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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Ancestors Watch Over Her: Aliette de Bodard’s Space Operas

by Athena Andreadis

Note: this is part of a series in which I discuss works of the contributors to The Other Half of the Sky. Links to other entries in the series appear at the end of each discussion. The article originally appeared at Starship Reckless and recent discussions within the SFF community make it particularly relevant.

Red Station coverBy 2011 I had reached the point where I found SFF-as-usual intolerable, as a cross-section of my blog entries will attest. The blinkered parochialism, the impoverished imagination, the retreading of exhausted tropes and regressive clichés left me annoyed and – the kiss of death – bored. So before giving up on the genre altogether, I went out into the edges where the shrubs aren’t all pruned into the same shape and looked around for unruly life.

One of the names that popped up was Aliette de Bodard, a French-Vietnamese computer engineer. Her two major worlds are a fantasy Aztec universe in which gods are real; and a near-future SF one in which North America is divided between two superpowers: a still-powerful Aztec oligarchy (Mexica) controls the South, an empire of pre-Manchu-invasion Han Chinese (Xuya) the West. There’s a shrunken USA in the Northeast and both Incan and Mayan polities are still extant.

The Mexica are an continuation of the pre-conquista Aztec culture whereas the Xuya are a Confucian society that has retained extended families, age seniority, scholar supremacy and ancestral worship, though its women can attain high official positions as well as practice polyandry. Two Xuyan stories were originally on the site: “The Lost Xuyan Bride” and “The Jaguar House, In Shadow”. I liked them for reasons of both style and content, including the non-Anglo settings and minor-key endings, and said to myself, This is prime space opera material. Let’s see if her future Xuyan stories unfold amid the stars.

To my delight, the Xuyan stories that followed the first two (“The Shipmaker”; “Shipbirth”; “Scattered along the River of Heaven”; “Heaven under Earth”; “Immersion”; “The Weight of a Blessing”; On a Red Station, Drifting; “The Waiting Stars”) indeed took to the stars and made the universe larger and deeper. Several ingredients got added when de Bodard made her cultures interstellar: memory implants that literally allow “worthy” descendants to get advice from their ancestors; Minds (hybrids of Iain Banks and Farscape equivalents) who run starships and space stations, their abodes designed by feng shui adepts; and the Dai Viet spacefaring culture, a “softer” Confucian society based on extrapolation of an imperial Viet on earth that threw off both French and Chinese invaders, though it must still fight the other powers (Mexica, Xuyan and the generically named Galactics, European/US proxies) to maintain territory and status.

Within this setting, de Bodard explores the rewards and problems of extended families and of hierarchical societies; the wounds and scars of imperialism and colonization and the shortcomings of different types of ruling structures; the clashes between societies and between classes within each culture; alternative family arrangements (from male pregnancy to lesser/greater partners in dyadic marriages, the ranking determined by collective standards); the promise and danger of immersive, invasive neurotechnology; the dilemmas of creating Minds, Borg-like immortals embedded in starships and space stations, born at great peril by human mothers and considered family members – genii loci and living ancestors in one.

As a representative slice of this universe, the novella On a Red Station, Drifting (Immersion Press, $14.95 print, $2.99 digital) takes place on Prosper, a Dai Viet space station inhabited by essentially a large extended family of distant relatives plus a small Xuyan contingent. The story centers on the conflict between two powerful women: Lê Thi Linh, a scholar and magistrate in political exile who requests asylum on the station, and her cousin, Lê Thi Quyen, who has become stationmistress by default. Added to the mix are the station Mind who is slowly but inexorably failing, the agendas of other members of the Lê immediate family, and the strain put on Prosper’s people and resources by the faraway yet intrusive interstellar wars.

The story starts in media res, as is de rigueur for SF, and shifts back and forth between Linh and Quyen as (unreliable) narrators. Both are supremely capable and accustomed to authority, yet have cracks in their self-esteem for reasons related to their status. As a result, they are hypersensitive to slights, real and perceived. Their prickly pride and the Dai Viet culture’s standards of obliqueness and reticence set up the stage for a confrontation that pulls others into its vortex. During the ensuing battle of wills, many of the characters in Red Station cross into gray ethical territory or outright emotional cruelty.

De Bodard navigates deftly through this complex, polyphonic structure that’s part family saga, part cultural and political exploration, part space opera – but (happily) without blazing plasma guns, macho messiahs or standard father/son convolutions. None of the story’s devices are original but many are freshly recast: the unstable AI (de Bodard’s Minds are direct descendants of Joan Vinge’s Mactavs in “Tin Soldier”, including their gender); the space station in jeopardy (in this subcategory, Red Station ties as my favorite with C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station and M. J. Locke’s Up Against It); neural/VR familiars (here explicit ancestral presences); design magicians (in this universe, the multi-skilled engineers who shape the stations/ships and their resident Minds).

The family dynamics are complex but clear and, as is typical of de Bodard’s stories, center on interactions between second-degree relatives rather than the more common first-degree ones. The two principals are well realized, with all their strengths, flaws and blind spots – though Linh is given more distinguishing small idiosyncrasies than Quyen. However, secondary characters remain quasi-generic types, with the partial exception of Quyen’s tortured brother-in-law and the fleetingly glimpsed but unforgettable Grand Master (Mistress) of Design.

There’s enormous tension in the story despite its leisurely pace, generated by the jeopardies inherent in the situation (annihilation of Prosper and its people is a real possibility and can come from several directions, including their own side) and also from the fact that none of the many subplots are completely resolved. Nor are any of the characters, several chafing against societal roles and expectations, fully reconciled to their fates or to each other. In this, Red Station is far closer to mainstream literary novels than the neatly tied endings common in SFF.

