Top positive review
More than happy to drift here...
on 27 March 2016
I got this book for the title alone; how beautiful, tragic and despairing is the use of that comma? I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a subtle novella that despite its setting on a space station during an interplanetary war is actually about poetry; what it means, how it is expressed in life, those who are best able to wield it and the dismal consequences of its misuse.
‘On A Red Station, Drifting’, while a prose work, is also unusually poetic in execution. It takes popular tropes like space stations and starships and re-imagines them as existential symbols; from the vast and mysterious form of the station itself, which exists on the edge of a void so vast and unforgiving it presses against the sanity just to read about it, to the ship inscribed with dragons whose effortless power brings possible salvation. The book is never overstated and embodies a beautifully rendered delicacy, as if the language itself expresses the rich subtlety of the story’s Dai Viet culture.
As in the same author’s ‘House of Shattered Wings’, a matriarch who doubts her abilities is faced with an outsider who she resents and does not understand; in both cases this feud centres on an elaborately prepared meal and in both stories familial bonds are either a curse or a salvation depending on who has insulted whom. There is also the same sense of desperation; food is in short supply and Prosper Station must grow its own. The food in ‘On A Red Station, Drifting’ has the edge though; I really wanted some of that fish sauce, even though it can only be created by proximity to a red Turtle Star in a section of the cosmos I’m unlikely to get to this side of Christmas. Darn.
Food is a key theme in the stories I have read by Aliette de Bodard; her award-winning ‘Immersion’ is set partly in a restaurant in the same universe as ‘On A Red Station, Drifting’ although at a later period. All of her characters are in some way hungry; sometimes literally but often for something else; be it learning, company or freedom. Power is only really an end to these things although those who have it are never happy.
Thus the beloved semi-organic artificial intelligence who runs Prosper Station falters, possibly due to a malfunction although even the genius designer who visits can’t quite explain why, while the distant Emperor is desperate to prove himself and makes errors whose outcome drives one of the novella’s main characters, Linh, from her home planet to the distant station, leaving her dear friends behind to an awful death.
Linh is really interesting; guilt-ridden and angry, she has left a memorial criticising the Emperor that interestingly advocates a more robust approach to the rebels tearing the spacefaring Dai Viet empire apart. Linh is clever but cold and arrogant, unable to reconcile her new circumstances with her many skills, which the other main character Quyen refuses to allow Linh to use. Quyen is the more obviously sympathetic figure but even her decisions often smack of cruelty. In the meantime, she hides her grief, both at her failure to pass exams that guarantee status but also because her husband has been taken to fight in the war. Prosper Station is full of people in Quyen’s position, men as well as women; in each couple, one is deemed ‘weaker’ and left behind. A similar sense of loss underscores Linh’s emotional state but she deals with it very differently. The relationship between Linh and Quyen is a great example of character conflict and their wholly female responses to each other are satisfyingly complex and compelling.
The other element of the novella that really sets it apart is the Vietnamese style and tone. Sentence structure and language blend perfectly with the science-fiction setting, not because of any nonsense about it being a culture that is less familiar to me but because the rhythms fit so well with both the description of the universe and the social texture the characters both occupy and express. I haven’t read anything like it before but hope to again from this author.