On a Red Station, Drifting — Aliette de Bodard

Cover of On a Red Station, Drifting

On a Red Station, Drifting
Aliette de Bodard
116 pages
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.

Ancillary Sword — Ann Leckie

Cover of Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie
356 pages
published in 2014

Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice, won about every major science fiction award going: the BSFA, the Clarke, The Nebula and the Hugo, the first time any author won the four most important awards in the field with the same book, let alone with their debut novel. Anticipation has therefore been high for the sequel, not least on my part. Would Leckie been able to keep up the high standard of her debut? Would Ancillary Sword build up on it or be more of the same? Is Ann Leckie really the major new sf talent she seems to be or just a flash in the pan?

The main reason for Ancillary Justice‘s impact was Leckie’s use of gender. The Radchaai culture she created uses female pronouns exclusively, making no distinction between male and female in their language. but it goes further than just mere language. Leckie’s protagonist, Breq, struggles with establishing gender, has to consciously evaluate gender clues even when she does speak a gendered language. Possibly this is because she’s an ancillary — one of the meat puppet extensions of a ship AI — because from what we saw in the first novel other Radchaai had no such difficulties. Breq is also the last surviving part of her ship AI because her ship, The Justice of Toren was killed by the immortal ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, at war with herself.

As Ancillary Sword opens, the civil war between Anaander Mianaai factions has come into the open due to the events of Ancillary Justice. She’s only been able to rule for so long and over such a large volume of space by making use of the same technology that enabled ancillaries to exist, by raising clone bodies and using implants to keep her memories aligned with each over. Over time it was of course inevitable that two or more Mianaais would get out of sync, develop their own vision on how the Radchaai should be run but until now this had been a hidden war. No longer.

Breq is caught up in the middle of it, was in fact its catalyst and now is sent by one faction of Mianaai to Athoek Station where Basnaaid Elming lives, sister to Breq’s old lieutenant Awn, the one she had murdered herself on orders of Anaander Mianaai. Breq only let herself be sent to keep Athoek system safe because of Basnaaid, to atone for her actions.

Once an independent system but long since conquered by the Radchaai, Athoek is one of the major tea producers of the Radch, providing some of its most valued tea, valued especially because it’s all handplucked. Not by the Athoeki themselves anymore, but by Valskaayan workers originally imported from off planet. The station itself is home to the system’s governor and the political elite, as well as the famous garden where Basnaaid works as chief horticulturist. Underneath the garden, in part of the station that doesn’t officially exist anymore, is where the slums are.

When Breq arrives in the system, it’s not long before she finds out the corruption and exploitation inherent in the system as it’s set up. With her power as fleet captain she sets out to change this, though she doesn’t state this in so many words, rather let’s her actions speak. Instead of lodging at the governor’s mansion, she takes up residence in the Undergardens. She also becomes involved in the affairs of the richest of the tea planters, Fosyf Denche and her family.

Whereas you might have expected, after the way Ancillary Justice ended, that Ancillary Sword would revolve around the Mianaai civil war with Breq playing a central role in it, this instead continues the theme of colonial justice that the former book also revolved around. The Radch is a colonial, caste system, with the Radchaai on top and anybody who isn’t Radchaai, who isn’t a citizen, is inferior. Within the Radchaai themselves there are very many fine distinctions, not just in terms of aristocracy, but also amongst the various conquered peoples that have been “civilised”. Some, like the Valskaayans working the tea plantations are still seen as uncivilised if technically with the same rights as other Radchaai.

Breq coming to this system and setting out to change it through the powers vested into her as a fleet captain in service to Anaander Mianaai, reminded me of Nikolai Gogol’s the Inspector General. That idea that corruption can be rooted out if only a honest representative of the czar would visit. But as the Russian saying has it, the cossacks always work for the czar. Leckie, like Gogol, is under no illusions that this is true and shows that the exploitation in Athoek is endemic because of Anaander Mianaai, not in spite of her. Breq herself plays a part in it just as well, helping those she notices for her own reasons, not necessarily changing the system.

The other major theme carried over from Ancillary Justice is Breq herself, her life as the last surviving component of One Esk, as ancillary who no longer has her fellow ancillaries around her. The ship she now captains, The Mercy of Kalr, doesn’t contain any ancillaries, just humans trained by their previous captain to behave as ancillaries. Breq now also misses the abilities she had previously to be omniscient, though through the link with her new ship she can still keep tabs on her officers and crew. That of course also has the useful function of keeping us informed of what happens outside of Breq’s own viewpoint. It’s a clever trick.