The style, straightforward with occasional flourishes, serves the story well: the membrane of illusion is never punctured. Vivid touches, from subtly nuanced poetry to mention of war-kites (a Yoon Ha Lee influence?) to xanh (read cricket) fights do much to make the Viet culture come to life – although if you’ve read other stories in this universe, you notice the recycling of fish sauce, zither sounds and wall calligraphy as cultural shorthands.

deBodardThe most striking attributes of Red Station are not its intricate worldbuilding and plot, unusual and well-executed as they are. What makes it stand out is that its two fulcrums are women who clash over primary power, not over lovers, children or proxy power through male relatives; and that the story is set entirely within the Dai Viet context, making it the norm rather than an “exotic” variant juxtaposed to a more easily recognized “default”. Similar recastings distinguish all of de Bodard’s space operas and I, for one, hope she continues telling us stories of this universe. She deserves her recent Nebula award.

Cover art by Nhan Y Doanh

In the same series:

The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized

Shimmering Kaleidoscopes: Cat Rambo’s Near + Far

June 10, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Monday Original Content: Superficial Darkness and Luminous Ink

by Athena Andreadis; originally posted at Starship Reckless

InkThere has been a resurgence of arguments over grimdark fantasy, sparked by Joe Abercrombie’s recent second salvo after his earlier pas-de-deux with Leo Grin. This time around, Abercrombie equated “realism” (as in: non-stop pillage and teen-level gothness… or is it kvothness?) with “honesty” while arguing with a semi-straight face that he, unlike those who dislike gratuitous grottiness, was not making moral judgments.

Last time around, I was the sole non-anglomale to enter this fray. This time, several women responded (links below). All raised important issues (the exclusive focus on rape of women; the determined distortion/impoverishment of real history; the fact that several items are subsumed under “grittiness”), though Elizabeth Bear’s defense of (revisionist) grimdark bears this immortal phrase: “…sociopathic monsters can and do accomplish good – sometimes purposefully, sometimes not.” In other words, a soldier who participated in flattening a village is a force for good because he let one of the village children survive.

Having said my piece on grittygrotty fantasy, I don’t deem the subgenre interesting enough for additional investment. However, during these discussions journalist and author Sabrina Vourvoulias wondered if Ink, her debut novel, is classifiable as grimdark because it contains some of the items that are de rigueur in that domain: betrayal by friends; death of beloved and/or central characters; violence and violations; grim settings and unhappy endings. I had long intended to write a review of Ink, so I considered this my opportunity.

My verdict: Ink is not grimdark if only because it’s not the standard-issue SFF watery gruel. It’s also not grimdark because: it spends as much time showing beauty, heroism and honor as squalor, betrayal and violence; its violence (except in one instance) is neither gratuitous nor meant to titillate; it shows imperfect but functioning individuals, families and communities, not the baboon troops standard in grimdark; it doesn’t fridge its women (instead, it hews to the more traditional mode of “men die, women endure”); it shows mutual desire and consensual sex with neither prudery nor prurience; it’s layered and nuanced; and it’s politically engaged and grounded in reality while also containing doors ajar to other worlds.

Some reviewers compared Ink to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, because both show near-future US societies based on plausible extrapolations. But whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is straight dystopia, Ink is more than that. Ink is a nagual, like one of its protagonists: a twinned being, a shapeshifter – something common in non-Anglo literature that has left its genre boundaries porous instead of having them patrolled by purity squads. Ink combines mythic, epic, dystopian, urban and paranormal fantasy – it’s a direct descendant of the better-known Hispanophone magic realists. Its closest contemporary relatives are Evghenía Fakínou’s luminous works, famous in Hellás but unknown to Anglophone readers.

Ink describes a very near-future US in which the distinction between full citizens and the rest has become absolute and is enforced by biometric tattoos that specify status. Those who are not full citizens are subject to the customary abuses: curfews, job and housing discrimination, deportations, concentration camps, child abductions, involuntary sterilizations, vigilante violence. The story, spread over a decade, chronicles the reactions to this setting in both the real and magical realms.

The real echoes are multiple: there have been many near-silent holocausts in Latin America during caudillo regimes; biometric identification and surveillance methods are already with us; the treatment of “aliens” has been an endemic festering wound in many polities, the US prominently among them; tattoos and concentration camps have been used throughout history to isolate “others”; and “others” are routinely dehumanized across times and cultures – usually as a means of retaining power (for the strong), borderline privileges and self-esteem (for the weak), as well as an easy method for retaining social homogeneity.

Jaguar nagualThe magical echoes are subtler but just as layered: the naguales come from age-old shamanistic practices in Mesoamerica; the belief in magic linked to a specific location is ancient and universal; so are the concepts of shadow doubles and wereanimals, both good and evil. There are liaisons between the two realms – not only the half-dozen primary and secondary characters with second sight and/or twinned selves, but also the kaibiles, who appear as fearsome adversaries in dreamtime within Ink but in realtime were the infamous Guatemalan counter-insurgency special forces.

There are no “alpha” heroes in Ink; those of its characters who achieve heroic status do so without fanfare by simply being decent and taking risks despite fear and consequences – and while embedded in complex networks of blood and chosen relatives (the sole glaring absence is that of old women). The characters are economically but sharply delineated and their intertwinings are natural and believable. Where Ink approaches quotidian is in the choices of its protagonists’ occupations: Finn, a journalist; Mari, a liaison/translator; Del, a painter; Abbie, a computer wunderkind.

