BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A former magistrate flees planetary civil war, and is taken in by distant relations who find that such a gesture is not without friction or cost.
PROS: Interesting characters; unique setting; excellent prose; interesting take on artificial intelligence.
CONS: The social dynamics and ending may frustrate and confuse unprepared readers; the cover does the story no favors.
BOTTOM LINE: A sumptuous meal of a novella with excellent prose.
Le Thi Linh has fallen far. Formerly a magistrate of the twenty third planet, she has fled interstellar civil war to distant and isolated Prosper Station, where estranged members of her family reside. Family is family, no matter how distant, however, and those social obligations mean that Linh should be taken in, even if not made entirely welcome. However, Linh’s flight might have unexpected consequences, and her distant cousin’s heavy burden of running the station (as well as its slow slide into ruin) might yet doom them all.
On a Red Station Drifting is a deserving Nebula-nominated novella from Aliette de Bodard, published by Immersion Press, that offers a fascinating world. I’ve read plenty of space opera, based on cultures ranging from Byzantium to modern America, but a space opera universe based on the history of Vietnam? That is absolutely new to me. I suspect that my lack of knowledge of the history of southeast Asia meant that plenty of embedded references and allusions to its history were entirely lost, although some searching did turn up a couple. (In the forward, De Bodard mentions a Chinese pic, A Dream of Red Mansions, as an inspiration for this story.) But its deeper and more substantive than that. It’s not just a veneer of culture. The culture of the Dai Viet empire goes from the large-scale down to the motivations and personalities of the characters on the station. It’s a deep, long-lasting form of worldbuilding that works with and informs the characterizations.
I also liked some of the technology we see here. Certainly, there is a decided lack of hard technology; this is not a novel for the tech-heads who want the intricacies of how space craft, stations and computer’s work. However, what the author does with artificial intelligences, both the station A.I. and the personal A.I advisors, is really very interesting. I found parallels and comparisons to other stories (by Catherynne Valente and Mary Robinette Kowal, in particular) to be useful touchstones in understanding how her A.I.s work. But rest assured, de Bodard has very clear ideas of her own.
One should not be surprised that this story not only passes the Bechdel test, but the action and power is firmly in the hands of the female characters, espeically Linh, her cousin Quyen, and also also the Honored Ancestress A.I. that runs the station. This is the kind of fiction that might have been inconceivable if published a couple of decades hence but now not only feels natural and proper. De Bodard’s women are fully realized characters many writers can look at as models on how to do characters right.
I think that the relative lack of whizz-bang conflict, and the ending, might frustrate some readers. The ending makes absolute sense to me, even though it is not the ending I might have wished for the characters. This may turn off readers upon completion of the novella — but it is the journey that is important here, as well as its destination.
One other weakness is unfortunately right up front, and that is the cover. Even in an age of e-books, covers matter. I mentioned in my review of Archangel Protocol that the paperback cover was a factor in me picking it up years ago and reading it. Conversely, an unappealing cover is often a reason for me to pass up a book in favor of one of the myriad other books I might read instead. The unsightly cover of this novella, in my opinion, does this story, and the author, no favors whatsoever.
That said, On a Red Station Drifting is an excellent way for new readers to be introduced to De Bodard’s work. She channels her own heritage in an unexpected and well-done way. She is a writer who deserves attention. Here is your chance to find out why.