WSFA Press, 2012, 159 pages
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…
This is an aspiring piece of sci-fi litfic. Aliette de Bodard is a stylist who seeks to evoke sights and sounds and smells and cultural cues with her prose, and it is very evocative. On a Red Station, Drifting is set in her "Xuya" universe, an alt history space operatic setting in which Asian and Aztec cultures became technologically dominant and went into space, instead of the West. Previously I have only read her Hugo-nominated short story The Waiting Stars, set in the same universe.
Here, Vietnam became a galactic empire, and unlike in that aforementioned short story, there are no allegories for Western colonialism here — in fact, there are no Westerners. On a Red Station, Drifting is set on the space station of Prosper, implied to be tucked away in an obscure backwater corner of the Dai Viet Empire. Quyen is mistress of the station, responsible for its administration, and its resources are being strained by refugees arriving as a result of an ongoing civil war.
One of these refugees is Cousin Linh, who was once a planet's Magistrate and a distant cousin of Quyen's. Being both family (albeit many times removed) and a high-ranked official, Linh is grudgingly given a place by Quyen, but the women immediately do not get along. Linh thinks being made a nanny by a "provincial housewife" is beneath her, while Quyen finds Linh arrogant and ungrateful.
Amidst a lot of other intrigue involving stolen memory implants, the station's AI failing, and the distant but not distant enough rebellion against the Emperor, On a Red Station, Drifting is mostly Quyen and Linh fuming about what a bitch the other one is.
I enjoyed this story, which is very space opera and also very soap opera. A Vietnamese Galactic Empire is certainly not a trope you see a lot in science fiction, and Aliette de Bodard draws heavily on tradition, family relationships, and the complex status games of her imagined space-Vietnamese culture. But there is very little action in the story — the climax involves Linh composing a vengeful poem at a banquet for a visiting official, while the resolution, with implied danger and the threat of expurgation of everyone on the station ("wiping out ten generations for the bad thing one person did" seems to still be a thing in Space Vietnam) ends with Linh and Quyen hugging it out. Okay, there's no hugging. More like an exchange of carefully composed steely gazes with just a hint of sympathy as they say their final goodbye.
Flavorful, colorful, a slice of literary SF that was enjoyable but didn't really make me that interested in the Xuya universe, as interesting as it sounds in concept.
Also by Aliette de Bodard: My review of The Waiting Stars.
My complete list of book reviews.