Ink also stumbles slightly by giving its two women protagonists remarkably similar fates. Both get violated – Mari by a decent-appearing vigilante, Abbie by a once-dear friend. The latter is the only point where Ink is in danger of entering generic grimdark territory: not only is Abbie’s sadistic scarring not really necessary to the plot, but it’s also totally out of character for the person who inflicted it. Also, both women have to carry on after the loss of the loves of their lives, with children as their main consolation prize (though they also reclaim other vital pieces of themselves that make them more than just custodians of the future).

Two secondary characters cast enormous shadows in Ink and almost walk away with the novel – I for one would happily read tomes centered on each: Toño, a gang leader with the charisma and code of honor that often goes with such positions; and Meche, who walks between worlds like Mari – and is also a formidable chemist, the inventor of synthetic skin that can give passage to legitimacy. [Note to self: the successor to The Other Half of the Sky will focus on women scientists; tap Sabrina for a Meche story.]

Stylistically, Ink commits all the “errors” excoriated in HackSFFWorkshop 101, though (repeat after me) they’re common in literary fiction and I personally love them: its four protagonists speak in first person and often in present tense; it makes unapologetic jumps in narrative time; it has an enormous cast of characters, without obvious telegraphings of who’s important and who isn’t; and its chapters have titles instead of numbers.

The language in Ink clearly comes from someone who is a fluent speaker of more than one tongue: it has the giveaway shimmer of submerged harmonies, of unexpected, felicitous word couplings. Ink also has snappy dialogue and vivid descriptions. Some exchanges made me laugh out loud or weep a little, and the erotic passages pack real heat. The peripheral characters are sharply drawn and distinct, and the Latinos are not generic. They’re Mexicans, Cubans, Guatemalans, with their unique histories, customs, dialects and magicks.

Some reviewers complained that the paranormal element in Ink was intrusive or not well integrated. I’d argue that the real problem is that Ink should be much longer than it is. Although it’s a saga of sorts, it has a strobe-light staccato effect that fits its current lean frame. But unlike just about any other SFF book I’ve read recently (nearly all infected with the dreaded sequelitis virus), the issues and characters in Ink – as well as its author’s talent for weaving richly-hued tapestries – cry out for a Márquez-size door stopper.

Sabrina-VourvouliasIf Ink had been written in any language but English, it would have become a bestseller with reviews in the equivalent of the NY Times. For Anglophones, Ink is an uncategorizable hybrid. These terms are invariably used to signify that a book is doomed because it doesn’t aim for an automatically defined readership. I, however, a walker between worlds myself, use the terms as rare praise.

Images: 1st, Ink (publisher: Crossed Genres); 2nd, a jaguar nagual (sketch from a Zapotec stela by Javier Urcid); 3rd, Sabrina Vourvoulias

Links to recent discussions of grittygrotty fantasy:

Foz Meadows
Sophia McDougall
Liz Bourke
Marie Brennan
Elizabeth Bear

April 8, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Monday Original Content: The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

by Athena Andreadis; originally posted at Starship Reckless.

“Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful.”

Philip K. Dick

When Margaret Atwood stated that she does not write science fiction (SF) but speculative literature, many SF denizens reacted with what can only be called tantrums, even though Atwood defined what she means by SF. Her definition reflects a wide-ranging writer’s wish not to be pigeonholed and herded into tight enclosures inhabited by fundies and, granted, is narrower than is common: it includes what I call Leaden Era-style SF that sacrifices complex narratives and characters to gizmology and Big Ideas.

By defining SF in this fashion, Atwood made an important point: Big Ideas are the refuge of the lazy and untalented; works that purport to be about Big Ideas are invariably a tiny step above tracts. Now before anyone starts bruising my brain with encomia of Huxley, Asimov, Stephenson or Stross, let’s parse the meaning of “a story of ideas”. Like the anthropic principle, the term has a weak and a strong version. And as with the anthropic principle, the weak version is a tautology whereas the strong version is an article of, well, religious faith.

The weak version is a tautology for the simplest of reasons: all stories are stories of ideas. Even terminally dumb, stale Hollywood movies are stories of ideas. Over there, if the filmmakers don’t bother with decent worldbuilding, dialogue or characters, the film is called high concept (high as in tinny). Other disciplines call this approach a gimmick.

The strong version is similar to supremacist religious faiths, because it turns what discerning judgment and common sense classify as deficiencies to desirable attributes (Orwell would recognize this syndrome instantly). Can’t manage a coherent plot, convincing characters, original or believable worlds, well-turned sentences? Such cheap tricks are for heretics who read books written in pagan tongues! Acolytes of the True Faith… write Novels of Ideas! This dogma is often accompanied by its traditional mate, exceptionalism – as in “My god is better than yours.” Namely, the notion that SF is intrinsically “better” than mainstream literary fiction because… it looks to the future, rather than lingering in the oh-so-prosaic present… it deals with Big Questions rather than the trivial dilemmas of ordinary humans… or equivalent arguments of similar weight.

I’ve already discussed the fact that contemporary SF no longer even pretends to deal with real science or scientific extrapolation. As I said elsewhere, I think that the real division in literature, as in all art, is not between genre and mainstream, but between craft and hackery. Any body of work that relies on recycled recipes and sequels is hackery, whether this is genre or mainstream (as just one example of the latter, try to read Updike past the middle of his career). Beyond these strictures, however, SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka superannuated childishness. Most SF/F reads like stuff written by and for teenagers – even works that are ostensibly directed towards full-fledged adults.

Now before the predictable shrieks of “Elitist!” erupt, let me clarify something. Adult is not a synonym for opaque, inaccessible or precious. The best SF is in many ways entirely middlebrow, as limpid and flowing as spring water while it still explores interesting ideas and radiates sense of wonder without showing off about either attribute. A few short story examples: Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree’s A Momentary Taste of Being; Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life; Ursula Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea; Joan Vinge’s Eyes of Amber. Some novel-length ones: Melissa Scott’s Dreamships; Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows; C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station; Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite. Given this list, one source of the juvenile feel of most SF becomes obvious: fear of emotions; especially love in all its guises, including the sexual kind (the real thing, in its full messiness and glory, not the emetic glop that usurps the territory in much genre writing, including romance).

