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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

Tuesday Fiction: “Planetfall” by Athena Andreadis

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Athena Andreadis. Athena 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.

Planetfall

Athena Andreadis

I. In the Depths of the Sea

Nine generations past planetfall

Through the haze of her dark blue mane, the mershadow gazed sternly at her youngest. She had often warned her not to go near the shore. Afterwards, ever would she long for the hostile land, where her skin would crack and she would wither.

The youngster, eyes as smoky as her mother’s, felt unrepentant. She already knew starfire – they spent many nights on the foam. She knew of the landers, too. They had not been here long, said the Elders. They could not understand the People’s singing—yet they trod as lightly as the whisper of a calm sea. Many came to rest in her people’s domain, bearing the gifts of their kin. She longed to catch more glimpses of them. She wanted to encompass the whole world, sea and land, for her lays.

It eased the elder’s mind that, for a while, her child would have to stay near. Her turn had come to watch the Sea Rose.

The Sea Rose… the great burden and joy of the mershadows. It bloomed unpredictably once every thirteen cycles of the wanderer that cast light on the night. Between dusk and dawn, a single blossom came alive. It granted to its watcher one wish, so the Elders sang. In exchange, for each cycle of the Wanderer, a vigilant mershadow guarded it and nourished it with her salty, greenish blood.

And so, as soon as the Wanderer started waxing, the youngster dutifully nested near the mound where the Sea Rose slumbered. It stood on a leafless stem, bluish-black like its guardian’s hair, at the bottom of a deep crevasse filled with slate-green pebbles.

As the last night of her watch started to lighten into dawn, she sighed with regret and relief. The Sea Rose would not bloom in her turn. She was looking forward to recovering her strength and seeing the dry gardens once again, filled with all those blossoms that had no names in her tongue.

And just then, the water turned transparent, so transparent that she could see the pale sliver of the wanderer. She could distinctly hear the dream birds’ trills, the mist cats’ hunting calls, all the way from the distant hills of the dry lands. On the barren seafloor, the Sea Rose slowly unfurled. Its angular petals glimmered blue-green, like the precious nodules that her people occasionally found on the ocean floor. The water around it broke into jeweled prisms.

The youngster knew what she wanted to ask of the Sea Rose—she would ask for songs that might help the landers understand her people. But just as she prepared to sing her plea, an intricate object slowly twirled from the waters above and came to rest gently upon the blossom.

Hesitantly, she touched it—and a storm of yearning broke in her mind. Endless striving, anxious love, fear, longing… Meanwhile, alerted to the unfolding of the Rose, the mershadows began to congregate around the mound and its guardian.

“My child, what did you ask?” said her mother.

“I did not think to wish,” whispered the youngster. “The landers’ amulet—it spoke to me…”

And at that moment, they realized that the Sea Rose had not folded. For the first time, the only time, the sunrays touched it. It burned in colors of the fires that fuelled the star cores. Then it closed.

She became her people’s greatest bard. And her lineage kept the amulet until they returned it to the landers, on the night that the two Peoples sang together—and understood each other’s words.

II. The Sea of Stars

Four generations past planetfall

Four generations after planetfall, strife arose on Glorious Maiden. The planet, beautiful but stark, almost entirely ocean, sorely tested mettle and resources. Some hearths wanted to start ocean farming, despite the decision made even before planetfall to leave no footprint on the planet. The argument got bitter enough that several tanegíri withdrew from the council and armed their hearths.

So Sefanír, tanegír of the Sóran-Kerís hearth, first among equals, fitted herself into her kite, snapped the struts taut and flew to the storm-guarded southern archipelago, seeking to end the conflict.

“Why should we trust people who would separate us into powerful and powerless? Who no longer enter the Dreaming?” asked dark-voiced Sháita, tanegír Dhaíri. The Dreaming… as dangerous as following the songs of the dwellers of the deep. People were known to never emerge from it. They wandered inside it, eyes half-open, till they died.

“I will Dream,” replied Sefanír, drawing herself up to her considerable height. “But if I emerge from it,” she added, her blue eyes flashing, “will you agree to a truce and return to the council?”

Sháita chuckled, her long silver braids floating like cirrus clouds on her black tunic. “If you emerge,” she said, “you won’t need my agreement. The southern hearths will follow you without question or demur.”

Next dawn, Sháita led her to a tiny room facing the small inner courtyard. It was bare and windowless but for an opening high up that showed a patch of sky. She lowered the marís bowl on the stone floor, then put her hand on Sefanír’s shoulder.

“I would rather that our people were not divided and that we stayed true to our original resolution. But if we’re to unite them, I cannot be seen to let you bypass this test,” she said quietly. “Remember this, if you have forgotten it. If a man enters your vision whose hair is as pale as winter seagrass, come out of the vision in any way you can. Or you won’t come out at all.”

She waited until Sefanír had emptied the bowl, then left. Sefanír hummed a song to keep herself calm. Show no fear, no hesitation… the people’s future depends on it… on me. She felt little effect from the marís beyond its smoky aftertaste. Time went by. Consort in unclouded glory briefly appeared in her skylight, then passed. A bright dot of shimmering light hurried past—the Reckless, still in orbit, though now lost to her people. Finally, when the color leached from the patch of sky, she rose from the floor, determined to ask for another try on the morrow. She had given her word to her hearth that she would not return till she succeeded in healing the rift—or died in the attempt.

As she emerged into the larger outer courtyard, she saw a man seated by the murmuring fountain. He was muffled at dusk against the evening chill in garments the color of the evening sky.

“I am looking for Tanegír Sháita,” she said.

“I will take you to her,” he replied in a voice as soft as a mist cat’s pad. They make beautiful men, the Dhaíri, and they are said to bless their consorts with daughters, as well, thought Sefanír, her gaze sliding over his fluid body lines. If only we could get more living girl children… Madness to split into factions, when our need to keep all the lines is dire.

Through narrow corridors they wended. Strange, mused Sefanír, the dwelling seemed smaller from the outside. He led her to a room lit by a small torch.

“We’ll await my kinswoman here,” he said and gracefully lowered himself on the thick carpet. Sefanír imitated him. After a brief interval, he reached over and idly trailed a fingertip along her collarbone. A feather would have been heavier than his touch. Waves of heat, then cold coursed through Sefanír.

