Today, we are giving the floor over to Charles Payseur, a member of our Smuggler Army with his regular column X Marks the Story with his review of Serial Box Publishing’s series The Vela by Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, Rivers Solomon and SL Huang.
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Serial Box Publishing
Publication date: March 2019 – First Season
Format: Ebook/Serial Ebook (Earc provided for review)
Orphan, refugee, and soldier-for-hire Asala Sikou doesn’t think too much about the end of civilization. Her system’s star is dying, and the only person she can afford to look out for is herself. When a ship called The Vela vanishes during what was supposed to be a flashy rescue mission, a reluctant Asala is hired to team up with Niko, the child of a wealthy inner planet’s president, to find it and the outer system refugees on board. But this is no ordinary rescue mission; The Vela holds a secret that places the fate of the universe in the balance, and forces Asala to decide—in a dying world where good and evil are far from black and white, who deserves to survive?
Spinning out from Serial Box, The Vela is a project that combines some very timely political themes with blazingly original science fiction ideas and tops it all off with a cast of diverse characters trying to survive a solar system everyone knows is dying. Featuring a team of exciting and talented authors, it’s structured a bit like a television show with seasons and episodes, but also stands up as a novel series, with season one being an incredible first book.
It’s a project that doesn’t really waste any time, quickly introducing Asala, a former soldier and now “fixer” originally from one of the outer worlds who managed to immigrate into the wealthier core, where the sun continues to be siphoned for energy despite the devastating effect it’s had on the system. Nearly all the outer worlds are unlivable, frozen and lifeless, with a stream of refugees facing first the danger of space flight, and then the cruel reality that the nearest outer world is brutally intolerant of immigrants. Asala’s put most of that behind her, though, buried along with the family who gave all they could so that she could make it to a better life. Not that they imagined she’d kill people for a living. Or act as bodyguard to the leader of the planet responsible for turning away or detaining most of those seeking to escape the destruction the inner worlds have authored through their depletion of the sun.
It all comes crashing back, though, when Asala is drawn into a mystery surrounding a missing ship of refugees. The Vela has gone missing, and she (and Niko, the hacker child of her sponsor, the president of one of the inner worlds) is sent to go find out what happened to it. Though she’d normally never partner up with anyone, she’s going to need Niko’s technical expertise and contacts if she’s going to investigate her true interest—a ghost from her past that might not be as dead as she thought. Where Asala is professional and distant, Niko wears their heart on their sleeve, and much of the charm of the series comes from the dynamic that develops between the two. The friendship and the trust that Asala knows better than to allow but that she can’t stop, either. Which is unfortunate, because everyone in the system seems to have secrets and ulterior motives that make things messy and dangerous—two things Asala tries her best to avoid.
The series is incredibly imagined and tightly paced. Seriously, it’s very nearly emotionally exhausting with how it moves Asala from crisis to crisis, from frying pan to fire to house fire to inferno devouring whole cities. What begins as a fairly simple if vague mission becomes anything but as Asala and Niko stumble something much bigger than they could have imagined. And I love how the story uses that sense of urgency, layering with the sense that this solar system is doomed, that exploitation has ruined the sun and it’s not even enough to get people to stop doing that. Everyone is out looking for a miracle, for a magic bullet to fix their problems, and the worst part is that there might be one, but not for everyone.
The series offers sharp takes on climate change and immigration, refugees and privileged concern, and how all of those things feed into each other. Asala is in a unique position, an immigrant who in many ways has “made it,” and yet who carries her ghosts with her. When paired with Niko, a bleeding heart who has been sheltered their entire life, she finds that all the things she has been repressing, that she has been avoiding, come flooding up until she’s almost drowning on them, keeping them at bay only by concentrating on the escalating danger all around her, the plots on top of plots on top of plots that she must cut, shoot, and explode her way through. The series sweeps through the solar system, from the relative comforts of Niko’s home to the desolate reaches of the outer worlds to the crush and despair and resilience of a refugee camp to the terror of spaceship battles.
The format that Serial Box offers only heightens the roller coaster feel of the series, with each episode ramping up and up until it seems that there’s no place to go, no possible way that it could get any worse for Asala. Only, of course, it does. And the writing team crafts a series that both allows each individual author to shine and add their own flourishes while maintaining a seamless experience. The voices of the characters remain consistent and compelling, and the plot never skips a beat. If I had to find a complaint it would only be that the story never really let me catch my breath, so that as twist led into twist I was almost dizzy from the rush of it, able to step back only after the final shattering revelation, at which time some of the smaller moments might have been lost in the rush and riot. As far as complaints go, however, it’s pretty slight.
Ultimately, I feel the impact of the season comes in the way it handles compassion and empathy. All around Asala there are people claiming to know who is deserving of salvation. Who should survive and who should go down with the ship when the solar system snuffs out. There is a pervasive cynicism that infects everything, that refuses to believe that people can be mature enough or good enough to want everyone to be able to live. And Asala, caught between it all, knowing intimately the cruelties but also the joys and the kindnesses of humanity, has to keep herself aimed at a future that does not rest on a foundation of genocide. Has to push back against a corrupt system that insists that it is the only model for human organization. And that’s an incredibly powerful and important message right now.
Rating: 9 – Masterful, relentless, devastating