Simon Jimenez brings emotional intelligence and a contemporary fear of lost time to his spellbinding debut novel.
From an early age, Simon Jimenez devoured genre fiction. “I loved everything that wasn’t reality,” he says. He spent much of his childhood researching which books won the major science fiction prizes each year, then seeking those titles out. But even as those iconic works were beginning to mold him as a young writer, Jimenez couldn’t escape the sense that something was missing from them: people like himself, a gay person of mixed-race heritage.
“A lot of the science fiction I grew up reading, all the characters were straight, and most of them were white, and that wasn’t something that really represented my own experience,” says Jimenez, who is half-Filipino. “I just wanted to add whatever little I could to what feels like a growing wave of new genre.”
Jimenez’s debut, The Vanished Birds, is his attempt to better represent his own experience within a sci-fi framework, but it’s no “little” addition to the genre landscape. Diverse in both its cast of characters and the scope of its ideas, it combines satisfyingly complex science fiction concepts—interstellar travel via folding time, humanity’s future in the stars and more—with an emotional core that feels at once intimate and grand. It evokes the fate of a universe while also focusing with deft intensity on the bonds that form between lost people.
Diverse in both its cast of characters and the scope of its ideas, ‘The Vanished Birds’ combines satisfyingly complex science fiction concepts with an emotional core that feels at once intimate and grand.
Jimenez began working on the novel when he was studying for his MFA at Emerson College. In an effort to draw his classmates into his story without burying them under piles of science fiction lore, he started in a somewhat self-contained way, composing the opening chapter of the book almost like a piece of short fiction.
“I felt like I had to prove that I could write genre with some level of emotional intelligence, and that meant writing this fleshed-out short story of this person’s life,” he says. “So it’s very grounded but in a heightened reality.”
This early approach helped to shape The Vanished Birds as a series of individual narratives that merge into a satisfying whole. At the heart of it all is Nia Imani, a woman who exists outside of time due to frequent travel through “folding” space. When she is entrusted with the care of a mysterious boy who fell from the sky, a boy whose only communication is the haunting flute music he plays, Nia finds an anchor point for her life, and the two forge an almost familial bond. As it becomes apparent that the boy’s gifts are much more than musical, the unlikely duo find themselves caught in a struggle with universe-altering stakes.
As those stakes become clear, Jimenez covers sci-fi concepts ranging from the corporate future of space settlement to the interpersonal dynamics of a starship crew. But above all these themes is the question of lost time, something Jimenez is deeply invested in as our technology-driven world rushes forward.
“I’m very much concerned with lost time, mostly just with my own life and wondering if I’m making the right choices,” he says, “if writing a book is the right decision for me right now, and if I’ll be happy by the end of my life. If I was like, ‘Well, I wrote three books and then I died,’ is that enough to call a satisfying life? With each passing year, time seems to be going quicker and quicker, and that seems to be the trend for everyone throughout the arc of their own lives, whether it’s a brain chemistry thing or just perception of time as we experience more of it. You lose more of it faster the more you experience it, and it’s a very frightening thing. And whatever you’re frightened of is very useful material for writing an entire book about.”
“If I was like, ‘Well, I wrote three books and then I died,’ is that enough to call a satisfying life?”
Certainly, The Vanished Birds reflects Jimenez’s anxieties, but great works of genre fiction cast light upon the hopes of their authors’ eras as well as the concerns, and he’s accomplished that as well. There’s a great thread of light running through this spellbinding book, rooted in the joy that comes from the family we find on our journeys, the people we choose to accept as our own.
“I’ve found the most fulfilling years of my life have been when I had agency over who I was with and who I laughed with and who I ate with,” Jimenez says. “The stories that I fell in love with were always about characters who were lost but who found love and safety in the arms of people who were at first strangers but then became so much closer, because they had active agency over the love they shared.”
It’s this joy, the sense that we can make our own families, that makes The Vanished Birds soar.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of The Vanished Birds.
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