“It may take her a long time to come,” he whispered. “I have pleased many. I could please you, too.”

If he is offering, he is not handfasted, thought Sefanír. And it may help the truce take hold.

As she leaned toward his scented warmth, he pressed her against him. She caught the spicy whiff of newly budded leaves. Sefanír’s hands slid over the wild silk of his clothes. Then, under the thin fabric she felt scars embroidering his back. Disconcerted, she gripped his shoulder; and there she felt the raised edges of a handfasting brand.

Instantly sobered, she pulled at his sleeve and the fabric ripped with a long-drawn sigh. On his shoulder glared the divided circle of the Night. He laughed, and the room filled with the wingbeat of wheeling dream birds. Sefanír’s abrupt movement had dislodged his headscarf. Now he discarded it, revealing hair as pale as the midwinter sun. His eyes became star-filled pools.

“You are strong-willed,” he murmured. “Even my Tanegír gives in when I caress her. Why do you insult me? Shall I tell her you think her judgment in consorts is wanting? She is the only one allowed to criticize me.”

“You tried to trick me,” retorted Sefanír. “If I had given in, it would be an even worse trespass on her prerogatives. And all tales of the Night tell how easily she is aroused to anger.”

“In that they are right,” he conceded. “Those scars you felt are signs of her temper. But I suffer the fire gladly in exchange for the sweet moments. Besides, I lost fairly. Had I prevailed…” and he laughed again, the Morning Star, the First Consort of the Night. “We hunted the Two Sisters, I and all my brothers. The Elder sister had borne a child that one of us had fathered. We wanted it. Long they evaded us, but at last we overtook them, burdened as they were with the child.

“Yet the Younger would not surrender, nor leave her sister. When I saw her falter with fatigue, I grew careless and ventured close. She was prepared: her firewhip wrapped around my throat. So I bargained—in exchange for my life, I and all my brothers became her consorts. To prevent us from taking her sister’s child, she sequestered herself and us in the darkside. Now the Two only touch palms at dusk and dawn. Let me please you, Tanegir. Then I can let you go without losing honor.”

Sháita’s warning rang in Sefanír’s mind. Now she knew why so few survived the Dreaming. He, of course, guessed her thoughts.

“Perhaps my Tanegír will not notice. Perhaps I will not tell her. Who knows?”

“If each choice brings death,” decided Sefanír, “I can at least take bliss as my last memory.” She laughed and opened her arms. “Please me, then, First Consort. Should you not, I myself will complain to your Tanegír when she weaves me as another fireflitter in her dark braids.”

“Bravery like yours deserves a gift,” he said. “You will see something few have seen and none has lived to tell.” Very gently, he eased Sefanír back into the pillows. And when he embraced her, his long hair gleaming in the torchlight, he unfurled over both of them a multihued pair of wings. Joined, they soared, their outlines bathed in his brothers’ dim radiance.

Sefanír returned north with the catamarans of the Southerners behind her like a flock of seabirds. But all across her body she also bore tracks of lightning, and for a long time her dreams were consumed by fire. For the Night valued courage but she was also exacting about her Consorts’ fidelity.

III. The Dagger Sheath

Nine generations past planetfall

My evening star, my sweetest spring,
How has your beauty set!
- From the lay of Rodhánis the Storm

“Impaired, I say!” teased Kíghan. “Admit it, sister, your thinking grows less sharp if he’s involved.”

Rodhánis shook her head, exasperated. “I stand by my decision. He is the best navigator on this planet! Is it his fault that he is also beautiful?”

“Those golden eyes of his, who would not want a mist cat padding in their wake!” replied her brother, chuckling. “And you’re right, he seems to be as good among the stars as he is on the seas. But you cannot give him your brand and name him consort. You are tanegír Yehán – a son from every hearth is vying for…”

“Are you that eager to be pushed out of the hearth?” she interrupted him.

“I will remain as long as you need me but the Yeháni must have an heir, Storm, and I’m only a man.” He took her in his arms. “I know about the two miscarriages you tried to hide from the hearth members, my heart. The desolation on his face was clue enough, he is not schooled in deception. But at least it means you can conceive. They are circling you, if you don’t choose soon there will be slaughter. Seeing a wanderer in your bed is not improving their mood. And no matter how carefully you choose, they will still kill each other below your windows.”

“All these men, left to roam…” mused Rodhánis. “How did it come to this? It was not so when Captain Semira Soranakis and her Keegan arrived on the Reckless.”

“It has been so ever since planetfall,” he said quietly, “ever since Glorious Maiden chose to selectively harvest our women. We can barely keep our numbers steady, and neither the miscarriages nor the duels are helping. Perhaps you will know soon how family matters ran on the Reckless. Are you sure about the risks of this expedition? I should never have agreed…”

“And let Eridhén Kálan or one of his allies be the first to board the arcship?” burst out Rodhánis. “Not while I stand upright.”

“I cannot believe I’m recommending this, but take his eldest as your consort,” he said reluctantly. “Anáris is handsome, more even-tempered than his father—and he wants you. It may stop Eridhén from constantly raising the winds of discord.”

“Eridhén wants power too much to be deflected by kinship, and Anáris will heed him even as Yehán,” answered Rodhánis. “And with his tanegír ailing and no daughters yet, Eridhén will do anything short of declaring himself tanegír Kálan.”

“We would kill him if he did,” growled Kíghan. “At planetfall, the crew of the Reckless agreed that the hearths on Glorious Maiden would be headed by women. Their reasons were sound then, and even more so now. But Eridhén is too canny to make a mistake. He always hugs the shore, never ventures into blue water.”

* * *

The derelict arcship shone with reflected sunlight like Wanderer at his fullest. Images flashed across the console of the Seastorm. Rodhánis stopped the engines and went into freefall, using the thrusters to match the larger ship’s motion.

“The bubble must be the command center… that has to be the engine compartment, there on the tether…” She turned to her companion. “All frequencies open?”

