On a Red Station, Drifting
Aliette de Bodard
published in 2013
I wasn’t too impressed with the first story of Aliette de Bodard I read, when it was linked from Metafilter. I found the story, set in a Vietnamese or Vietnam inspired far future “too laboured, too trying to be interesting, but in the end it’s just another Orientalist allegory”. Which is somewhat ironic, as De Bodard is actually of Vietnamese descent… Can a writer be Orientalist if she’s actually writing from her own cultural background? That’s a question we’re going to come back to in discussing On a Red Station, Drifting as it’s at the heart of the problems I’ve had reading this book.
The reason I bought On a Red Station, Drifting, after that rough start I had with de Bodard was because she was nominated for the novelette Hugo and I discovered that her nominated story, The Waiting Stars, was “an excellent slice of Banksian space opera, a story of love, family and two incompatible views of the world”. On a Red Station, Drifting promised to be more of the same. It’s set in the same universe as The Waiting Stars, where the Dai Viet Empire ruling the stars makes a welcome retrieve from the usual Roman Empire model. At the time of this novel however it’s in trouble, with a weak emperor on the throne and rebel warlords springing up and taking over star systems.
It’s this that brings magistrate Linh to Prosper Station, having fled the system she was responsible for after it had been conquered by a rebel lord, then having angered the emperor’s court by writing an appeal for a stronger approach to the rebellion. Now she comes to this obscure part of the Dai Viet empire, to Prosper Station, to shelter with her family running the station. For the administrator running Prosper Station, Lê Thi Quyen, this unexpected cousin turning up on their doorsteps is just one more headache, even more so because she represents everything she hasn’t achieved herself. Linh is a poet & scholar, a magistrate, who mastered the exams anybody who wants to join the imperial services has to pass, with the arrogance that comes of this. Quyen meanwhile was married out, never made it past the exams and only holds her post as there was nobody more suitable.
Worse, because of her actions, Linh could very well draw the wraith of the Emperor on the heads of all of Prosper Station, the empire having the nasty habit of punishing not just those that cause it embarrassment, but also their families to a remarkable wide degree. And to top it all off, the Mind holding the station together, the Honoured Ancestress installed when the station was first constructed, is having senior moments…
My sympathies at first were with Linh, desperate for refuge but only given it grudgingly, who’s quite clearly traumatised with what happened to the system she was responsible for and how she was tricked into fleeing it by her lieutenant, staying behind to fight the rebels. Of the course of the story though they switched to Quyen, who has enough problems on her plate without having an aristocratic cousin come meddling.
On a Red Station, Drifting is a story about family and the limits of family in a society where family and ancestor worship is central to life. The Minds installed in the Empire’s spaceships and space stations are not the only direct link with the past, there are also the implants with ancestor memories/personalities that people like Linh have access to. Implants function as internalised advisors, providing her with the proper ways to act and talk, with the recognition of the correct forms of poetry and calligraphy and the ability to use them. These of course provide a huge advantage in Dai Viet society, but of course also makes people inherently more conservative than they’d be on their own.
The trouble I have with this is that while the Dai Viet empire is not another Rome in Spaaaace, it’s instead Imperial China in Spaaace. It has the cliches I associate with bad Orientalist fantasy or science fiction: an authoritarian society ruled by a despot, ancestor veneration and emphasis on family over individual, the use of poetry and scholarship as a prerequisite for entering and advancing in imperial service, even the very name of the Embroidered Guard.
Is this unfair of me? I can see what Aliette de Bodard was trying to do here, creating a space opera setting based on her own background in the same way Asimov say was inspired by Rome and if this feels clichéd to me, is this her fault as a writer, or mine as a reader for being so easily trigged in seeing Orientalist cliches?
What speaks in de Bodard’s favour is that her setting is complete in its own, not just a background for some western saviour to trip through, or to compare to a more European world. Her Dai Viet empire is neither celebrated nor condemned; it’s just exists as the everyday reality her characters live in. The story’s heart is the intrafamily struggle between Linh and Quyen and the politics shape that, but are not the focus themselves.
So perhaps the flaw is in me, in my ignorance of the Vietnamese and Chinese history that de Bodard has used to create her Dai Viet empire which led me to interpret her setting in pop culture clichés of ancient China and the like. Which is doing a disservice to On a Red Station, Drifting. My confusion about what to think of this book meant it took me longer than it should to read this, but ultimately this was still the powerful story I’d hoped it be and I want to read more of de Bodard’s science fiction.