The Waiting Stars is another short story in Aliette de Bodard's Xuya universe that she has made available online for free. It can be read and downloaded in several e-book formats on the author's website, which also include a number of other free short stories in the same time line. A general description of Xuya history can also be found on the website. Understanding the time line is not necessary to enjoy the story though. The Waiting Stars was first published as part of the anthology The Other Half of the Sky (2013), edited by Athena Adreadis and Kay T. Holt, a collection of science fiction stories with female protagonists. It has also been included in Gardner Dozois' 31st The Year's Best Science Fiction.
Dreadfully spoilerish, I recommend you read the story first.
I've read several stories in de Bodard's Xuya setting. This one is set in the space age of that time line, sometime in the 22nd century. The story is told from two points of view. The first features a Dai Viet ship, the same spacefaring culture based on Vietnam that is also featured in de Bodard's longest published Xuya work to date, the novella On a Red Station, Drifting (2012) and her award winning story Immersion (2012). The two characters travel on a Mindship deep into enemy territory to recapture a lost ship controlled by the mind of one of their family members.
The second strand in the story is set on a planet colonized by the Outsiders. I haven't read any stories in which they played a roll. Their society appears to be dominated by religious fundamentalism but this story doesn't doesn't explore it in any depth. The main character, Catherine, is something of an outsider in Outsider society. She is of Dai Viet origin and grows up in a place known as the Institution, where she is carefully brought up according to Outsider standards. Although she knows nothing of her own people the itch to explore is ever present. She wants to know where she came from.
What I like most about this story is the balance between the more action oriented rescue mission and the more introspective Catherine. The rescue mission is a high octane race against the clock. De Bodard slips in a bit of Vietnamese culture of course, in particular the importance of family, but it is mostly focused on sneaking in and getting out again with their prize. The story hints at a violent clash between the two in the past. I don't think I've seen references to that before. I have missed a few Xuya stories though.
Emotionally Cathrine's side of the story has more of an impact. The story reminded me of the way Aboriginal children where taken away from their parents to grow up in white families. The same thing happened to children of various native American people and probably elsewhere in the world as well. De Bodard takes this story in a slightly different direction, giving is a distinct science fiction bend but the loss of her cultural roots weighs heavy on Catherine.
Cultural identity is an important theme in many of De Bodard's stories but this is the first one I've read where the main character is entirely cut off from her cultural heritage. She is only aware of it because of the fact that is looks (and is treated) differently for the people outside the institute. Catherine is reaching out for a part of her that's missing. There is so much tension being released in this story as she rushes out to fill that void. Despite it being the more introspective story line it has quite a climax.
The Waiting Stars is another excellent story in a fascinating alternative history. One that deserves these stories to be collected and, perhaps even more so, deserves a full novel set somewhere in the time line. As far as I know, it doesn't look like either of these will be happening any time soon unfortunately. I'll be keeping an eye out for De Bodard's short fiction. I've read more than a few now and to me, her name has become synonymous with high quality, thought-provoking writing. You really should check out her work.
Title: The Waiting Stars
Author: Aliette de Bodard
First published: 2013