SF seems to hew to the long-disproved tenet that complex emotions inhibit critical thinking and are best left to non-alpha-males, along with doing the laundry. Some of this comes from the calvinist prudery towards sex, the converse glorification of violence and the contempt for sensual richness and intellectual subtlety that is endemic in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Coupled to that is the fact that many SF readers (some of whom go on to become SF writers) can only attain “dominance” in Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft. This state of Peter-Pan-craving-comfort-food-and-comfort-porn makes many of them firm believers in girl cooties. By equating articulate emotions with femaleness, they apparently fail to understand that complex emotions are co-extensive with high level cognition.

Biologists, except for the Tarzanist branch of the evo-psycho crowd, know full well by now that in fact cortical emotions enable people to make decisions. Emotions are an inextricable part of the indivisible unit that is the body/brain/mind and humans cannot function well without the constant feedback loops of these complex circuits. We know this from the work of António Damasio and his successors in connection with people who suffer neurological insults. People with damage to that human-specific newcomer, the pre-frontal cortex, often perform at high (even genius) levels in various intelligence and language tests – but they display gross defects in planning, judgment and social behavior. To adopt such a stance by choice is not a smart strategy even for hard-core social Darwinists, who can be found in disproportionate numbers in SF conventions and presses.

To be fair, cortical emotions may indeed inhibit something: shooting reflexes, needed in arcade games and any circumstance where unthinking execution of orders is desirable. So Galactic Emperors won’t do well as either real-life rulers or fictional characters if all they can feel and express are the so-called Four Fs that pass for sophistication in much of contemporary SF and fantasy, from the latest efforts of Iain Banks to Joe Abercrombie.

Practically speaking, what can a person do besides groan when faced with another Story of Ideas? My solution is to edit an anthology of the type of SF I’d like to read: mythic space opera, written by and for full adults. If I succeed and my stamina holds, this may turn into a semi-regular event, perhaps even a small press. So keep your telescopes trained on this constellation.

Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds: Why SF needs…

…science (or at least knowledge of the scientific process): SF Goes McDonald’s — Less Taste, More Gristle
…empathy: Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst
…literacy: Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
…storytelling: To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Images: 1st, Bill Watterson’s Calvin, who knows all about tantrums; 2nd, Dork Vader, an exemplar of those who tantrumize at Atwood; 3rd, shorthand vision of my projected anthology.

Athena Andreadis brief bio:

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

January 8, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Lavie Tidhar interviewed at the Portal

The Portal interviews Lavie Tidhar, about the World SF Blog, nomination for the World Fantasy Award, the World SF Travel Fund, writing and new novel Osama:

Q: What does the blog’s tagline “ideologically suspect” encompass?

A: Well, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously. Occasionally I’d play with different sub-headings. But I think it has a serious undertone, too: that we’re challenging a lot of the underlying assumptions of “default” sf/f. You know, when James Gunn says, “American science fiction is the base line against which all the other fantastic literatures in languages other than English must be measured”–you know–all other fantastic literature!–then yes, ideologically we’re thousands of miles apart. Physically too, of course! We’re saying, “This isn’t how things are, or should be.” And if it means poking the occasional stick at a bloated and egotistical corpse, then hell, let’s have fun doing it, at least!

Q: What’s the story of the World SF Travel Fund’s genesis?

A: The fund is something I’ve been kicking around for a while, but it was the current list of World Fantasy Awards nominations–particularly, Charles Tan being nominated in the Special Award – Non Professional category – that helped crystallize the idea into a tangible form. I felt–we felt–that Charles deserved to be there for the ceremony, whether he won or lost–and of course he couldn’t go. The stark reality is that he could never afford it.

So we got together–quite a few people–to make this happen. First, to bring Charles over for the World Fantasy Convention and, second, to be able to help other people that way in the future. It’s very exciting being able to do that! - read the full interview.

September 16, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Comments Off

Friday Original Content: Safe Exoticism, Part 2 — Culture

by Athena Andreadis; originally posted at Starship Reckless.

Note: This 2-part article is an expanded version of the talk I gave at Readercon 2011. It appeared at the same time as overlapping discussions by Cora Buhlert and Aliette de Bodard. Perhaps this means the time is ripe for change.

Part 1: Science

Recently, I read a round table discussion at the World SF blog whose participants were international women SF/F writers. The focus was, shall we say, intersectional invisibility. One item that came up was the persistence of normalizing to Anglo standards.

Also recently I started Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani travelogue. In the prologue I ran into the following sentence: “There is not much here about his wartime service in Crete, where for two years in the mountains he organized the resistance to the Nazi occupation.” In other words, for those who read this introduction (or Anthony Lane’s and David Mason’s swooning accounts of Fermor), the Cretans became sidekicks in their own country, in their own struggle – like the Arabs in T. E. Lawrence’s memoirs.

There are two asides to this. Fermor’s best known doing, the Kreipe kidnapping, conferred no strategic or tactical advantage, although the German reprisals were very real: they slaughtered and burned the village of Anóghia, the home of bard Níkos Ksiloúris. Like most of its kind, the action served to maintain Allied control over the “unruly” native resistance. Additionally, Fermor was frequently airlifted to Cairo, to decompress and receive his wages. The Cretans were not invited along. They remained in Crete, subject to said reprisals. But Fermor was British gentry. It was his version of reality that got heard, became canon history and granted him fame and fortune.

