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.