Warning: This article contains spoilers for Terminal Alliance, the first book in Jim C. Hines’ Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series.
After the apocalypse, where do people go? In new Serial Box series The Vela, an entire system is on the brink of destruction: planets farthest from their star are already beginning to feel the cold that will destroy all life in their worlds. In Jim C. Hines’ latest, Terminal Uprising, a virus turned Earth’s human population feral, and only with the help of the Krakau are some “cured” or reborn as a new, stronger, fiercer type of human—but much of the population remains contaminated.
Both of these space operas feature the end of the world as the residents know it, and both deal with the significant themes of those who are left behind while others in positions of power seek salvation. Both also tell tremendously good stories in very different tones: Terminal Uprising, for all its deep thoughts, remains a book that follows a crew of rebellious space janitors, and The Vela, driven by intrigue and hidden motives, has a human core that, by its still-to-be-aired series finale, will leave its readers in tears.
Where do you go when there’s no place to go?
The Vela is the first space opera to be released from Serial Box, an innovative publisher that features writing teams who work in a television-like collaboration to bring a season to life. Readers of Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Yoon Ha Lee (Ninefox Gambit), Rivers Solomon (An Unkindness of Ghosts), and S. L. Huang (Zero Sum Game) are already familiar with the excellent fiction this team can produce solo; what’s remarkable is how well these unique voices blend together into a cohesive whole over the course of eleven episodes.
The starship Vela contains the refugees Eratos, the outermost planet in the system, dying because the mined central star is dying. Sent by President Ekrem of Khayyam to bring the refugees to the safety of his own planet—until they, too, are driven inward in another generation—the Vela is also valuable for other, more secret reasons. When the ship disappears, it’s not just bad publicity the president fears. To find it, Ekrem sends his most-trusted and most-unofficial agent, Asala, a refugee herself from the only-slightly-warmer planet of Hypatia, along with his child, Niko, a communications expert with refugee sympathies.
Each episode of The Vela offers a deepening look at the players in this apocalyptic game and their motives. Asala, who has long left her sympathies to Hypatia behind, surviving because that is her primary duty to her people, finds herself questioning whether she has made the right choices. Has she abandoned her people by surviving? What does she owe her dying planet? Niko, an expert hacker with contacts on every planet and station in the system, has mysteries of their own.
Serving as an antagonist is General Cynwrig, the ruthless military dicatator of Gan-De, whose exclusionary policies toward refugees come from an isolationist loyalty to preserving her own planet and people as long as possible. (In a remarkably sympathetically written speech in episode two, Cynwrig shares her logic with an irate Niko, who disagrees utterly—in that moment, it is possible for readers to understand, if not approve, Cynwrig’s motives.)
As Asala and Niko find clues about the Vela’s whereabouts, it becomes clear that something greater than even the lives of hundreds—thousands—of refugees is at stake. When the fate of an entire system is in the hands of only a few, who can determine who has the right to live and who must die? Asala’s musings on this topic, which rarely have answers, are some of the most moving parts of the series, to the point where it’s easy to forget, in all the philosophy, that this is an action series about a sniper and a spy.
The action itself is exceptionally well paced and drives the plot—and changing allegiances mean that the people shooting at Asala in one episode might be the very people to help her in the next. Jail breaks, narrow escapes, betrayals, hidden technology, weaponized gravity, and space battles are just some of what readers can expect to find as The Vela’s first season continues.
Where do you go when history is a lie?
In Jim C. Hines’s first “Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse” title, Terminal Alliance, the humans of Earth have gone “feral,” which is a nice way to refer to the zombie-like population of the planet. When they are cured, the Krakau, supposedly their salvation, teach them a doctored version of human history that omits one terrible thing: the reason for humanity’s fall is the fluke biological response between humans and a subspecies of Krakau. When Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos and her crew of sanitation experts from the EMCS Pufferfish discover this—and then save the Krakau homeworld in the first book anyway—there’s no going back. They have to find proof to bring to the universe in order to help humanity find justice.
Terminal Uprising takes Mops and her crew to Earth, among the ferals, looking for a secret lab where something nefarious is going on. They have reason to believe that the Krakau have found a way to truly cure humanity—not as enhanced warriors impervious to pain, but as humans were before Krakau interference. Through a series of sanitation-related solutions to problems normally handled by soldiers, Mops and her crew find answers… just not the ones they were expecting.
While there’s plenty of sewage-related humor and a healthy dose of satire in the novel, what’s really interesting here is the way that Hines handles colonialism and post-apocalyptic survival. If you’re the only remaining members of your species, does the ethnicity or religion of your ancestors matter? The answer might be yes—but the cultural identity of all the rest of humanity matters, too, and Hines’ characters believe all of it should be preserved.
For the Krakau, a squid-like species that spans an Empire, what is the responsibility of their people to the species they ruined? While some of the Krakau are driven by a sense of justice and a desire for reparation, others see what humanity has become as a tool in an endless war against the Prodryans, a species that won’t stop attacking until one side or the other is destroyed.
Outsiders on any planet.
Hines displays a deft handling of how words matter, especially when used toward those who are not cultural insiders:
“If they found a cure, would you want to be human again?”
Mops slowed. “We are human.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes,” said Mops. “I also know what you said.”
The writing crew of The Vela also offers a nuanced view on being part of a culture—and yet separate from it—in Asala. Frequently the target of slurs because of her planetary origin, clearly indicated on her face through her cultural tattoos, Asala is at once hardened toward the language and angered by it.
Asala surprises herself by bristling when her benefactor refers to her only by her first name—something that is a cultural norm for his people, whom she has lived among for years, but not for her birth culture. And after years of trying unsuccessfully to fit in and get by among the Khayyami, she is surprised to be grateful when the people of her home planet do not treat her as an outsider.
Both novel and serial grab on to those questions of the responsibilities of privilege and power—and the responsibilities of survivors—without ever offering pat or simple answers. Because the solutions to issues of who deserves to live and die—and who should decide the future of a culture or species—are not simple ones. They’re questions that may not have any good answers. But the characters within these two very different space operas strive to find some answer they can live with, after everything else falls apart. Following them, whether on Earth or in a distant system, is absolutely worth the journey.
The Vela Season 1 is now available to begin via Serial Box. The first two books in Jim C. Hines’ Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse are available to buy via Penguin Random House or to enjoy at your local library.
Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.