In Part 1, I said that if I wrote about New Orleans, readers and critics would be on me like a brick avalanche. I followed the recent conniptions of the British SF contigent over Connie Willis’ depiction of WWII London. She got terms wrong, she got details wrong, blah blah blah. Care to know how many things Greg Benford got wrong about Bronze Age and contemporary Mycenae in Artifact? Care to know what I think of Neil Gaiman’s “There is nothing uniquely Greek about the Odyssey?” For that matter, you hear endless hymns about Ian McDonald’s books – until you discuss Brasyl with a Brazilian or Hyberabad Days with an Indian.

Myths and history that recedes into legend reach us already as palimpsests. When The Iliad became standardized, the events it recited were already half a millennium old. Such stories bear all kinds of revisionist tellings, and the more resonant they are the more ways they can be re/told. If you want to see a really outstanding retelling of Oedípus Rex from Iocáste’s point of view, watch Denis Villeneuve’s film Incendies based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched. However, whenever people embed stories in a culture they haven’t lived in and know intimately, I’m wary. This, incidentally, is true across genres. For example, I can’t quite trust Martin Cruz Smith’s Russia, although Arkady Renko is a truly stellar creation. If you read John Fowles’ The Magus side by side with his French Lieutenant’s Woman, the disparity in authenticity is palpable. Marguerite Yourcenar knew Hellás; Mary Renault, not so much.

There is nothing wrong with writers using other cultures than their own, especially if they’re good storytellers with sensitive antennae. But when such works are taken for the real thing, the real thing often gets devalued or rejected outright, just as real science gets rejected in SF in favor of notions that are false or obsolete and often duller than the real thing. It’s like people used to canned orange juice disdaining the freshly squeezed stuff because it contains pulp. Or like James Ruskin forming his opinion of women’s bodies from classical statues and then struck impotent when he discovered that real women possess pubic hair.

There’s another equivalence between science and non-Anglo cultures in speculative fiction. Namely, the devil’s in the details. You need to have absorbed enough of your subject’s essence to know what counts, what needs to be included for verisimilitude. You may get the large picture right by conscientious research; you may get by with bluffing – but small things give away the game even when the bigger items pass cursory inspection. The diminutive of Konstantin in Russian is not Kostyn, it’s Kostya. Hellenic names have vocative endings that differ from the nominative. The real thing is both more familiar and more alien than it appears in stories written by cultural tourists. And often it’s the small touches that transport you inside another culture.

When outsiders get things right, they get saluted as honorary members of the culture they chose to depict and deserve the accolade. Outsiders can sometimes discern things in a culture that embedded insiders cannot see. Mark Mazower wrote riveting histories of Salonica and my people’s resistance during WWII that I recommend to everyone, including Hellenes. Roderick Beaton and Paul Preuss wrote absorbing novels set in Crete that are inseparable from their setting (Ariadne’s Children and Secret Passages). And Ellen Frye’s The Other Sappho may have dated considerably in terms of its outlook – but you can tell that Frye lived in Hellás for a long time and spoke idiomatic Hellenic, whereas Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind suffers from a generic setting despite its considerable other merits.

Then we have the interesting transpositions, like Jack McDevitt’s A Talent for War. If you don’t know he’s loosely retelling the wars of the Hellenic city-states against the Persians, you enjoy the story just fine. But if you do know, the underdrone adds emotional resonance. By knowing Hellenic history past the surface, McDevitt got something else right almost inadvertently: Christopher Sim is a parallel-universe portrait of Áris Velouchiótis, the most famous WWII resistance leader in Hellás. On the other hand, Ian Sales turned Eurypides’ careful psychological setup into wet cement in Thicker than Water, his SF retelling of Ifighénia in Tavrís (to say nothing of the name changes, with Orris and Pyle for Oréstis and Pyládhis winning the tin ear award).

Previously, the costs and intrinsic distortions of translation stood between stories of other cultures told by their own members and Anglophone readership. With SF/F writers of other nations increasingly writing in more-than-fluent English, this is no longer the case. The double-visioned exiles that camp outside the gates of SF/F might be just what the genre needs to shake it out of its self-satisfied monoculture stupor. The best-known examplar of this is Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) whose bewitching stories have never gone out of print, though her Kenyan memoirs have their share of noble savage/colonial glamor problems. Of course, one swallow does not bring the spring: reading one author per culture won’t result in major shifts; singletons cannot serve as blanket representatives of their culture — they remain individuals with unique context-colored viewpoints.

I think we should encourage cross-fertilization or, to use a biological term, back-breeding to the original stock. We need to listen to the voices from outside the dominant culture, if we don’t want speculative fiction to harden into drab parochial moulds. We need to taste the real thing, even if it burns our tongues. Burt Lancaster (but for the accent) was a memorable Don Fabrizio in the film version of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo; but Ghassan Massoud swept the floor with his Anglo co-stars as Salahu’d-Din in The Kingdom of Heaven. Although, to be thorough, Salahu’d-Din was a Kurd. So he might have had blue or gray eyes.

Images: 1st, Peter O’ Toole in another quintessence of palatable exoticism, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia; 2nd, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar; 3rd, Lubna Azabal as Nawal Marwan in Villeneuve’s Incendies.

Related entries:

Iskander, Khan Tengri

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards

Evgenía Fakínou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism

Athena Andreadis brief bio

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Monday Original Content: Safe Exoticism, Part 1 — Science

by Athena Andreadis; originally posted at Starship Reckless.

Note: This 2-part article is an expanded version of the talk I gave at Readercon 2011. It appeared at the same time as overlapping discussions by Cora Buhlert and Aliette de Bodard. Perhaps this means the time is ripe for change.