He nodded, his golden eyes reflecting the vessel in the viewport. “Only background hiss. Amazing that the orbit-boosting mechanism still works. After all this time planetbound, to lift free of the atmosphere once again and board the ship that brought us here! Perhaps reclaim it…”

“Yes,” she said yearningly, putting her hand on his shoulder, “finally take to the stars, even find the first home in time…”

He turned, kissed her fingers. “Will I be your astrogator, my soul?”

She let her palm linger on his face. “When I bid for your contract, little did I know what seas we would cross, you and I. But I must choose a consort when we return, I promised my hearth.”

He half-smiled. “You promised Kíghan, who counts more than everyone else combined. Yet it seems to me that if you choose none of the mighty, it will be less likely to cause strife.”

“If I had a sister, I would let her have both the power and the burden. I would go back to exploring the wilds with you.” She exhaled as he left the seat and wrapped around her like a twining vine. “Or we could stay here, bring the Reckless back to life… Keep your mind on your task, cub!” she scolded him fondly as he began to plant kisses under her jawline.

“Just awaiting my tanegír’s orders…” he defended himself, hiding a smile against her neck. He glided back into the navigator’s seat, keeping a hand on her thigh. Deftly, he maneuvered the Seastorm next to the larger ship. Its hull was pitted and blistered, the plates unevenly hued, reflecting several rounds of replacements. “The blaze…” he pointed.

“The Sóran-Kerís starburst,” she marveled.

“Yes,” he whispered, averting his eyes. And suddenly in her mind’s eye she saw a spare woman with hazel eyes holding a boy with tousled auburn hair. A wanderer’s child and a son at that… How can I acknowledge you as Captain Semira’s descendant, call you Sóran-Kerís? It might start another round of vendettas, the men have become so jealous of the lineages…

“There’s a hatch,” he observed, his voice even once again, “let’s try to dock.” As gently as floating a toy catamaran on a glass-calm pond, he turned the Seastorm. He tucked it against the arcship’s hatch, forming a soft seal.

“Negligible radiation, no leakage from the engine,” she noted, looking at the gauges.

“Keep the comm open,” he said, attaching magnets to his boots. She began to object, but he silenced her with a gesture. “You are the foremost explorer of Glorious Maiden, but you are also tanegír Yehán. On this I agree with your brother, you put too much at risk.” He grinned. “If it hurts the vanity of the hearths, the records can show that you were the first to board.”

He pressed her hands against his lips, lingered a moment. Then he turned on the deep-sea breather they had hurriedly adapted. He went through the hatch and Rodhánis sealed it behind him. She leaned against the hull, the cold seeping into her. We’re re-opening the gate to the stars after the long wait… and all I can think of is the danger of losing him. She waited forever, or so it seemed, fingering the corroded pendant of Keegan Jehan, first science officer of the Reckless at planetfall, passed down the line to each tanegír Yehán.

“Can you hear me?” finally came his soft rasp through the comm.

“Yes!” she replied, letting out the breath she wasn’t aware she was holding. She felt the arcship starting to rotate, taking the Seastorm with it.

“The air is breathable, though there is an ozone smell… I managed to activate the gravity generators. I found the heat coils, too, but it will take a while for the temperature to rise.”

Dank chilly darkness awaited her on the other side of the hatch, but at least the gravity was nominal. She made her way carefully to where he was outlined against the blue runner lights that barely lit the corridors. He enfolded her hand in his own warm one, the one solid object in this domain of ghosts.

“Shall I light one of the flares?” he suggested.

“Keep them in reserve,” she decided, “let’s use them only if we must.”

After a few wrong turns they reached the bridge, a cavernous vault with a wraparound viewport, filled with navigation, engineering and communication banks. By trial and error, they found the controls for the starcharts and comms. They agreed not to disturb the other consoles. “This,” he said, touching a seat decorated with the starburst motif, “must be where Captain Semira Soranakis sat…”

“Want to try sending a signal?” she asked.

“We should be in range,” he replied, adjusting dials. She was surprised to find herself shivering, and not just from the chill. Only now did the enormity of it all fully register. Sensing her trembling, he embraced her. She tried to pull away, but he tightened his hold and she relaxed in his arms. “Nothing to be ashamed of, my light,” he murmured into her hair. “Not every day do we enter the starship that brought us here.” Still nestled within his arms, she turned towards the comm bank.

“Oránis, do you read?” she said into the primitive contraption. There was a burst of static, then a young man’s voice sprang from the receiver.

“Oránis port.”

“This is Rodhánis Yehán from…” and she took a deep breath, met his eyes. He gave his lopsided grin and nodded. “… from the Reckless… we boarded it successfully, I am calling from the bridge… Captain Semira’s bridge.”

A long silence followed her words. Then the receiver crackled again. “I will transmit your message to the entire network. This is a moment to remember, Tanegír!”

Then Kíghan’s voice emerged from the comm. “How long is it safe to stay there? Don’t get carried away, Storm!”

“We will be quick,” she replied. She heard him inhale anxiously. “We will return within the safety window!” she reassured him.

Her companion’s long-lashed eyes glinted with amusement. He laughed, filling the age-chilled bridge with the sound of swirling leaves. “I would give much to see the faces of your rivals… Shall we explore a bit? We can start here,” he said at her eager nod, steering them to a door on the side of the bridge.

They pressed a few buttons but the door remained stubbornly shut. Finally, he attached his magnets to it and winched it open. They gained entry into a narrow room containing a cot with a console next to it. The rest of the room was taken up by a large table buried under datapads. The viewport occupied an entire wall, now filled with blue Glorious Maiden and ivory Wanderer in jewel-like splendor, bathed in Consort’s golden-reddish light.

“The Captains’ ready-room,” said Rodhánis. “They dreamed the path from here…” He pressed a button on the console. A set of blue lights came on along the floorboards and next to the ceiling, turning the room into an underwater cavern. He pressed another button—and a husky, clipped voice rose amid crackles and hisses.

“Is étos ek fyghís pénte t’ekatón exínta tríton, égho Semíra, kyvernís astéron plíou…”

“Captain Semira,” breathed Rodhánis. “This must be the last log before the planetfall.”

“She sounds young,” he murmured. “I wonder what the words mean. Was she happy? Eager? Frightened?” Suddenly his eyes emptied out. She grasped his shoulder.

“What do you see?”

“I see… I see fire consuming this room…” He stopped, trembling. “What future did we bring with us through that hatch?”

