Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard
Vân opens the front door to her room to see that the avatar for the mindship The Wild Orchid in Sunless Woods is in the common access area used by Vân and her student, Uyên. Sunless Woods is there to tell Vân that the poetry club in which they are both members is considering ousting Vân on the grounds that she is “commonplace” and “vulgar,” limited by her birth into poverty rather than as a privileged member of the scholarly and wealthy class. It’s a judgment with which Sunless Woods does not agree, so she’s come to warn Vân.
Vân fears this action for several reasons: she’ll lose her job as a private teacher for the wealthy Uyên; but more than that, she risks exposure. For Vân has a mem-implant that is not only unconventional but illegal: a conglomeration of sharp minds and not an ancestor at all. But that problem quickly takes second place when Uyên comes into her teacher’s quarters to tell her that a visitor who just joined her a few minutes ago is dead.
So begins Seven of Infinities (2020), a lovely novella by Aliette de Bodard that has been nominated for a Locus Award. It’s a science fiction mystery, an unconventional romance, a glimpse into an entire culture de Bodard has created in her Xuya universe (though one need not have read other stories set in this universe in order to appreciate Seven of Infinities).
Sunless Woods is an especially fascinating character, a thief, a lover, a scholar and a fundamentally decent person who also happens to be a starship. Vân is mostly meek and mild, filled with guilt and fear, but with a steel core; people regularly underestimate her. De Bodard manages to convey the utterly alien character of her deep space setting and how humans have adapted to it.
But the intricate plot is really the star of this tale. I often have trouble with de Bodard’s work in that I tend to feel like I’ve been thrown into the deep end of a pool with no swimming lessons. Perhaps it is my unfamiliarity with Vietnamese folklore, religion and customs that make her work difficult sometimes for an American of Eastern European descent like me.
This novella speaks past my ignorance, however, and gives me a completely engrossing tale that stretches my imagination. It’s one of the best stories she’s written yet.