On a Red Station, Drifting is a science fiction novella by Aliette de Bodard, and its recent nomination for Best Novella in the 2012 Nebula Awards put it on my radar. I'm glad, since this proved to be a remarkable read. 

At first glance, one can see familiar science fiction trappings in its setting and basic premise: At some point in the future, Prosper Space Station is at a crossroads point of its long existence. Its resources are depleted as one of the consequences of an ongoing war, its greatest minds called away to join the fight for the Dai Viet Empire. Worst of all, its artificial intelligence, the Honoured Ancestress, once the mind that connected everyone and offered guidance and protection, is now faltering, ailing and wilting away to unpredictable results. 

This familiar setting is just a departure point from which to deeply explore aspects of this imagined future in meaningful ways that combine the private and the public. The excellence here comes from the realm this novella chooses to concern itself with, as well its narrative focus. The former relates to family, tradition and ancestry and how they affect people's lives. Everyone in Prosper Station is related and interconnected both by blood and by the AI’s always present company. To some, this is a positive aspect that offers comfort. To others, it’s a prison that is worth questioning. Ancestry is so important as to be literal, real: To those who are worthy, there are mem-implants of their Ancestors offering guidance and counsel. The more mem-implants one has, the greater the individual.

Of course, the question of what exactly makes one worthy is central to this story. In this version of the future, people are tested for their abilities; those who fail these tests are forever branded as lesser beings, unable to have mem-implants of their Ancestors, often saddled in marriages against their will to greater partners and discriminated against what is perceived as lack of achievement. Interestingly, gender plays no role in this: Lesser and greater partners can be either male or female and a great number of lesser people left behind on Prosper Station are actually male (their greater wives off to war).

These social, cultural, historical strands are examined closer—privately, personally—in the lives of two women, the two main characters that share the narrative focus: Station Mistress Quyen and her distant cousin, a visiting Magistrate named Linh. Linh is an educated official, used to exert power, who shares her mind with several mem-implants of her Ancestors. Her arrival at Prosper Station is what sets things in motion—the reasons for her coming there are a matter of life and death. Quyen effectively runs the Station but, as a lesser individual, she is burdened by her own sense of inferiority which shapes her interactions with most people. Quyen is the only one who truly understands what the Honoured Ancestress’ ailment really means to Prosper.

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These two characters are believable, incredibly strong female characters whose strengths lie in how their characterisation allows them to be complex, flawed individuals. Their interactions are fraught with tension and miscommunication stemming from their different sense of self-worth. And each woman’s arc eventually leads her to make choices, those choices a balance of questioning and acceptance.

This is an extremely political story in every sense of the word: on a macro scale of fighting for one’s beliefs in impossible situations and within the microcosm of the domestic, the individual—this dichotomy not really a dichotomy at all, as the micro and macro often intertwine in an inextricable tangle.

This is a beautifully realized story and the characters, plot, theme and writing are expertly crafted. My one regret is that I did not read it before we sent out our Hugo Award Nominations.  

…And then, one day in the not so distant future, once On a Red Station, Drifting inevitably becomes the SciFi classic it’s meant to be, we can all look back and remember this horrendous cover with fondness. Maybe.

In Book Smugglerish, an outstanding 9 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.