I originally planned to discuss how writers of SF need to balance knowledge of the scientific process, as well as some concrete knowledge of science, with writing engaging plots and vivid characters. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this discussion runs a parallel course with another; namely, depiction of non-Anglo cultures in Anglophone SF/F.

Though the two topics appear totally disparate, science in SF and non-Anglo cultures in SF/F often share the core characteristic of safe exoticism; that is, something which passes as daring but in fact reinforces common stereotypes and/or is chosen so as to avoid discomfort or deeper examination. A perfect example of both paradigms operating in the same frame and undergoing mutual reinforcement is Frank Herbert’s Dune. This is why we get sciency or outright lousy science in SF and why Russians, Brazilians, Thais, Indians and Turks written by armchair internationalists are digestible for Anglophone readers whereas stories by real “natives” get routinely rejected as too alien. This is also why farang films that attain popularity in the US are instantly remade by Hollywood in tapioca versions of the originals.

Before I go further, let me make a few things clear. I am staunchly against the worn workshop dictum of “Write only what you know.” I think it is inevitable for cultures (and I use that term loosely and broadly) to cross-interact, cross-pollinate, cross-fertilize. I myself have seesawed between two very different cultures all my adult life. I enjoy depictions of cultures and characters that are truly outside the box, emphasis on truly. At the same time, I guarantee you that if I wrote a story embedded in New Orleans of any era and published it under my own culturally very identifiable name, its reception would be problematic. Ditto if I wrote a story using real cutting-edge biology.

These caveats do not apply to secondary worlds, which give writers more leeway. Such work is judged by how original and three-dimensional it is. So if a writer succeeds in making thinly disguised historical material duller than it was in reality, that’s a problem. That’s one reason why Jacqueline Carey’s Renaissance Minoan Crete enthralled me, whereas Guy Gavriel Kay’s Byzantium annoyed me. I will also leave aside stories in which science is essentially cool-gizmos window dressing. However, use of a particular culture is in itself a framing device and science is rarely there solely for the magical outs it gives the author: it’s often used to promote a world view. And when we have active politics against evolution and in favor of several kinds of essentialism, this is something we must keep not too far back in our mind.

So let me riff on science first. I’ll restrict myself to biology, since I don’t think that knowledge of one scientific domain automatically confers knowledge in all the rest. Here are a few hoary chestnuts still in routine use (the list is by no means exhaustive):

Genes determining high-order behavior, so that you can instill virtue or Mozartian composing ability with simple, neat, trouble-free cut-n-pastes. This trope includes clones, who are rarely shown to be moulded by their many unique contexts. It runs parallel with optimizing for a function, which usually breaks down to women bred for sex and men bred for slaughter. However, evolution being what it is, all organisms are jury-rigged and all such optimizations result in instant dead-ending. Octavia Butler tackled this well in The Evening and the Morning and the Night.

– The reductionist, incorrect concept of selfish genes. This is often coupled with the “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” evo-psycho nonsense, with concepts like “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. Not surprisingly, these play well with the libertarian cyberpunk contingent as well as the Viagra-powered epic fantasy cohort.

– Lamarckian evolution, aka instant effortless morphing, which includes acquiring stigmata from VR; this of course is endemic in film and TV SF, with X-Men and The Matrix leading the pack – though Star Trek was equally guilty.

– Its cousin, fast speciation (Greg Bear’s cringeworthy Darwin’s Radio springs to mind; two decent portrayals, despite their age, are Poul Anderson’s The Man Who Counts and The Winter of the World). Next to this is rapid adaptation, though some SF standouts managed to finesse this (Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite).

– The related domain of single-note, un-integrated ecosystems (what I call “pulling a Cameron”). As I mentioned before, Dune is a perfect exemplar though it’s one of too many; an interesting if flawed one is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Not surprisingly, those that portray enclosed human-generated systems come closest to successful complexity (Morgan Locke’s Up Against It, Alex Jablokov’s River of Dust).

– Quantum consciousness and quantum entanglement past the particle scale. The former, Roger Penrose’s support notwithstanding, is too silly to enlarge upon, though I have to give Elizabeth Bear props for creative chuzpah in Undertow.

– Immortality by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul and/or design-by-god – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. As I discussed elsewhere, this is dualism of the hoariest sort and boring in the bargain.

– Uplifted animals and intelligent robots/AIs that are not only functional but also think/feel/act like humans. This paradigm, perhaps forgivable given our need for companionship, was once again brought to the forefront by the Planet of the Apes reboot, but rogue id stand-ins have run rampant across the SF landscape ever since it came into existence.

These concepts are as wrong as the geocentric universe, but the core problems lie elsewhere. For one, SF is way behind the curve on much of biology, which means that stories could be far more interesting if they were au courant. Nanobots already exist; they’re called enzymes. Our genes are multi-cooperative networks that are “read” at several levels; our neurons, ditto. I have yet to encounter a single SF story that takes advantage of the plasticity (and potential for error) of alternative splicing or epigenetics, of the left/right brain hemisphere asymmetries, or of the different processing of languages acquired in different developmental windows.

For another, many of the concepts I listed are tailor-made for current versions of triumphalism and false hierarchies that are subtler than their Leaden Age predecessors but just as pernicious. For example, they advance the notion that bodies are passive, empty chassis which it is all right to abuse and mutilate and in which it’s possible to custom-drop brains (Richard Morgan’s otherwise interesting Takeshi Kovacs trilogy is a prime example). Perhaps taking their cue from real-life US phenomena (the Teabaggers, the IMF and its minions, Peter Thiel…) many contemporary SF stories take place in neo-feudal, atomized universes run amuck, in which there seems to be no common weal: no neighborhoods, no schools, no people getting together to form a chamber music ensemble, play soccer in an alley, build a telescope. In their more benign manifestations, like Iain Banks’ Culture, they attempt to equalize disparities by positing infinite resources. But they hew to disproved paradigms and routinely conflate biological with social Darwinism, to the detriment of SF.

