Let me first state this is not your typical science fiction novel. It has spaceships traveling through pocket space, space stations and colonies, and agreements made between commercial and political authorities, for sure. But these elements, though critical, are handled in a literary science fiction style, focusing on the how the people function within this system and with each other whether in the distant past on a dying Earth or in their present.
The book’s literary leanings show in an omniscient narrator who, while taking on the personality of the character holding the viewpoint, speaks of times before and after as well as outside of the viewpoint character’s knowledge. This omniscience is only broken in one voice, where the narration is revealed through journal pages sent as progress reports, limiting us to the knowledge of that one character.
As the book reaches its climax, the separation of viewpoints shrinks from the length of a scene down to paragraphs moving vast distances as things coalesce. It could be confusing, but I found the structure strengthened the tension and offered both hope and despair simultaneously as the reader teeters on the edge of what might be, praying it will tip to the happier side in the final moments. I won’t give details or even say where things end. That’s for you to discover.
The story begins with a boy raised to a destiny that exists only in his father’s mind. Yet knowing that destiny, the boy takes steps others do not and reaches for the unattainable.
Kaeda is not the most important boy in the story, though. That role falls from the sky, literally, to dump a mystery into Kaeda arms after he has achieved the highest stature possible in his village. The company that owns the colony, the harvest, and the people locks their society in an early agricultural state.
Every fifteen years, winged ships appeared to collect the harvest and return it to the space station, a journey of months for the crew. This brings us to our next perspective, Nia, who captains one of these ships and makes a connection with Kaeda first over music then sex and finally over the boy, who she is to take back to the company.
Kaeda and the boy (who remains unnamed for the majority of the book) have a singsong quality to their narration, a match to the music they share along with a bond to the cheap pipe Nia once gave to a curious boy. With every visit, Kaeda grew 15 years, becoming a young man, a mature one, and then old, while Nia lived less than a year each time, denying her the connection she doesn’t know she wants. The mystery boy comes with her though, giving her someone to love.
I’m telling more of the story than I usually do, but mostly in themes. The narrative is a series of long, dense passages that creep under your skin and ask you to look for the deeper meaning, to understand the psychology and history driving each of the characters. Poignant dialogue and tension-filled pronouncements or cliffhangers break into this narrative, but only for a short while. Instead, it’s the elaborate, but compelling description that pulls you into the story, sometimes lyrical and poetic, at other times self-depreciating with a humorous twist. Together, they paint a vivid picture of what drives humanity and where lines are drawn as much as what compels those who cross. This book is not for every reader, perhaps, and has its darker points, but it also possesses a draw worthy of the right ones.
The narrative moves to the character critical in that moment, sometimes denying rules of time and space to do so. This is never truer than when we meet Fumiko, a brilliant mathematician and designer responsible for the stations that have become humanity’s home, at least for the humanity sheltered by the main corporation. Her story begins back on the dying Earth when she finds love for the first time but cannot claim it. It’s a powerful glimpse at who she was so we can understand who she has become, a driving force striving under the thumb of the company she gave up Dana for a lifetime ago.
This is a story of love, many kinds of love in many places and people, but with love a driving force, whether for good or bad. Sometimes it’s a sexual love, sometimes asexual, sometimes maternal, sometimes one-sided, and at others reciprocated. The connection between them all is the search for connection when distance, inconsistent passage of time, and differing loyalties makes life difficult.
But it’s not just love tackled in these pages. The omniscient narrator allows for the description to reveal philosophy otherwise masked in the day to day. Whether in something as simple as a dismantled rifle or as huge as the desire to shelter the boy from the clarion call of puberty the characters and/or narrative ask you to consider the question more deeply.
The people drive this story in all their strengths, weaknesses, and faults. It calls on the craving for connection, the wish for death on their own terms, the struggle for independence against an overwhelming force, and the appeal of success bought on someone else’s terms but without a fight versus striving for independence you might never win.
Music underlies the story much like it does humanity. The pull home, the communication between people when language is forgotten or different, and the path of remembrance when all is lost. The other thread, though, is stubbornness. Those who strive when they have no reason to believe in their success but are too stubborn to give up. It’s like hope for a driving force but different as well because they’d keep going even when hope had long disappeared behind them.
This book is about people. Little people and ones with power at their fingertips, but people still, arrayed against corporations out to profit with little thought to the cost. It speaks to the cogs in this profit machine who are caught by a single moment of consideration, sympathy, compassion, or even love, and the veil tears from their eyes. Laughable rumor becomes hard truth, acceptable concessions gain too much weight, and people who followed the pattern are driven to step outside it or concede what makes them human.
It’s a powerful, meaningful tale that might not offer an easy or gentle read, for all there are tender moments, but it gives a lot to think about. Some might point to how corporations are demonized, and they are, but nothing I read here has not been done in our timeline on some scale. The question, then, is whether a well-founded picture is held valid by its truth even when offering a harsh view.
The Vanished Birds is an economic and environmental story of those who don’t establish the rules, but live under or break them. It’s working against grand excess at the cost of others, but even so, their choices are made on a smaller scale for much the same reasons: vanity, money, and time. Though tempered by connections made between them and feeling the cost when those who have become family are lost or walk away, it serves to remind us the excess is a matter of scale and distance rather than monsters in the night.
The book is almost hypnotic in its entrancing power. It contains characters from all social and economic strata, different races, and sexual identities. The most important aspect, though, is how the characters are not bland representations of their slot on the chart, but rather people we come to love or hate, and sometimes both.
Whether for its compelling tone, beautiful narrative, underlying messages, interesting people problems, or all of the above, this is a book worth reading on its own and for its reflections of our own times.
P.S. I received this Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.