Asala and Niko are trapped on the surface of Gan-De, desperate to get themselves – or at least the vital information they carry – off-planet. But they haven’t been careful enough. General Cynwrig has started to put together the pieces…
I can’t help it; I just love Becky Chambers’s prose. I relaxed into The Vela this week, even though it’s far from a relaxing episode. In fact, everything is heading for critical…
Having reflected on Asala and Niko’s relationship last week, this week sees them considering how far they’ve come. Asala is growing proud of her clumsy young sidekick, and has begun – gasp – to consider them a capable field agent (or at least capable of becoming one). As for Niko, they’re conflicted. They are finally getting the affectionate banter and respect they craved from Asala… and they’re much too aware of how many lies they’re telling her.
Guilt is a bitch.
You’d be right to think this episode finally lifts the lid on what Niko has been hiding all along, and exploring Asala’s response (but let’s talk about the rest of the episode before we get to spoiler territory).
Given the long, threatening shadow she cast over the first two episodes, the action-packed hunt for The Vela has heard remarkably little from General Cynwrig – until now. What I wasn’t prepared for was how happy I was to see the system’s repressive dictator back on-page. I don’t agree with her about, well, anything: I just appreciate a well-designed antagonist.
I love how deftly Becky Chambers has built Cynwrig up as a character. Episode 2 gave us a wry sense of humour, a sweet tooth, relatable family affections and made the point that you don’t get to slaughter your way to the top of a planetary tree by being stupid. The Traitor comes straight back to that point: Cynwrig has been working on figuring out what Asala and Niko are really up to ever since she got off the Altair, because their cover story was terrible.
Seeing the world from Cynwrig’s point of view is unsettling. Once again, Becky Chambers makes her awfully human with her reflections on interior design (I’m not kidding) – and as ruthlessly cold as the winter that is creeping up on each planet in turn. Cynwrig doesn’t believe in gestures, she believes in results. She’s all about getting things done efficiently – so when she reaches out to Soraya on Camp Ghala, I was damn certain she wasn’t actually inviting the starving, careworn do-gooder for dinner.
I have to admire how unnecessary it is for Cynwrig to mention torture or executions. The groundwork has been laid too well: they’re implicit in her careful choice of words. Cynwrig is only a good person within the very narrow frame of reference she defined for Niko: she does right by her people (…which doesn’t even mean all the people of Gan-De, as ungrateful wretches discover when they protest her regime’s practices).
“Leave the guilty behind”
This question of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is central to the storm brewing over Gan-De. Hafiz and Ryouta are prepared to abandon everyone from the surface of Gan-De inward to the sun. Cynwrig is happy to sacrifice anyone who doesn’t support her (she doesn’t see it in those terms, but let’s be honest). His enemies suggest that President Ekrem will abandon even his supporters.
So what about Asala and Niko?
Asala’s loyalties have been ambiguous since A Leisurely Extinction. We have repeatedly seen her turn her back on Hypatian refugees from the start, steadfast in her duty to President Ekrem. But we have also seen the doubt creep in these past two episodes, as it has become clear he has repaid her loyalty with lies – or at least misdirection. Asala doesn’t necessarily believe Ekrem will do a runner to save his skin, but she doesn’t blindly trust he’ll do the right thing, either.
And Asala isn’t blind to who is most affected by the crisis engulfing the solar system. She acknowledges that we fixate on figureheads – hating whole planets on account of their leadership. And she recognises that the farmers of Gan-De just want to farm their crops, raise their kids and give their pets ridiculous names – and avoid Cynwrig’s firing squads.
Do they deserve to be left behind to die because they happen to live under Cynwrig’s repressive regime?
I suspect this will be a central question from here on in. Who lives, who dies; whose loyalty will be rewarded, whose interests will be served. It’s increasingly clear there are no good guys per se: only those who consider themselves in the right (which is practically everyone), and those who will be left to freeze because they’re not in an inner circle.
Will Asala step up and partner with Soraya to rescue the many? Will she remain loyal to Ekrem in the hope that Hafiz is wrong about him? And what will Niko do?
…and more to the point in the short term, what will Asala do about Niko now she knows exactly where their loyalties lie?
ENTERING SPOILER TERRITORY, BEWARE
While I was clear Niko wasn’t working for their father – and that Ekrem would likely be unhappy with whatever company his youngest child was keeping – I was still surprised to discover exactly where they stood. Finding out that Niko not only knew what Hafiz has planned but supports it and is prepared to defend it was a bit of a gut punch. I had them pegged as standing with Soraya; but it seems Niko has less compassion and more toxic guilt than I bargained for.
The bone-deep irony isn’t lost on me that in abandoning their entire planet, Niko has a chance to save their own skin, but I’m not sure Niko acknowledges it. I think there’s a cracked mirror in Niko’s future that they may not enjoy gazing into. And you can be damn sure Asala will be the one holding it up.
If she doesn’t trade the traitorous little wretch in exchange for safe passage off Gan-De.
Oh yes, I enjoyed this week immensely. But now I need to go mourn the discovery that my cinnamon roll is burnt to a crispy shell.
I was sent an advance copy of The Vela in exchange for honest reviews ahead of release, but I’d already subscribed to it because oh my goodness this is so clearly my jam. Not sure where that leaves me with the new UK laws on declaring interests? No, me either.
The Vela is now available at https://www.serialbox.com/serials/the-vela