The Vanished Birds both honors the space freighter premise and dismantles it—at one point, literally. Only part of the novel is set on a ship and among a crew, and by its end both feel irrelevant to the novel's point—and certainly to its characters. But The Vanished Birds nevertheless feels like a quintessential additional to the subgenre, because, perhaps more than any example of it since Firefly itself, it grasps that this is a premise rooted in inequality. Unlike traditional space opera, with its gargantuan time scales and equally gargantuan space objects and battles, the space freighter gives us a groundling's view of the inhabited galaxy. Its stories are often concerned with the prosaic demands of life under capitalism, and especially for people who possess only a small amount of power within it. What The Vanished Birds is interested in is the limited choices and limiting structures that such a life binds people into, even those who supposedly enjoy the freedom of a spaceship.
I know we just got done handing out last year's Hugo awards, but if there's one novel from 2020 that I am eager to see on next year's shortlists, The Vanished Birds is it. Hopefully more people will discover it.