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.
By 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.
The 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:
This is something of a historical win as, as far as we can ascertain, Aliette is the first ever European writer to win a Nebula in the entire history of the award. Congratulations to Aliette and here’s hoping for the continuation of greater diversity in the field’s awards.
“Immersion” is also a current Hugo Award nominee.
I’ve been meaning to post about the Hugo Awards, which were recently announced. Usually with awards, we tend to post a note highlighting any writers of international interest (if any) and leave it at that, but I feel it might be worth saying a few more words this time, so please bear with me.
There seems to be a conversation about the Hugos every year, of roughly the same nature. A good example is this recent one, which takes them to task by saying:
Although the Hugos present the image of something more cosmopolitan or representative than the standard convention award, it’s becoming increasingly apparent every year that, despite being the most recognizable award in science fiction and fantasy cultural awareness, the Hugos are nothing more than an amalgamation of like minded WorldCon members, or agendized voting blocs, bent on vociferous back patting.
I have sympathy with this sort of argument, though it’s worth noting neither the Hugos nor the “WorldCon” were ever meant to be international or all-inclusive. “WorldCon” gets its name from the World’s Fair that took place in New York in 1939, and the “Hugos” take their name from a Jewish immigrant to the United States, Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the first science fiction pulp magazine. Moreover, the Hugos do reflect popular taste – a quick look at the sales figures of the shortlisted novels suggests they are very popular indeed, and are recognised as such.
I think a part of the sense of – disaffection – we get every year is the very real sense that science fiction [ETA: I'm using this as an umbrella term for speculative fiction, including fantasy] itself has profoundly changed over the decades. Some terribly ambitious novels had won the award since it began in 1953, a period during which science fiction was in a very real sense an avant garde literary movement. The first novel to win was Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, and the 1960s saw such novels as A Canticle for Leibowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune and Lord of Light winning – surely some of the most remarkable and ambitious examples of American science fiction ever written.
But the nature of genre publishing itself changed. It is now a massively successful, commercial genre, with thousands of titles published annually, multiple franchises and diverse fandoms. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a winner in 1985, still seems to me to represent a watershed moment for SF, a when-it-changed – less the arrival of a new era as the death of an older one, and it is suggestive that is was followed, a year later, by Ender’s Game, a novel that very much stands for the new kind of SF.
Ambition, experiment, a sense of being at the vanguard are not necessarily the qualities one looks for in a Hugo winner, though certainly ambitious and challenging work continues to be recognised – Mieville’s The City and the City, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to take two.
And science fiction fans, globally, continue to be invested in the Hugos, whether they vote for them or attend a Worldcon. It is not seen as belonging to the thousand or so people who vote for it, but to anyone who is a fan of SF. And they are not easy to vote for. Attending a WorldCon is an expensive proposition, and even a supporting membership, purely for voting, can be a massive expense for someone not earning “First World” salaries.
The arguments, I suspect, will continue for years to come, but I thought it valuable to highlight just what I see as so remarkable in this year’s shortlist.
And the thing is this – this is perhaps the first year in the award’s history (and the Campbell, a “Not a Hugo” award) where we see such a strong representation of international voices. I’m not sure I can highlight this enough. Saladin Ahmed‘s Throne of the Crescent Moon, for instance, is the first novel by a Muslim writer ever to be nominated for a Hugo. The first by an Arab-American, for that matter. (And this is when being Muslim in SF is still cause for a lot of nasty sniping, to put it mildly). Ken Liu, a Chinese-American author doing amazing work, amongst others, in translating Chinese science fiction into English, is nominated for Best Short Story. Aliette de Bodard, a French author of Vietnamese ancestry, is nominated for both Best Novella and Best Short Story, while Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a surprise nominee with a translated story in the Best Novelette category.
Even more exciting, the Campbell Award, recognising emerging writers, has author Zen Cho as a nominee – the first time a Malaysian author is so recognised.
The Hugos are changing, I think. Or SF as a whole is changing. The surprise is not that popular American writers are nominated for a Hugo – but that diversity is increasingly represented on the ballots.
And frankly, for all my love of 1960s American SF, this seems to me to be the more exciting time to be involved with the genre.
Aliette gave us permission to repost this here, from her blog:
Mixed-race people in SFF
By Aliette de Bodard
OK, because I’ve seen one too many %%% storylines about mixed-race people in fiction (expanded for SFF to include the children of humans and aliens/magical creatures, etc.). For your information:
We are not psychopaths, terminally maladjusted, forever torn between two cultures in a way that will inevitably destroy us. We are not freaks or hybrids or mongrels or circus animals, forever exhibited as examples of what can go wrong in human/alien/magical creatures relationships; neither are we featureless saints exhibited as examples of interracial/interspecies harmony.
We are not special, magical or possessed of numinous powers by virtue of our non-white/non-human blood; we are not the tamed Other, made acceptable by an infusion of white blood and white customs, the “safe” option with only a hint of fashionable exoticism and none of the raw difference of “true” foreigners. We are not a handy, non-scary substitute for diversity in fiction.
