Hugo 2022 Novel: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

I was a bit worried from the publicity blurb of the book, that this would be a bit twee or a variation on the premise of The Galaxy and the Ground Within. Yes, there is a doughnut shop that is a central setting for the story but the novel isn’t particularly focused on the idea of a comforting or familiar place. It’s not a fantasy version of Cheers with doughnuts (not that premise couldn’t be a fun story, just that it isn’t this one).

The story’s core is music and the relationship between a developing musical talent and their mentor. Such relationships, oft dramatised, exist in a duality between support and emotional abuse. In the novel, we have Shizuka Satomi, a violin teacher who has an incredible track record of coaching some of the greatest young violinists for decades. Her intimidating reputation and the many tragic ends to her student’s careers have earned her the name “the queen of hell”. The name is more literal than it appears as she does have supernatural powers and is in a predatory bargain with a demon.

Meanwhile, Katrina Nguyen has run away from an abusive home because (in part) she is transgender. She is also a natural talent with a violin. Circumstances bring her and Shizuka Satomi together. What Katrina doesn’t know is that Miss Satomi needs to deliver the soul of one more talented violinist to a demon to free her own soul from a hellish fate. The author literalises the duality between support and abuse in elite performance with this neat fantastical element. For most of the book, even as Shizuka Satomi proves to be an understanding and supportive figure in Katrina’s life, the Faustian bargain (OK, we learn it isn’t quite as Faustian as it seems) looms.

Meanwhile, Lan Tran and her family are disguised aliens, running a doughnut shop as a cover. Tran has layers of deception. She has disguised her appearance and that of her family so they look human. The doughnut shop is a front for their spaceship but it is also part of a fake business scheme that Tran used to disguise her motive of fleeing her home planet. Her species is in the throes of a psychological plague of existential ennui that is manifesting in both institutional and personal violence. Through happenstance, Tran’s story becomes entangled with Katrina’s and Miss Satomi’s.

Within these stories arises Ryka Aoki’s grand philosophical essay on an unanswerable question. What does it mean to be authentic? In particular, within the creative aspect of performance, what distinguishes the essence or the soul of performance? I say “performance” but this goes beyond music and into (inevitably) baking. What makes a good doughnut? Aoki sets up one of those neat science-fictional premises that work as philosophical experiments. Lan Tran bought the doughnut shop from an ageing couple who wanted to retire. To maintain the business she had her crew scan the physical product line and reproduce the doughnuts using the ship’s Star-Trek like replicators. Over time, customers lose interest in the doughnuts, so what’s wrong with replicated doughnuts?

Put another way: what is wrong with a flawless performance? By definition, nothing. Yet in an age of digital reproduction why re-perform music? If you want to hear Yehudi Menuhin playing Bela Bartok’s sonata for solo violin, you can hop on You Tube and hear it over and over again.

I don’t think the novel answers these questions beyond appeals to magic but I don’t think it needs to. Nor does it answer the questions it raises on the issue of support/abuse within mentor-student relationships in elite settings but again I don’t think it needs to. Indeed, on the latter issue the novel instead pulls in some of its other cards, by providing science-fictional solutions to fantasy/horror genre problems.

There’s a lot going on here obviously. I haven’t touched on the broader background of the interaction of different Asian communities in California or changes over time in communities and neighbourhoods with shifting patterns of immigration. Quite how Ryka Aoki packs all this into one novel escapes me. Once you attempt to unpack what she has put in, the whole thing looks far bigger than novel produced. I suspect that’s why the publicity summaries make it more focused on what sounds like a found-family bonding over doughnuts (which isn’t incorrect but not really a good description of the novel).

Does it all work seamlessly? No. Shizuka Satomi is a great character and well-written but even once we get the deeper back story to the demonic bargain, the dual nature of the character as both the deeply humane mentor and as the Queen of Hell, really doesn’t make a single coherent person (or at least it doesn’t to me). There’s an aspect of that to Lan Tran as well, who acts poorly in some specific circumstances that is relevant to the plot but which don’t entirely add up in terms of her whole character. This may well be intentional on Aoki’s part. There’s a prolonged discussion about Bartok’s violin sonata and how it contains elements that if you aren’t familiar with it (and I’m not) will sound like errors by the violinist to the audience. Given that, the prominent discordant notes in Satomi’s and Tran’s characters are doubly interesting.

I don’t have a conclusion to the general review. I highly recommend this book. Aside from things generally all resolving themselves at the end, it is rarely obvious where the story is going. If you are actually after a book where people resolve their personal problems over doughnuts, that does happen in the story, just not always in the ways you might expect.

On to the vexed question of Hugo voting. Zoiks. There is a lot to recommend this as genre work and as a novel in general. It’s a layered discussion of multiple related themes that the author has put together and said “this, this is a thing”. Bartok, violin mums, the aspirations of immigrant families, souls, essences, things that are other things, a deception that disguises a deception that disguises that a thing is actually the thing that it is, performance, reproduction and emotional connections to art and place and food <- this isn’t even a sentence. I enjoyed it at the time and it has really stuck with me since. I would be happy to see this win.

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7 responses to “Hugo 2022 Novel: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki”

  1. Zoiks sounds like a good reaction this year. I’m not voting but, considering the novels nominated, I don’t know how I’d choose among them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My favorite book of 2021, and a strong #1 for me (although She Who Became the Sun is a strong #2). I think part of what makes this book incredible is how much it does in its not too long page-length, like you barely mentioned for example how significant a part of the book it is of how Katrina deals with transphobia – both externally and her own internalized version of those critiques that makes her ashamed of her ownself at time, something that Shizuka helps her with; or how you don’t mention the subplot of Shirley the AI daughter at all, etc. There’s just so much depth and ideas and themes here, and most of it works incredibly well. I just love this book so so so much, and there’s just so much great stuff here in the short package.

    My full review is here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2021/10/scififantasy-book-review-light-from.html

    Like

  3. I feel like I should mention that a friend of mine bailed on it because of some descriptions of abuse that happen fairly early in the book that she was not expecting. A caution warning for those who have difficulty with sexual abuse and transphobia. On the other hand, I should also say that I’ve had difficulty with dark themes/subjects this year (because the world is a dumpster fire) but did not have difficulty with this book.

    Liked by 1 person

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