Light from Uncommon Stars: Book Review

There is some discussion as to whether there needs to be a clear dividing line between the genres of Science Fiction & Fantasy, that a work needs to be one or the other. As someone who encountered Shadowrun during my formative years of Middle School (shortly after Dungeons & Dragons), I’ve ultimately become someone who has come to realize that fantasy and science fiction are like chocolate and peanut butter. So, when Light from Uncommon Stars came up as a book pick for the Swords & Laser book club, as I’ve attempted to get caught up on my book reading I decided to put it on my list – even more so when I saw that it was nominated for the 2022 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Light from Uncommon Stars has two main tacks, one more fantastical, one more science fictional. On the fantastical side, there is a plot around Katrina Nguyen, a transgender woman and aspiring violinist who flees her abusive bigoted parents, with her violin, and ends up running into virtuoso violin teacher Shizuka Satomi in Los Angeles. Six of Shizuka’s last 6 students achieved superstardom, all before their careers collapsed and they suffered a tragic end – because Shizuka is the “Queen of Hell”, who had sold her soul to the devil to be able to continue to play, and is ultimately attempting to get out of the deal by providing seven souls to Hell. She’s provided 6, and she’s looking for the 7th. Katrina’s talent impresses Shizuka, and she decides to teach the runaway – but she also starts to develop second thoughts as to whether she’s willing to send the young woman to eternal damnation.

The science fiction side comes with a Los Angeles donut place called Starrgate Donut, which had formerly been run by a Vietnamese family, but who decided to sell the restaurant to some new owners who present as being from Cambodia but are aliens. As in from outer space. Specifically, they are running while they are on the run from a massive cosmic calamity called the Endplague, and in the process of running this donut shop, they end up running into Shizuka, and the ship’s captain – Lan – and Shizuka hit it off.

The book’s core plot becomes, to an extent: can Katrina – with her eschewing of musical convention (being previously self-taught with a focus on playing anime and video game music), and Lan – with her delicious, delicious donuts, save a soul?

To give a hint as to what the tone of the novel is, the first piece of music that we see Katrina play at Shizuka’s, outside of warmups, is a piece of music from Not-Undertale. To be clear, the plot of the game in question is described as skewing somewhat differently from Undertale’s plot, but the tones of the story and themes of the narrative and how it interacts with the game’s mechanics does feel like it’s meant to evoke Undertale, to enough of an extent that should this novel ever be adapted to screen or stage, the only right move for that adaptation would be to commission Toby Fox to write those pieces of music for the work (unless Fox had, of course, spectacularly Milkshake Ducked, God forbid).

It makes for a work that could be tremendously dark, dour, and somber, but pulls itself out of being maudlin by the same way that Lan and Katrina seek to save Shizuka (perhaps indirectly) – through the strength of personal emotional connections and what those can inspire us to do.

If I have a gripe, it has to do somewhat around how the concept of the Endplague is set up and ultimately how it plays into the conclusion. Without getting too much into spoilers, one of the developments that Lan discovers while living on Earth and getting to know Shizuka is realizing the potential possibilities for music as, if not a cure for the Endplague, then potential for recovery from it.

The flippant thing to say would be that I’d previously seen a concept like it with Macross 7, but Macross 7 is still, as of this writing, not legally licensed for distribution outside of Japan, so it would be unreasonable to assume that Ryka Aoki would have had an opportunity to watch it. It’s different from stories about music (particularly rock music) as the power to destroy totalitarianism (Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, Megazone 23 and AKB0048 and to a lesser extent Macross) or for mass spiritual freedom (The Who’s Lighthouse Project) – though it’s probably closer to the latter. Oddly enough, the closest we have to this is a show airing this season, which means it’s literally impossible for Aoki to have read it beforehand (and vice versa, it’s unlikely for the writers for the show to have encountered it before the show entered production), with Healer Girl – though that’s a case of literal healing instead of spiritual and psychic healing.

In all, this was a really strong book, and kind of what I needed recently.

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