ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING – Aliette de Bodard

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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…

On a Red Station, Drifting is a novella that I’ve always been asking for–a longer work set in the same universe as “Immersion” and “Scattered Along the River of Heaven.”

It’s science fiction as you will never see from white western writers: one which concerns itself solely with family. Usually when white westerners write about family drama they inevitably stoop to soap opera, banal parent-child conflicts, deathbed melodrama, and romance/sex. See Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy for an example of this–incest, rape, drug addiction, small-town politics, teenage bullying. Those are what westerners consider essential to portray humanity, and what define the western imagination.

On a Red Station rejects all these, and not only because it is SF rather than whatever Rowling’s dreck passes for (a bioweapon to turn functioning humans into zombies possibly) but because it is written by an author with sensibility and interest beyond the dully soap-operatic. Linh is a magistrate who’s recently had to flee her post, and is coming to take refuge at Prosper Station, to whose reigning family she has ties and from whom she claims protection. Her arrival is less than welcome, and Station Mistress Quyen–a less-educated woman who failed to become an official–feels that her authority is threatened, and that she is made a sham in the presence of someone so learned and accomplished as Linh.

It’s not just interpersonal tension that drives the narrative of course; there’s also the problem of the failing station AI, the Honored Ancestress, the problem of strained resources and finally the fact that Linh herself is a marked woman for having published an unpopular (but incisive and necessary) opinion about the ongoing war. She has had her confidence shaken by the events that drove her from the planet she was posted to govern, but she remains a powerful woman sure of her education and abilities, and naturally she clashes with Quyen, who is also a woman of authority in her own right but who suffers from an inferiority complex in the knowledge that she doesn’t measure up to Linh. There’s a lack of communication, entirely understandable, and it’s refreshing that the conflict between them has nothing to do with men or romantic rivalry. It’s all about the minefield that family can be.

It’s also about ethical quandaries that are never easy: Quyen, in pursuit of an heirloom, briefly considers asking Linh to torture a man; Linh in her rebellion against Quyen’s perceived tyranny gives away an in-law trying to flee Prosper Station and drives him to attempt suicide. You won’t find any explosive spaceship battles in here–throughout the text not even a single gun is drawn–but what is there is far more exciting and intelligent than any SF blockbuster of the week. The prose is clear and written with a light touch, and there’s language-within-language in the form of poetry Linh composes.

The commander of the Embroidered Guard had told her, stiffly—as if he couldn’t quite resign himself to the necessity of communicating with a criminal—that there had already been pleas in the capital. That she wouldn’t find herself without allies there.
She thought of Lady Oanh, of the vast resources at the other’s disposal. Perhaps she could indeed avoid it, all of it, and its fated ending.
Or perhaps she couldn’t. But her memorial remained and its words, perhaps, in time, would be heeded. Perhaps the Empire would once more be united, just as families that fell out could, in the end, be reconciled to each other.
“That was a noble thing you did,” the commander had said.
Puzzled, as if he couldn’t quite understand why she’d refused to drag the station down with her. As if people did that, all the time.
But of course, she thought, we’re small-minded and petty, and sometimes, we let ourselves be hollowed out by hatred. And sometimes, we commit the unforgivable.

The ending gives hope, but pulls no punches. There is no easy resolution–Linh and Quyen never reconcile fully, never gain a full understanding of each other, and Linh may not escape the consequences of her political actions.

It’s immensely thoughtful and political, and reading this you’ll wonder why you ever thought Ursula le Guin was anything special. Let’s pretend the cover doesn’t exist, though.

12 thoughts on “ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING – Aliette de Bodard

  1. Linh is a magistrate who’s recently had to flee her post, and is coming to take refuge at Prosper Station, to whose reigning family she has ties and from whom she claims protection. Her arrival is less than welcome, and Station Mistress Quyen–a less-educated woman who failed to become an official–feels that her authority is threatened, and that she is made a sham in the presence of someone so learned and accomplished as Linh.

    You could trawl through the shelves of your average SFF section for a month without finding anything that intelligent or nuanced. It’s kind of depressing.

  2. Some of the themes in this novella are well-embedded in SF. The unstable AI got a very good early treatment in Joan Vinge’s “Tin Soldier” and the space station in jeopardy an excellent one in C. J. Cherryh’s “Downbelow Station”. The interest here stems from the unique and unusual cultural interweaving. This is a universe worth exploring long-term.

    Incidentally, “western” is not an accurate blanket term to use in this context. I fall in the category of white westerner (much of the time, anyway, with the standard withholding) and the social structures and personal interactions in my stories don’t hew to the generalized Anglo chassis that you describe. Lumping is often useful, but not in all circumstances.

    • A very fair point; my bad. I was thinking of the nebulous idea–let’s say Anglo westerners have that a particular kind of subject matter they default to when they think of “family drama,” which has to do mainly with infidelity, inheritance battles, custody battles, etc. Soap opera.

      • I think “Middle Class/Upper Middle Class White Western”, or “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) wouldn’t be far off, as if the writers are in this bracket I feel like their idea of family is shallow and filled with either too many niceties are so much drama thrown out of proportion that it becomes “soap opera-ish”. I find I can’t really identify with writers who fall into this category who write about family, even though I fall near this category. I think it’s either because of the sheltered life they lead, or this lack of bleeding all over the page as in our culture there is SUCH a heavy insistence of keeping things in the family/not ratting out your relatives/etc. So even if they do have stuff in their family, they are encouraged to see them all as still meaning well and to not air out their dirty laundry to everyone. To look “Respectable” to everyone rather than admit the nuances and flaws of family.

        I mean, there are exceptions, but in this case they are kinda exceptions that prove the rule when it comes to these writers writing about family.

