Defying Gravity: Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars
Light from Uncommon Stars is an elegant young adult novel that defies categorization as well as gravity—a light-as-air ride through bildungsroman, science fiction, and fantasy. This is not to say the novel is weightless; it grapples with serious themes, addressing both worldly and otherworldly terrors with a bracing matter-of-factness. Still, it never allows itself to be completely bogged down by them. This appears to be the signature style of Ryka Aoki, a trans Asian American poet, author, teacher, and composer. Her new novel is an intimate portrayal of a young woman coming into her own as she faces threats, both to her identity and her person, whose relentlessness and sheer cruelty make an actual demon’s incursions into her life look like a trifling matter.
Light from Uncommon Stars hits the ground running, with the protagonist doing the same—she is fleeing an abusive home and a family that cannot accept her for being transgender. We see Katrina’s desperation mount as she is ill-treated and harassed in Los Angeles, her adoptive city, and the unforgiving work she has to do to stay alive. Despite Aoki’s light touch, there are topics she broaches unflinchingly—within the first fifty of the novel’s nearly four-hundred pages, we hear of child abuse and witness instances of racism, transphobia, and rape. Katrina is obviously traumatized by everything she has had to endure. The novel takes us through the ins and outs of Katrina’s day-to-day preoccupations: her concerns about not having enough hormone pills, her worries about fitting into a dress, as well as the more intractable psychic wounds that give rise to such worries, to say nothing of her history of trauma and abuse.
Katrina, who is a talented amateur violinist, soon comes into the orbit of Shizuka Satomi, a renowned violin teacher also known as the Queen of Hell. Shizuka is bound by a contract that obliges her to deliver seven souls to hell, and so far, she has delivered six. The demon overseeing Shizuka’s contract has begun to press her for the last soul; failure to deliver it would lead to her own damnation. In her hunt for the seventh soul, Shizuka happens upon Katrina. Katrina is an unlikely candidate for the last soul, an unvarnished talent without any of the sense of entitlement or thirst for glory that hell prefers in its victims, but Shizuka is somehow drawn to her, and begins to groom her for delivery to hell.
Light from Uncommon Stars is speculative in many more ways than one, for it breaks the mold of conventional morality. This book is disarmingly—in fact, unnervingly—amoral. Aoki looks the darkness of life squarely in the eye, and writes about it without sugar-coating, acknowledging that the good exists alongside the bad and that neither one fully makes up for the existence of the other. The world that Katrina and Shizuka inhabit is a Manichean one in which good and evil are in a perennial war of attrition.
In Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, we first meet the demon Crowley kitted out in snakeskin shoes, speeding down the highway. In André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, Apollo and Hermes are simply strolling, incarnate, down a Toronto street. Godlike beings are no rarity in Light from Uncommon Stars either—we develop an uneasy familiarity with the novel’s resident demon Tremon Philippe and his sudden appearances in gardens, music shops, and beloved Chinese restaurants. Tremon’s main assignment at the moment is ensuring that hell gets its promised seventh soul from Shizuka; his methods become increasingly devilish and his check-ins more frequent as his doubt in Shizuka grows. It is only at the end of the novel that Tremon and Katrina finally meet, in a chilling scene in which Tremon tries to inveigle Katrina into thinking that death might actually be good for her.
Far less unsettling are the chapters featuring a family of extraterrestrials. Yes, you read that right. Aliens alongside violins and Faustian bargains may seem out of place to a reader accustomed to neat genres, but in Light from Uncommon Stars, the combination is like pineapple on pizza. More is more, love it or hate it. I loved it. At any rate, Aoki weaves together these disparate elements so early on and with such casual flair that you check your expectations at the door without even realizing it. Why indeed should Star Trek and Doctor Who have the monopoly on weird mashups? Aoki is imaginative about the aliens’ appearance, and about the circumstances that led to their fleeing their home planet, but every detail about their starship technology is an undisguised and unalloyed paean to Star Trek, with Aoki gleefully referencing the series by name several times throughout the novel. (I will, however, say that the space jargon she writes is much more intelligible than the dull technobabble forced on LeVar Burton for his role in Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
The head of the extraterrestrial family is Lan Tran, starship captain and mother to her crew. She and her family have sought refuge on Earth from the Galactic Empire, which is in the midst of an ineffable and seemingly unstoppable collapse called the Endplague—similar in cause and trajectory to the imperial collapse in Asimov’s Foundation. Initially, Lan writes Earth off as a primitive backwater, nothing more than a choice spot to build a stargate for Imperial tourists, and a place to keep her family safe from the horrors consuming her home. But Lan has underestimated earthlings—and it is only at the end of the book that she finds out that what could have saved her, and the Empire, was under her nose all along.
