Expansion is one of the key impulses in space opera. Much like the Westward Expansion movement of U.S. history—where believers in and proponents of Manifest Destiny deemed it the fate of Euro-Americans to settle across the continent—space opera traffics in ideas of humanity’s movement into the stars, building new ways to live beyond the confines of Earth.
But modern science fiction acknowledges that idea and also looks at how it may be problematic, especially when the places you’re colonizing have residents that may not want to be colonized. In the case of Nicky Drayden’s new release, Escaping Exodus, humanity is colonizing something much larger than they are: sentient ships. The Xuya stories in Aliette de Bodard’s new short story collection, Of Wars and Memories and Starlight, also feature sentient ships, some of which are the recipients of an effort to convert them from their own culture, forcibly, through the well-meaning efforts of people trying to “save” them.
Many of Aliette de Bodard’s stories featured in the collection will be familiar to readers, as several won, were finalists, or received nominations for a suite of awards, including the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, and the Hugo. Her Xuya universe is based on the premise that China discovered the Americas before the West, which led to a space age dominated by Asian powers.
And, yet, despite years of living outside of the confines of Earth, those old tensions are still there. The Galactics, a Western-based culture, has its own corners where it dominates the galaxy and residents expect everyone to think like they do. They provide tools for the “betterment” of others: immersers, which allow non-Galactics to better perform and anticipate the cultural cues Galactics expect.
They also try to save the minds of Mind Ships. These sentient ships developed in the non-Galactic cultures of the universe are part organic and part machine, and have minds that are literally birthed by human mothers. Some mothers view this as an honor, others as a way to advance in society. Some cultural insiders view the Mind Ships as siblings or aunts, members of their families. She ships live for generations, acting as a connection to ancestors for the humans that inhabit them. The Galactics view the births of the Mind Ships as a horror.
In “The Waiting Stars,” a group of Dai Viet girls are raised by a group of missionaries who believe they are benevolent, who try to train the girls to be proper Galactics, to fit into society. It’s absolutely reminiscent of the American Indian Boarding Schools, where children were deliberately taken out of their culture to assimilate them into proper society. In the case of “The Waiting Stars,” however, the minds inside of those Dai Viet girls are the minds of captured Mind Ships, transmitted across the stars to the core of Galactic space.
The spin begs many questions: why would the Galactics try to assimilate the minds of Mind Ships? Why give them human bodies? What do they hope to accomplish? But while it’s almost incomprehensible, it’s also achingly, historically familiar. Such a thing could happen, if well-meaning but blind colonists only wanted to help those poor lost ships.
Drayden’s take on sentient ships and colonization is at once utterly different and strikingly the same. The ships of Escaping Exodus are huge beasts; whale or squid-like alien beings larger than starships, with hearts and bones and muscles that can be shaped from the inside, allowing for human settlement. They’re just beasts, after all—if colonizing them kills them eventually, well, there are others in the pod that can be culled.
That’s the assumption of Seske, the daughter of the matriarch of her people and the next in line to rule. But as Seske wakens inside the newest beast her people have culled, she begins to realize that the situation is more desperate than anyone wants to admit, and her whole way of life must change—or fade, along with the thinning pod.
The culture of Escaping Exodus is fascinating. It has an intensive caste system, where heart workers have more prestige and clout than bone workers or, worst, bucket waifs, but less than the Accountancy Guards or the Contour class—the wealthy of society who sleep through Excavation when a new beast is colonized. Seske is friends with a beastworker, Adalla, who is more than just a childhood crush, but both of them know a real relationship is never to be.
Seske will have to marry well, form a tri-part relationship before having a child who will be shared among a whole family unit—a cultural decision made to keep the population low enough that the beast can support them. So many parts of society are structured and designed based on how living within the beasts has changed them from their original Earth counterparts. But then, they aren’t the only culture to have developed separately.
When Seske realizes that their beast is ill and may not survive—and that the creature is sentient and can communicate, so that Seske never wants her people to kill another—she has to find a new way for her people to move forward. She reaches out to the other ships and discovers one of the Earth cultures has figured out a way to live within one in peace, without having to cull new beasts, but they are desperately short on women. What is Seske willing to trade to create a new world for her people, and for the beasts they inhabit? And how can she convince her people that the only way to move forward is through change?
The battle of wills between Seske and the beast, with whom she learns to communicate, is fascinating, and leads to a completely unexpected climax and solution at the end of the book. The beasts are angry: the colonizers have taken away their lives, and the lives of their children. But, if reparations are made, the beasts, too, are willing to find a new way forward. And it’s that hope that ends the novel, the idea that a people can make peace with the world that supports them.
Both Drayden and de Bodard have layers upon layers of other captivating world building going on in these books, but the cultural collisions, and the way both look at the flawed idea that one people can cannibalize another with no consequence, offer stark and powerful commentaries on the modern world.
Both Excaping Exodus & Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight are now available to buy.
Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.