Thursday R&R: “Wake-Rider” by Vandana Singh

[Thursdays around these parts are for R&R…reading and rumination! I’ll dig into a specific piece of writing (usually short fiction) and share my thoughts and analysis.]

The Basics

This week I’m looking at “Wake-Rider” by Vandana Singh, published this month by Lightspeed Magazine, which lists the story’s length as 4816 words.

Why I Picked It

First, as a general principle I’m trying to read more women, writers of color, queer writers, etc. Much of my reading when I was younger was pretty homogeneously straight white male, and it’s important to me to read more widely now.

For this story in particular, I was in the mood for science fiction and the title caught my eye. I considered analyzing one or two other stories I read this week, but there were a few parts of this one I wanted to draw attention to.

What to Look For

If you decide to read this story, I recommend paying special attention to how Singh builds her world and shares details and information with the reader. Some pieces of history and background are delivered in efficient exposition, others must be inferred from context, and still others are embedded in character-oriented passages. The details of the world – technological, biological, historical, and sociological in particular – combine to create a fascinating setting from which I’d love to read more stories.

– – – Spoilers Follow Behind the Cut – – –

Summary

The story opens with our protagonist, Leli, about to begin her first solo mission for the revolution against the Euphoria Corpocracy. The mission is to follow a salvager ship to its destination. Leli rides the salvager’s Metaspace wake (title check), which leads her to a generation ship in a part of space controlled by a world that’s been “cleansed” by Euphoria’s “nanoplague,” a presumably nanobot-borne weapon that turns people into processors and consumers for Euphoria. Leli sneaks on board the generation ship and races the salvager’s crew to find what’s so important about this ship. She discovers hundreds of dead, cryofrozen bodies, including many that appear cured of the nanoplague. In the process of escaping with a cured child’s body, Leli accidentally destroys both the generation ship and the salvage ship (killing its sixty-four crew). A guilt-ridden Leli drifts in her small ship, hoping to be found eventually.

First Line

This is a story from the time before she was famous.”

In an embarrassing lapse, I managed to forget about this line by the time I reached the end of the story and was delighted to rediscover it when I went back to prepare this post. It succeeds as a first line in setting the stage – we know that we’ll be following an interesting/important character, we’re curious about what she’ll become famous for – and gains greater clarity after finishing the story. I heartily approve.

Last Line

She cleared her throat and her voice filled the small chamber, trembling at first but then becoming a thing of its own, rich and strong, singing to the unlistening dead.”

This is the culmination of Leli’s strong reaction to accidentally killing the salvage crew, a reaction which I at first found a little perplexing in its magnitude. The crew are presumed to be controlled by the nanoplague, and people in that state have been viewed as essentially dead in other parts of the story. Still, I appreciated the detail of the ritual existing in the first place. I also find it interesting that the ritual appears to be more for Leli’s benefit, as a reminder not to kill, than for any sort of supernatural purpose (this is suggested by the description of the dead as “unlistening”).

Notable Passages

Theme: “To get used to killing, to become indifferent to it, is a terrible thing.”

This comes very near the end, and is I think a fairly bald statement of the theme of the story. Throughout the story, Leli is surrounded by death: the worlds of “dead” nanoplague slaves, the frozen corpses on the generation ship, memories of death from her youth (“She had seen death in nearly every form.”), etc. However, she is horrified by her unintended murder of the salvage crew, and that reaction, combined with this remembered quotation from her mentor and the existence of her penance ritual, all suggest that the revolutionaries strive very hard never to be jaded by death or killing. Broaden “killing” to “pain” or “suffering” and you’ve got a potent message to many of our present-day leaders (thinking here of the recent torture report and the protests over excessive police violence).

Metaphor: “She saw then that the light was a bioluminescence, and the chamber a farm, or what had been one. It stretched for quite a distance, but the crops had long turned to dust, and the thing that dominated the room – an enormous fungal growth, with bulbs and branches twice as thick as a person and several times as long – was glowing faintly.”

This comes early in Leli’s exploration of the generation ship, and I think it’s an apt analogy for the Euphoria Corpocracy and its nanoplague, gobbling up worlds of thinking individuals with an all-consuming homogeneous force. It’s also a nicely evocative piece of writing that creates an odd mixture of fascination and revulsion.

Character: “The life of the domicile fell apart, and she thought she would always be abandoned, time and time again.”

This is part of an extended backstory reverie we get after Leli finds the frozen corpses. I call it out because one of the aspects I noticed about the story was how alone Leli was for so much of it. She never really confronts the salvage crew face to face, she has no crewmates (just a “jinn” computer helper without name, personality, or dialogue), and the only time someone speaks to her, it’s over a communications channel. The story ends with her alone in space, waiting for someone to pick her up. That presumably happens, meaning she is not ultimately abandoned, but I thought this was an interesting way to tie the story’s past and present together.

Final Thoughts

While I wouldn’t describe this as a mind-shattering piece of fiction, I appreciated the depth of worldbuilding, the language used to convey the details of that world, and several of the techniques used to connect the story’s theme and character elements. It’s definitely worth taking the time to read it.

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