by Athena Andreadis
Note: this is part of a series in which I discuss works of the contributors to The Other Half of the Sky. Links to other entries in the series appear at the end of each discussion. The article originally appeared at Starship Reckless and recent discussions within the SFF community make it particularly relevant.
By 2011 I had reached the point where I found SFF-as-usual intolerable, as a cross-section of my blog entries will attest. The blinkered parochialism, the impoverished imagination, the retreading of exhausted tropes and regressive clichés left me annoyed and – the kiss of death – bored. So before giving up on the genre altogether, I went out into the edges where the shrubs aren’t all pruned into the same shape and looked around for unruly life.
One of the names that popped up was Aliette de Bodard, a French-Vietnamese computer engineer. Her two major worlds are a fantasy Aztec universe in which gods are real; and a near-future SF one in which North America is divided between two superpowers: a still-powerful Aztec oligarchy (Mexica) controls the South, an empire of pre-Manchu-invasion Han Chinese (Xuya) the West. There’s a shrunken USA in the Northeast and both Incan and Mayan polities are still extant.
The Mexica are an continuation of the pre-conquista Aztec culture whereas the Xuya are a Confucian society that has retained extended families, age seniority, scholar supremacy and ancestral worship, though its women can attain high official positions as well as practice polyandry. Two Xuyan stories were originally on the site: “The Lost Xuyan Bride” and “The Jaguar House, In Shadow”. I liked them for reasons of both style and content, including the non-Anglo settings and minor-key endings, and said to myself, This is prime space opera material. Let’s see if her future Xuyan stories unfold amid the stars.
To my delight, the Xuyan stories that followed the first two (“The Shipmaker”; “Shipbirth”; “Scattered along the River of Heaven”; “Heaven under Earth”; “Immersion”; “The Weight of a Blessing”; On a Red Station, Drifting; “The Waiting Stars”) indeed took to the stars and made the universe larger and deeper. Several ingredients got added when de Bodard made her cultures interstellar: memory implants that literally allow “worthy” descendants to get advice from their ancestors; Minds (hybrids of Iain Banks and Farscape equivalents) who run starships and space stations, their abodes designed by feng shui adepts; and the Dai Viet spacefaring culture, a “softer” Confucian society based on extrapolation of an imperial Viet on earth that threw off both French and Chinese invaders, though it must still fight the other powers (Mexica, Xuyan and the generically named Galactics, European/US proxies) to maintain territory and status.
Within this setting, de Bodard explores the rewards and problems of extended families and of hierarchical societies; the wounds and scars of imperialism and colonization and the shortcomings of different types of ruling structures; the clashes between societies and between classes within each culture; alternative family arrangements (from male pregnancy to lesser/greater partners in dyadic marriages, the ranking determined by collective standards); the promise and danger of immersive, invasive neurotechnology; the dilemmas of creating Minds, Borg-like immortals embedded in starships and space stations, born at great peril by human mothers and considered family members – genii loci and living ancestors in one.
As a representative slice of this universe, the novella On a Red Station, Drifting (Immersion Press, $14.95 print, $2.99 digital) takes place on Prosper, a Dai Viet space station inhabited by essentially a large extended family of distant relatives plus a small Xuyan contingent. The story centers on the conflict between two powerful women: Lê Thi Linh, a scholar and magistrate in political exile who requests asylum on the station, and her cousin, Lê Thi Quyen, who has become stationmistress by default. Added to the mix are the station Mind who is slowly but inexorably failing, the agendas of other members of the Lê immediate family, and the strain put on Prosper’s people and resources by the faraway yet intrusive interstellar wars.
The story starts in media res, as is de rigueur for SF, and shifts back and forth between Linh and Quyen as (unreliable) narrators. Both are supremely capable and accustomed to authority, yet have cracks in their self-esteem for reasons related to their status. As a result, they are hypersensitive to slights, real and perceived. Their prickly pride and the Dai Viet culture’s standards of obliqueness and reticence set up the stage for a confrontation that pulls others into its vortex. During the ensuing battle of wills, many of the characters in Red Station cross into gray ethical territory or outright emotional cruelty.
De Bodard navigates deftly through this complex, polyphonic structure that’s part family saga, part cultural and political exploration, part space opera – but (happily) without blazing plasma guns, macho messiahs or standard father/son convolutions. None of the story’s devices are original but many are freshly recast: the unstable AI (de Bodard’s Minds are direct descendants of Joan Vinge’s Mactavs in “Tin Soldier”, including their gender); the space station in jeopardy (in this subcategory, Red Station ties as my favorite with C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station and M. J. Locke’s Up Against It); neural/VR familiars (here explicit ancestral presences); design magicians (in this universe, the multi-skilled engineers who shape the stations/ships and their resident Minds).
The family dynamics are complex but clear and, as is typical of de Bodard’s stories, center on interactions between second-degree relatives rather than the more common first-degree ones. The two principals are well realized, with all their strengths, flaws and blind spots – though Linh is given more distinguishing small idiosyncrasies than Quyen. However, secondary characters remain quasi-generic types, with the partial exception of Quyen’s tortured brother-in-law and the fleetingly glimpsed but unforgettable Grand Master (Mistress) of Design.