“Surely you are not afraid, beautiful man?” she asked him softly, cradling him in her turn. “We faced near death in the Southern seas, our catamaran got smashed on the Fangs, we almost suffocated when we first launched the Seastorm…”

“That was different,” he said, sheltering against her. “That was just us. This, this may affect all the people…”

She started kissing him, counting on the distraction to calm him. Rock-steady in danger, but often undone by his visions, my evening star! And then, as he filled her senses, her caresses went from consoling to ravenous.

“Here?” he asked hesitantly, his hands embarking on their own exploration.

“Yes, here!” she replied, parting his clothes. “Where better than the Captain’s eyrie to dispel the ghosts, reclaim the Reckless for the living?”

“When you bestow your brand…” he said, his eyes darkening.

“I bestow to whom I choose!” she declared defiantly.

“Yes, as long as he is not a wanderer,” he corrected her gently. “Or a man who is unable to give you…” and he looked away, biting his lip.

“Look at me!” she said softly. “Here, now, no one can reach us, nothing can touch us.”

He subsided into the cot, taking her with him. Growing rough with the need, he clamped his mouth on her breast, his teeth grazing her nipple.

“Drift, wanderer!” she commanded. “Wander over me…”

“My sandy cove!” he sighed. And as he arched into her, a wisp of flame licked her mind. Give the brand to whom you will—I am yours, yours as long as I draw breath…

* * *

“This is the man who risked his life to board the Reckless!” said Rodhánis, her voice rising.

“I understand that you were the first to board the arcship, Yehán,” replied Eridhén Kálan, smiling lazily. “Even if what you say is true, it matters naught. I am within my rights to issue challenge on behalf of my hearth, my son is among those asking for the privilege of your brand.”

A low murmur of agreement accompanied his words. Rodhánis looked around. His allies were there in force, he knew when to strike. Teráni Sóran-Kerís was absent, the rest were neutral at best. And she was aware that her reluctance to choose a consort had rankled as much as her making history on the Reckless.

“Need we hew so closely to the customs?” she began again in a conciliatory tone. “I promised to decide upon my return. Does the opening of the star gates mean nothing, hearths?”

“Precisely because we can now take to the stars, we must not forget who we are,” said Eridhén.

“I will choose a consort now, if you leave him alone,” she countered.

“No,” answered Eridhén, his teeth glinting. “He has been clouding your mind, impeding your decisions. I stand by my challenge, he is a danger even if you refuse to see it. I am doing you a favor, Tanegír. Continue on your present destructive course, and I will call your brother and all the Yehán men to account.”

“No need to go that far, Kálan,” interposed Fáhri Haissé. She turned to Rodhánis. “Because of your gifts and your contributions, we gave you extraordinary leeway, Yehán, while the rest of us abided by the customs. Withdraw your protection from the wanderer and there will be no vendetta against your hearth. Shield him and we cannot prevent the issuing of challenges. Is one man, and a wanderer at that, worth so much?”

Rodhánis went through the permutations. If she complied, they would all duel him in turn, and her hearth would owe the winner a debt. If she refused their terms, the men of her hearth, Kíghan… no, not Kíghan. She was tanegír Yehán. She stood up.

“I will duel the wanderer, tanegíri.”

“No!” sprang from both Kíghan and Eridhén, but she cut them off with a glance.

“This takes precedence over all other challenges. He was contracted to my hearth.”

“What have you done?” asked Kíghan after the gathering. She rounded on him.

“The only thing I could do to protect the Yeháni.”

“At such reckless risk to yourself? Without you—ashes in the wind, the Yeháni!”

“After all that he did,” she whispered. “The best navigator in…”

“You don’t understand,” interrupted her brother heavily. “The more he accomplishes, the worse for him. The same goes for you, but the hearth name and being a woman stands between you and any harm. He, on the other hand…”

“He can go away until the storm subsides,” she said. “In time, they will forget.” She grasped her brother’s shoulder. “Send him a message. If anyone knows where to hide on this world, it’s him.”

That night, that short night, she paced the courtyard looking up at Wanderer’s pale disc, at the bright fast-moving star that was the Reckless. That they should be reduced to blood pride, when the stars were beckoning!

“My heart,” came a whisper from under the arch.

“Didn’t you get Kíghan’s message?” she hissed.

“Yes, Tanegír,” he replied and she could hear the smile in his voice. “But not to hold you in my arms? No navigator leaves his captain in such straits!” And he pressed her against him.

“Take the Seastorm and go!” she urged him, shaking with anxiety and need.

He did not reply, busy undoing the fastenings on her clothes. She sank into him, nails and teeth, not caring if she drew blood. When the first light pierced the darkness, she saw her marks on him. As she started touching them, aghast, he imprisoned her hand and kissed the knuckles.

“Calmer now, Storm?” he asked. “Ready to face the hearths?”

“Promise me you will be far away when I do!” she implored.

Before he could answer, Kíghan entered the courtyard carrying her weapons. “It’s time,” he said. His eyes burned on the other man. Then he lowered his eyes and bowed.

All the tanegíri of Oránis and their consorts stood watchfully silent around the stone beach by the shore. All but Teráni Sóran-Kerís. And then, Rodhánis’ heart became a stone in her breast. Appearing over the rise, he approached the throng in the meager finery that she had torn in her frenzy, defiantly flashing his lopsided grin. Her face draining of color, she went up to him.

“I told you to go!” she groaned in anguish under her breath.

“You will have multiple vendettas against your hearth,” he replied in a low voice. “They won’t let it rest, now that they have taken notice. And if I go into the wilds, they’ll hunt me down. Better like this.” Strands of his hair floated in front of his face. Reaching over, she tucked them behind his ear.

“You didn’t braid it,” she said. He smiled.

“Only you can do that properly, my life…”

Neither bothered with the preliminary feints. They had practiced together so often in the past that it had become a dance. He knew she was overquick with the dagger, just as she knew that he relied too much on his reflexes. They circled closer and closer. The pounding of her heart was deafening. Because of the wind, the firewhips would occasionally go astray, but rarely missed. Soon the ground was decorated with an intricate design of blood drops that marked their weaving.

