistency is about a society that honors tradition, the memories of ancestors, even though that at times causes difficulties for people wanting to carve out their own destiny. The prose is lyrical without being maudlin, the characters vibrant and distinctive, the plots complicated, unpredictable, but also seemingly inevitable. Considering there are at least fifteen other Xuya stories out there, plus Dominion of the Fallen, as well as her Obsidian and Blood series, another trilogy plus short stories, I could probably devote an entire year to her work. I will eventually get to most of these, even if not all, but many other books are also calling to me. I suggest you follow all the links I've provided, or search on your own. I'm sure you'll find something to your liking.
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