There’s enormous tension in the story despite its leisurely pace, generated by the jeopardies inherent in the situation (annihilation of Prosper and its people is a real possibility and can come from several directions, including their own side) and also from the fact that none of the many subplots are completely resolved. Nor are any of the characters, several chafing against societal roles and expectations, fully reconciled to their fates or to each other. In this, Red Station is far closer to mainstream literary novels than the neatly tied endings common in SFF.
The style, straightforward with occasional flourishes, serves the story well: the membrane of illusion is never punctured. Vivid touches, from subtly nuanced poetry to mention of war-kites (a Yoon Ha Lee influence?) to xanh (read cricket) fights do much to make the Viet culture come to life – although if you’ve read other stories in this universe, you notice the recycling of fish sauce, zither sounds and wall calligraphy as cultural shorthands.
The most striking attributes of Red Station are not its intricate worldbuilding and plot, unusual and well-executed as they are. What makes it stand out is that its two fulcrums are women who clash over primary power, not over lovers, children or proxy power through male relatives; and that the story is set entirely within the Dai Viet context, making it the norm rather than an “exotic” variant juxtaposed to a more easily recognized “default”. Similar recastings distinguish all of de Bodard’s space operas and I, for one, hope she continues telling us stories of this universe. She deserves her recent Nebula award.
Cover art by Nhan Y Doanh
In the same series:
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!
Science Fiction Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed
By Tim Maughan
“Being middle class in Britain has changed. Politicians and the media and many Britons still talk about “the middle class” as if it is a steady, secure, cohesive social group. They assume it is growing ever more populous and influential. “We are all middle class now” has been a favourite newspaper headline for decades, as long-term social and economic and political trends have weakened the upper and working classes….(yet) there is the beginning of a more ambiguous story: the increasingly competitive nature of middle-class life and the decrease in job security; Margaret Thatcher’s opening up of the classic middle-class professions, such as university teaching, to market forces; the slow decline of the great state and corporate bureaucracies; the downgrading of middle managers by new business ideologies.” – Andy Beckett, The Guardian 24/07/10
Being middle class in Europe or North America ain’t what it used to be. You used to know where you stood. You used to know how everything worked. It was easy, certain things were almost guaranteed, there was a path to follow. Work hard at school. Go to university. Get a good graduate’s job. Buy a house. Have kids. Go on holiday every year. Retire with a nice secure pension.
But now there’s a dull hum reverberating through the suburbs, the disquieting sound of self-questioning. Things really ain’t what they used to be. Worried you can’t afford to go to university? Worried you won’t get a job afterwards if you do? Oh, you’ll probably get a job…but is it what you’ll want? Will it challenge you? Will it pay you enough? Will it be the dream career your parents and teachers promised you you’d get, if you put your head down and worked hard? Will you be able to get a mortgage? Are you still going to be renting – or even worse – still living with your parents in your 30s? Can you afford kids? Do you even want kids? Is your next foreign holiday going to be anywhere as exciting as your obligatory gap year was? How is that pension of yours doing? Is it even going to be worth jack shit in 30 years time? Who is going to look after you when you’re old?
Any crisis of identity or confidence for the middle classes is also – undeniably – a crisis for science fiction. Science fiction is one of the great middle class cultural projects; an exciting, upmarket gated community where you need to show your credentials to get admittance. You’re allowed into science fiction because you understand the greatest middle class-empowering construct of the last 200 years – you understand science. You are welcome in science fiction because you understand that scientists and engineers and astronauts are heroes. You are welcome in science fiction because you understand that rationality and reasoning and hard work can fix anything. And most importantly, you are welcome in science fiction because you’re middle class and you understand that the future is yours for the taking.
And that is the biggest problem facing science fiction right now. The future isn’t just sitting there waiting for the middle classes to take it anymore (well, at least not the middle classes in Europe and North America – it’s very likely the future is up for grabs for the growing middle classes in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere – but that’s another, potentially far more exciting story). If the future is just a bunch of very scary questions, rather than something that belongs to the middle classes and makes them feel special than what’s the point of reading – or even writing – about it anymore?
So it looks like everything solid is melting into air, but it’s not time to abandon ship quite yet. Science – oh rather speculative – fiction still has ways of making the middle classes feel special. In fact there’s so many options it’s hard to know where to start. What about zombies? There’s no need to worry about the future with the zombie apocalypse because there isn’t one. Instead there’s nobody telling you what to do and no boring job you have to go to, which is pretty great in itself, plus you finally get to put all that knowledge, cunning and expensive gardening/cooking/sporting equipment you’ve amassed over the years to good use killing people your neighbors.
Zombies feel a bit passé? Then what about urban fantasy? Don’t be put off by the word ‘urban’, and how it became this kind of catch-all media phrase for black music and hip-hop and scary poor children wearing hoodies – there’s nothing that vulgar here. Urban fantasy does away with all of that and replaces it with werewolves and vampires. In effect it’s pretty much the same thing – it’s about middle class fear of inner-cities and the guilt of privilege – but it’s a lot sexier reading about your stylised fears getting carved up by a hot white girl with midriff tattoos and a samurai sword.
