Hugo Nominated Novella: On A Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard
Posted July 11, 2013on:
I’m working my way through the Hugo nominated novellas! click back a day or two to see my thoughts on the others.
Having escaped the war zone, Magistrate Linh travels with a ship full of refugees to Prosper Station. She has distant relatives on the station, and hopes they will take her in. Of course they will, she’s family, and her mem-implants will prove it, should anyone question who she is. And if they should insist on questioning her Linh is quite used to staring down underlings. She should certainly be able to handle a few cousins who have never even seen the capitol, let alone passed their exams.
On Prosper Station, Administrator Quyen has far more important things to worry about than finding quarters and a job for Linh, and the two women immediately begin to get on each other’s nerves, especially when Linh beings a friendly relationship with a male cousin who is already an embarrassment to the family. Quyen and many members of her family have been left behind on the station, while their more educated spouses have been forced to join the war efforts elsewhere. Quyen and Linh are opposites in every way, and they are both used to be being in control.
But Quyen isn’t alone in her leadership of Prosper Station. She’s aided (or perhaps it’s the other way around) by the Honoured Ancestress, the AI Mind who runs the software and interfaces of the station. The Honoured Ancestress was born to a human woman, but she was never human, she was always designed to be what she is: timeless and in complete control of herself. Except when she isn’t in control. Sometimes she ignores Quyen, sometimes she is silent when Quyen calls for her. Linh hasn’t much experience with AI Minds, but she has her own honored ancestors, those who live in her Mem-Implants, the uploaded minds and memories of her ancestors. They are a connection to her past, honored elders who guide her and remind her of proper manners and mannerisms.
Taking place on the edges of de Bodard’s Xuya universe, “On a Red Station, Drifting” touches on many traditions of China and Vietnam, including bloated and bureaucratic governments, ancestor veneration, and strict social protocols. I found the dichotomy and balance found between futuristic technologies and ancient traditions absolutely beautiful. Quyen is hearing an AI’s voice in her head, yet her home is steeped in tradition, in places quite literally engraved with ancient poetry. I read so much futuristic science fiction where the past is left behind and completely ignored, it was refreshing and comforting to meet characters who live in the future, but keep their deep connections to their past and to their traditions. A perfectly balanced dichotomy.
The story mostly follows the family drama between Linh and Quyen, two women who are as trapped by their stubborness as they are by their defined roles in their families. The Honoured Ancestress is failing and valuable mem-implants have gone missing. Will Linh and Quyen help each other? Or let the other woman fall and fail?
It took too long for me to get an emotional investment in the family drama between Linh and Quyen. Don’t get me wrong, they are interesting, realistic characters, and I think had I been raised in a similar culture I would have recognized or at least empathized with their reluctance to work with each other. Unfortunately I just became rather bored by their bickering. Luckily, I was quickly hooked by the imagery, by everything in the story that wasn’t Ling and Quyen. Prosper Station is a space station, but of course it is decorated as if it is a Vietnamese palace, complete with walls and columns engraved with poetry, gardens, kitchens teeming with fermenting vats of fish sauce. You can practically feel the texture of the walls, smell the food, feel the floors under your bare feet. While Linh and Quyen were busy bickering, I was simply enjoying myself in the surroundings. I especially enjoyed the description of the Heartroom, the room where the Honoured Ancestress most often manifests herself.
The end of the novella is where de Bodard’s writing shines, where the dialog and character interaction begins to match the beautiful world building. I’m not going to spoil what happens, but the pay-off was well worth witnessing all that squabbling.