The Waiting Stars by Aliette de Bodard (Hugo nom)
Posted July 17, 2014on:
The more short fiction I read by Aliette de Bodard, the more I like her. It took me longer than it should have to “get it”, but now that I do, I just can’t get enough. Most of her short fiction (or at least most of what I read) takes place in her expansive Xuya Universe, and specifically in its space age, when humanity has conquered the stars. If you’ve read “Immersion”, or “On A Red Station, Drifting” (both Hugo nominees last year) you’re familiar with the Dai Viet of Xuya, you’ve smelled their pungent food, you’ve been aboard their mind-ships that are someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s aunt, those ships that are painted inside and out with scenes and symbols from mythology, you’ve run your fingers along the slick, slimy, pulsing wall of the ship’s heartroom, you’ve seen how their culture has been attacked by the warlike and aggressive Federation. There is more than enough space out there, but still we fight for planets, colonies, stations, insisting that there isn’t enough to share.
“The Waiting Stars” opens in a graveyard.
These are the Mind-ships that were captured by the Federation. Not exactly prisoners of war, the mind ships have been crippled and left to die. Hidden in a dark corner of space, the Federation assumes the graveyard will be forgotten. But how can Lan Nhen forget her great great aunt, The Turtle’s Citadel? Lan Nhen will bring her great aunt’s body home, to be buried properly.
Elsewhere, on the Federation planet Prime, young Dai Viet girls have been raised in an orphanage. “Rescued” from a savage fate, they are not allowed to speak their native tongue, or eat the foods they were raised with, or learn their own legends. Few of the girls have any memory of their real parents, and orphanage matron shows them terrifying images of what their families would have done to them had her organization kindly not rescued them. These young women don’t remember who they are, but what they are is stamped on the shape their eyes, the shade of the skin, and the color and texture of their hair. When she comes of age, Catherine applies for every and any job that will take her off planet, but is assigned to a local office building. She moves in with her boyfriend Jason, but it’s getting harder and harder for her to shake nightmares and sounds and smells that seem just out of reach. If only she could remember, and if only Jason didn’t treat her like she was fragile and stupid.
Lan Nhen and her cousin Cuc find The Turtle’s Citadel, and even with a bullet in her brain she’s not dead, but she’s not alive either. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them if they’re going to get her home before the graveyard’s security drones wake up. The more of the ship they explore, the more strange things Cuc finds. If every ship in the graveyard is doing the same thing The Turtle’s Citadel is doing, it’s shattering.
I most enjoyed Lan Nhen’s relationship with the ship that carries her, The Cinnabar Mansions. Cinnabar Mansions gently calls Lan Nhen “child”, and in a way, she is a mother to all the family members who interact with her. I have fallen in love with these ships that are also people, that are literally raised by their human mothers, who over the generations become living ancestral shrines. They are singular and alone, the pride of their families.
I can’t tell you much more about the plot, without spoiling the surprise, and the twist is something as creepy as it is glorious. Reading “The Waiting Stars” makes me want to reread all her other Xuya space opera stories, because only now do I feel like I really understand what’s going on.
For readers who are new to this universe, “The Waiting Stars” should prove a fascinating entry point. This is the first story I’ve read in the group that offers a view from both sides of the conflict. Is the creation of the Mind-ships something beautiful to be honored and celebrated? Or is it something horrific and savage? Deep down, this is a war story.