Of course if you’re really scared of the future, then the obvious place to turn to is the past. Again it’s tough to know where to start. There’s time travel, where middle class readers can go back to the blitz and see how plucky the working classes were – before they got shell suits, Blackberry phones that they surely can’t afford and a welfare state. Or if that’s a little too recent or unglamorous there’s always the Victorian era, when Britain truly was great and still had an empire; a real one – based on killing and talking posh, not just on cheap manufacturing costs and investing in currency like empires are now. The only thing they didn’t have was steam powered zeppelins and robots dressed like Colonel Sanders, which is why speculative fiction had to invent steampunk – the empowering benefits of which have been outlined far more eloquently elsewhere.
And if none of that appeals to then there is always ‘The Weird’. The only problem with The Weird is that nobody actually knows what the fuck it is, apart from perhaps a handful of writers and critics who don’t want their more literary colleagues to think they like sci-fi.
Either way forget the future, because as far as science fiction is concerned the future is dead. There’s still some interest in the far future – with the singularity, journeys to the exoplanets, wish fulfilling nano-machines and all the other things that’ll never happen – but as far as any future that might be relevant? Forget about it, and forget about the present too. Both are too scary, and worrying and talking about very real, very scary and very relevant things isn’t science fiction’s job anymore. It was in the past, in the 60s and again in the 80s – it even was back in the 1890s – but now it’s here to comfort the bourgeois, to provide them with an escape from the encroaching mediocrity, and to remind them how special they once once were.
Because the lower classes – the proletariat, the working classes, the ‘chavs’, whatever you wish to call them – don’t really have anything to do with science fiction at all. They don’t have the credentials to get into the community, because they don’t understand science and rational thinking – they don’t have the education. And if you don’t understand science and don’t have an education then you can’t claim or shape the future, can you? Every good, hard working middle class child knows that.
Which is odd, because you only have to pause and look around you and it’s clear that being working class ain’t what it used to be either. They’re still being accused of being responsible for all the crime and the economic meltdown they had no part in managing, yes – some things will probably never change. But while they might not understand the science they sure as hell understand the technology – maybe not the way it’s taught, maybe not the way it’s meant to be used – but increasingly they seem to be understanding the potential.
Take a look around. Right now, in those places in the cities and edgelands that middle classes are too scared to venture, there are working class kids creating new forms of music on stolen laptops and pirated software. There are working class kids hijacking corporate networks to organise violent protests against police death squads, and riots against corporate gentrification of their homes – protests that don’t just pack up and go home when they’re told to, or snitch on their never-really anonymous buddies at the first sign of law enforcement. And there are working class kids talking a language melange made from tech jargon, emoticons, repurposed slang and SMS message shortcuts that makes Nadsat seem antiquated and pedestrian.
Put simply the working classes are living an often fraught, uneasy but always fascinating science fictional future right now, and are pushing the present in directions it is near impossible – but thrilling – to try and predict. If the genre continues to sneeringly ignore them, what they do and the futures they are trying to shape for themselves then it risks continuing to destroy it’s own relevancy and existence.
The street finds its own use for things. Almost certainly. The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. Perhaps, but maybe not in the way you think.
Tim Maughan writes science fiction about the near future, probably sentencing him to commercial obscurity. His short story collection Paintwork is out now.
Charles Tan interviews Spanish author Rodolfo Martinez, whose novel The Queen’s Adept is now available for the Kindle in an English translation by Jordi Balcells.
An Interview with Rodolfo Martinez
By Charles Tan
Hi Rodolfo! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with speculative fiction?
I was very young, 9-10 years old. My father was an avid reader of science fiction and I was very curious about those books he read, with those striking covers of space ships and stars and nebula and so forth. Then one day I took one of his books and began to read it. It was a short stories compilation (from F&SF, if I recall correctly) and there was too much there I didn’t understand, but I was fascinated with the material. My father caught me reading, he smiled, and said he would give me something more suitable.
So he gave me The Early Asimov and shortly after that the Foundation Trilogy, both by Asimov, and The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke…
That was the beginning. And, after that first contact I became… well, a fan. We could almost say an addict.
That was a long time ago (before the Internet, but after The Beatles, we could say, paraphrasing William Goldman) and, as time went by, another literary universe and genres appeared for me to discover: fantasy, and noir novel, and 19th Century adventure novel, and historic novel, and the classics, both Spanish and abroad. And… well, almost everything. But genre literature (popular literature, as the one 19th English and American writers wrote: Conan Doyle, Stevenson, London, Twain…) was always my favorite. But my first love was science fiction and I never really left it, both as a reader and as a writer. We could say I sometimes visit other rooms of the same house but, sooner or later I go back to the SF room.
Who are some of your favorite authors or favorite books?
Well, it’s hard, there are so many. But, let’s try.
