On a Red Station, Drifting: An intricate view of an alternate world

On a Red Station, Drifting (Xuya Universe) Kindle Edition by Aliette de Bodard (Author)fantasy and science fiction book reviewsOn a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard

Linh was a magistrate on the 23rd Planet when war came. She escaped to Prosper Station on a ship full of refugees, waiting until all of the others’ papers were checked before introducing herself to the authorities. “Magistrate” is a position of considerable power in Linh’s universe, and when her identity is verified by reference to the station computers, she is taken to Quyen, the woman who runs the station. The two women take an instant dislike to one another, thus setting the stage for everything that follows.

Linh and Quyen are of Vietnamese heritage, in a world in which the Dai Viet — the Vietnamese dynasties, beginning with the rule of Lý Thánh Tông in 1054 — stayed in power until the space age, and then spread out among the stars. Their technology allows them to keep their ancestors with them in a very real way. Linh, for instance, has memory implants of six of her ancestors, and feels their presence so keenly that it is becoming difficult for her to tell the voices of the implants from that of her own mind, a common side-effect of being very good at using them. Prosper Station is managed by a Mind that takes the personality of an honoured ancestress.

Quyen has managerial control of the station by default. She was sent to the station in order to be married, to broker a trade alliance and act as a brood mare. She failed the examinations that might have given her a different life, examinations that Linh clearly passed. Quyen’s husband has been called away by the necessities of the war, and has been gone for so long that Quyen has almost forgotten the sound of his voice. This has left her in charge of the station, a position for which she has no training but fulfills well. What she perceives as Linh’s arrogance rubs her the wrong way, and rather than finding her a suitable position on the station, she relegates her to tutoring her nieces. It is an insult; such positions are normally filled by those who haven’t gone beyond the Provincial or Planetary examination, not by those who have passed the Metropolitan Exam and received her posting from the hands of the Emperor himself. And Linh fully appreciates the insult.

Everything is ripe for complication, especially when we learn that the Ancestress who serves as the station computer is failing; and even more so when we learn that Linh has made known her views about the Emperor’s execution of the war.

This novella, one of the six nominated for a Nebula Award this year, is intricately plotted and well-written. It suffers, however, from too many subplots and a failure to fully explain the motivations of the characters. In particular, we are told that Quyen and Linh dislike each other immediately, but the reasons for this dislike are not spelled out clearly. Perhaps de Bodard depended on her setting to give us this information; that is, perhaps their respective positions in society predispose them to a mutual dislike. But this is not sufficiently explained as an emotional matter, even if it is described as an intellectual one. Both women are usually cold and unemotional in their dealing with others, most especially in their dealings with each other, making them hard to like.

Still, one is surprised to learn that de Bodard is a trained engineer, because her knowledge of the Dai Viet and Vietnamese culture make one think she is an anthropologist. Given that she has written three novels set in an alternate world in which Mexico is ascendant, and a number of short stories in which a pre-Communist China is dominant, one expects her to have a degree in world history, at the very least, under her belt. Her attention to detail is exquisite. It will be interesting to see what she tackles next.

Published in 2012. A Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards novella finalist, from the author of the acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy, and set in the same universe as the Nebula and Locus Award winning “Immersion… For generations Prosper Station has thrived under the guidance of its Honoured Ancestress: born of a human womb, the station’s artificial intelligence has offered guidance and protection to its human relatives. But war has come to the Dai Viet Empire. Prosper’s brightest minds have been called away to defend the Emperor; and a flood of disorientated refugees strain the station’s resources. As deprivations cause the station’s ordinary life to unravel, uncovering old grudges and tearing apart the decimated family, Station Mistress Quyen and the Honoured Ancestress struggle to keep their relatives united and safe. What Quyen does not know is that the Honoured Ancestress herself is faltering, her mind eaten away by a disease that seems to have no cure; and that the future of the station itself might hang in the balance…

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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