Xuya Universe; published in 2012; 154 pages. ★★★★☆
“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.”
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…
First of all: for those who don’t know, Aliette de Bodard has a list of free short stories you can read online. I binge-read my way through them over a year ago and they’re fantastic, and when it happened that I had Amazon gift card balance to spend I went for this novella almost immediately. De Bodard tells complex stories in expansive universes, and somehow she does it in short forms – it’s incredible.
On A Red Station, Drifting is set in her Xuya universe, within a futuristic interplanetary Vietnamese empire called the Dai-Viet. This setting is a perfect example of what people mean when they talk about wanting more diversity in speculative fiction: everything from the syntax of how the characters speak to their political organization to the design principles of their spaceships is distinctly non-European. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the standard ‘modern American capitalism transposed to space’ shoddy worldbuilding of a lot of space opera; de Bodard has clearly put more thought and more heart into the culture and social expectations of the Dai Viet. While, as a white reader, it didn’t feel familiar to me, it felt real.
There are a few particular tidbits that stood out to me. Characters in this universe use allusions to famous writings and poetry as an indirect form of communication, and de Bodard has beautifully married poetic images to the experiences of a spacefaring society:
They chatted a bit, about the powerful images: the starships in flight over waterfalls, scattering to other planets like wild geese fleeing the winter; the wine warm in the cups, defying the emptiness of space; the paths of friends crossing only through deep-space travel, in one sense standing together, in the other so apart they might have been in different universes.
The use of poetic language, in general, was fascinating – almost every conversation had at least two layers involved, allowing de Bodard to pack a lot of characterization into a compact space.
One other aspect, though I’m not sure I’m reading this correctly: it seemed to be implied that gender roles have somewhat been replaced by skill-based privileges, at least between spouses. Several times, the concept of “the greater partner in a marriage” comes up:
First Ancestor Than Thuy tried to object that it was hardly proper, that Linh would have been the greater partner in a marriage. He would remain the lesser one as long as his wife’s body weren’t found. Their meeting alone was as good as adultery.
“I failed the examinations twice. On the stations, this means only one thing.”
Unfit for official life; doomed to be the lesser partner in a marriage.
If this does mean that spousal roles are determined by a meritocracy, it makes me terribly curious about how the Dai Viet determine who can marry whom. Could a same-sex couple of different status be married? Or does it just extend to things like who works outside of the home and who maintains the household? It’s an intriguing concept.
The plot of On A Red Station, Drifting is difficult to describe It’s a story about war’s effect on civilians; it’s a story about community bonds and family loyalty; it’s a story a little about artificial intelligence and its relationship to humanity. It’s about a group of people who have been backed into a corner by circumstance, and who are struggling to maintain stability and care for others despite that. The word that keeps coming to mind is ‘vignette’, though this novella comes in at 154 pages; still, it’s evocative beyond its length, rich and human and thought-provoking.