The cold and wind started taking their toll. He slowed down; her wrists started aching. Her anger and self-disgust vanished—now she was filled only with the desire to be done, to sit down out of the bite of the wind. On one of the seemingly endless rounds, he passed very close. She stabbed at him, expecting his guard to come up, when she realized that he was no longer holding his dagger. Hers went into his side up to the hilt. He stumbled, then in slow motion went to his knees.

All the observers rushed towards them, but she slashed a circle around the two of them with her whip. “Away!” she snarled. They stopped in their tracks. She cradled him against her but before she could stop him, he extracted the dagger. His eyelids flickered as he tried to focus on her.

“You are so bright, my sun,” he whispered. Blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth. She held him tightly.

“Let a healer see to it,” she pleaded, “it does not look mortal!”

“You must end it,” he murmured. “They will never cease tormenting you otherwise.”

“No!” she uttered through gritted teeth, her fingers clenching around the dagger. He buried his face against her breast, gave a small sigh, as he always did before sailing into sleep. Then he wrapped his hand around her wrist and moved her hand, pressing the edge of the dagger against his throat.

“I’ll scout the twilight for you.” He opened his eyes, fastened them on hers. “Look at me…” Without warning his fingers suddenly tightened on her wrist, making her hand jerk. His grip slackened. A gush of blood poured over her hand and he grew inert in her embrace.

Wordlessly, everyone slowly left. For the entire length of the Consort’s crossing Rodhánis huddled, rocking her burden. At dusk, she began to scream. She wailed through the night, the seawaves her echo. Fine cracks started to vein windows in Oránis. The wind took her voice into the Yehán hearth where Kíghan wept, drawing fine lines across his arm with his own dagger. Into the Kálan hearth where Eridhén sat still, his nails digging into his palms. Into the other hearths of Oránis where everyone kept vigil, wondering what price the Storm would exact for her loss.

Wanderer had set and the sky was getting light when Rodhánis finally lost her voice. Kíghan went to the cove sheltering the Yehán fleet and chose a small, finely wrought catamaran, the vessel that the hearth children used to learn their deep sea skills. He sailed it to where Rodhánis was crouching, and beached it soundlessly. He approached her, gingerly enfolded her.

“Let us give him to the sea, sister…” She nodded numbly, her face raw from the rivers of salt water that had scraped and scored it.

It took a while to line the catamaran, there was not much driftwood on the shore. They placed him on top of the dry wood, laid his dagger next to him. Then Rodhánis removed Keegan Jehan’s pendant from her neck and lowered it across the red line on his throat. She pressed her cheek against his, now ice cold.

“From one star traveler to another,” she murmured hoarsely. “You wanderer, you drifted away from me, despite all your avowals. Who will be my astrogator now?”

As the tide turned, the undertow strengthened. The catamaran swayed, slowly started moving away from the shore. Kíghan lit a torch and flung it into the vessel. Eager flames sprang up in the freshening dawn breeze.

“Go,” cried Rodhánis, her voice cracking, “kiss the two tiny shades for me!”

When the vessel had become a dwindling star in the distance, Kíghan lifted her in his arms and started homeward. Three turns later, the Yeháni asked for a gathering. When Rodhánis entered the council room, silence spread like an early snowfall. The men of her hearth followed, armed and braided for battle.

“There is no need for more fighting, Yehán,” said Vónis Táren. “Everyone is satisfied.”

“Everyone?” asked Rodhánis, her voice a hoarse whisper. “I am not satisfied.”

“Even had he borne your brand,” countered Eridhén Kálan, sounding much less assured than his wont, “he would not be recognized by the hearths as your consort. He was a wanderer, he had no standing.” A small sound escaped Teráni Sóran-Kerís, but she said nothing.

“That may be,” replied Rodhánis evenly, “but since I killed him at your behest, I can now make a claim on you, hearth Kálan. A favor as large as the one you received from me.” Eridhén went white.

“You wouldn’t…” he started.

“Am I within my rights?” asked Rodhánis quietly and winds swept the room. Teráni Sóran-Kerís raised her head.

“Yes,” she said clearly and steadily, her hazel eyes boring into Eridhén.

“You were eager to give me one of your sons, Eridhén,” said Rodhánis. “Which one will you give me now?” He started trembling. “You will not choose? Then I will take them both.”

He fell to his knees before her. “Have mercy, Storm!”

“Mercy?” she repeated, smiling bleakly. “Did you have mercy when you issued the challenge? He was worth more than both your sons.”

“Take me,” he pleaded abjectly, “take me, spare them! I beg you, spare my younger at least, this will kill their mother…!”

“I will take them both,” resumed Rodhánis, “into my hearth, into my bed, teach them not to thirst for power. And perhaps one night I will stop calling them by the name of the one whose face constantly rises before me.” Her voice filled the room. “We want to regain the sky, tanegíri. Will we take this senseless killing with us to the stars? These customs that condemn our men to loneliness, because there are not enough women? We cannot leave so many of them without caresses, angry and bereft. Don’t you wish to stop fearing for your brothers? For your sons? Use your power, unite behind me!” She paused, then resumed, her voice wavering. “If our men ask for the brand, let it be only for love.”

She sat still for a very long time. Then she raised her eyes. “The Night took all the Stars as her consorts, so the lays tell. Nothing in the customs forbids it. Aye or nay, hearths?”

Vónis Táren hung her head. “I offer you my Edánir, if you will have him,” she said.

“And I, my Keméni,” added Fáhri Haissé.

Teráni Sóran-Kerís remained silent. But as people were leaving, she came up to Rodhánis.

“I was a coward and a fool,” she said in a low, ragged voice. Her fingers dug into the younger woman’s arm. “I should have acknowledged that brightness. Captain Semira would deem me unworthy, and rightly so. I won’t ask you to forgive me, I only entreat you not to let this sunder our hearths.” She took her hand abruptly away. “I will make no claims. I forfeited that right.”

* * *

Within three generations, duels and vendettas ceased and wanderers became rare jewels, to be prized and cosseted. Eridhén’s tanegír died in her next childbirth, taking the child and the Kálan hearth with her. They found his cold body next to hers, his hair spread across her chest.

