The Vela is the latest in Serial Box’s slate of speculative fiction offerings. This one’s space opera, with an approach to politics ever so slightly reminiscent of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse. Its concept is credited to Lydia Shamah, Serial Box’s director of original content, but its execution is down to an award-class writing team: Becky Chambers, Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, and S.L. Huang. All of their individual talents combine to make The Vela a potent brew.
There are multiple habitable planets in the star system—or there were, before the government of Khayyam began mining the sun. Now the sun is dying, slowly, and the outer planets are dying faster. Eratos, Hypatia, Gan-De, Khayyam, and Khwarizmi are all doomed, but the killing cold means that refugees are fleeing the outermost planets, Eratos and Hypatia, faster. The one planet further out than Eratos is dead. Eratos is dead. Hypatia is dying.
There’s no interstellar travel. There’s just the one star system for these people, and it’s pretty—pardon my language—damn fucked. The parallels to our own slowly-creeping-closer-until-it-accelerates possible extinction through global warming are right there, right up front.
Asala Sikou fled Hypatia as a child and found employment with the Khayyami military. Now she’s a soldier-for-hire, an accomplished one, and she survives by not thinking very much about her history, or about the approaching death of the solar system. When the Khayyami President hires her for an off-books job that will involve going back to Hypatia for the first time since she left, she almost turns him down. But she doesn’t, and that will prove a fateful decision.
Also a fateful decision: The President sends his kid with her. Niko is a junior intelligence agent, a hacker. They’re good at what they do, but they’re also the epitome of privileged guilt. Niko’s hiding their motivations and real agenda from their father, and from Asala. And the President is hiding the real purpose behind this mission. On the surface, it’s all about the PR: Find The Vela, the last ship of refugees to leave Eratos, which Khayyam has volunteered to take in. (It’s good for the President’s re-election prospects, the way Hypatian refugees aren’t.) Under the surface—well, there’s a lot more going on. Everyone has their own agenda, from the President of Khayyam and the militaristic dictator of Gan-De to the various factions among the refugees. And Niko. And Asala. The Vela hides a secret, one that could allow a few thousand people—or maybe more—to survive their star system’s death.
Or maybe it’s a secret that’ll kill hundreds of thousands faster than they need to die.
The Vela has interesting, solidly detailed worldbuilding. It deals sensitively with refugee migration, loss, trauma, and the struggle for survival. Its thriller-structure and escalating tension flows with precision, and its characters are compelling—Asala and Niko stand out, as the main characters, but even General Cymwrig, President Ekrem, and the refugee administrator Soraya strike the reader as complicated, believable individuals. And unlike several of Serial Box’s serials, there’s no discernible change in style, quality, or characterisation between episodes: Across all ten, it’s consistently good. (If you’re interested in the specifics of who has written what, S.L. Huang is credited with the first, fourth, and eighth episodes; Becky Chambers with the second, seventh, and final; Rivers Solomon with the third and sixth; and Yoon Ha Lee with the fifth and penultimate episodes.)
It’s also delightfully inclusive, queer-as-default (and inclusive of trans folks!) and really interested in looking at power, loss, and consequences. It’s good—nothing less than excellent, which is only to be expected from its writing team.
My only real problem with The Vela is a problem that’s endemic to Serial Box’s offerings: They overuse cliffhangers as a device to raise tension and maintain reader engagement. I don’t mind cliffhangers, in general, and minor cliffhangers at the end of each episode are part and parcel of the implicit reader agreement with serialised fiction: Of course the serialised fiction is going to manipulate my emotions to keep me coming back! But where my willingness to accept that kind of manipulation breaks down is at the natural end of a narrative arc. That is to say, at the end of the episodic “season,” where instead of delivering some kind of resolution, however temporary and fragile—instead of offering a reader a space to breathe—we’re confronted with fresh stakes and fresh dangers.
If I’m going to be manipulated into coming back for season two, I’d like it to be a bit less obvious. Without some temporary resolution, I find it difficult to believe that I’ll ever see an ultimate and satisfying resolution.
But as I said, that’s an issue that’s been fairly consistent for me across Serial Box’s entire slate of publications. Apart from the lack of a satisfying conclusion, The Vela is pretty damn good.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.