We do not have pick sides unilaterally. We do not have to share the identity of our mother or of our father to the exclusion of the other parent (and most of us will find it quite hard to completely reject one half of our heritage); and our parents are not perpetually locked in some cultural war in which there would only be a single winner. We can be raised with love and respect and in a meld between two cultures: we do not have to be orphaned/single-parent/neglected/abused to exist.
Our parents are normal beings, and so are we.
If you’re using mixed-race people in your fiction and feature ANY of those tropes, do please think for a moment of what it is that you’re saying (and I wish I could say it’s not the case, but I’ve seen all of these–yes, even the hybrid/mongrel–at some point in recent SFF, either in print or in other media).
Disclaimer: this is based on my experience and on those of friends growing up (mostly in Europe, and most Asian-white mixed-race). I tend to think a lot of it applies elsewhere, though…
I’m delighted to say we’ve been nominated for a BSFA Award in the non-fiction category!
And very happy to see two international writers, Aliette de Bodard (France) and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines) in the short fiction category.
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)
Intrusion by Ken Macleod (Orbit)
Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
2312 by Kim Stanley-Robinson (Orbit)
Best Short Story
“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld #69)
“The Flight of the Ravens” by Chris Butler (Immersion Press)
“Song of the body Cartographer” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Phillipines Genre Stories)
“Limited Edition” by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine)
“Three Moments of an Explosion” by China Mieville (Rejectamentalist Manifesto)
“Adrift on the Sea of Rains” by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)
Ben Baldwin for the cover of Dark Currents (Newcon Press)
Blacksheep for the cover of Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass (Gollancz)
Dominic Harman for the cover of Eric Brown’s Helix Wars (Rebellion)
Joey Hifi for the cover of Simon Morden’s Thy Kingdom Come (Jurassic London)
Si Scott for the cover artwork for Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (Corvus)
“The Complexity of the Humble Space Suit” by Karen Burnham (Rocket Science, Mutation Press)
“The Widening Gyre” by Paul Kincaid (Los Angeles Review of Books)
The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge University Press)
The Shortlist Project by Maureen Kincaid Speller
The World SF Blog, Chief Editor Lavie Tidhar
Aliette de Bodard‘s latest book publication is the novella, On A Red Station, Drifting, published by the UK’s Immersion Press in hardcover.
Here, Aliette talks about the genesis and process of writing the novella, based on the Chinese classic Dream of Red Mansions:
So, it’s occurred to me I didn’t actually provide this for my latest release–accordingly, there you go, author’s notes for On a Red Station, Drifting.
I started writing On a Red Station, Drifting after one too many readings of the Chinese classic Dream of Red Mansions, and musing on old literature.
It’s no secret that “classical literature”, at least the brand taught in French schools, is overwhelmingly male and concerned with “male” affairs: wars, violence, fatherhood, father/son relationships… I found the same preoccupation prevalent in SFF, to a point where it became unsettling–it’s a subject covered by Ursula Le Guin in her Language of the Night and by Joanna Russ in many of her writings. One of the things that drove this home for me was seeing the statistics compiled by Martin Lewis for the Clarke Award (among the highlights: around 90% of the books had at least a male protagonist, a good quarter featured no women main characters at all, and a good 81% of the books had the protagonist kill someone, while only under half the protagonists were in a stable happy relationship).
Dream of Red Mansions, meanwhile, a novel that was written in the 19th Century, has 12 central female protagonists (and an effeminate, somewhat ineffective male protagonist who often wishes he was a girl), a slew of relationships from husband-wife to various degrees of family closeness. Its Twelve Beauties of Jinling are very different women, from the fierce and domineering Wang Xifeng to sickly and grudge-prone Lin Daiyu. It is explicitly written as a homage to those women; and its focus is resolutely domestic. It concerns itself with the affairs of two related households (the Rongguo and the Ningguo houses of the Jia family), their day-to-day intrigues and relationships, while the great events of the period are relegated to the background (the very strong political upheavals of the time period are only alluded to when they impinge on the family’s everyday life). I thought it was an awesome way to write a book, and I decided I wanted to try my hand at a domestic plot. – continue reading!
The James White Award is an annual short story competition open to non-professional writers. Entry is free to writers from around the world and this year the judging panel will include French writer Aliette de Bodard, alongside Ian McDonald and the interzone editorial team. The winning story gets £300 and publication in Interzone.
From the administrators:
- · Stories entered into the competition must be original and previously unpublished.
- · Stories must be in the English language but the competition is open to writers from any nation.
- · This year’s judging panel comprises the novelists Aliette de Bodard and Ian McDonald and the Interzone editorial team.
- · Entry is free.
- · For the full rules and details of how to enter, visit www.jameswhiteaward.com
- · The prize for winning this year’s James White Award 2011 is £300 plus publication in Interzone, the leading UK science fiction magazine. This year there will also be a prize of £100 awarded by the judges to the second place story.