        And I believe you mean that it is how the writer’s handle those things that make it Soap Opera material? Which is sad because these are complicated issues that could be used to explore a lot about society, but it usually devolves to THE EVIL, EVIL MAN the protective!wonderful!Mother MUST keep her children safe from! Rather than a actual exploration of the daily struggles that go into it and the conflicting feelings that happen. (Not that there aren’t instances in real life where this description is true and applicable, but just in much writing they make melodrama out of things most of us would find more nuanced when experiencing it in daily life).

        Man, now I really want a book that explores all this… Well, lucky me eh? /goes to buy On a Red Station, Drifting

        And urgh, word vomit. Sorry, the convo just got my mind kicking off and interested.

      • Space opera!

        But seriously, I’ve read Downbelow Station and I love me some CJ Cherryh, but I’m not sure if I’d file it under excellent. Cherryh has a pretty good knack for making personal dramas actually feel personal, sympathetic, but she writes from a pretty restricted view. Mallory’s POV was far more palatable than Konstantin’s, but her female characters always have more depth and subtlety than her male ones, so that’s no surprise.

        Her characters often cling to a sameness that is only really noticeable across greater samples of her work, but if we’re talking about taking one book out of the gazillion she’s written I’d definitely put Downbelow Station on the list higher than the very similarly-premised (or pre-premised, perhaps) First Contact series.

  3. The extended family saga type of novel does seem to have gone out of favor in contemporary Western writing, at least on these shores. You never saw much of family in Western genre fiction (the protagonist was usually conveniently orphaned and at the most there was a wacky older “professor” relative if it was one of those “travels through time and space with my nutty professor Uncle” type of things). Straight non-fantastic literature had loads of it, but the popular tendency, at least in the 20th century, was to concentrate on the grotesque and/or dysfunctional type of family, for a variety of reasons, much of it having to do with the frontier mentality here and the idea that family is restricting and “unmanning” and men at least have to “leave the fold” and strike out on their own, and if they can’t that must mean something is wrong, alcoholism or “mothers’ apron strings” (yes, this anti-family stance is very misogynistic). Also there is the tendency to idealize (nuclear) family life, so it’s either everyone is a perfect postcard illustration of Mom, Dad, and the Kids, or they’re a complete radioactive mess. There’s also the One’s Own Merit thing, where you are supposed to be judged by your own talents only not where you came from/who your parents are.

    Anyway, most Americans in real life seem to like their families just fine, we just don’t want to read about them. We aren’t a reflective people in general (we don’t like looking into the abyss), and don’t like anything that makes us think about ourselves in any serious way. Also, most Americans lead lives of (more or less comfortable) bland drudgery, so we want to read about people running away from home and having adventures, not about people negotiating the sort of complex interpersonal relationships that we tend to suck at.

    • Idealization of the nuclear family was really hammered into US society in the 1950s, largely in response to returning soldiers finding women who’d lived without them for the duration of the war and found their own way to survive–ie, becoming employed, not having children, and banding together with other women, especially extended family members. This made it hard for a lot of men to return to their previous status as heads of family and obviously COULD NOT STAND, so a massive amount of media was produced, creating many such narratives as the twisted spinster describes as well as new modes of business (pension homes, four-top restaurant tables, Leave it to Beaver…) up to and including the formation of the suburban lifestyle. Because every man deserves it. Add to this a helping of cold-war scare propaganda, witch hunts to enforce it, and oh so much corporate investment, and you have the new model for American Life.

      Obviously I could talk about the 1950s forever, but that is the mentality we’re still laboring under. Largely because we’re still ruled by the very same people who were growing up in that era. And now you have a ton of literature that, because the background noise hasn’t changed, still thinks it’s being subversive and unique by exploring it or, conversely, ignoring it entirely.

      I’d also just like to add that with almost 30% of America working at less than poverty wages, “most Americans” aren’t even the target audience for genre lit. Just the same white suburban readers that the vast majority of its writers come from.

  4. To Twister Spinster: I have to disagree with you; family sagas were staples of Western literary and genre fiction (a few random examples: Goldsworthy’s Forsyte Saga; Mann’s Buddenbrooks; Athanassiádhis’ Oi Panthéoi; Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter) until they got classified as bourgeois middlebrow. In the US, in particular, that trope/mode got shoehorned into the middleclass white man’s middle age crisis (examples galore).

    Some genres may thrive on the hardbitten loner (westerns, noir) but this is not an absolute rule (Sayers’ Wimsey and Vane are prominent counterexamples) and, furthermore, family enters the equation indirectly by often being a hidden motivation of the protagonist. Incidentally, extended families are no prelapsarian paradises, as any who has lived in one can attest.

    To Layo: I said, very specifically, that Downbelow Station is an excellent treatment of the “space station in peril” scenario. As for Cherryh’s men being slightly generic in comparison with Signy Mallory — welcome to the view from the side of the other half! Why shouldn’t they be? They’re sidekicks. As for the increasing sameness, most successful writers tend to fall into ruts, especially when they must produce a novel per year like clockwork.

    • Oh I know, they were, but lately they seem to have fallen in popularity in comparison to “beginning” stories (romance, “coming of age” YA, etc.). I was thinking of just the past thirty years or so, but I wasn’t very clear. As for the middle-class white man’s middle age crisis novel, I tend to think of that as more of an offshoot in a genre of its own — one I avoid reading, to be honest.

    • Haha, no, sorry, “her female characters always have more depth and subtlety than her male ones” wasn’t really meant to be a criticism, but I did frame it that way. My bad. I was thinking not only of Mallory but her other series, like Chanur’s Legacy vs. the neverending First Contact. I’d read a dozen more books about the former but I really wish she’d replace Bran as the main POV in the latter.

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