Kíghan never left the Yehán hearth, remaining at his sister’s side. Soon after Rodhánis handfasted her four husbands, she had a golden-eyed daughter, Semíra. After taking her daughter to the sea for her naming ceremony, Rodhánis went to the Sóran-Kerís dwelling and put her in Teráni’s arms. They say that Teráni wept when she held the child. Rodhánis did not quicken again, though her husbands did their utmost to make her smile. She organized all subsequent expeditions to the Reckless, but never returned there herself.

Rodhánis sang the story to her daughter even when the child was too young to understand the words. Nor have the people forgotten. They still sing it under Wanderer’s light, on the ships crossing the starry lanes. And the lay names him Consort of Rodhánis, the lost astrogator, her beautiful man.

IV. Falling Star

Planetfall

Traveler from afar who sailed to our shores—ask the Sea Rose for a gift…

In the year five hundred and sixty-three after the Launch, I, Semíra Ouranákis, captain of the starship Reckless, hereby enter the last log before planetfall.

It now fills our viewports, the world that pulled us by a thin thread of dreaming. When the Reckless lifted, all they knew was that the planet was earth-like, had oxygen in its atmosphere and orbited a G-type primary. The world they left had been beautiful once, but was at the brink of destruction—drained resources, genocides driven by hot hatred or cold greed. Had they waited, the window would have closed forever. Flames fanned by ignorance and fear were already consuming starship launch pads and the people who built them. Still, they took a terrible chance, leapt into the dark trusting that a place waited to welcome them at the other end. They loved and raised children in this ship, lived and died without ever sleeping under open skies… though their views of the stars were glorious.

The planet’s system is embedded in a nebula studded with young blue giants that swept away much of the gas and dust when they ignited, but its own yellow sun is stable. In the last four generations, as the Reckless got closer, they launched automated probes, then scoutships with exploration teams. Amazingly, the planet resembles the home we left, which I know only from wavering images: a world of seas and island chains, with a large moon, breathable air and a biochemistry compatible with ours.

The planet is bursting with life. In particular, there is an aquatic species that shows every sign of sentience, including communication through sound tones as well as rudimentary technology. I remember the long, heated discussions they held when I was a child, about what we should do upon arrival. In the end, they decided not to use the frozen stocks of plant and animal embryos in our cryoholds. Some were initially dubious about the wisdom of this, but eventually all agreed that we should not repay the bounty of a new home by destroying it, as we did to our birth planet.

Despite the planet’s beauty, survival on it will be difficult, even with our technology. Its weather is violent and its oxygen content is at the low range for our lung function. But living in enclosed domes would make us prisoners, not explorers. So my parents’ generation made an irreversible commitment. They studied the genetic material of the planet’s sea dwellers, determined what sequences facilitated the processes unique to the planet. Then they spliced these into the chromosomes of children at the beginning of gestation, after testing them first on cells, then on smaller mammals in our laboratories.

As captain before me, my mother set the example. I was the first to receive tiny pieces of the new world. Her command crew followed suit with their children. And I, in my turn, had it done to the little sphere of cells that became my daughter Ethiran, even as my heart pounded fearfully in my chest.

Wonder of wonders, the material took hold, yet did not harm us. On the contrary, it has given rise to abilities that were considered the stuff of fantasy in the world that we left—telepathy, precognition, even glimpses of clairvoyance and psychokinesis. Those who have been altered show increased mental and physical prowess, are unusually lovesome and uncannily beautiful. The next generation is all modified, the boy growing in me among them. I wonder if we will ever be able to thank the native inhabitants for the gift they gave us, that has bound us to them as blood relatives.

I long to see the new home with my own eyes, but the captain should never leave her ship until it reaches harbor. I have steeled myself to wait until we settle the Reckless into circumpolar orbit. I will take the voice-activated command crystal with me when we go downplanet. It is gene-keyed to me and Keegan Jehan, to make sure the starship is never inadvertently activated.

There are moments when I think of all the danger and labor ahead… and my head swims. Then only Keegan’s arms feel safe—Keegan, who laughs at obstacles and burns my fears away with his kisses, Keegan who perfected the chimeric chromosomes and the augmented mitochondria that will allow us to breathe unaided on the planet’s surface.

I did not name the new world, though it was my prerogative as commander of this mission. Because of the breathtaking nebula around the system, my girl began calling it Kore Dhoxas—Glorious Maiden—and the moniker stuck. She also named its sun and moon, Maiden’s Consort and Wanderer. A crack linguist already, she speaks all the mother languages of our crew.

And what of her brother? Will he come intact through the pregnancy? Will he survive on this new world with all its unknowns? Ariven I will name him, from the old scroll. Perhaps he will sing lays as haunting as those of the long-lost sweet-blooded Celt boy, who gave his life for a single night with one of my ancestors.

Ethiran and others in her generation have persistent visions, and I cannot tell if they are dreams or premonitions. They hear songs in a language that whispers and caresses, they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn, and bewitching men with shimmering lights in their streaming hair…

Will they bless or curse us? Will they even remember us, who came as reckless and as jaunty as the hope that launched us? And what will they become, now that we started them on this path? All I can do is take Ethiran and Keegan’s hands, step outside, and make a wish—that this place becomes a haven and a starship for our children… that they root and blossom here.

We will stride in the sky, or die trying. We have no need of small lives.

V. Nightsongs

Nineteen generations past planetfall

The darklit voice of my wanderer falls silent when he finishes translating Captain Semíra’s words, and I lay back into the bower of my consort’s arms. As Adhísa puts down the crystal that holds our past and our future, the scent of juniper from his braids fills the night air. A mershadow’s long moan wafts in, like mist from the bay, letting us know they’re starting their migration south on the morrow. “They wished well, they who sailed on the Reckless across the ocean of stars,” he murmurs.

“They did more than wish. They wrought tirelessly to make it come true,” whispers Arivén and his embrace tightens, “as you did, my soul…”

I pick up the command crystal, feeling the mild sting of its protective field. My two bright stars close their hands over mine, homage and blessing.

“The gift of Semíra, of Rodhánis, of the mershadows that gave us back the Reckless and all its glories,” I say. “The records, the logs, the activation command sequences… Had I wished upon the Sea Rose, I could not have asked for more. ”

And now… what is your wish now… heavenly fire…? My breath catches in my throat as they nestle closer, start to caress me like warm breezes with lips and fingertips.

