“The Red Bride” by Samantha Henderson

October 3, 2010 at 12:30 am | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment
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This week’s short story club story is “The Red Bride” by Samantha Henderson, published in Strange Horizons. This is a very short story. Not quite flash fiction, I suppose, but it’s well under two thousand words. The shorter a story is, the harder it becomes to tell a satisfying story. Henderson makes this even harder, in my opinion, by essentially telling two linked stories instead of one. The story is ostensibly about the titular Red Bride, related in casual second person by an unnamed alien narrator to a human child. The second story, embedded in the first, is about how this alien servant has become fond of its master’s child and wants to save him from a sort of slave uprising. The first is less a story than a concept and the latter is so simple it would be about four sentences long if presented unadorned.

The narrator spends a lot of time (relative to the story’s overall length, at least) talking about the differences between Var and human ways of thinking, but never seems at all different in its own thinking and, indeed, eventually endorses the idea that humans and Var have identical psychologies. If the two species are “one under the skin”, why does the story open with several paragraphs complaining about the listener’s (and readers’) human preconceptions? As far as I can tell the Red Bride is an allegory for revolutionary rage, which is interesting, but allegory is hardly an alien mode.

I spent most of the story preoccupied by what the story implies about humans in the story. The position of the servants seems mostly analogous to manor house slavery, and the narrator (who is apparently an optimist among Var when it comes to humans) takes it for granted that if humans discover they can get shiny rocks from Var corpses they will harvest them as if the Var were animals. While there’s plenty of historical examples of this sort of thing, I have a hard time believing future humans would act this way. It’s not that it couldn’t happen again…humans are gifted at rationalization…but I feel like such a regression in ethics needs to be explained. I can imagine all sorts of reasons, but none are provided.

It occurs to me that while I read this story as science fiction, it might actually be fantasy. Glancing back over the story, the only thing I can point to is the “seeded race” concept, which is a trope from the science fiction tradition. But even if these are alternate humans instead of future humans, the story comes off to me as preachy, but the message (underestimating and oppressing people who look different is bad) is so widely held by the story’s likely audience I feel like this couldn’t have been the author’s intention. One of the comments on Strange Horizons calls the story “an interesting echo…of such real-life events as the Haitian uprising and the Sepoy mutiny”. At the risk of sounding like a mainstream reviewer writing off a genre story, I don’t see what purpose the genre element serves if that’s the goal. If this same story was translated into historical fiction in one of those settings, even leaving it the same length, I feel like it would be much more effective.

It’s interesting to compare this week’s story to the first one, Peter Watts’ “The Things”. Both feature alien narrators meditating on the differences between themselves and humans and both revolve around conflict and misunderstandings between humans and aliens. I preferred the way “The Red Bride” positions its text in time and space versus the other narration’s lack of context, but otherwise I think “The Things” is a better story on all fronts. Part of this can be put down to length, but the hive narrator was both more interesting and far better realized.

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