In science fiction: Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, the first Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game, Hart’s Hope, Wyrms… those first novels, I mean), Frank Herbert, Richard Morgan, Connie Willis…
In fantasy: Borges, Cortázar, John Crowley, Clive Barker, Tolkien, Lovecraft…
In other genres: Robert Graves, Raymond Chandler, John le Carré, García Márquez, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle…
As you can see, the list could be endless.
There a few books that mark in a special way some moments of my life: Watership Down, Cien años de soledad, I, Claudius, The Mote in God’s Eye, The Lord of the Rings, The End of Eternity, Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy, At the Mountains of Madness, Little, Big…
And let’s not talk about comics because then I had to mention Watchmen and Swamp Thing and From Hell by Alan Moore, or Sandman by Gaiman, or Thor by Simonson or Fantastic Four by Byrne, or…
Well, I believe you can get an idea of my literary tastes, more or less.
How did you get involved with writing fiction?
I began to write when I was twelve, three years after having begun to read SF. It was 1977, the year the first Star Wars movie was released and, shortly after that, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind. 2001: a Space Odyssey was re-released by that time in Spain, and there were a handful of American SF TV series as well on Spanish TV, so there was science fiction not only in books, but everywhere. And, when I began to write, I wrote SF, the genre I love reading and watching in movies and in TV (series like Star Trek, TOS and Space 1999, and U.F.O. and Thunderbirds…)
Why did I begin to write? I really don’t know. I remember when I was a kid I used to create (just for myself, never told anyone) new adventures of my favorite comic-book characters or my favorite TV series. And one day, I suppose, I just decided to put them on paper. So I wrote a… well, we can call it a hard space opera, I guess, or the idea a 12-year-old kid could have of what space opera and hard SF were.
And, once I began I just couldn’t stop. If I was an addict to reading I soon became an addict to writing.
As a writer, my first works where SF, but I soon began to write fantasy as well, and mystery stories and, in the end, what I was doing was a half-breed literature that had ingredients from every genre I love: SF, fantasy, mystery, adventure. My novels usually are a strange cocktail where things that, at a first glance, seem impossible to blend but go hand in hand. Though there always is some SF element in almost every one of them: a rationalist point of view that, in the same way, makes even my fantasy to be some kind of science fiction.
A good example is my four Sherlock Holmes novels, where the detective becomes a swivel upon which I create a universe where Lovecraft myths and pulp literature, and western and even superheroes, can exist. The first one, La sabiduría de los muertos (The Wisdom of Deadmen) was published in 1996 and the last one in 2007… a long and satisfactory journey for me as an author.
Could you tell us about your novel, the Queen’s Adept?
Like most of my work, it was born from the desire of blending two things that, at first glance, do not seem very much… “blendable”, so to say. One day I told myself: “What would a James Bond adventure be like in an epic fantasy scenario?” I began to play with the idea, and the more I did it, the more I liked it. So I designed the main character, the plot, the pseudo-historical setting (I took some Historical moments I liked, such as the Renaissance, the 19th Century, the Middle Ages and the 20th Century Cold War and put them all together). And I began to write.
And, as I was writing, the story grew, and so did the main character; everything began to be more complex and I soon realized I was creating a character and a scenario that I could not put in just one novel. In fact, there are now two novels about Yáxtor Brandan (the main character) and three short (or rather medium-large) stories; and a third novel is on the way.
In your acknowledgements, you mention the importance of maps. Could you elaborate on this?
Well, it’s more or less as I say in the acknowledgements. There were elements that I put in the map that, at first, had no more role than to give the lands a realistic aspect: some mountains and rivers and forests, for instance. But then I took a second look at the map, I saw those large woods I had created and thought: “Well, yes, menialbodies could be born there, why not?” From that thought, Darkwoods were created and became a pivotal element, not only for this novel but for the entire scenario and its development.
It was originally published in 2009. What made you decide to translate it into English?
I had been considering for some time the idea of trying the English/American market. Some years before, it had been very hard (you had to find a publisher interested in translating and publishing your work, a thing that, unless you were a big best-seller in your homeland, it was very unlikely to happen), but electronic publication and print on demand had eased things. In paper there is still the big issue of distribution, but in ebook you can reach almost the entire world with no effort.
So I began to translate some of my works. Short stories, at first, and one day I decided it was time for me to try a full novel. The Queen’s Adept series was my most recent work (and one of my best, at least that’s what I think) so I tried it.
What was the translation process like, since you translated it yourself? What was the role of Jordi Balcells?
It was hard, almost exhausting sometimes, but at the same time it was refreshing and fascinating. In some ways I was not translating myself, but writing again the same story from a new and fresh point of view. And I discovered I liked very much how my work sounded in English.
Jordi was an invaluable part of the process. Not matter how good my English was (if in fact was any good), I needed someone else to revise what I had done. My eyes were too close to the text, we could say. Jordi is a professional translator and he jumped aboard the project with enthusiasm: he translates from English to Spanish, so to revise and correct a translation from Spanish to English was a challenge for him, in a way.
What were the challenges, both in writing, publishing, and translating the book?
