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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

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

by Athena Andreadis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover art by Nhan Y Doanh

In the same series:

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

Shimmering Kaleidoscopes: Cat Rambo’s Near + Far

June 10, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancestors Watch Over Her: Aliette de Bodard’s Space Operas

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

   

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