Book review: On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard

23 11 2016

Aliette de Bodard is a software engineer and Nebula-, Locus-, and BSFA-award-winning speculative fiction writer of Vietnamese / French heritage. She has several published novels and numerous short stories to her name (to one of which, ‘Dragon Feasts’, I can lay editorial claim, since it appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 35, my first ASIM issue).

redstationdrifting

On a Red Station, Drifting focusses on the culturally-prescribed enmity between Lê Thi Linh, an erudite former magistrate, and Lê Thi Quyen, the operations manager of Prosper space station to which Linh has fled, seeking asylum, after her home planet falls under attack. The interplanetary society within which the novella is set is one with an inflexible and strongly hierarchical code of conduct, buttressed by ancestor veneration, literary allusion, and the ties of blood. Quyen is obliged to offer sanctuary to her distant cousin Linh, but she is mistrustful of Linh and accordingly assigns her a role, that of tutor, which ensures the former magistrate has negligible opportunity to usurp the operations manager’s role. Linh, in turn, is deeply resentful of Quyen’s heavy-handed power games: her loss of status rankles. Throw in some petty crime—the theft of a headful of memory cubes containing the stored personalities of some treasured ancestors—and the development of a troubling glitchiness in the station’s overarching artificial mind, and the stage is set for a slow-burn confrontation between the two women.

I’m sure there are allusions within OaRS,D which elude me—the story appears steeped in Vietnamese culture, of which I’m largely ignorant—but the novella is impressive for the depth and consistency of the worldbuilding, and it doesn’t take too long before the rather constrained behavioural palette feels innate and natural. It’s well done and rather moving, though the dominance of socialisation over personality did, for me, have a somewhat distancing effect: it’s a strong story, but it’s not a warm story. The story requires its austerity of characterisation, but this isn’t something that endears the reader. (At least, that was my experience of it.)

The book is, in many ways, a tragedy of manners first and a SF novella second. (Which is not to say that the SF components are bolted on as an afterthought—rather, they’re fairly tightly woven into the worldbuilding—but that it would be possible to envisage, and to construct, a variant on the story in which broadly the same outcome ensued in the absence of any SFnal furniture.) Beyond this, it’s a well-executed piece of fiction exploring a setting very different to the mainstays of SF (which is, in itself, a very science-fictional approach to adopt), and de Bodard’s writing is precise and expressive.

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