Mindsets informed by these holdovers won’t help us understand aliens of any kind or launch self-enclosed sustainable starships, let alone manage to stay humane and high-tech at the same time. Because, let’s face it: the long generation ships will get us past LEO. FTLs, wormholes, warp drives… none of these will carry us across the sea of stars. It will be the slow boats to Tau Ceti, like the Polynesian catamarans across the Pacific.

You may have noticed that many of the examples that I used as good science have additional out-of-the-box characteristics. Which brings us to safe exoticism on the humanist side.

Part 2: Culture

Images: 1st, Bunsen and his hapless assistant, Beaker (The Muppet Show); 2nd, the distilled quintessence of safe exoticism: Yul Brynner in The King and I.

Related entries:

SF Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Miranda Wrongs: Reading too Much into the Genome

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

Athena Andreadis brief bio

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT.  She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mental retardation and dementia.  She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics.  Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

September 5, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Monday Original Content: The Multi-Chambered Nautilus

by Athena Andreadis; originally posted at Starship Reckless.

How well like a man fought the Rani of Jhansi,
How valiantly and well!

— Indian ballad

My opinion of steampunk is low. However, last week’s lovely Google doodle by Jennifer Hom reminded me that I like at least one steampunk work. After I wrote my Star Trek book, I was asked why I did so. My reply was The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. Here is its opening paragraph:

The first book that I clearly remember reading is the unexpurgated version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Had I been superstitious, I would have taken it for an omen, since the book contains just about everything that has shaped my life and personality since then. For me, the major wonder of the book was that Captain Nemo was both a scientist and an adventurer, a swashbuckler in a lab coat, a profile I imagined myself fulfilling one day.

I was five when I first read the novel. Unlike Anglophone readers, I was lucky enough to have the complete version rather than the bowdlerized thin gruel that resulted in Verne being consigned to the category of “children’s author”. Of course, 20,000 Leagues set me up for the inevitable fall. It prompted me to read most of Verne’s other works, in which he’s as guilty of infodumps, cardboard characters and tone-deaf dialogue as most “authors of ideas”. Too, his books are boys’ treehouses: I can recall two women in those I read, both as lively as wooden idols. Even so, Captain Nemo stands apart among Verne’s characters, both in his depth and in the messages he carries.

Verne has Aronnax describe Nemo at length when he first sees him. It takes up more than a page — but even now I remember my frustration when I reached the end and found out Verne says exactly nothing about Nemo’s build, hue, eye and hair color or shape. All he has told, in excruciating detail, is that Nemo looks extraordinarily intelligent and has a formidable presence.

However, my book copy contained several sepia-tinted plates from Disney’s film version of the book (in lieu of Édouard Riou’s engravings that accompanied the original editions). I had no idea who the actors were – I discovered that James Mason was British in my early twenties. On the other hand, several hints in the book, including the “liquid vowel-filled” language spoken by his multinational crew, coded the captain of the Nautilus as different. So in my mind Nemo was olive-skinned, black-haired. He looked like my father the engineer, like my father’s seacaptain father and brothers, like the andártes of the Greek resistance. He looked like me.

He acted like the andártes, as well. He sided with the downtrodden, from helping a Ceylonese pearl diver to giving guns to the Cretans risen against the Turks. And when he lost companions, he wept. Yet he was not merely a warrior; he was also a polymath. Besides being a crack engineer, a marine biology expert and an intrepid explorer, he spoke half a dozen languages, kept a huge library, and was a discerning art collector and a talented musician. The Nautilus is the precursor of Star Trek’s Enterprise: a ship of science and culture that can also wage war. Too, Nemo’s conversations bespoke someone from an old civilization tempered by melancholic wisdom – not an insouciant triumphalist.

Then there was the Lucifer strain that appealed to me just as much, coming as I did from a clan of resistance fighters. Nemo embodies the motto by which I have come to live my life: Never complain, never explain. He’s an evolved incarnation of the Byronic hero. His name is not only the Latin version of Outis (Noone) that Odysseus gave to Polyphemus; it is also a cognate of Nemesis (Vengeance). Today’s security agencies would call Nemo a terrorist, even though he fights in self-defense and retribution after invaders massacre his family and occupy his homeland.

Since victors write history, the losers’ freedom fighters become the winners’ murderers. Beyond that, there’s a fundamental difference between Nemo and fanatics like bin Laden: Nemo is not fighting to establish an Ummah, an Empire, a Utopia, not for power, riches, or glory. He’s not a fundamentalist secure in celestial approval of his actions. He is deeply conflicted and feels grief and guilt whenever he exacts revenge.

In this, Nemo shares his creator’s determined Enlightenment outlook. Verne was never apologetic about his heroes’ secularism or love of political freedom. However, Pierre-Julien Hetzel, Verne’s excessively hands-on editor, was acutely mindful of social and political conventions. As a result, Verne has Nemo go through a deathbed act of contrition in the vastly inferior Mysterious Island – something totally at odds with his character in 20,000 Leagues. Left to himself, Verne might have given a far darker ending to the first novel, as Disney did in his film version and as Verne later did with Robur, a coarsened power-obsessed Nemo clone.