As I began to write as a very young boy, I was never aware that there was any challenge at all. I mean, at that age, you really don’t think about those things: you just want to do it, so you do it. As time went by, of course, things change and you begin to think about what you do and how you do it and why you do it. The main challenge, for me as a writer, is to be able to make things real to the reader: while he’s reading my book he must forget the world outside the pages he reads, he must feel he’s there, inside the book, and the characters seem real to him or her.
Above all, the thing that worries me most when I begin to write new material is: who is telling it? Who tells the tale? Seeking a narrator suitable for the story you want to tell is sometimes hard, but when you find him, when you feel the voice you have chosen to tell the tale, it’s the voice the tale is demanding, you know everything will be fine. In The Queen’s Adept it soon became obvious to me that third-person narrator wasn’t enough, I needed something more. From there arose the quotations that begin every chapter, and that helped me, in some ways, to feel that the material was more real, more plausible. It was a way of giving the novel a denser background.
I began to publish (first myself and then other people) three years ago, after having been publishing with others for fifteen years (my first novel was released in 1995, so do the math). It was something I wanted to do, specially because there was some material I could not find a publisher for. I’m talking about my SF written and published in the Nineties: short stories, novelettes, novellas and novels that had been published many years ago in many different places and were sold out. All of them shared a common scenario (my Drímar universe) and I wanted to bring all that material together and publish it in three of four chronologically ordered volumes. And I wanted to try electronic publication also. So, Sportula, my very-very-very-very small press, was born that way: it began with a couple of books in paper (printed in POD) and half a dozen ebooks. Things went well and the project began to grow and sometime later I found myself publishing other people.
It’s a work I enjoy, not only the, well, “intellectual” part of the process but the physical as well: composing the book, working with the illustrator and the designer, sometimes designing the cover myself, those things. The real challenge is to reach an audience, specially in paper publications and working without a professional distribution, but little by little, with patience and thinking long-term, we are getting it. Translating into English is just one step more in the same direction.
And about the translation, we can say my main fear is that I’m not really sure if it will be good enough for the potential readers. I mean: it’s those people’s language, for heaven’s sake! And there I am, daring to translate without being a native.
How would you describe your fiction?
The word that suits it the best is “half-breed”, “mestiza”, as we say in Spanish. I write a “mestiza” literature that picks from here and there, everything I like, and put all those things together fearless of the possible results. With a special predilection for popular genres: SF, mystery, fantasy, adventure… Though as I said, there is always, or almost, some SF element. The Queen’s Adept, for instance, can seem fantasy at first glance, but it could be SF too, just switching your point of view. The novel (and the entire scenario, in fact) is deliberately in a kind of no man’s land that can be F or SF depending on the reader’s choice.
Have you considered translating your other novels, novellas, and short stories?
Yes, of course I have. I’ve translated a couple of short stories and surely in the future I’ll translate a few more. Another novel? Hard to say: it takes time, it’s hard and… well I have to write new novels as well, and time is limited. When I can afford, I guess I will hire a professional translator for the second novel of The Queen’s Adept series. And, from there… well, we’ll see.
How would you describe the genre scene there?
In Spain, the SF market is a very tiny one. If your book sells 1,500 copies you’re doing good, and if it sells 5,000 you’re almost a best-seller. So Spanish science-fiction landscape is full of small and medium-size presses and a couple of big publishers. It’s very difficult to earn a living just writing SF.
On the other hand, there are certain writers that are successful writing SF (or novels that have SF elements) for the mainstream… but without saying that’s SF. People like José Carlos Somoza or Félix J. Palma, for instance.
It’s a perception problem, we could say. SF label is discredited and it’s hard to fight against prejudice. But if you’re smart enough you can disguise your SF as… well, tecno-thriller, cyber-fantasy… things like that, and you can get the mainstream reader to read your book.
There are a dozen authors that, like me, began to publish in the ’90s, and in time they had fled from pure SF to less “problematic” genres, like historical fantasy. Juan Miguel Aguilera, for instances, has done well there and, in fact, has succeeded beyond our borders and achieved success in France with his Historical fantasy.
New generations of writers prefer horror, dark fantasy or just fantasy and SF is maybe a little abandoned. In fact, I haven’t write pure SF since 2005, with my cyberpunk novel El sueño del Rey Rojo (Red King’s Dream). I’ve moved from there to that half-breed literature I mentioned before that contains elements of several genres. And many of my colleagues have done the same.
My experience says that the audience, the mainstream audience, likes certain kinds of SF… when they’re not aware they’re reading SF.
Anything else you want to plug?
Just thank you this chance to make a first contact with American audience. I hope you’ll enjoy The Queen’s Adept and I hope this will be just the first of my books published in English.
SF is the literature of the imaginary. How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to this literature? – Fabio Fernandes
Fabio Fernandes has recently given Locus a prompt for a round table, above. The resultant round table discussion was notable for a near complete absence of non-Westerners – which is, in itself, a telling comment. Fabio is currently fund-raising for a new anthology of post-colonial science fiction.
With the lack of non-Westerners involved in the Locus roundtable, we’ve decided to run our own. The resultant conversation is fascinating and far-ranging. We are posting the first part today, with the second due tomorrow.
