Red Star, Winter Orbit

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"Red Star, Winter Orbit"
Author William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Country Canada
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction
Published in Omni, Burning Chrome, Mirrorshades
Publication type Anthology
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Publication date July 1983
Preceded by "Burning Chrome"
Followed by "The Winter Market"

"Red Star, Winter Orbit" is a short story written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in the 1980s.[1] It was first published in Omni in July 1983, and later collected in Burning Chrome, a 1986 anthology of Gibson's early short fiction, and in Sterling's 1986 cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades. The story is set in an alternate future where the Soviet Union controls most of the Earth's resources, especially oil. As a result of this the United States is no longer a dominant economic power on earth and the Soviets have won the space race.

Science fiction critic Takayuki Tatsumi regards the story as a descriptive account of "the failure of the dream of space exploration", reminiscent of J.G. Ballard's "inner space/outer space" motif.[2] Gibson scholar Tatiani Rapatzikou commented that the motif of the space station was used by the authors as a "symbol of the tension and uneasiness the characters or readers experience every time they deal with the artificiality of their technological world".[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The story takes place on the Soviet space station Kosmograd ("Cosmic City"), which consists of a number of Salyuts linked together. The station has both civilian and military roles; the military portion is a base for the operation for two large particle beam weapons for shooting down ICBMs. The civilian side, once a hub for space exploration, is now reduced to a maintenance role for the engineers running the station. Most of the story takes place in one of the Salyuts that has been set aside as the "Museum of the Soviet Triumph in Space". Its caretaker is cosmonaut Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev, the first man on Mars.

As the story opens, the military role is no longer required now that the United States has lost superpower status and the threat of ICBMs is gone. The government decides to stop manning the station, but this would involve a loss of face as they would be abandoning their last manned space presence. At first they plan on blaming the station's shutdown on the civilian crew's black market activities, the minor trafficking in American media. When he hears of the shutdown, Korolev organizes a strike, demanding the charges be dropped. He is ignored, and the station rapidly deteriorates.

On the ground, a purge starts within the space establishment that removes most of the "old guard". The remaining administrators decide to put the station in a decaying orbit, and blame its demise on Korolev, the strike's leader. After 20 years in space, Korolev can no longer return to Earth and will make a convenient scapegoat.

Korolev instead hatches a plan to use the remaining Soyuz capsules to allow the crew to defect to Japan after landing in China. His attempts to interfere with the military side of the station fail and they prepare to fire on the defectors. One of the capsules returns and deliberately crashes into the weapon. The military crew is killed when their portion of the station is ripped open, and Korolev is locked in the civilian side when the doors automatically close. He is left alone in a decaying orbit.

Some time later, Korolev awakens to find one of the hatches being knocked on from the outside. Thinking he is dreaming, he comes to his senses when the hatch is opened and several Americans enter the station. Hearing it had been abandoned, they have decided to leave their squat on a solar-power balloon and take over the station to form a new colony. The story ends with Korolev being asked to give a tour of the station for its new inhabitants.


  1. ^ Pesahovitch, Ivgeny; Olga Pollack (August 24, 1997). "The frail humanity of Mir". The Jerusalem Post. p. 6. The novelist William Gibson said in a recent interview that the best science fiction of the 1990s is on CNN news. Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote a story in the 1980s called Red Star, Winter Orbit, set in a dilapidated Soviet space station slowly falling apart. As usual, the science-fiction writers, the real prophets of our age, were ahead of the launch of Mir, as well as of its current decay. Yet Gibson admitted it would have been hard for him "to beat that garbage-module slamming into Mir! ... Looking back, I can see that we didn't go nearly far enough [in the Red Star story.]" 
  2. ^ a b Rapatzikou, Tatiana (2004). Gothic Motifs in the Fiction of William Gibson. Amsterdam: Rodopi. pp. 63–64. ISBN 90-420-1761-9. 

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