book club: these constellations will be yours

Okay new series here at No Award: Once a month (or so) we’re going to review short stories written by non-white SFF authors. Short stories because they’re easier to fit into our schedules, and also we’ll make sure they’re accessible online so you can read them.

This month, These Constellations Will Be Yours, by Elaine Cuyegkeng. Strange Horizons, 7 August. 5000 words of a space opera fairy tale about Filipino oracles and the galleon trade.

Disclaimer: Stephanie totally adores Elaine and got pushy about this being our first review. (Liz also adores Elaine and didn’t have to be pushed very hard.)

Stephanie says:

I was always predisposed to love this story, because it’s Southeast Asian colonialism criticisms, and you probably know that us Southeast Asians have a lot of feelings about colonialism, and want to process more of them.

Describing this piece as space opera fairy tale is so perfect, because it is both space opera and fairy tale and it turns out that’s my new favourite form of space opera. It’s lyrical and beautiful; it’s soft and gentle and brutal. It is the reality of colonialism as it first occurs and as it echoes down the centuries towards us. It’s the ways in which we, the colonised, accept the rules set upon us, and the ways in which we rebel and allow our hearts to disrupt and burst.

There were so many words I didn’t know because they were completely unfamiliar to me, and I love that, too.

I wanted to write a more coherent review, but the reality is that this is an easy read, with beautiful, tasty world-building, and though the characters are few they are strong and visible and I love them all, even the villain. (The villain is colonialism)

Liz says:

Let me say, upfront, that I do not read much short fiction. In fact, I proposed this new feature because I feel bad about that and want to make an effort to read more.

There are two reason I don’t read much short fiction. One is that I read every issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1996 to about 2000 when I was a teen, and nothing kills enthusiasm for a form faster than forcing yourself to read really terrible works just because They Seem Important.

The other … this gif sums it up:

Animated gif from Avatar: the Last Airbender - Zuko unravels a scroll, saying, "That can't be it." He looks at the scroll's blank underside, adding, "Where's the rest of it?"

And that was me at the end of “These Constellations Will Be Yours”. I had to spend a few minutes flailing around, going, “That was amazing and I was so immersed and I just want more!”

But there’s nothing more pointless than complaining that a short story isn’t a novel. It’s like eating a perfect cupcake and then whinging because it wasn’t a three-tier wedding cake. I mean, really.

To take the story on its own merits: I am in awe of Elaine’s ability to create such a rich, dense piece of worldbuilding in just 5000 words. There are strong echoes of Catholicism, and especially the use of Catholicism as a tool of colonialism, and also to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. And also ballet. And spiders. And space. There’s a lot going on, is what I’m saying, but it’s all balanced perfectly.

When Stephanie said we should talk about Elaine’s story, I had a moment of panic, because there’s nothing worse than reading your friend’s writing and not enjoying it. But I needn’t have worried: this was beautiful, and I’m so glad I read it. If it were a cupcake, it would be mocha, with rosewater (vegan) buttercream and a delicate spiderweb of fairy floss on top.

She told us of the First Expedition’s struggles: the pioneering experiments in bio-engineering and on oraculo bodies, the multitude of failures before they found success. She told us how they established the breeding programs that tracked and combined the best bloodlines until they produced us, the now-famed oraculos of Buyin. Voyages that once took centuries now take months or years and even rival empires court the Katalinan for the sake of this product. The oraculos of Buyin are our greatest gift to humanity, far more than Buyin’s indigo moths, our spider silk, our starlit pearls and black sugar.

“None of you are children,” Madre Eglantine said, touching my cheek with one long, thin hand. “So stop crying.”

Steph ends:

Go away and read this, and then come back and tell us how much you loved it, because it hurts and it’s beautiful and you felt it in your heart.