Participating: Aliette de Bodard (France), Joyce Chng (Singapore), the controversial blogger known as Requires Hate (Thailand), Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines/The Netherlands), and Ekaterina Sedia (Russian/USA).
Joining them in Part 2 will be Rachel Swirsky (USA).
We asked them: How do you feel about this idea of “Western narratives” and the problems of inclusion within the sf “field”? for that matter, what are the problematics of some Western writers tackling non-Western settings for their novels, and do they result in exoticism? Fabio is currently raising funds for a fiction project on science fiction and colonialism. How do you see the two intersecting – both in fiction and in the world of publishing today?
Joyce: That is a lot to cover. I am sure others would chip in regarding the problematics of Western writers writing non-Western settings for their novels. Exoticism, cultural appropriation… are the mine-fields they have to tackle.
I encountered such an issue when I wrote “The Basics of Flight”, a steampunk novella featuring a white protagonist. I was told that my writing seemed forced and unnatural, the white characters stilted – and I felt the implicit assumption that an Asian like me shouldn’t be writing white characters. Therein lies the problem. Am I supposed to write solely Asian characters? And given my postcolonial background (Singapore was a British colony), am I supposed to write about a) angst regarding my neither-or-there or b) mother-daughter relationships (ala Joy Luck Club)?
Being a postcolonial writer both labels and pigeonholes me in that category. But I cannot deny the fact that I was born in Singapore and schooled in an education system left behind by the British. I am also the descendant of immigrants from China. I grew up thinking that I spoke fluent English and bam! the harsh reality hit when I ventured out into the real world. I am still identified by my skin color and that the assumption that I should be speaking English as a second or third language.
I support Fabio’s project and even wrote a blog post for it. It is difficult – sometimes, most of the time – to discuss about me being a Southeast Asian/Chinese SFF writer. People in the West tend to have fixed ideas of how and what we should look like or behave. The East is exotic. The East is mysterious. The East is hot jasmine tea/white rice/chopsticks and stir-fries. The East is martial arts and kung fu. The East is the Yellow Peril. The East is scary, but exhilarating.
We are not all of these. To us, they are commonplace, part of our lives. To us, it’s how we grew up and will continue teaching our children about our cultures and traditions. These “Western narratives” hurt us at the end and have damaged perspectives regarding non-Western narratives. The dominance of Western narratives has silenced non-Western voices, reducing us to nothing else but something out of a travel guide. Unfortunately, Western publishing continues to perpetuate such misconceptions and have created problem after problem for people outside the (white) fence.
I have always feel that SF is universal, kind of like Star Trek’s philosophy of IDIC. Oh I am proven so wrong at times. What I have encountered are clear instances where only a select type (white, male, but mostly white) is allowed to write SF. Only that select type is allowed to publish.
My question: Is diversity only lip service?
And as for postcolonial SF – I have written – and am writing – worlds where humankind has colonized and terraformed planets. Yet my roots weave their way in. Instead of fighting the indigenous/alien race, the characters form an alliance. However, the alliance is often fraught with concerns, because as colonizers, something will be lost in translation, no matter how well-meaning or well-intentioned they are. How about the voices of the colonized? I am learning about that myself, about the deep-seated issues within me. Have I internalized the colonizer’s point of view? Why am I behaving and reacting like this? What space does the colonized occupy? Is the space freely given or is it a privilege?
I recognize my ability to write as a privilege and that my Anglo-Saxon education has given me that opportunity to write. For that, I am grateful and humbled and terrified. I think about class issues. I worry about gender issues. What kind of legacy has my postcolonialness given me? What am I giving my daughters at the end?
requireshate: Here’s something knee-jerky (but, I think, not unjustified): I don’t think it’s possible for white westerners to write about any non-dominant cultures–and this includes, for example, Eastern Europe–without being exotifying, appropriative, and perpetuating western/first-world supremacy. Ekaterina Sedia articulated it fantastically here: https://worldsf.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/guest-post-seeing-through-foreign-eyes-by-ekaterina-sedia-author-week-1/ Specifically that an outsider looking in will seize on elements an insider takes for granted. Something that’s everyday to me will be shiny, exotic, and unusual to a westerner: and it is this thing that they will grab and run away with, hooting that it’s beautiful and awesome and so weird, as one might do over an alien artifact. And that’s what it will be to such a person–alien. I’ve seen this over and over even from writers who mean well, who have lived in Thailand, but who nevertheless continue to write and think in the western outsider mode, in short owing their allegiance to their culture, readers who think and consume and behave as they do.
Another particular I’ve to deal with is: there are very few Thai writers working in the Anglosphere, and as far as I’m aware, none at all working in western SFF particularly (apart from maybe Somtow, of whom the less is said the better). Due to this lack, it’s a challenge to be asked “which Thai writer would you recommend?” (often with an implied “so I can fact-check authenticity against this project about Thailand I’ve got”): I very simply am unable to point to many writers. My culture is presented to the western hegemony almost entirely through the eyes of tourists, the eyes of outsiders. This is why I don’t believe that a love of my culture can be expressed by writing about it in your fantasy or SF or whatever–that way lies appropriation; a genuine love can only be expressed by learning my language and translating existing Thai works. As Joyce says, our voices have been silenced, drowned out. More outsiders writing about Thailand? Not the thing we need, and far likelier to contribute to the problem than helping to alleviate it.