Reading about the aliens’ group dynamics and growing pains is a pleasant diversion in the midst of the hell-driven plot, but the most compelling alien affair of them all is the tender, tentative love between Lan Tran and Shizuka. Aoki does a beautiful job of portraying falling in love at an older age, rendering Lan and Shizuka’s story with all the elation proper to love, but also nodding to the realism and sense of proportion that different priorities and an already-formed sense of self can impart to the experience. Shizuka’s priorities do not shift when she begins falling in love with Lan; she simply divides her time between her heavenly affair and her hellish one.
We don’t hear a great deal about Tremon Philippe, but we may nonetheless find ourselves wanting to know still less about him—his gastronomical adventures, shady business ventures, and especially his prejudices. Tremon does not like East Asian people, barring a soft spot for Shizuka. Making the novel’s demon a stodgy, dress-shoe-wearing, mouth-breathing racist is one of Aoki’s many attempts to cast light on the banality of evil, and there is a smattering of wry commentary throughout the novel on the kind of racism levelled against East Asians.
Almost every important character in Light from Uncommon Stars is of East Asian descent, including Vietnamese and Chinese people, Thai people and those of hyphenated ethnic backgrounds. The extraterrestrials in this novel may inhabit human bodies, but those bodies are not white, as is the default in Western literature—rather, they are Vietnamese. The novel is peppered with Aoki’s observations of diasporic East Asian communities in (usually Western) metropolises:
Those who’ve never ridden a big white Asian bus probably never will. These buses don’t load at Greyhound bus depots or train stations. Instead, one catches them at an Asian shopping center or supermarket.
Food, too, is a constant in Light from Uncommon Stars—we hear of bitter melon, noodles, kiwi boba, tea eggs, tangerines and eggplant parmigiana. Its presence in the novel is comforting, and a perpetual source of delight to its characters—a pleasure we readers soon begin to share in. Anyone who makes it through the book without exceeding their daily recommended caloric intake should consider it an achievement. Food is also a welcome refrain in a novel that can be morally discomfiting, and in which danger constantly looms. It is synonymous with home, whether for Katrina, for our aliens, or for the immigrant families in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley who grow fruit and vegetables in their yards. Food is occasionally even a character unto itself, obtruding unapologetically on conversations where souls hang in the balance, as in this one between Tremon and Shizuka:
“The chicken. It’s poached.”
“Shizuka, your student. How is she—”
Tremon’s words were interrupted by the clatter of dishes, as the server brought two plates of Hainan chicken to their table.
Lan’s family turns its attention to their donut shop within minutes of a literal earth-shattering moment, and throughout the novel, are as preoccupied with working on their stargate as they are with perfecting their donuts.
There is more about music in Light from Uncommon Stars than can be detailed in a single review; it is the bass note, the driving force of the novel, the cause of redemption, the cause of damnation, and the raison d’être of many characters. There are enough details about musical technique, music history, and lutherie in it to delight everyone from the entirely uninitiated to the classically trained. Aoki is an anti-snob. For her, aesthetic experience inheres not in the rarity of its object, but in the self-evident pleasurableness of an experience itself. Shizuka, an expert in classical violin, does not sneer when she discovers Katrina’s love of video game music; in fact, she appreciates it almost immediately. When Shizuka and Lan share an intimate moment, Shizuka hums a melody.
Lan closed her eyes. It was the most beautiful music Lan had heard.
“Bartok?” Lan ventured.
“No. Something my student taught me.”
What Shizuka is humming is an arrangement of the theme music from The NetherTale, a video game Katrina likes.
In music, as in food, the sensuous often takes center stage. It is this very quality of music, its sensuousness, that facilitates a most important journey for Katrina, for it invites her to accept her own hands, her own body, as a vehicle for the sublime. She must reacquaint herself with her own physicality in order to remain in touch with that which she loves most: her ability to play the violin.
Despite all its dwelling on hell and the complex dynamics of karma, Light from Uncommon Stars is not a book about original sin, nor is it about an obsession that drives the course of one’s life. It is not even about good and evil. Despite this absence of a moral center (and despite being generously populated with aliens, an AI, and a token demon), it is a book with radiant humanity at its heart; it is about the will to live. We don’t find out how to get to heaven in this novel, but we do know that only self-belief, and a firm conviction that we deserve happiness whatever our sins, can keep the hellhounds off our scent.