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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.
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on 11 April 2013
First off I'd like to thank the publisher Immersion Press for not patronizing me. The price on this book was £10. Not £9.99. Not a penny under just so that I think I'm spending less than £10. That is more than I'd normally pay for a Novella but it is a hard back and more importantly it is by Aliette de Bodard. If you haven't read any of her stuff before you are missing out. She is a fantastic author. I was very excited to read this book as I have enjoyed several of her other works.

This book is a modern version of the Chinese classic A Dream of Red Mansions. Except that it is modernized and set on a space station. There are so many potential pitfalls and ways to turn this in to an obvious and poor copy. My knowledge of Chinese culture comes mainly from watching old films so I only get the very basics but family and the filial bonds are always an important factor. The ties of the blood and the different types of sacrifices made by various family members comes across really well in this story. From the Mind of the ancestor embedded in the station as the central part of the network running space station Prosper to the lesser partner in a marriage being left to run the station the characters are strong and clearly defined. This really is a beautifully crafted and engrossing read that deserves to be read and re-read. It is probably my favourite read for quite a while.
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on 4 September 2013
Aliette de Bodard is a writer I'd heard endless good things about but never read. So I read this shortish book during a trip to France. On a Red Station, Drifting takes familiar sci-fi tropes (a space station, a galactic Empire, interplanetary war) and puts them in second place to an involving family drama. There are some beautiful passages, and a richly drawn cast of characters. None of whom are exactly likeable, but all of whom are relatable and very, very human in spite of their futuristic post-Earth setting. Highly recommended.
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on 26 October 2015
For a little while, I found this difficult to get into. I was expecting something different. The 'sci-fi' elements were in the story, but nothing much was being done with them. But eventually, I got it - the people who live on Prosper Station live there. They don't care how everything works, they just live in it. The important thing, what unfolded in this beautiful and tragic story, was the clash between personalities.

I am Western. I really can't understand how hierarchical family interaction works in Vietnamese (or Chinese) culture. From this book I can see that it appears to hinder more than it helps. Linh and Quyen could perhaps have been able to work together if they had had more freedom within their culture. In the afterglow of the novella, I'm reminded of the plays of Tennessee Williams, whose characters are trapped in their relationships, shaped by them, destroyed by them.

Aliette has shown me a very different world to any I have known, or even could imagine. And this is what, ultimately, speculative fiction is all about.
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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..."

In the recent couple of years it is easy to remark Aliette de Bodard among the most important names of modern speculative fiction because of her recent works being shortlisted or winning the prestigious awards of the genre. But in the light of the recent appreciations Aliette de Bodard has received let's not forget that even from the early days of her writing career her works have been recognized for their value. After all, how many writers can put in their CVs references such as honorable mentions in year's bests or nominations to Nebula and BSFA Awards from their debut years?

So far, Aliette de Bodard's published works dwell in two universes, a couple of stories and the "Obsidian and Blood" trilogy of novels, set in the Postclassical Mesoamerica, a historical noir with fantastical elements, and the rest of her short fiction set in the Xuya universe, an alternative history spanning from 1400s to the distant future. To go into specific details of the Xuya universe here will somehow evade the scope of this review, therefore I recommend a visit Aliette de Bodard's website for all the information and stories of this alternative setting. Among those stories you will also find "On a Red Station, Drifting", the latest exploration of the Xuya universe.

The Dai Viet Empire is at war and the rebel fighting forces push closer and closer to the heart of the empire. When the conflict zone reaches the 23rd planet Lê Thi Linh flees it and seeks refuge among her distant relatives on Prosper Station. Welcomed by the Hounoured Ancestress, the AI of the station, she is instantly disliked by her cousin and Prosper's administrator, Lê Thi Quyen. The interaction between the two cousins gives birth to a family drama, a conflict with consequences beyond their personal lives. Two women with strong personalities bearing different connections with the past, but a similar one with the near future.

Although the Dai Viet Empire is the pinnacle of technology the past and old traditions are never forgotten and a constant presence in the everyday life of its citizens. The lineage of one family can be traced to its roots, the family ties require certain obligations according to each member's statute. A certain examination is required for everyone around the Dai Viet Empire and failing this exam or the incapacity of reaching a higher level at the examination can throw one to a different destiny entirely. Lê Thi Linh and Lê Thi Quyen had different paths in life because of the examination, but war throw their situation in disarray, one once in power finds herself at the mercy of the other while the weaker member of the family finds herself in a position beyond her training. Linh and Quyen have their private wars, with each other, but also with themselves, one trying to reconcile with the past, the other challenged by the present.

The conflict between Linh and Quyen takes the central stage in the story and the consequences of this clash of personalities are felt all around the two. Aliette de Bodard builds these two characters with virtuosity, and while there isn't a side I was willing to take or with whom I sympathized more, Linh and Quyen are clearly, strongly defined characters... memorable for all the right reasons. The end of their conflict and of the story is played very well too, there is nothing predictable at "On a Red Station, Drifting" and this just one more motive for Aliette de Bodard's novella to work smoothly.

Of course, "On a Red Station, Drifting" is not all about characters. It is about a setting that feels only natural. Technology and tradition go hand in hand here without impeding each other. Aliette de Bodard reaches the perfect balance for the two, blends them to the maximum effect and creates a world that brings both the amazement of a new discovery and the sense of intimate familiarity for the reader. The language is another fundamental piece of the novella found in almost perfect equilibrium, sometimes simple, sometimes with poetical quality to the point of the actual verses being born on the pages on the book. Sensible or hardened, vulnerable or firm when needed.

There is little surprise in the recent wave of recognition Aliette de Bodard receives for her works, as seen in "On a Red Station, Drifting" every little sign of esteem this amazing writer gets is deserved in the fullest. The next natural step would be a majestic tome gathering all Aliette de Bodard's short fiction, "On a Red Station, Drifting" included, for the readers to enjoy and value. Adorned with an equally grand cover artwork and not the unfortunate choice we can see on the hardcover limited edition of this novella.
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on 27 November 2014
I can't help but feel other reviewers were reading a different book than me. I found it desperately dull. I've got no interest in painstaking social interactions and borderline-magic psychic communication.

I wanted galactic conflict! I wanted old culture clashes with new technology! I wanted some kind of character motivation to propel the plot along and there simply wasn't anything significant/meaningful!

There were lots of promising ideas in this - such as the implants of the ancestors - but these just weren't explored. What a fascinating book it might have been if Bodard had explored the conflict of mind that comes with having competing voices and personalities in your head! What an interesting book it would have been if any of the experiences or feelings of any of the main characters were explored in any kind of depth! And ~ SPOILER!~ why introduce the stolen/sold implant and then do *nothing* with that as a plot point beyond make everyone whine about having lost it and how that was a social faux-pas, but deliver no real emotional gravitas to that - I could not have cared less about the implant.

Technically speaking, the grammar was occasionally painful and I found myself re-reading whole sections more than once in an attempt to understand a single sentence. The abuse of commas, thankfully, tailed off after the first section.

I've given it two stars and not one simply because it did at least have two main characters who were women and their actions weren't motivated or shaped exclusively by men. Not much of a positive overall, but it was something.
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on 10 June 2016
Poetic moving emotional challenging gripping unusual. Fantastic in what it is not. Not American culture, not violent, not derivative, not a repetition of many other books.
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