Beloved…

They flow over me as gently and irresistibly as the rising tide. I float into their minds, into their hearts, the yearning, dazzling men of Captain Semira’s line with their scarred breasts, their roughened hands. Changelings, shapeshifters—falling stars, ships with fragments of sky as their sails, that have come home from long journeys to rest in me at last.

THE END

Author’s note: The story of Arwen (Planetfall) and the provenance of the lay of Rodhánis (Dagger Sheath) are told in Dry Rivers. Readers of Dry Rivers and Planetfall will notice how names drift linguistically: Aethra/Ethiran/Yethirán (Clear Sky), Arwen/Ariven/Arivén (Evening Star), Keegan/Kighan (Lion), Rodhanthi/Rodhánis (Seasand Rose), Ouranakis/Soranakis/Sóran-Kerís (Skystrider).

Planetfall first appeared in Crossed Genres, issue 13, December 2009

November 20, 2012 Posted by | November 2012, Uncategorized | , , , , | 5 Comments

Monday Original Content: An Interview with Athena Andreadis

Athena Andreadis interviewed by Charles Tan

Hi Athena! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview.

First off, could you tell us about the SF anthology you’re working on now?  What kind of stories are you looking for?  So far, what are the challenges in producing the antho?

My pleasure, Charles!  The SF anthology will almost certainly be titled The Other Half of the Sky, for reasons that will become obvious.-

My decision to edit an SF anthology came from the simple desire to read stories I like!  As I wrote in The Persistent Neoteny of SF and The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest, almost all SF/F seems YA – and parochial YA at that – even if designated “adult”.  Furthermore, the dominant tropes du jour (steampunk, grimdark, snarky meta, shallow mythic) make me break into hives.  Additionally, women heroes are still peripheral in the genre: few are more than sidekicks, even fewer are protagonists in their own right (enough to be remembered like rare gems when they appear: Signy Mallory, Anzha liu Mitethe, Ellen Ripley, Xena…).  So over a brief break on the Florida Keys during last winter’s solstice, I decided to apply Tom Waits’ dictum “You must risk something that matters.”  First I wrote down a list of what I wanted:

– Space opera(ish) and/or mythic, but it has to be SF — not fantasy;

– female protagonist(s), who do not (nor are made to) feel guilty about career versus family;

– content and style geared to adult readers, not YA “finding one’s self/place”;

– no “big ideas” Leaden Age SF or near-future earthbound cyber/steampunk.

I also decided that 1) I would pay pro rates out of my own pocket and 2) the word limit would be 10k because I wanted to give people room to develop characters and worlds.  Given my stamina and time limits, I decided on a K strategy: namely, to do this by invitation rather than open submissions.  Then I sent 30 e-mails to writers who I know can write such stories.  They all replied almost instantly: my e-mail pinged every few minutes for the next two days – it was scary and exhilarating.  All who were not already overwhelmed with commitments accepted the assignment.  I chose a co-editor whose abilities I trust, decided on a cover artist, and we were off to the races.  It was a lagniappe that while “looking for the best” I ended up with women in the slots of co-editor, cover artist and co-publisher.

The major challenge was to find a publisher who understands why collections like this are important and is willing to accommodate the input I expect to have, since I’m the one bringing essentially everything to the table.  Several publishers said that anthologies don’t sell.  I won’t quarrel with ledgers, but that may be in part because most anthologies are reprints.  With original collections, I know that many people (including myself) are partial to them, because they allow discovery and sampling of new writers without investment in entire novels.  What amazed and amused me was how many of the small presses have taken on the mannerisms of big publishers without the commensurate perks (better visibility, higher profits) and how tribal the business is: for example, some said I was an unknown – unlikely, given the gadfly role I often find myself in, as a non-whiteAnglomale and one of the (too) few working biologists in the territory.

For you, how would you define/classify YA and the YA short story?

Most contemporary Western YA stories are about teenagers finding themselves – and in the SF/F genre it invariably involves ticking off the Campbel/lite quest checklist by way of video games (assembly of ally teams, special objects/powers, etc).  It’s very much by the numbers even when written by talented authors; also, YA fantasy is awash in shallow magic, mostly there for dei-ex-machina plot assists.  Add to that the demand for sequels and we have a perfect recipe for cookie-cutter products.  This is a problem for me as a reader of the genre, because women authors and protagonists are strongly present in current SF/F YA.

“Finding one’s self” appears as a near-default trope for a culture obsessed with youth’s trappings that still believes in the libertarian myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps: the idea that you can become rich, famous and powerful provided you’re Chosen and that everyone has a near-infinity of choices for everything, from their breakfast cereal to their identity.  In almost all contemporary Western SF/F YA works, we rarely if ever see full adults, especially women, doing the nuanced, shaded things adults do: work at things they care for and often are good at; love, hate and everything in between; create and preserve and sometimes destroy; grow old and experienced, if not always wise; but above all, go through the myriad small struggles and pleasures that constitute a full life.

Could you tell us more about your co-editor, and what your collaboration process is like so far?

My co-editor is Kay Holt, co-founder of Crossed Genres.  I first met Kay when I received an e-mail from her, asking me if I was amenable to an interview about science in SF.  I agreed readily and since she lives nearby, we did it over dimsum.  I still recall my pleasure and excitement at how smart, well-prepared and deft she was and how similar our thought processes were, although that doesn’t mean we agree on everything: we both expect to have our first serious argument over this anthology’s story order!

This harmonious dialogue continued through our subsequent interactions, personal and professional (Crossed Genres published two of my stories, Dry Rivers and Planetfall).  So when I thought of a co-editor for this anthology, Kay was my instinctive first choice.  She said “Yes!” as soon as the first sentence about the venture had left my mouth.  We’re sounding boards for each other.  We read the stories separately, compare notes, discuss any divergences, then I prepare a distillation of our observations that serves as feedback to the author – though I’m the one who also scribbles the more detailed comments in the story file margins.  It has worked beautifully so far.

Since you talked about the difficulties in finding a publisher, have you found one? Have you considered self-publishing?

