Trash & Treasure: Between the Firmaments by J.Y. Yang and In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows.

Last month, I read two excellent novellas – Between the Firmaments by J.Y. Yang and In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard – that struck me as being in conversation with one another. In terms of worldbuilding, both works blend magic, mythology and science fiction into a seamless new whole, while thematically, each story uses that backdrop to discuss the impact of (alien) colonisation, and the dislocation of the (mythical) traditional, through the lens of queer romance. And yet, at the same time, each narrative is deeply original: while Yang’s work is set in a wholly invented setting, de Bodard’s is drawn from Vietnamese traditions and stories.

In Firmaments, Bareigh the Hunter is a god reduced to hiding among mortals, working as a labourer in an impossible sky-city ruled by the invading Blasphemers, who use the divinity of captured gods and other magical beings to fuel their powerful sunmetal devices. The Blashphemers come from another world, and the yoke they hold over Bareigh’s planet has seen his god-siblings and their mortal descendants either killed or scattered, the land itself wracked with destruction. Amidst this chaos and ignominy, Bareigh meets another, unknown deity: the beautiful Sunyol, who soon becomes Bareigh’s lover. But Sunyol has his own secrets, and as the Blasphemers crack down ever harder on the citizens of their conquered city, the two fugitive gods are forced to confront the truth of Sunyol’s past.

In Vanishers, which serves as an inventive retelling of Beauty and the Beast, a young woman called Yên, considered expendable by the elders of her village, is given in trade to Vu Côn, one of the last remaining dragons, in exchange for the healing of an elder’s sick child. Years ago, this world – perhaps a future Earth, or else simply one like it – was taken over by the Vanishers, an incomprehensible alien race who conducted bioengineering experiments on mortals, spirits and deities alike. But now the Vanishers have gone, leaving behind a ruined planet rife with monsters, disease and poison, and no clear means of healing what they broke. Yet, as Yên gradually discovers, Vu Côn is trying to fix things. Rather than killing Yên, she brings her to work as a tutor to her two young children, the four of them living together in a Vanishers’ spacebound ruin. But as Yên tries to navigate her feelings for Vu Côn, she begins to realise that the children are not quite what they appear to be, and as their unsupervised actions beget frightening new consequences, Yên is forced to choose not only who she wants to be, but which realm she wants to inhabit.

The parallels between the books are many and compelling. Where Vanishers deals with a world where the colonisers have already gone, leaving the planet’s original inhabitants to struggle in the broken aftermath of their experiments, Firmaments begins with the invaders still in place, yet caught in a moment where their greed for resources – in this case, the magic that fuels their sunmetal – is causing their reach to exceed their grasp. As deities stripped of their worshipers, both Bareigh and Vu Côn serve as visceral metaphors for the colonial erasure of indigenous cultures: all around them, they see shorter-lived mortals living in the ruins of a history which they have lived in full, and which they are now forced, like secret elders, to carry in silence.

In Firmaments, this silence takes on a literal dimension in Bareigh’s relationship with Sisu, a young worker he recognises as the descendent of one of his divine siblings, and therefore a person possessed of latent magic. Rather than tell her and risk exposing her to the Blasphemers, however, Bareigh initially keeps Sisu ignorant, but as the pair are put in more and more danger, the choice is eventually taken from him – and as Sisu herself points out, it wasn’t rightly his choice to make in the first place. Just as Bareigh makes choices for Sisu, so does Sunyol make choices for Bareigh: though Sunyol is divine, his origins – and his reasons for revealing himself to Bareigh in the first place – are ultimately explosive. Withholding the truth comes with a price, particularly within a relationship, and in the end, it’s honesty which saves not only Bareigh and Sunyol, but their world.

Similarly, in Vanishers, Vu Côn is forced to watch as the callous, selfish elders of Yên’s village ignore their traditional responsibilities, casting her out as expendable. Though their culture endures in many ways, its expression is shaped by the stark reality of living in a world where viruses run rampant, resources are scarce and any outsider is potentially dangerous. Yên is tolerated because her mother can use healing magic, but loyalty to the mother does not extend to the daughter; something which horrifies and angers Vu Côn. Yet, in her quest to puzzle out the secrets of the Vanishers’ bioengineering, Vu Côn seeks to address the root of the social ills that plague the world, too: the cruelty of Yên’s village, like a burning rash or hacking cough, are ultimately symptoms of a greater evil. But when Yên herself starts to exhibit long-absent magical talent in tandem with her contraction of a Vanishers illness, Vu Côn makes the mistake of trying to choose things for her, concealing her knowledge of Yên’s disease and its implications in the hopes of protecting her. This turns out to be a disastrous choice, and as with Bareigh and Sunyol, the matter is only resolved through honesty and trust.