I want to respond to a few things Joyce brought up–the expectations for people like us to be exotic. I’m often questioned as to the authenticity of my identity, because to westerners I appear to be writing “just like them,” steeped in “North American culture” (when in truth I know almost nothing about North America!). This assumption comes about because the hegemony is so huge and pervasive that it becomes, itself, an invisible mass and the default assumption. Mostly, if you write in English and aren’t breaking into malapropisms or broken syntax constantly, you’re immediately assumed to be “one of them,” part of the western paradigm.
Aliette: I wouldn’t be quite as radical as requireshate, but I definitely think we need to differentiate between insider and outsider narratives–two modes of narration that come from vastly different backgrounds and vastly different concerns. I do think that, at the moment, the field a distinct tendency to laud outsider narratives as “authentic” (a fraught word I’ll come back to!) and to enshrine them as more valuable and valid than the insider ones.
I’m not saying that outsider narratives have no worth, or that it’s impossible to do them well (see below!); but I do think the current development is problematic on several levels.
There are lots of factors at play that explain why outsider narratives are more popular; but one of the main reasons is one of audience: as Ekaterina mentions in her blog post: at this junction in time, the dominant audience in the field is Western (of US/European culture), and outsider narratives have a better grasp of how to present (ie exotify) elements of a setting in a digestible manner for the mainstream (White) audience. This is very much regrettable, and I really do wish that people would stop using the word authenticity altogether, as it’s either used as an exclusionary factor, to police who within a community has the right to write about the culture (something I find utterly fraught with problems); or as a well-meaning but somewhat hollow reassurance that the writer’s world feels real (the only ones equipped to judge authenticity of, say, a story set in Brazil are Brazilian people, and I certainly would never dream of qualifying someone’s story set there with that word!).
The problem with this whole state of things, as has already been pointed out, is that if outsider narratives are enshrined and taken as gospel truth, then this not only drowns out insider narratives, but also makes them lose value when their writers are criticised for not adhering to the (sometimes harmful) clichés or exoticism perpetuated by the outsider narratives. Like Joyce and requireshate say, non-Western writers easily become accused of not being exotic enough–Vietnamese writers get accused of, say, not getting across the feel of Ho Chi Minh City because it doesn’t jibe with the exoticised description of the city some Westerner made. Indian people are told their stories set in Bangalore are not “authentic” enough because they don’t feature enough description and “sights and smells”–but really, when you’ve lived in a city your whole life, are you really going to pause and describe in minute detail every single fruit on the fruit-sellers’ stand?
Rochita: Oh, I have to laugh reading what Aliette is writing because I had to think of one instance where I critted a work of someone I was in a workshop with and being told that my insight couldn’t be right because history and reference books said it was so. This was on crit about a story which makes use of Chinese culture. Now, I am no expert in Chinese culture, but I did have a number of extended family (this is a very Filipino concept) who were part of the Chinese community and what was written just didn’t compute with what I knew or what I had absorbed of it. I shut up at that point because my immersion was more tribal and I found myself doubting my own experience of the culture.
Aliette: ha ha ha. I once had someone (non-Vietnamese) argue with me about how I’d got Vietnamese history all wrong because it was in the (American) history books. I’m much less pacifist than you, and I basically fought an urge to strangle the person at that point…
(the extended family is also a Vietnamese concept, I think–and one that is very lacking from a lot of genre books. I really should do stats on which protagonists have living parents and/or siblings, and move from there to uncles and aunts and parents’ friends…)
Ekaterina: Thank you guys for linking and mentioning my article. And yes, same experience with books about Russia by Westerners being lauded and preferred over Russian narratives. Russia does have a well-developed SF/F tradition, and it creates an interesting situation: when something DOES get translated into English (not too frequently, I may add), they are often chastised for not being rooted in their own culture enough — which is, not being exotic enough. Heck, I read reviews of my work when readers expressed disappointment that I missed a chance to teach Western audience about my culture. Because apparently it is my job to make Russia-based narratives as surface-alien as possible (inside, of course, they should speak to Western sensibility). Also, when Western writers choose Russia as their setting, they more often than not are unfamiliar with the existing Russian-language literature — that is, they write into the tradition they are not familiar with. They are writing into American/Western tradition, which presents its own narratives of Russia, and THIS is what feels authentic (I hate that word too) to the Western reader.
Rochita: For many writers coming from colonized nations, the act of putting words on paper is fraught with certain matters. In this, I speak from my own experience of Filipino literature, how it was taught to me and how I absorbed what Filipino literature means to the Filipino.
When I write SF, I am fully aware of the history of my people and our history of colonization. I carry this sensibility with me into my work and I see this as continuing on in a conversation with the poets and writers and activists who struggle against the impositions of colonization. At the same time, I hope to contribute to the ongoing conversation which leads to understanding between cultures.
