I need to give a shout-out to fellow reviewer Rob here, because I feel like I know Aliette de Bodard’s work mostly through him. I have quite a fair bit of her fiction knocking around in ebook form (thanks, Angry Robot), but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading much of it. So far I’ve only managed those stories nominated for Hugo Awards—and hey, look, another one. But seriously, if you want to get the scoop on de Bodard’s other universes, you should check out Rob’s reviews.
On a Red Station, Drifting is set in the same universe as de Bodard’s other Hugo nominee for 2013, the short story “Immersion”. I really liked how de Bodard captures the viral nature of colonialism in “Immersion”. The Galactics’ immersers are so entrenched in the Galactic culture and way of thinking that one has to think like a Galactic before one can reverse engineer them. Of course, that kind of assimilation is exactly what the Rong who would reverse engineer the technology are trying to avoid. Whereas “Immersion” is set on Longevity Station, this novella takes place on Prosper Station, at an unspecified time. The Dai Viet Empire crumbles from a rebellion, and a disgraced magistrate, Linh, flees to her relatives on Prosper Station, running from the crime of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.
Linh finds a station in the disorganized grip of Quyen, who is unable to summon the authority and drive necessary to keep things running smoothly. Quyen is trying to cope even as she clings to the fantasy that her husband will return from going to quell the rebellion. Others are in similar straits; the mood is comparable, I imagine to places far behind the front lines in Europe in World War II that have seen their best and bravest go off to fight. It doesn’t help that the Mind running the station, referred to only as Honoured Ancestress, appears to be malfunctioning in some way. So, Linh has arrived at a terrible time. She makes and awful first impression, and she soon finds she doesn’t fit in. She is too cultured for such a provincial atmosphere, and her boredom makes her sullen and rude.
This is a story of character and grace. It’s subtle, in the sense that the plot simmers in the background while de Bodard spends most of her time fleshing out the main characters and placing them on her chess board. It’s obvious, in the sense that there is very little left ambiguous: it’s clear that Quyen hates Linh, and Linh is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Huu Hieu. If this were a movie, a lot of it would take place without a score, just the characters speaking against a backdrop of silence. There is a stillness to this story that is at times unbearable, because you just start waiting for something to happen. This is not a critique against plot, mind you, but an observation of how de Bodard chooses to build tension.
When external forces prompt Linh and Quyen to action, the conflict seems inevitable, given the way honour and family play a huge role in this culture. Quyen must act a certain way towards Linh for the good of the family. Linh, similarly, makes choices that go against her preferences just so she can avoid tearing the family apart. It raises the question of what would have happened had Linh not been so strong—if she had succumbed to her childish impulses to take the family down with her, where would we be? Perhaps this is a subtle comment on de Bodard’s part about the fragility of such an honour-based system: it can only be as strong as the weakest link. There are echoes of this fragility in Linh’s criticism of the emperor: everyone around him his frozen into inaction by his unwillingness to engage with the rebels directly. The authoritarian nature of the culture means that everyone defers to the emperor, even though he might be wrong.
All these critiques seem to lurk below the surface of the story, though. Overall, On a Red Station, Drifting really seems to be about Linh’s personal sense of loss and lack of direction. Her life is, if not literally, then figuratively over. In a way, her decision at the end of the story is inevitable, because it is the best way for her to gain some form of closure. Unlike another option for closure (suicide), this way also offers the hope of further combat with her enemies. Linh is someone who likes to take action, to be constantly engaged in combat or conversation. She is ill-suited to life on Prosper Station; both she and Quyen recognize that from the start, but it takes a while for them to figure out how to solve it.
This novella didn’t affect me as strongly as The Emperor’s Soul, but it’s still quite good. I think it’s more a case that it showcases the intricacy of de Bodard’s writing than anything about the story in particular. There are so many layers here that combine to form a particularly pleasing whole, even though, when pulled back piece by piece for further examination, they appear diaphanous and less compelling. More than meets the eye but better in one big piece, On a Red Station, Drifting is another exquisite entry in this year’s Hugo nominees for best novella.