In subtly different ways, both narratives place a high value on honest communication and the importance of navigating any imbalance of knowledge or power between friends and partners. This, I feel, is not just an element of their respective romantic arcs, but another way in which colonialism impacts the characters: having been deprived of autonomy by so many external forces, agency within their relationships, whether romantic or platonic, becomes that much more important to all parties, and particularly when the characters are striving to fix a broken world. Yên cannot be a project to Vu Côn, just as Bareigh needs to know the truth about Sunyol. A relationship can benefit both parties, these stories tell us, but that mutual healing must be separate from whatever other endeavours the pair undertakes together.

Yang and de Bodard’s intermingling of mythology and science, magic and aliens to tell stories about culture, imperialism and queer love reminded me in particular of the stories in Yoon Ha Lee’s excellent anthology, Conservation of Shadows. More generally, it’s a type of worldbuilding I’m excited to see more of: N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy makes similar use of a magical/scientific mashup to powerful effect, and it’s also a continual theme in the works of Nnedi Okorafor, particularly her Binti novellas. Having grown up with the sense that science fiction and fantasy were very decidedly two ends of a spectrum, with only discreet subgenres like steampunk or urban fantasy allowed to meet in the middle, I’m endlessly impressed with this new wave of SFF which, story by story, is steadily uprooting all the old genre shibboleths and binaries in favour of something far more diverse and engaging.

Indeed, given that authors of colour and non-Western writers are driving this change, I’m reminded of an epiphany I had a little while ago about my assumed dislike of robot/AI stories. To paraphrase the Twitter thread I wrote at the time, the idea that robots, as a form of advanced intelligence, must necessarily lack culture, mythology and ritual strikes me as being a type of unconscious straight white Western male fantasy: a way of perpetuating the idea that the various faiths, traditions and subcultural differences expressed by humans, and particularly POC, are all ridiculous and barbaric. The ideal robot in these stories is homogenous, logical, void of emotion, ethnicity and superstition (and yet still, curiously, overwhelmingly male) – and so of course, in parallel theory, it only makes sense that the SFnal futures populated by such robots likewise lack magic, mythos and the supernatural. The only exceptions are things like the Force in Star Wars, a scientific-mystical power which, for all that the Jedi are clad in the aesthetic trappings of Buddhist monks and Japanese samurai, is based on a fundamentally Christian sense of a universal dichotomy between good and evil, with any other ‘mystical’ powers really being subservient to this single moral authority.

The writings of authors like de Bodard, Yang, Jemisin and Okorafor, however, challenge this assumption on a fundamental level. In these stories, magic and deities of all different types are embedded in a riot of non-homogenous cultures; cultures which can travel and interact and overlap with science and each other in endless, narratively fascinating ways. On a primal mythological level, it brings to mind a fascinating quote from an essay on technological culture in Japan by Morris Low, which mentions in passing the difference between Western and Japanese conceptions of robots and artificial intelligence. As Low writes:

“How do we account for the popularity of robots in Japan? Robert Geraci suggests that American researchers prefer [sic] to focus on artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality as Christian beliefs in salvation in purified unearthly bodies encourages a disembodied approach to information. In Japan, in contrast, he argues that Buddhism and Shinto beliefs of kami (deities) being manifested in nature allow even robots to have a spirit and be integrated into society.”

When I first read this essay, this paragraph immediately made me think of the difference between Japanese and Western stories about the emergence of AI: how Western fears of machine uprising and disobedience, as per The Matrix or the works of Isaac Asimov, stand in contrast to stories like Astro Boy or Ghost in the Shell, which focus on the philosophical nature of spirit and intelligence, and how an emergent sentience might be vulnerable to abuse. But in light of the evolving nature of SFF, I’m inclined to see this one example as being representative of a wider colonial-literary phenomenon: one in which the Western, Christian preoccupation with stamping out the spiritualism and polytheism of other cultures, combined with a love of industrialism and a fear of bodily sins, has led to the conflation of science fiction with cultural sterility. If not for Western, Christian colonialism putting its lily-white thumb on the scales of scientific and literary development, perhaps we might always have dreamed of space and spirits as a single thing – or at the very least, as an equally valid and adjacent permutation of the genre.

Whatever the case, both Between the Firmaments and In the Vanishers’ Palace are wonderful stories, and I recommend them highly – whether read individually or in conjunction with one another.

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