I think that the non-western writer brings something different to the field of SF not just because of the insider perspective, but I also think it’s difficult to say that this is a true story of the culture without having been immersed in it yourself. But as Requires said, these things have been exoticised and appropriated so that the reader comes to expect the exotic and doesn’t understand why our stories don’t match preconceived ideas of how our stories should look like.
I admit to being automatically suspicious of work that is set in a non-dominant setting using non-dominant culture when the work is written by a writer from the dominant culture. I question the motivation of the work in the first place and until I find evidence of sincerity (it’s not just being used because it’s pretty but because it really is integral to the story) I tend to carry on being suspicious. I guess, this is my anti-colonialist bias setting in.
I have mentioned this to Aliette before and it is a concern that still plagues me because I do write mostly in the context of my own culture: I don’t want to play tourist guide to the reader and yet I also want to write about what is most beautiful and most precious to me. And that is my culture.
Regarding narratives: I want to point to Aliette’s post http://aliettedebodard.com/2011/08/31/on-the-prevalence-of-us-tropes-in-storytelling/
I think it’s very clear that a person coming from a colonized nation would have a very different perspective of story as compared to a person coming from a nation that has been the colonizer.
Rochita: I want to address something that was raised during the Locus Roundtable with regards to the effects of colonialism and how learning to write and to think in English has affected/influence the cultural narrative. There was also a comment made about the true narrative being only that which is translated from the original language into English.
I have issues with these statements because it negates the work of poets, writers, activists and artists who have struggled in order to reclaim culture. I was reading a book by Manuel Dulawan, probably the most prominent of Ifugao culturebearers, and he writes about how the imposition of the English language was part of the campaign to suppress/erase indigenous culture. In practice, the culture bearers have often been demonized (their rituals are anti-christian). That the rituals and the narratives of the original culture have been preserved speaks of the resilience of these culture bearers and of the people around them.
If we sat down and talked about colonialism and the resistance to colonialism, I could go on and on. <g>
Ekaterina: That English-language comment gave me pause too: in a general sense, we live in the world of cultural dominance of Anglophone cultures, English is the international language, and many people HAVE to speak it, and write in it. It’s a remarkable move, really: write in your own language, and we’ll ignore you; write in English and we’ll doubt your authenticity. Failure to acknowledge the cultural hegemony of the English language and WHY many non-Anglophone writers might choose to write in English is disingenuous. Not to mention, are we saying that only monolingual folks have a grasp of their own culture?
Joyce: Ironically, when I added in dialect or Mandarin Chinese as a form of pidgin in my SFF, I got comments stating they didn’t understand or that something was lost in translation.
By the way, a lot of postcolonial writers are able to code-switch. I do that a lot myself. I use English for communication but when I am at my parents’, I use Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese (for my mum – when I want to describe something, but only Cantonese could express it better).
Aliette: I code switch a lot too, but I wonder if it’s not a multilingual thing rather than a post-Colonial one ? (I do it between English and French at my parents’, with the odd smattering of Vietnamese for food items)
Rochita: I had to think about a comment my brother made when he my work. How reading the story and then coming across a word or a phrase that is so obviously Filipino to the Filipino reader gave him that jolt of recognition. And I think this is something people forget. Readers from non-western places read SF too. It’s not something that’s confined to the West.
requireshate: Aliette sez: “but really, when you’ve lived in a city your whole life, are you really going to pause and describe in minute detail every single fruit on the fruit-sellers’ stand?”
Yes, this very much. I become very impatient with this kind of writing by outsiders, and one particular book begins on this very note: at a fruit-seller’s stall! The description is of course of reeking durians. As well, white western writers are rarely charged with inauthenticity: outside of a charge from peculiar national-supremacist groups, no one’s likely to say a book is not “American enough” or “British enough” (unless perhaps it’s an American writing about the UK). There’s no obligation pressed upon a white westerner to pander, no expectation that what they write will be representative of so-and-so. There is no “single story” for them, as Chimamanda Adichie pointed out. They are under no pressure to sell their culture, and if they write something negative about say the white middle-class American life (or, indeed, a white American serial killer) it won’t be used against them or against their culture: nobody will say “Oh, what a shame it is that all young US men are serial killers!” to again paraphrase Adichie. They don’t have to think of what they write, or even how they conduct themselves, will shape outsiders’ view of all white westerners.
Joyce: THIS. I have folks remarking that Wolf At The Door isn’t Singaporean enough and that the descriptions of the city could well describe other cities in Asia, like Taipei. In other words, not authentic! I am not your travel guide, white reader. I do not want to educate you. I am not obligated to turn my novels into tourist attractions.
Rochita: Yes. This. You say it so very well. I had to think of how for most writers from the dominant (white/european) culture, commerciality of the work becomes a primary concern. Whereas for the non-white/non-western writer, there is a consciousness of expectation as well as awareness of the baggage you carry with you. Not that we aren’t thinking about the commercial aspect, but there are other things that supercede that concern.
To be continued in Part 2 Tomorrow!