James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

A Bird Without a Song

Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight

By Aliette de Bodard 

3 Jan, 2020

Doing What the WFC Cannot Do

0 comments

Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Aliette de Bodard’s 2019 Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories. The science fiction stories are set in her alternate history, the Universe of Xuya (in which North American colonization was first settled by Asians), while the fantasies are set in her Dominion of the Fallen, in which Paris is recovering from a war between fallen angels.

The title is apt.

Introduction (Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight) • (2019) • essay

SF seemed a haven from a context hostile to outsiders. The reality proved different. Having found SF curiously focused on a very specific demographic, de Bodard set out to expand its borders in directions familiar to her. Which is to say, Asian-influenced F&SF based on Asia as opposed to the West’s imagination of Asia.

“The Shipmaker” • [Universe of Xuya] • (2010) • short story

A shipbuilder’s opportunity to prove themselves encounters an unavoidable roadbump when a vital component proves difficult to procure.

Comments

Second-class citizens doing unpleasant things out of duty or ambition is a recurring theme in this collection.

The Jaguar House, in Shadow• [Universe of Xuya] • (2010) • novelette

Faced with a deranged religious leader, the choices seem to be “submit and survive” or “resist and die.” A survivor of the purges returns to deal with old business and a leader who betrayed them.

“Scattered Along the River of Heaven” • [Universe of Xuya] • (2012) • short story

A woman visits relatives she has never seen, courtesy of a war of liberation that divided the two branches of the family.

“Immersion” • [Universe of Xuya] • (2012) • short story

The benevolent Galactics have ever so many ways to assist client states and former client states. Local ways are overwritten to galactic standard, at just the tiniest cost in personal autonomy.

Comments

The Galactics who turn up from time to time are the interstellar power descended from Westerners. Just as the Chinese and Vietnamese groups have preserved certain core elements of their old ways, so have the Galactics. One of those ways is imperialism. Another is inexorable assimilation, even of nominally independent cultures. For their own good, of course.

The Waiting Stars • [Universe of Xuya] • (2013) • novelette

The Board was willing to go to great lengths to salvage the children they commandeered from the lesser cultures neighbouring the Galactics. If the task requires sacrificing the original minds of their beneficiaries, then that is a price the Board is willing for their immature charges to pay.

Memorials • [Universe of Xuya] • (2014) • novelette

Drawn into a life of crime, a woman understands too late that she has fundamentally misjudged the people for whom she works.

“The Breath of War” • [Universe of Xuya] • (2014) • short story

Each person creates their own breath sibling, carved from stone and animated from the life-force of the artist. Most shape the breath-siblings in the form of people. Rechan made a very different choice, one with consequences.

“The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile” • [Universe of Xuya] • (2014) • short story

Only a crushing defeat can stop the inexorable rebel tide. Although still a child, Thien Bao delivers a defeat beyond either side’s dreams.

“The Dust Queen” • (2014) • short story

Memory editing is a powerful tool, one that can come with tremendous costs.

“Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” • [Universe of Xuya] • (2015) • short story

The greater good demands enormous sacrifices.

Comments

Something I didn’t understand: who gets the recorded memories of a dead scientist: her child or a fellow researcher? Why not just duplicate the file?

“A Salvaging of Ghosts” • [Universe of Xuya] • (2016) • short story

A mother recovers her child’s remains from the heart of the wreck in which she died.

Pearl • [Universe of Xuya] • (2016) • novelette

Having failed to grasp the nature of his creation until too late, a researcher wastes his life trying to recover it.

Children of Thorns, Children of Water • [Dominion of the Fallen] • (2017) • novelette

Thuan and Kim Cuc are determined that at least one of them should win a place with House Hawthorn. Thanks to an aspect of the House of which they are both unaware, they are very nearly absorbed into the life of the house in way they did not

expect.

Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness • (2019) • novella

House Silverspires’ attempt to rebuild its fragile reputation with a lavish party offers its enemies an opportunity for sabotage.

Story Notes (Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight) • (2019) • essay

Detailed and informative notes on the origins of the stories within this collection.

General comments

Various details in the Xuya stories make me consider tagging them “science fantasy.” Then I remembered that Larry Niven built a career as a hard-SF writer with stories featuring faster-than-light travel, telepathy, and hyperspace monsters. Screw it, the Xuya stories are science fiction.

I return to this point over and over whenever I read anthologies and collections like this one: do not do what I did and read this in one go. De Bodard is consistently bleak and her worlds Hobbesian. The only time that polities refrain from predation is when they are too weak to succeed. The Galactics are hypocritical monsters in a manner familiar from recent history, while the other cultures are more straightforward in their rapaciousness (if not any more pleasant). These are defensible world building choices but they don’t make for a fun way to spend an evening.

Still, there’s no denying the author’s talent, the beautiful prose, or the fact one cares about the flies whose wings are being ripped off.

Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlightis is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).