Aliette de Bodard fashions a fascinating albeit understated crisis in deep space with her ingenious novel ‘On a Red Station, Drifting’

January 28, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 28, 2019

Aliette de Bodard’s 2013 novel On a Red Station, Drifting is an intriguing, understated science fiction story set in a future galactic empire where Vietnamese culture reigns supreme.

The story begins as Lê Thi Linh, a magistrate — here apparently signifying a planetary governor — arrives at an interstellar outpost known as Prosper Station. Linh has preemptively fled her position on the Twenty-Third planet because of an approaching invasion fleet led by an insurrectionist warlord. Resources are scarce on Prosper Station because of the rebellion, which the emperor finds himself unable or unwilling to resolve. The position of chief human administrator on Prosper has fallen to Lê Thi Quyen, whose husband was drafted by the empire.

Linh and Quyen share a distant family relationship through the latter’s absent husband. However, they take an almost instant dislike to one another:

Cousin Linh had bowed, to be sure, but it was with the stiff grace of people unused to obeisance. Even bowed, she’d held herself with quiet, easy arrogance, and spoken with the lilted, old-fashioned speech characteristic of scholars. Her gaze had wandered from time to time, each time for a fraction of a second, enough for Quyen to guess Linh was communicating with several mem-implants; that her speech, her manners would have been coached by [digitized] ghost images of her own ancestors, honed to perfection like the design of a mindship. 

In short, Linh was everything Quyen wasn’t: a success at the exams, the greater partner in a marriage, should she so choose. Linh would never be sent away [in an arranged marriage] to broker a trade alliance, would never have to produce children to be judged worthy, and her work was admired and praised within the Dai Viet Empire. Unlike Quyen, who was little better than a broodmare. 

And a failure even at that. Quyen had no children; and her husband, like so many greater marriage partners, had been called away by the necessities of the war. He’d left one bright morning on a mindship, and he’d been gone for so long without news that Quyen found herself forgetting even the sound of his voice. 

“You look thoughtful,” the Honoured Ancestress said. The familiar, reassuring pressure slid against her mind, a reminder that she might not have mem-implants, but that she wasn’t alone. 

“Just wondering what to do with Cousin Linh,” Quyen lied. She felt ashamed of where her thoughts dragged her, but the woman rubbed her the wrong way — something in the tilt of her head, in her casual arrogance, in her behavior, typical of someone who’d always had the world go their way and couldn’t even have the grace to bow when it abased her. 

The Honoured Ancestress’s pressure ebbed and flowed, as it often did when She was considering a problem. “We are not short of postings on Prosper Station,” She said. 

The Honoured Ancestress is a human-gestated intelligence, part organic and part cybernetic, which has regulated Prosper’s systems for centuries. As Quyen soon realizes, the Ancestress is faltering, plagued by complex problems that can only be addressed using expertise the station’s populace does not possess. In short, Prosper is teetering on the edge of catastrophic failure, a perilous condition that’s exacerbated by the friction between the station’s human leader and the distant cousin whom she loathes.

One nexus of conflict between Quyen and Linh soon emerges in the form of Huu Hieu, a dissolute member of Prosper’s founding family. For the administrator, the relative is an embarrassment and liability. When we first meet him, he is literally falling-down drunk in public; even worse, he’s sold his mem-implants, an offense roughly comparable to a lesser member of the British royal family pawning a bust of Queen Victoria.

But Linh sees a very different side of the man. Ironically, like Quyen herself, Huu Hieu has been exiled from his home in order to cement an alliance; the unease and homesickness she feels is but a fraction of what he experiences. Linh’s growing empathy for Huu Hieu helps bring the tension between her and Quyen to a head at a critical moment.

De Bodard brings this very formal, status-conscious society to life in vivid fashion. Even more to her credit, I found things to like and dislike about all of the book’s leading characters. On a Red Station, Drifting is a bit light on plot, but I was very interested in seeing whether Quyen and Linh’s rivalry, and the Honoured Ancestress’s decline, could be amenably resolved. This isn’t a particularly dramatic book, but it contains plenty to fascinate the thoughtful reader.

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