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The Red Scholar’s Wake cover

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

(Gollancz, 2022)

Reviewed by Dev Agarwal

Aliette de Bodard is one of the biggest and most highly regarded names in the genre. She is almost hyperactive in producing work of any length, from short fiction to novellas and novels. Additionally, de Bodard consistently features on the short lists for major awards in the US and UK, often claiming the top spot.

Not only busy, she is also a lyricist of noticeable power and range.

Readers of The Red Scholar’s Wake will find that it combines space opera and future history. Like Heinlein and Haldeman before her, de Bodard has built a body of work around an imagined future. In her case this is based on a parallel universe where Chinese and Vietnamese cultures dominated world history from the fifteenth century onwards (the Xuya universe).

This provides a context for each subsequent story. Turning to this novel, the plot is driven by several dramatic premises. Firstly, de Bodard takes her Xuya characters and projects them into a future where space travel is common. Her two leads are both female, though only one is human. Xích Si is a bot maker and scavenger. The novel opens as Xich Si is taken prisoner by the Red Banner pirate fleet.

The pirates are led by Rice Fish. Rice Fish is both a sentient intelligence and the pirate spaceship itself. This is a nice riff on Artificial Intelligence. The late Iain M. Banks famously developed intelligent spaceships with quirks and personalities for his Culture space opera. de Bodard takes that idea a further step—what if a sentient spaceship became romantically involved with her human crew?

Space opera normally presents characters against cosmic backgrounds. These are inevitably vast settings that can dwarf the protagonists. While The Red Scholar’s Wake delivers on the struggle of humanity in the face of the near-infinite it does not neglect the intimacy of the inner lives of its female protagonists.

Rice Fish begins the novel threatening Xich Si:

Rice Fish thought of Xich Si—of how abjectly she’d crawled, of how ready she’d been to abase herself—of how angry Rice Fish had been, at the way fear broke people.”

de Bodard confronts the reality of people reacting to fear and physical threats. A threat may be withdrawn but the psychological damage can echo throughout a person’s life. Simultaneously, >Rice Fish becomes not only an independently-minded AI but also a wholly realised person. She is the widow of an earlier pirate, the titular Red Scholar. His death is key to the novel’s plot and the characters’ subsequent mutual needs. Rice Fish wants an agent who can assist her investigation into who killed her spouse. So, Rice Fish proposes a radical step to protect Xich Si. She offers to marry Xich Si to ensure her safety among the pirate clan. This is a business proposition not an act of affection.

As this is a story about piracy and revenge, de Bodard shows us that violence can be vivid and poetic: Xich Si “remembered the vids of Dieu Nga’s body…the eyes shrivelled in their orbits, the broken texture of the lips, the teeth rattling loose and refracting starlight like jewels.”

We might consider how careful the word choice is, “shrivelled”, “broken texture”, “rattling loose,” and then the elegance among the horror of the mutilated face, the teeth like jewels that do not reflect starlight but refract it. These words adds to the vividness of the moment and makes Nga’s death resonate for us, fixing it in the mind’s eye.

Returning to the marriage, a human-AI marriage has its science fictional antecedents. Readers may recall a rock megastar called Rez in 1996 who sought to marry the avatar Rei Toei in William Gibson’s Idoru.

de Bodard uses her version of AI marriage as a jumping-off point. Firstly, an issue with Idoru is that the marriage was not between any of the novel’s protagonists. The married couple, human and synthetic, were viewed externally by the protagonists. This distanced us from what it is to be emotionally involved for either character. That is not the case in The Red Scholar’s Wake, where the transhuman relationship is between protagonists and emotionally immediate.

Idoru also acts as a benchmark in how the genre has changed across three decades. This is that de Bodard’s version of the marriage is between female characters. Rice Fish’s first marriage was to a woman, the pirate Red Scholar. Her new bride, Xich Si, is a female engineer and Rice Fish is a female synthetic person. This is therefore a story of gay protagonists set in an adventure of warring spacecraft.

While the novel delivers on its promise of space opera and subsequent eyeball kicks it also introduces the tropes of romance as well. This should not put off any readers. Romance as a genre is often misunderstood, but at its core, good romance writing delves deep into the human condition and the issues of how characters transition from enemies to allies and ultimately partners.

A closing thought is that this review is an opportunity to repeat a recent endorsement by Charles Stross, who is famous for his own world building. He recently wrote that “A lot of people picked up the superficial furniture of Banksian space opera—snarky AIs, starship names, hyperviolent interludes—but missed the philosophical enquiries disguised as thematic elements. And few authors in the SF/F field are remotely as good at characterisation as (Banks). Shout out for Aliette de Bodard on that note.”

Readers looking for adventure and the sense of wonder of effective space opera will be well served by this novel, as will readers looking for romance, a love story and a frank and honest exploration of trauma and loss.

The Red Scholar’s Wake and de Bodard can be summed up as a big book by a big name.

Review from BSFA Review 23 - Download your copy here.


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