On a Red Station, Drifting

Aliette de Bodard

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Just a short review today; I thought this was a full length novel and when I discovered it wasn’t, it was too late to bring a back-up book.

The Dai Viet Empire spans star systems but it spans fewer systems than it did a few years previously. As an ineffectual emperor and his court abandon peripheral systems to warlords, Linh, a functionary haunted by guilt over having abandoned her responsibilities flees towards Prosper Station and what she hopes will be refuge in the arms of family.

What Linh finds is a space station whose aging infrastructure is beginning to crumble, and Station Mistress Quyen, who is in no way thrilled at the appearance of a relative who is simultaneously more exalted and more disgraced than Quyen herself. Quyen may not have lost an entire planet to the warlords but she has pressing problems of her own to deal with, from reprobate relatives to the encroaching senility in the Mind that controls Prosper Station. Linh offers little of use and is arrogant besides.

In fact, Linh is worse than useless to the Station, because Linh felt bound by duty to send a message to the Emperor explaining her perspective on the Imperial retreat. This has not been well received and she is effectively under a death sentence. Under the laws of the Empire, entire families, entire communities, can be held responsible for the failure of one and by allowing Linh refuge on the station, Quyen has acknowledged her as one of the family. Even now an Embroidered Guard ship approaches.

This apparently draws from one of the four classic works of Chinese literature, Dream of a Red Chamber, unfortunately the one about which I know least, and is set in a history where China discovered the Americas before Europe did, although not so much earlier that the Europeans weren’t able to grab their own slice. It’s interesting to know that bit of background but a reader does not need to be familiar with Dream of to appreciate this story.

I was a bit relieved to learn that while the artificial life support systems of a space station does not permit the sort of slackness a planet does, the people who design space stations in this universe are not the kind of slack-jawed, plot-enabling morons seen designing infrastructure in other works of fiction. The human occupants of the station can survive the death of its Mind, although they would not much enjoy it and it’s an event worth going out of their way to avoid. It would have been very easy for de Bodard to go for the cheap “Oh no! Clearly awful design choices no space station designer would ever opt for given a choice have doomed us all!” and I am happy that she did not.

Which gets us to the legal problem driving the story. While I acknowledge that the author is drawing from a specific cultural source for the draconian laws of the Dai Viet Empire1, my appreciation for the story was undermined by the unfortunate fact that this is the million zillionth autocracy I’ve encountered in SF and not the first2 and I’ve really gotten tired of the endless stream of science fictional autocrats. Once might have been a daring thought experiment but hundreds of the buggers is something else.

That comes out more negatively than it should. After all, unlike in certain franchises, autocratic rule doesn’t seem to be particularly well suited to ruling the stars indefinitely. The author is just exploring an alternate history, not trying to make the case that what the world really needs for us to toss over all this democracy stuff in favour of an ineffectual emperor and a corrupt court. The heart of the story is the family dynamics of Linh and Quyen and the politics simply provides a stage on which that can play out. The solution to the conundrum facing Linh and Quyen is elegant enough, I see why this was nominated for the finalist for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novella and I plan to try more de Bodard.

On a Red Station, Drifting may be purchased here.


  1. “Punish everyone connected to the offender” is of course in no way unique to Asia. You didn’t want to stand too close to anyone who crossed Sulla, the US once discharged three entire companies of soldiers for two murders even though the soldiers were never shown to be connected to the killings, and of course both the Soviet and Nazi governments were quite keen on the whole collective punishment idea.
  2. My antipathy for autocracies, even ones drawing on historical models, was one reason I was more tepid about Ancillary Justice than most people were.

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