Every work resembles something else to a certain degree. For instance, if I said to a lot of readers that I’d be reviewing a story about a cargo ship in space with a super-powered fugitive on board, the name “Whedon” might be soon to follow, unless I were actually talking about Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds. I want to be clear that I draw the Firefly comparison as a compliment. That’s among my favorite TV shows for the way it uses its bizarre setting to closely scrutinize characters. The Vanished Birds borrows this technique, too, examining the effects of proximity and time on individual relationships… while running from the corporate leeches across the stars.
Captain Nia Imani of the Debbie hauls cargo from planet to planet using a kind of light-speed system called “the pocket” when an old flame asks her to take charge of a boy who fell out of the sky. The boy is pretty much afraid to speak to anyone, but he loves music. Nia takes him to a space station, where she is forced to hand him over to child services. But, Nia has become attached to the boy, so she keeps asking after him until Fumiko Nakajima hires Nia to watch the boy. Channeling her inner Fox Mulder, Nakajima suspects, correctly, that the boy has the ability to teleport. Nia is assigned to watch the boy, Ahro, until he becomes a teenager, along with her crew: veteran Sonja; mechanic Em; bookworm Sartoris; pilot Vaila; and doctor Royvan.
Even though The Vanished Birds takes us to stars and to see new worlds, this book really examines memory and relationships. In “the pocket” no one ages because they are traveling faster than light, which means they are actually experiencing time more slowly than people living on a planet. So while Nia and the other normal humans do not age, everyone they leave behind does, which makes Ahro’s teleportation so vital. An evil corporation steals Ahro and basically forces him to move ships and people through teleportation, but Nia never stops looking for him.
Focusing so much on times spent together and lost requires a lot of flashback and a relaxed pace. The resulting adventure lives in a kind of passive, ambiguous prose style that is simultaneously trying a little too hard to be pretty. Furthermore, a voyage across the stars demands a wide scope, but it overindulges, giving us lots of information about characters only for them to disappear in an instant, like the opening chapter detailing the biography of Nia’s lover who promptly dies of old age or repeated narrative assertions of a friendship between Nia and a nurse whom we only ever see harping on Ahro. Meanwhile interesting and present characters like Sonja and Sartoris receive little background, despite chapters told from their point-of-view. And yet, strangely enough, these characters are the ones we want to live when the laser guns finally come out in the second act.
The Vanished Birds presents a kind of conundrum among science fiction works, where it gives a pulpy story and tries to tell it in the kind of voice traditionally called “poetic.” Dreamy characters abound in a kind of space travel that evokes a hot air balloon voyage more than a dogfight, leaving readers who like to ruminate with plenty to consider.
Three out of five stars
Page count: 310 pages
Favorite quote: “It was the mystery of those who walked in their sleep; an otherworldly logic at play as they paced alone at night, in their empty hand a cup, which they drank from deeply.”