I got Ancillary Sword last Thursday and if it wasn’t for me needing to finish the Andre Norton novel I was reading, I would’ve finished it immediately. This is the sort of novel you want to finish in one big gulp until you’re about twothirds of the way through and then you just don’t want it to end quickly. Leckie has only improved as a writer even if the novelty value of her gender relations has worn off. With Ancillary Sword Leckie has proved it wasn’t a gimmick, nor she a flash in the pan. The only thing I can grumble about now is that it will take another year before we get the next book.

Victory on Janus — Andre Norton

Cover of victory on Janus

Victory on Janus
Andre Norton
190 pages
published in 1966

In Judgement on Janus we met Naill Renfro, forced labourer on the planet Janus who through handling a carefully planted treasure trap is transformed into one of the Iftin, the green skinned ancient and long dead native race of forest dwellers that lived there thousands of years before humanity came to the planet. With it came the memories of Ayyar, a warrior scout from the last days of the Iftin. Having found other changelings Naill-Ayyar made it to the safety of one of the dead tree-cities of the Iftin, there to hibernate through winter.

But their slumber is interrupted by a new menace. The human settlers of Janus, dour religious people calling themselves garthmen had been waging a war against the unending forest of Janus for as long as they’d been there, but now it had entered a new pitch. No longer a struggle by individual garthmen to hew out a living from the forest, the whole planet had united and was now waging a mechanised war on it. This wasn’t about making land fit for farming, this was pure destruction, a war fought as Ayyar finds out, to protect against attacks from the green skinned devils coming out of the forest to attack and destroy holdings. Yet as far as they know, the small band Ayyar is part of are the only Iftin left on the planet, so where are these new ones coming from?

It soon turns out it’s the work of the Iftin’s old enemy THAT, an ancient evil that Ayyar remembers fighting in the last days of Iftin rule of Janus. That evil, bound to a wasteland of its own making, has woken up again as the changelings moved into the forest. Now it’s broadcasting its persuasion rays all over Janus, drawing in men and machines on the planet to form an army, an army gathered together for some purpose, but what? To find out Ayyar has to penetrate the heart of the THAT’s stronghold, face the various dangers on the way as well as those that await him inside.

Victory on Janus therefore looks a lot like a fantasy quest story, but as Naill-Ayyar comes closer to his goal, it takes a turn for the Lovecraftian. As Norton slowly drops the clues to the real nature of THAT, I couldn’t help but get a twisted sort of sense of humour at the scale of time and power revealed, similar to that you get from some of Lovecraft’s cosmic revelations. THAT is no fantasy evil, but technology twisted to an intent unclear to its opponents, operating with neither anger nor hatred towards its victims, just grim purpose. What’s more, Norton leaves the possibility open that IT is in fact only evil in the eyes of the Iftin, that their revulsion of the strange, of the intruders on their planet is perhaps more xenophobic than it seems at first.

Though Norton knows better than to completely reveal it, it is clear that the history of Janus and the Iftin isn’t quite what it seemed at first, but longer and stranger than the incomplete memories of the changelings indicate, with THAT at the heart of it, existing for as long if not longer.

Victory on Janus is the first Norton novel that triggered in me the sense of cosmic awe that’s at the heart of science fiction, or at least one view of it. She usually keeps that sense of scale and age in the background, while the stories she shows play out on a more human scale. Here though that awe is at the centre of the story, with Ayyar only a pawn in a game of godlike intelligences. It’s a departure for Norton and one I appreciated.

Judgement on Janus — Andre Norton

Cover of Judgement on Janus

Judgement on Janus
Andre Norton
188 pages
published in 1963

It’s a miracle: I actually managed to start an Andre Norton series in the right order: Judgement on Janus is the first of a duology, together with Victory on Janus. Another minor miracle is the fact that my copy lasted long enough for me to read it as the cover was flaking off something fierce. Normally Ace paperbacks hold up better. This is actually one of the first Norton novels I’d bought, years ago, but had never read so far.

Naill Renfro is a young man who, caught up in the slums of the Dipple, sells himself as indentured labour (just like Charis Nordholm) in order to have enough money to give his mother a dignified death. He ends up on the planet Janus, where dour religious fanatics fight a never ending battle against the primeval forests covering the planet. These forests they consider a source of evil, as they do many things, especially the alien relics or treasures occassionally found. These are supposed to be reported and destroyed immediately. Those who don’t report it and try to keep them for themselves are punished by god with the green sick and left in the forest to die. Three guesses what happens to Naill.

Yes, he discovers an alien treasure, tries to keep part of it for himself, is caught and indeed gets the disease. Left alone to die he wakes up with his skin turned green, his ears pointed, hairless and with eyes blinded by sunlight but thriving in the dark. Oh, and he now also has the confused memories of an alien warrior called Ayyar. To Naill-Ayyar the forest is now no longer something to be feared, but a living home, while the garth men trying to tame and destroy are even more repulsive.

