Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly feature dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
Of all the short stories I’ve read in the eighteen months I’ve been contributing to this column, ‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard is certainly among the most memorable. An entrancing narrative set in the Xuya universe, which the author has explored in a handful of her other efforts, I inspected ‘Immersion’ in the context of covering all six of the fictions shortlisted by the British Science Fiction Association for Best Short Story.
It didn’t win that award—the honour went to Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales instead—but de Bodard’s story didn’t disappear into the ether either. Later in 2013, it took home the Locus, and the Nebula as well. So when another of the author’s Xuya universe stories was nominated for a second successive Nebula, then a Hugo too, I knew what I had to do.
For the duration, ‘The Waiting Stars’ alternates between two seemingly separate yet connected strands of narrative. It begins, as we will, with Lan Nhen, a daughter of the Dai Viet tasked with a difficult mission: to find and fix a derelict Mind-ship. “By any standards, what they were planning was madness. To infiltrate Outsider space, no matter how isolated—to repair a ship, no matter how lightly damaged…”
It’s a dangerous game Lan Nhen’s playing, but she isn’t doing it for fun. The stakes, in fact, are far higher, for aboard The Turtle’s Citadel are the remains of her great-aunt, whose Mind, in better days, made said vessel so special. This was before she was shot, obviously; before The Turtle’s Citadel was abandoned in a quadrant of interstellar space few of the Dai Viet dare investigate. If anything, however, the horrors of the derelict ship ward serve to reinforce Lan Nhen’s resolution to bring her great-aunt’s body back where it belongs:
On the sensors of The Cinnabar Mansions, the ships all appeared small and diminished, like toy models or avatars—things Lan Nhen could have held in the palm of her hand and just as easily crushed. As the sensors’ line of sight moved—catching ship after ship in their field of view, wreck after wreck, indistinct masses of burnt and twisted metal, of ripped-out engines, of shattered life pods and crushed shuttles—Lan Nhen felt as if an icy fist were squeezing her heart into shards. To think of the Minds within—dead or crippled, forever unable to move…
Countless clicks distant, our other central character, Catherine, is having a hard time too. Graduating from the Institution—where she’s been raised ever since she was “saved” by the Outsiders alluded to in Lan Nhen’s narrative—should be a landmark moment in her life. But she doesn’t feel free. On the contrary, she carries within her a “sense of sadness, of unease […] as if she were missing something essential.”
And she isn’t imagining this absence. Her earliest memories, of her time amongst the Dai Viet, have been erased by her Galactic masters—for the sake of her own sanity, apparently. She’s seen vids of what would have happened to her if they hadn’t intervened, and in a way, she’s grateful to her supposed saviours. Still, she wishes that things were different—that her pitiful existence had more meaning—a feeling which deepens when she’s informed about the death of a friend and fellow rescue:
The man cut off the communication; and she was left alone, standing in her living room and fighting back the feeling that threatened to overwhelm her—a not-entirely unfamiliar sensation of dislocation in her belly, the awareness that she didn’t belong here among the Galactics; that she wasn’t there by choice, and couldn’t leave; that her own life should have been larger, more fulfilling than this slow death by inches, writing copy for feeds without any acknowledgement of her contributions.
Catherine’s contemplative sections can of course be read as a response to the real-world brainwashing of so-called “savages” by the dominant races of the day: an uncomfortable subject which de Bodard addresses as sensitively as ever. It’s of particular significance that her depiction of the issue does not insist; instead, it suggests, allowing readers to make the story their own by bringing different details to the table.
This openness is no less than I’ve come to expect from de Bodard’s short stories. She’s an incredibly generous author, well-practised in her purposes and dexterous in their development. Crucially, she’s also capable of writing gripping science fiction. Take the other half of the whole: though it is no less nuanced than Catherine’s, our time with Lan Nhen is more typical, more traditional. It’s practically action-packed, in fact—at points I was reminded of reading a story by James S. A. Corey.
In practice, the parallel narratives that play out over the course of ‘The Waiting Stars’ suggest a connection between Lan Nhen and Catherine: a connection that packs a real punch when it’s made manifest in a massively satisfying last act.
‘The Waiting Stars’ is, in a word, wonderful. I want it to win things, not least the Nebula Award for Best Novelette next week.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.