I considered self-publishing as a last resort, although I wasn’t looking forward to reinventing the wheel – distributors, publicity, review copies, the works.  But I got lucky:  I knew Sam Montogomery-Blinn of Bull Spec because two of my poems appeared there (Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol, both reprinted in The Moment of Change).  He unequivocally recommended Candlemark and Gleam, founded by Kate Sullivan.  I sent the antho outline to Kate, who immediately declared she would do her best to help me bring it to fruition.

I promptly phoned her and we spent nearly an hour roaming over many topics.  It was obvious from the start that this partnership would work: Kate is savvy, diplomatic, formidably organized and clearly takes great care of the books she publishes.  She was also the only one of the publishers who offered me fair terms – and did so without my even having to ask.  We signed our agreement at Readercon where we formally announced the anthology, accompanied by flyers that Kay had the forethought to create.

When do you plan on releasing the anthology?

We’re aiming for spring 2013.  At this point, the major lag is no longer the typesetting for the print version but the four-plus months it takes to get to the front of the review queue.

Currently, how’s the progress of the anthology? Have there been any accepted stories or is it still in the process of submissions? Anything definitive so far?

The final participant roster was 20, and the submission deadline was July 31.  I had expected mostly deafening silence and then an avalanche on August 1.  Instead, to my pleased surprise, I received six submissions well before the deadline.  At this point, thirteen stories have been accepted; two more are in final revision and I’ve given extensions to three more.  So there was an avalanche on August 1, but a smaller one!

It is always a revelation to see how writers interpret framework parameters.  The stories so far are completely distinct, as well as original and well-written.  That last clause may be the fond editor talking but I’ve been a scientist long enough to be trained in objective assessment!  Beyond their other merits, a neat bonus feature of the stories is that they pass the Bechdel test – broadly defined, since there are aliens and non-binary humans involved.  They also demonstrate that you can have rousing space opera with a sense of limitations and consequences, and with “regular” people as protagonists, rather than Chosen Ones.  Just as opera includes Puccini, Bizet and Weir, not just Wagner.

One of my aims with this collection was to show that imaginative extrapolation/sensawunda and high-quality writing are not mutually exclusive.  I was delighted to see the stories effortlessly achieve this synthesis.  Bottom line: ask people to write as complex, nuanced adults about equally complex, nuanced adults – and they do so beautifully.

What other projects are you currently working on?

I am still working at my own fiction, both short stories and novel-size works in the same universe as that of my Crossed Genres stories.  They start in the Minoan era – an alternate timeline in which the civilization survives despite the Thera explosion – and reach far into the future, with the descendants on a distant earthlike planet.  My science work is slow right now because I’m between grants – always a bottleneck for those of us who are experimental science bench slaves.  And of course there’s always the Starship Reckless blog to keep me on my toes!

September 3, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 10 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

SF Signal interview Athena Andreadis

Over at SF Signal, Charles Tan interviews World SF Blog contributor 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 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.

CT: Related to definitions, do you think genre boundaries are important? Or is it part-and-parcel of our genre, the way that Star Wars and Dune is considered science fiction when there’s a lot of fantasy elements in it?

AA: I think that genre boundaries are neither important nor useful. They may be convenient for publishers, bookstore shelvers and people who want to re-read the same thing over and over. But the most interesting work is always at the liminal areas, between worlds.

You’re probably aware I detest Star Wars, which combines the most pernicious clichés not only of SF and F, but also of triumphalist ersatz mythology and the cruelties of several religions (analyzed in my essayWe Must Love One Another or Die). Dune is a bit better, though not by much; it has a tad more imagination. Of course, space opera is invariably more F than SF: it routinely relies on scientifically impossible concepts – stable wormholes, FTL, a plethora of earthlike planets… not that hard SF is much better, mind you; as I said once, hard SF is at best sciency and its relationship to real science is like truthiness to truth. Its claims to verisimilitude are usually achieved by Hemingwayesque tricks. – read the full interview!

January 5, 2012 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

Strange Horizons looking for Women Reviewers

Prompted in part, no doubt, by this post by Athena Andreadis, Strange Horizons reviews editor Abigail Nussbaum has put out a call for women reviewers to join the Strange Horizons team:

Ten days ago Niall Harrison posted The SF Count, a look at how genre review venues break down according to gender–how many female authors are reviewed, and how many of the reviewers are women. The numbers, though unsurprising to those of us who have been paying attention to this issue, nevertheless paint a stark picture: few venues had a better than 1:2 ratio of female to male authors reviewed, and only one had a majority of female reviewers (Fantasy & Science Fiction, which has only five regular reviewers). Strange Horizons places at the head of the pack in the former measurement, and near the middle in the other.

These are, of course, only two very simple metrics. There are other ways of examining the diversity and inclusiveness of a review venue. By some, Strange Horizons does very well. In others, not so much. I think that the department I inherited from Niall displays one of the broadest, most eclectic ranges of material, and of opinions, in the field (and, not coincidentally, is one of the best review organs in the field). But there’s always room for improvement, as the numbers Niall collated show. While increasing the number of female authors that Strange Horizons reviews is a task that can be shouldered, for the most part, by the department’s editor, it takes a lot more people to increase the number of the department’s female reviewers. Specifically, it takes you.

If you are a woman who reviews or blogs about genre fiction, I’d like to invite you to review for Strange Horizsons. You can get a sense of the kind of books we review in the department’s archives, and a sense of the kind of reviews we’re looking for in itssubmission guidelines (I’ve also started a series of discussions–currently stalled but hopefully soon to resume–about the kind of reviews the department should run; the first two entries are here).

If you think you’d like to review for Strange Horizons, send an email with the subject REVIEWER QUERY: and your name toreviews@strangehorizons.com. In the email, tell us a little bit about yourself, include some samples of your writing (or links to samples), and give a sense of the kind of books you’d like to review (science fiction, fantasy, horror, YA, literary fiction, short fiction, nonfiction, etc.). I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

(It should go without saying that queries from men will not be tossed aside unread. This effort is geared at encouraging the participation of women in the department, but we’re always ready to hear from new potential reviewers of all stripes. In addition, though this discussion has been about gender, there are other forms of diversity. We welcome queries from POC, queer, and international reviewers.)

 

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Comments Off

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

   

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