A man in a distant world races through his entire life, falling in love with a woman he only sees for one night every fifteen years. A captain of a clunker starship travels back and forth through time and space for a contract, so desperate to carve out her own future, she ends up leaving her past behind her. A brilliant engineer is caught between being in love and building a home for the human race, and regrets her decision for her entire life. A young boy appears suddenly from the sky, crashing to a strange planet from out of nowhere; he cannot speak, but expresses himself through music, his story found in the bittersweet song of a flute. While these threads all seem to tell a different story, trust me, they don’t. Debut novelist Simon Jimenez takes each of them, and weaves them together to build The Vanished Birds, an intricate, affecting, haunting, and beautiful science fiction story that spans time, space, and lives.
Reader, I cried.
Okay, great, now that that’s done, let’s get into the details. Nia Imani is captain of The Debby, a transport ship working a contract for Umbai V, the mega-corporation that controls all known Allied space. As she and her crew travel back and forth from a resource planet, dipping in and out of the subspace known as the Pocket, they lose years between transports. Fifteen years back forth. After six trips, a century has gone by, and everyone is ready for a vacation. Except on the last visit, Kaeda, a man she’d known on her first trip to the planet, asks her to take on one more passenger: a young boy who fell from the sky. Unspeaking and scared of everything, the boy takes a shine to music; Kaeda asks Nia to watch over him, to find him a home. Nia accepts, and brings the boy home to Pelican, one of the four massive space stations designed by Fumiko Nakajima, where humanity now thrives after the death of old Earth. And when Nakajima, still alive thanks to cryosleep, catches wind of the boy from the sky, everything changes: she offers Nia a job. She believes the boy may have the ability to instantly jump, to jaunt himself from one point in space/time to another, in the blink of an eye. Nakajima asks Nia to keep the boy safe from Umbai interests and raise him in fringe space, away from Allied ports, to help him come back to himself, and see if they can unlock his talent. And above all, to become his anchor, for if he does jaunt, she needs him to have someone to return to, or they may lose him forever.
The only catch? The job is for fifteen years, real-time. No time skipping in the pocket, but living, eating, working out of The Debby for fifteen long years, with no guarantee of their mission succeeding. What happens next is an all-encompassing story of science fiction, that takes readers from old Earth, to resource worlds, to space stations and Allied Space, and fringe worlds with flora, fauna, customs, and people that are beyond anyone’s imagining. As the boy grows into a young man, and as Nia and her crew (hand picked by Nakajima), survive and work to keep him alive and give him the chance to flourish, The Vanished Birds takes a winding, heartbreaking, joyful wandering through an immense galaxy, and answers questions about love, duty, age, time, relationships, sorrow, and so much more, while spiraling toward an answer about jaunting.
It’s hard to talk about this novel, quite frankly. The above description doesn’t quite do it justice; this book truly shines because of the deep, complex web of relationships, consequence, and character built by Jimenez, that start in very intricate places and then only grow richer as the novel marches on, as characters grow, are challenged, are confronted with fears and hopes and hates and loves. As we see new worlds, visit new stars, given new technologies or advancements, Jimenez never lets us forget why science fiction succeeds as a mode of storytelling: the living, beating hearts of characters confronted with the future, and how they react to it, can tell one hell of a story. The Vanished Birds is a story of one such future, and whether it’s worth it, if it means even one person suffers.
The reason this novel succeeds so well, and why it made me cry, and why I think it’s so important, is that everyone’s story is given the chance to be important. Jimenez shows us exactly where our main characters come from, why they are the way they are, the ironies and contradictions and quirks that make their personalities, and the hardships, torture, banality, frustrations, and pain that force them to grow or change or overcome them. Even in the future, after our planet has died, humanity is made of people whose stories overlap, nudge, touch, and bump up against each other, and that’s what The Vanished Birds understands: everyone’s story is important, because everyone’s story is inter-connected. Beyond lightyears and space/time and old planets and new stars, we’re connected. This idea culminates in a final sequence of chapters that show the loop closing, the threads coming together, every single character we’ve met has their story come home to find each other. And this was the sequence in question that made me cry. Because it was beautiful and bittersweet and so true, which is exactly the message that great fiction can impart.
It’s early yet, but I’m willing to say The Vanished Birds may be one of the best debuts of 2020, and that it should be remembered in the year to come. Simon Jimenez is a brilliant author (I didn’t even get to how lush and consuming his prose is!), and a writer to watch. If you enjoy science fiction with heart, if you love stories about stories, about people and the future and the things we do to keep making a future for each other, then read The Vanished Birds. You’re not going to want to miss this one, I promise.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.