Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya short fiction continues to be a universe that I enjoy reading but don’t hanker to return to very often. “The Waiting Stars” continues her heavily figurative style of writing, something that doesn’t always work for me. So my feelings about this story are ambivalent: I want to like it, but I also have to admit it doesn’t appeal to my personal aesthetics.
Lan Nhen and her cousin Cuc are on a mission to retrieve a captured Mindship from the Outsiders. But when they finally find her, they stumble into a mystery far larger and more confusing than they expected. The ships are beaming massive amounts of data back to the Outsiders’ homeworld, Prime … and while the ships themselves live, the Minds are conspicuously absent.
On Prime, de Bodard follows tumultuous events in the life of Catherine, a Dai Viet orphan kidnapped at an early age by the Outsiders. Her Otherness in appearance marks her, and she suffers because of how the Outsiders wiped her childhood memories, a process they deemed “necessary”. One by one, Catherine’s peers have been disappearing, committing suicide … not exactly the kind of things that are conducive to a healthy and stable life.
De Bodard eschews almost all exposition, really forcing you to pay close attention and study the narrative as it unfolds. The link between Catherine’s story and Lan Nhen’s seems nonexistent until the very end, when things finally become clear. The idea that the Outsiders have somehow embodied these ship Minds in human form and tried to install them into their society is intriguing. It’s not clear from this story whether the Outsider claim that the Dai Viet force their women to give birth to Minds is true, or if it’s true, if they accurately depict the process in their propaganda videos. (Stories like “Shipbirth” clear this up, however, see here.) Clearly Lan Nhen and Cuc consider the ship’s Mind a family member, adding an interesting twist to the idea of blood relations and AI.
“The Waiting Stars” isn’t my favourite Xuya story to date. I still really enjoyed “Immersion” and On a Red Station, Drifting. This also has stiffer competition among this year’s Hugo nominees, so I’m not sure I’ll rank this as highly as it might otherwise deserve. It’s one of those stories where I quite like it from a craftsmanship point of view but wouldn’t necessarily put it in my living room, if you know what I mean.