This review contains spoilers.
It can be fairly difficult to get a handle on what’s actually happening at any particular point in Aliette de Bodard’s 2018 novella In the Vanishers’ Palace. Her prose is so rooted in her protagonist’s head, and her far-future world so wrong-footingly unfamiliar, that we frequently end up reading passages like this, where it’s hard to visualise what’s really going on:
Up close, the pillar was nothing like stone, more like polished metal given a slightly different sheen. Odd rectangular patterns were carved within it, parallel lines splitting around darker islands of pooled silver, converging towards squat nexuses in haphazard fashion. It looked like a child’s drawing, random lines and circles, but nevertheless it didn’t feel random, more like something that had its own logic…
The pillar in question is in the titular Vanishers’ palace, whence our protagonist Yȇn is taken after her mother summons the dragon-spirit Vu Côn to heal the daughter of a village elder. There is always a price for miracles, after all. Initially believing she’ll be eaten, or tortured then eaten, Yȇn is in fact tasked with looking after Vu Côn’s children Liên and Thông, to teach them ethics and etiquette and duty, for reasons that will become clear later in the narrative.
It’s a slantwise retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”, although I didn’t actually realise this until I’d finished reading it. Thematically, the two stories share an interest in morality – “Beauty and the Beast” is explicitly a didactic moral tale about what women should look for in a husband, whereas part of Yȇn’s job is to teach her charges morality through literature – and in filial piety: you’ll remember that the whole reason Beauty ends up in the Beast’s palace is because she loves her father too much to let him die, and the same is pretty much true of Yȇn, albeit her concern is for her elderly mother. The science-fictional Vanishers’ palace in which Vu Côn lives is every bit as fantastical as the Beast’s palace, capable of producing perfect fruit and other delicious foods from scratch (or, rather, from molecules, one assumes) and equipped with a vast and miraculous library.
But of course de Bodard somewhat complicates, interrogates, her original’s simplistic morality. “Beauty and the Beast” is pretty nakedly a bourgeois-capitalist fantasy: Beauty, daughter of a family down on their luck (although not so down on their luck that they cannot keep servants, apparently), attains wealth, comfort and rank by recognising her husband’s virtue. The magical palace is a manifestation of that wealth, able to provide Beauty with rich food without expending any visible effort. De Bodard’s Vanishers’ palace, meanwhile, is a different proposition altogether: the Vanishers being a godlike race who took the world apart, poisoning the land, bequeathing horrible gene-altering viruses to humanity and bending the laws of physics before, as their name suggests, disappearing somewhere nobody can reach them. The price of the untainted food their palace can produce, then, is precisely the price all but the richest of us are currently paying under capitalism: ruined fields, deadly disease, and – the central theme of In the Vanishers’ Palace, this – a cultural system that values humans according to their usefulness.
This last is where the theme of filial piety ties in. Vu Côn’s idea of responsible parenthood – of responsible guardianship not only of Liên, Thông and Yȇn but also of the hundreds of sick people occupying the makeshift hospital she’s set up in the palace – is to make decisions for her charges instead of telling them what’s up and allowing them to choose what they want. It’s this that drives much of the interpersonal tension in the novel; which is to say, the tension between Vu Côn and Yȇn, who are immediately attracted to each other despite the power differential. It’s also a complication of the original text’s straightforward view on parental relationships and traditional authority: that straightforward view, de Bodard posits, leads to the infantilisation of children and ultimately to their dehumanisation.
Back, then, to that labyrinthine prose; which I think is echoing on a technical level de Bodard’s thematic complication of “Beauty and the Beast” – that is to say, disturbing our expectations of what fairy tales are supposed to do, viz., work as clear, readable, didactic texts. In the Vanishers’ Palace does, I think, have a clear message – “don’t treat people as things” – and its disease-riddled post-apocalyptic setting obviously has clear, almost uncanny parallels with our own climate-changed, coronavirus-haunted reality. But, unlike its source text, it’s also more than its message and its relevance: in the impossible spaces of the Vanishers’ palace and inside Yȇn’s own head there are Gothic enormities. This is one of those books that feels larger than its actual page count (198, if you’re interested) would suggest. It’s messy and a little inelegant and sometimes you have to read back a few pages to work out what’s happening. But also? Those imperfections are what makes it fascinating.