- · The closing date for this year’s competition is midnight (GMT) 16 December 2012.
- · If you have any questions, contact the Award Administrator at email@example.com
- · The James White Award was instituted to honour the memory of one of Ireland’s most successful science fiction authors, James White. To learn more about James White and his writing, visit www.sectorgeneral.com.
The latest issue of Clarkesworld has a major new story by Aliette de Bodard, Immersion:
In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.
You stand in front of the mirror—it shifts and trembles, reflecting only what you want to see—eyes that feel too wide, skin that feels too pale, an odd, distant smell wafting from the compartment’s ambient system that is neither incense nor garlic, but something else, something elusive that you once knew.
You’re dressed, already—not on your skin, but outside, where it matters, your avatar sporting blue and black and gold, the stylish clothes of a well-travelled, well-connected woman. For a moment, as you turn away from the mirror, the glass shimmers out of focus; and another woman in a dull silk gown stares back at you: smaller, squatter and in every way diminished—a stranger, a distant memory that has ceased to have any meaning.
Quy was on the docks, watching the spaceships arrive. She could, of course, have been anywhere on Longevity Station, and requested the feed from the network to be patched to her router—and watched, superimposed on her field of vision, the slow dance of ships slipping into their pod cradles like births watched in reverse. But there was something about standing on the spaceport’s concourse—a feeling of closeness that she just couldn’t replicate by standing in Golden Carp Gardens or Azure Dragon Temple. Because here—here, separated by only a few measures of sheet metal from the cradle pods, she could feel herself teetering on the edge of the vacuum, submerged in cold and breathing in neither air nor oxygen. She could almost imagine herself rootless, finally returned to the source of everything.
Most ships those days were Galactic—you’d have thought Longevity’s ex-masters would have been unhappy about the station’s independence, but now that the war was over Longevity was a tidy source of profit. The ships came; and disgorged a steady stream of tourists—their eyes too round and straight, their jaws too square; their faces an unhealthy shade of pink, like undercooked meat left too long in the sun. They walked with the easy confidence of people with immersers: pausing to admire the suggested highlights for a second or so before moving on to the transport station, where they haggled in schoolbook Rong for a ride to their recommended hotels—a sickeningly familiar ballet Quy had been seeing most of her life, a unison of foreigners descending on the station like a plague of centipedes or leeches.
Still, Quy watched them. They reminded her of her own time on Prime, her heady schooldays filled with raucous bars and wild weekends, and late minute revisions for exams, a carefree time she’d never have again in her life. She both longed for those days back, and hated herself for her weakness. Her education on Prime, which should have been her path into the higher strata of the station’s society, had brought her nothing but a sense of disconnection from her family; a growing solitude, and a dissatisfaction, an aimlessness she couldn’t put in words.
She might not have moved all day—had a sign not blinked, superimposed by her router on the edge of her field of vision. A message from Second Uncle. – continue reading!
SF Signal have just published the first part of a roundtable on race in science fiction and fantasy, with David Anthony Durham, Aliette de Bodard, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Ken Liu:
Q: In what ways do you see readers reacting to the racial content of your work? As a follow-up question, has your race entered into that discussion, and if so, how?David Anthony Durham
Sometimes I think readers assume that I’m writing about race just because I’m a writer of color and/or because I’ve done so before.
With the Acacia Trilogy I’m a little surprised by readers that mention my exploration of racism. Surprised because racism isn’t, to me, much of an issue in the books. I wrote about these topics explicitly in earlier historical novels (like Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness), but the Known World is free from the racial hierarchy of our history. Sure, there are tensions, but I don’t think anybody in the novels believes that one race is inferior to another. They have national pride and-particularly in the case of the Meins-a desire for racial purity. But that’s a product of having been a proud clan of people that have suffered exile. That’s very different than the hundreds of years that our Western society used science, religion, laws and myth to differentiate the races in the starkest of terms.
I made the Quota/Mist trade one that takes slaves from all races of the Known World. I wanted to contrast that against our history of the Atlantic Slave trade. Anybody’s children are at risk. Anybody can be sent overseas to an unknown fate. And in the later books, I was interested in what that means for those slaves. How do they come to define themselves in their slavery? Not, surely, by their race. Are they more a part of the culture that sold them into slavery, or do they draw their identity from the one in which they’re raised-that of their enslavers?
I find that the readers most likely to engage with this are the ones that have spent the most time thinking about the role of race in their own lives, especially those that come from-or are themselves creating-multicultural identities.
The flip side of this is that some readers don’t notice anything unusual in the multicultural vibe of the books. I’ve heard readers express surprise that I identify as African-American. “I didn’t know he was black until he said so in a blog post.” That sort of thing. I think part of what’s going on there is that some readers expect a black writer to write about race in a certain way, to write primarily black characters and to have a particular platform that’s easily recognizable-and potentially dismissible-to them. I want to believe that what I do is a bit different than that. And, honestly, I’m very glad to be able to have a dialogue with these readers as well. – read the full post.