Naill struggles to come to grip with his new heritage as he wonders whether his transformation was an unfortunate side effect, or deliberately engineered. If the latter, has the same happened to other victims of the green sickness? As he tries to track down any signs of earlier people transformed into Iftin, he instead runs into a newer victim, a young woman he had observed earlier being more interested in the forest than the average garth. He rescues her from her confinement and discovers that Ashla, reborn with the memories of Illylle, a one time priestess of the Mirror, has just as confused memories as he himself has, but is able to remember more.

She also remembers enough of her previous human life to want to rescue her sister from the holding. That however goes badly wrong and they’re forced to flee into the wastelands where an ancient evil, the ancient enemy that ended the rule of the Iftin thousands of years before human settlers landed, still waits…

The idea of changelings, of humans transformed into aliens, is of course an old idea, found in myths and legends all over the world. Norton’s science fictionalisation of it works well, partially because she’s careful never to explain the technology that made it possible. It’s Clarke’s third law of technology in action: any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indisguisable from magic and here the Terran technology, with its blasters and space suits and rocket ships is dropped into what is arguably a fantasy world. One of the most unsettling scenes in the book is when Naill and Ashla are hunted by a animated spacesuit of an obsolete but recognisable human design.

One recurring theme in Norton’s settings, which comes especially to the fore in Judgement on Janus, is religious fanatics as the enemy and plot driver. We’ve had religious thugs starting the action in The Zero Stone by attacking the protagonist, Charis Nordholm driven away from her home by the hatred of her religious neighbours in Ordeal in Otherwhere and here the hate of the garth for the forest. There’s even the corrupt priesthood in Exiles of the Stars setting that story in motion. Once you see this pattern you can’t unsee it: religious fanatics make a good enemy for Norton, something for her heroes to distinguish themselves from, push against.

Judgement on Janus ends, not so much on a cliffhanger, but with a room for a sequel. That sequel, Victory on Janus would be written three years later and is what I’m currently reading.

Storm over Warlock — Andre Norton

Cover of Storm over Warlock

Storm over Warlock
Andre Norton
192 pages
published in 1960

So I was reading the first page and thought, hmmm, Shann Lantee, I’m sure I’ve read that name before. And yes, it turned out I should’ve read this before I read Ordeal in Otherwhere. It’s a measure of Norton’s writing skill that despite reading these in the exact wrong order, they weren’t spoiled. It helped of course that, unlike in the case of Exiles of the Stars, these were separate stories just set on the same planet; there wasn’t the need to have read this before reading Ordeal in Otherwhere. You do get a few hints that there is a larger backstory, but you get that anyway with Norton. There’s always the sense that her heroes are having their adventures as part of a much larger, largely unknown universe.

In Shann Lantee’s case, his adventure begins when the survey camp on Warlock he’s the most junior member of, is attacked by the Throg and before you can say wild thing, everybody in it is dead, apart from him and the escaped wolverines he set out to catch. Now he’s alone on a hostile planet with an even more hostile occupation force he has to evade to keep safe. He has no plan, nothing else but a will to survive and hopefully get a chance to revenge himself on the alien Throg, until fate intervenes in the shape of Ragnar Thorvald, a giant of the Scout service. Ragnar was away when the camp was attacked and his scout ship runs into an ambush when her returns, which Shann witnesses. They team up and Ragnar has a plan. They need to head to the coast, not the mountains as Shann intended. Why though he cannot or does not want to say.

Until about halfway through the story, this is all about the two of them surviving the dangers of Warlock while keeping out of reach of the Throg, but then things start happening. Having landed on a small island away from the coast Ragnar starts to behave oddly, finally leaving Shann stranded on his own. When he himself starts to sabotage his own attempts to leave, he starts to suspect that some alien intelligence is plotting against him and he sets a trap.

Which is how he makes first contact with the Wyvern, the dream manipulating witch women I already knew from Ordeal in Otherwhere. Here they’re described as reptilian but humanoid women, strange but not repulsive. Most of Norton’s aliens so far have been humanoids, which has never been explained as far as I know, just one of those standard tropes of sixties science fiction.

Shann now has to win the trust of the Wyvern, find out what happened to Ragnar and find a way to drive the Throg off planet and save both himself and Ragnar, as well as the Wyvern. This being a Norton novel, he of course succeeds.

What I liked here was that Shann had his own backstory, of having lived in the slums of another planet and through his own efforts and hard work managing to get a place in the Survey corps. This backstory is mostly hinted at, explained in a few sentences here and there but would be enough to fill another novel. It shows off the width and depth of Norton’s universe, each novel only showing a snapshot of it. Unlike many other writers of the same vintage, you never get the feeling that her planets are just stage settings. They have histories that continue once the story is done.