Have you ever wanted to turn to a colleague and exclaim “wow, you’re a coward,” and have legitimate grounds to stand on? What if that colleague was a good friend who told you to read a book, and you stonewalled them forever because “you had better books to read than ones they already read?” Well, don’t worry. This highly specific situation has nothing to do with the book, but I suck at writing introductions, so just strap in folks. Remember how Andrew mentioned it was criminal we never put up a review of The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez? No? Well go relive it for a second, and then come back here to read why you too should pick up this incredibly dark, yet compassionate plea/sob into the vast darkness of space.
Nia has spent lives in transit. For her it’s only a few years, but for those worlds she travels between, decades pass between her arrivals. She ferries supplies from Macaw, one of the extraction worlds, back towards the hub of human activity, a space station designed and engineered by Fumiko Nakajima. Fumiko is a wunderkind, born and also engineered by her actress mother to be conventionally unattractive so that she would not be distracted from her studies. Luckily, she is able to turn those talents to creating arks that are able to ferry “some” of the humans from the poisoned Earth. They collide when Nia picks up a mute boy from Macaw who Fumiko believes to have powers that could give humanity the rest of the cosmos. And so Nia, along with a ragtag group of folks, sets out on a fifteen year mission to unlock the child’s potential, whether or not he wishes to find out for himself.
If you’ve read any reviews by me in the past, you may have noticed I have a penchant for pointing out how a story engages with our capitalist society. If you haven’t, welcome to the fucking show. Because it is basically impossible to engage with The Vanished Birds without Jimenez throwing a skyscraper’s worth of bricks through every window ever created. He does it with grace, style, a whole lot of heart, and a heaping pile of “oh fuck that’s dark.” But I am a proponent of reading things that hurt you, and The Vanished Birds comes at you like a group of loan sharks in the night to take your kneecaps as a warning.
Jimenez’s prose is instantly gripping and technically astounding. Each chapter feels like its own story, building up each character within the world they inhabit. The first chapter is literally one man’s entire life, and while not short, it is brutal. But Jimenez delivers it with digestable but deep prose, giving the casual observances a heavy introspective tint that pulls one in as a reader. Subsequent chapters have the same feeling. Everything is described through the point of view of that chapter’s main character, shading everything with their subjective experience and giving life through the character’s ability to relate to it. It gives every character a feeling of agency, while highlighting that they are trapped, but unable to understand the full scope of their entrapment. This story can be emotionally painful, and is painful a lot of the time, but Jimenez doesn’t just make you suffer, he holds your hand and asks you to keep looking so that you can empathize. Really that is one of the main themes of the book, a refusal to ignore suffering. Jimenez is alarmingly good at weaponizing his prose to show you small glimpses of horror, couched in a larger, more gentle context, and using the juxtaposition to deeply move the reader.
Jimenez pulls on these threads through a world that feels very much like our own, but with a more sinister ambience. The future, or even more precisely, the present, is frozen. The characters are stuck in place, forever trying to move forward, but the infrastructure of their lives holds them in place. The inner core worlds are bought up by the larger companies to become homogenized and lose their specificity while the outer worlds are put on pause to maintain the extractive economy. Jimenez doesn’t shy away from implicating his own characters within this process, but he does so with compassion. The characters are so well drawn they are allowed to be contradictory and still deserving of love and kindness. They are both cogs within the machine and the fuel that makes it turn. There is no escape.
But before I dishearten you too much, this story does revolve around those who come to love and cherish each other, despite the crushing weight of the economy. The lengths one goes through to find the bit of hope in another’s eyes. Jimenez chips at the hearts he just froze with some of the most heartbreakingly tender moments I’ve read. He builds the wall within you only to spend the rest of the book tearing it down and reminding you that you are human. You can be trapped, alienated and exploited for everything you can give to make the machine turn, but you can still be loved, nay, should still be loved. And you have far more to give the world than your blood and sweat. So don’t be afraid to pick up The Vanished Birds, and let Simon Jimenez hurt you so you can heal just a little stronger.
Rating: The Vanished Birds 10/10