Verne had originally conceived Nemo as a Polish scientist fighting against Russian oppressors. Hetzel did not want to alienate the lucrative Russian market. Also, neither Poland nor Russia are known for their naval prowess: a Russian-hating Nemo would put a serious crimp on the sea battle drama in 20,000 Leagues. So when Verne reveals Nemo’s provenance in The Mysterious Island, he makes him an Indian prince, son of the Rajah of Bundelkhand. Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi (a region of Bundelkhand), was one of the leaders of the Sepoy Uprising, the same uprising that cost Nemo his family and home. It makes me glad to think Captain Nemo, Prince Dakkar, may have been Lakshmi Bai’s cousin – that they grew up together, friends and like-minded companions. I’m equally glad Nemo is free of the poisonous concepts of caste purity.

Who could animate Captain Nemo’s complexities and dilemmas onscreen? Mason may have been ethnically incorrect, but he truly captured Nemo – both his torment and his charisma. The incarnations since Mason have been anemic and/or off-key. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Naseeruddin Shah did his best with the paper-thin material he was given, but the film was so unremittingly awful that I’ve wiped it from long-term memory. Besides him, I have a few other possibles in mind and I’m open to additional suggestions:

Jean Reno, real name Juan Moreno, the stoic ronin whose Andalusian parents had to leave Cadiz during Franco’s regime; Ghassan Massoud, who wiped the floor with the other actors (except Edward Norton as the uncredited Baldwin) as Saladin in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven; Ken Watanabe, who left Tom Cruise in the dust in The Last Samurai; Oded Fehr, who made the screen shimmer as the paladin Ardeth Bey in The Mummy; in a decade or so, Ioan Gruffudd, whom Guinevere should have taken as a co-husband in Antoine Fuqua’s Arthur; also in about a decade (provided he keeps lean), Naveen Andrews, the soulful Kip in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient.

It goes without saying that I have an equally long list of candidates who could embody Captain Nemo as a woman – but I’ll keep these names for that never-never time when this becomes possible without the venomous ad feminem criticisms (some from prominent women) that greeted Helen Mirren as Prospero. Because gender essentialism aside, Captain Nemo was not someone I wanted to fall in love with, but someone I wanted to become: a warrior wizard, a creator, a firebringer.

Addendum 1: I received excellent additions to the Nemo candidate list. Calvin Johnson suggested Ben Kingsley, real name Krishna Pandit Bhanji, who needs no further introduction (Calvin and I also agreed that Laurence Fishburne in Morpheus mode would be great for the part). Anil Menon proposed the equally formidable Gabriel Byrne. Eloise Lanouette brought up Alexander (endless full name) Siddig who keeps getting better, like fine wine.

I also received a palpitation-inducing… er, tantalizing thought-experiment from Kay Holt; namely, a film in which each of my candidate Nemos inhabits a parallel reality. Ok, I’ll stop grinning widely now.

Addendum 2: I got e-mails expressing curiosity about my female Nemo candidates. So here’s the list. Again, I welcome suggestions:

Julia Ormond, who radiates intelligence and made a tough-as-nails underdog hero in Smilla’s Sense of Snow; Karina Lombard, who brought tormented Bertha Mason to vivid life in The Wide Sargasso Sea; Salma Hayek, the firebrand of Frida; Michelle Yeoh, who bested everyone (including Chow Yun Fat) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Angela Bassett, who wore kickass Lornette “Mace” Mason like a second skin in Strange Days; last but decidedly not least, Anjelica Huston — enough said!

Great additional suggestions have come for this half as well: Lena Headey who made a terrific Sarah Connor, Indira Varma of Kama Sutra — both in about ten years’ time.  Sotiría Leonárdhou, who set the world on fire in Rembetiko. And, of course, Sigourney Weaver, the one and only Ellen Ripley.

Images: 1st, the Nautilus as envisioned by Tom Scherman; 2nd, Captain Nemo (original illustration by Édouard Riou; detail); 3rd, James Mason as Nemo; 4th and 5th, my Nemo candidates, left to right; 4th, the men — top, Jean Reno (France/Spain), Ghassan Massoud (Syria), Ken Watanabe (Japan); bottom, Oded Fehr (Israel), Ioan Gruffudd (Wales), Naveen Andrews (India/UK); 5th, the women — top, Julia Ormond (UK), Karina Lombard (Lakota/US), Salma Hayek (Mexico); bottom, Michelle Yeoh (Hong Kong), Angela Bassett (US), Anjelica Huston (US).

Athena Andreadis brief bio

Athena Andreadis

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT.  She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mental retardation and dementia.  She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics.  Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

February 21, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

Online Supplement of World Literature Today Available

The full contents of the World Literature Today special SF issue supplement have now been posted online:

It is particularly interesting to compare the Tidhar article with Gunn’s, for their different approaches. Also of interest from an international SF perspective are the articles on Chinese and Croatian SF.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Comments Off

Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld – Free Excerpts at My Favourite Books

Three chapters of Aliette de Bodard’s upcoming novel, Servant of the Underworld, is up at My Favourite Books. Servant of the Underworld is currently available for pre-order from Amazon UK.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

An excerpt:

I knelt by his side and looked at him, trying to see evidence of guilt, or remorse – of anything that would indicate he’d summoned the nahual. His face was clear, guileless, as smooth as that of a seasoned patolli gambler. “Dealing in magic?” I asked, as calmly as I could.

December 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off

The Agony Column interviews Zoran Živković

Rick Kleffel of The Agony Column interviews Zoran Živković. Here’s an excerpt:

Since you started writing, we’ve seen all of the tropes of science fiction and fantasy become parts of mainstream culture — and yet there is still a very strong sense of what is genre and what is not.

As far as I am concerned, there is only one essential division in the art of literature. It is either good or bad. Mainstream vs. genre is a false dilemma. I have read many mainstream works that are rather poor and a number of genre books that are truly excellent.

You can read more here.

December 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off

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