Friday, May 10, 2013

On a Red Station, Drifting - Aliette de Bodard

On a Red Station, Drifting is a novella and the longest piece de Bodard has published in her Xuya alternative history (or future history, not quite sure what to call it). It has been published in a nice hardcover edition by Immersion Press, which may be a little hard to get at the moment since the story has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula BSFA and Locus awards. The author tells me a digital edition is in the works though. Like some of the other pieces I've read, most notably Immersion and Scattered Along the River of Heaven it is set in the 22nd century on a space station. Although the stories are set in the same universe they can all be read independently but I do like the whole idea behind the Xuya time line. Personally I think it is past time the stories in this universe got collected.

War has come upon the Dai Viet empire. From its fringes rebels continue to take planets while at the center of the empire, a young emperor is sitting tight, refusing to commit his forces to open warfare. In the midst of this upheaval magistrate LĂȘ Thi Linh arrives at Prosper station, after having fled the planet she was serving the empire on. Linh has family on Prosper Station and she has come to ask for their hospitality. Family ties are strong but Linh carries a secret that might endanger the family. Her cousin Quyen, in the absence of her husband head of Prosper station, doesn't like or trust her. A battle of wills ensues.

Vietnamese culture is woven all though the story. Much of the governmental and family structures described in the story are adapted form ancient Vietnamese culture. Like the Mexica empire setting in other Xuya stories it is essentially a future civilization not as badly influenced by western colonization as in our own world. De Bodard mixes ancient customs with futuristic technology in a way that feels natural. I don't really know enough of Vietnamese culture to be able to judge how realistic someone from Vietnam might think it is but the alternate history does give her some space if play with. I think she uses that very well. Take special note of the food porn which creeps up in the Vietnamese Xuya stories. If the author keeps this up I think there is a cookbook in there somewhere.

Don't expect space battles or military scenes form this novella. The rebellion is a backdrop against which the story is set. It profoundly impacts the life of the main characters but the actual fighting stays at a distance. One of the things I liked a lot about this story is how the war is felt on Prosper station. A lot of family members are away on military duties, trade is not quite as brisk as it used to be and Quyen has serious problems keeping things together as head of the station. It is a task for which she feels unsuited, a task for which her education and life haven't prepared her. Linh on the other hand, has risen high in the service of the empire and this causes a lot of friction between the two.

I've been thinking about whether I like the two main characters of this novella at all and I think the conclusion must be that they are both rather unlikeable. There is something to the accusation that Quyen flings at Linh about feeling superior. Her having to beg her family for aid rankles and Linh can't hide that completely. On the other hand Quyen is a stubborn character, insisting on her position as head of the station and trying to make all the decisions on her own when she could, and should, pull on what resources remain to the family. Authority is important to the characters and respect for authority even more so. They use it is hurt each other quite badly.

The way authority is handled in this novel is one of the things that set Dai Viet culture apart from what the reader normally encounters in far future science fiction. De Bodard draws from Vietnamese history, which itself is heavily influenced by its big neighbor China. In her future rising service to the empire is can only be achieved though a process rigorous education and exams. Literature and poetry are very important in this education, the characters are constantly aware of others quoting from or alluding to classic works of poetry or literature. The way one prepares for a career in civil service and difference in status between such a career in this book and what one is used to in western society is striking. It reminded me a bit of Guy Gavriel Kay's novel Under Heaven.

One of the elements that returns in other stories is the presence of a Mind that monitors the station. In the story The Shipmaker for instance, we see how one of those minds is integrated into the systems of a new spaceship. They are of organic origin but practically immortal. At the same time they are fragile and delicate creatures, requiring things to be in balance to operate optimally. In The Shipmaker the principles of Feng Shui are used to achieve this balance, it is a discipline that is also known in places like Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam under different names. Prosper's Mind of course, is failing at the worst possible moment, adding even more stress to the already strained situation on the station. The story mostly focuses on the consequences of this deterioration of the Mind rather than it's causes though. I thought this aspect of the story was perhaps a bit underdeveloped.

On a Red Station, Drifting is an interesting piece of writing. It is a novella full of tension between the characters. An environment under so much pressure that traditionally expected politeness and family bonds are forgotten and outright hostility emerges. The novella shows us a side of interstellar war and puts the women who keep things running in the spotlight. It is perhaps not the most sympathetic portrayal but definitely a rewarding read. De Bodard once again manages to put together a complex tale, with a good mix of tradition and future technology and a couple of well developed characters. I wouldn't be surprised if it carries of one of the awards it's been nominated for. In fact, I'd think it's past time de Bodard won a Hugo or Nebula. In short, this one is well worth reading.

Book Details
Title: On a Red Station, Drifting
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Immersion Press
Pages: 106
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-9563924-5-9
First published: 2012

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