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:
The following article by Charles Tan is reprinted from Apex Magazine. It was published in the pre-order edition of The Apex Book of World SF 2. The trade edition is out now – it is available direct from the publisher, through Amazon and Amazon UK, and or Kindle (US – UK).
World SF: Our Possible Future
By Charles Tan
For some, the fact that you are reading this on a screen is amazing. For me, however, what’s impressive is that you could be from any part of the world: London, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, Perth, Cape Town, etc, and you’re reading this now, not several months—or years—later. Welcome to publishing in the 21st century where, theoretically, everyone in the world has access to what you write.
This sounds like the premise of a science fictional—or fantastical—story. So why aren’t we living in a publishing utopia? As ideal as the scenario might sound, there are still borders that aren’t limited to geography. Take myself for example: I’m Filipino-Chinese, and writing to you in English is both an advantage and a disadvantage. A lot of cultural nuances are lost, and, perhaps, in an ideal world, I would not necessarily have chosen English as my primary language. But, as far as practicality is concerned, English is prominent in a lot of countries—thus reaching a wider audience—and I’ll most likely get paid more for writing in English.
Which brings me to World SF. This might sound strange coming from someone who’s been promoting World SF, but the term is problematic. Whenever I talk about the subject, I need disclaimers. And that’s one example of the borders I’m talking about, at how language is sometimes inadequate to convey everything that I want to say.
Why World SF is Problematic
The first constraint is to define what World SF is. I won’t even touch the “SF” part—arguments for and against genre borders have been a never-ending debate, whether the discussion took place two decades ago or takes place half a century from now. And in many ways, that’s the brilliance of editor Lavie Tidhar, who chose the title The Apex Book of World SF for his initial anthology: he didn’t have to define what SF stood for, whether it’s science fiction, speculative fiction, or something else. Nor, I think, should an anthology (or magazine, in this case) featuring fiction from all over the world be limited by such constraints. Terms like magic realism, speculative fiction or even fantasy can offend, especially when we act like tourists of another nation’s culture. And while we might easily shrug off the difference between fantasy, fantastique, and the fantastika, the nuances between those terms can be as wide and dangerous as the journey from the Shire to Mordor.
No, let’s talk about the first part of the term: world. What does it mean to be part of the world? Strictly speaking, isn’t every SF story part of World SF? How can one not be part of the world? By writing your story in space?
What we mean by World SF is something closer to International SF—beyond your nation, beyond your borders. But that in itself is problematic, because that implies a reference point. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that reference point is the US.
It shouldn’t surprise you that the US is not the only source of SF in the world. There’s Russia, China, Japan, Croatia, Romania, France, India, Africa, etc. But a lot of SF that we read is either set in the West, based on Western cosmology and belief, or written by Western authors (to say nothing of the inherent patriarchy, colonialism, and racism of such narratives). In the case of my childhood, despite having a rich—albeit seemingly invisible—tradition of SF in the Philippines, most of the SF I’ve read is from the US, and the bookshelves of local bookstores reflect this. Ask any Filipino SF fan: they can name you a lot of Western SF authors but will be hard-pressed to name a local SF author, a phenomenon not limited to the Philippines. If we’re just talking about the zeitgeist, a lot of cultures are Western-centric (for good or for ill) when that doesn’t have to be the case, especially when there’s a rich—and different—tradition of SF radically different from what Western readers are used to.
It’s not that people haven’t tried. But if you look at the SF works from other countries that have been translated into English, compared to SF works in English that have been translated into other languages, there’s a large disproportion in favor of the latter. Which can get quite ridiculous considering the US is just one country.
So there’s clearly a need to drift away from US SF—no offense to US writers (and I still read your books!)—and to highlight fiction from the rest of the world. Yet at the same time, because US readers hold a significant influence; we need to win them over as well. Right now, a lot of us are literate in English. This issue is being published by an American company. A lot of the books being sold in our bookstores are imports from the US.
And then there’s the gray area of Canada, the UK, and Australia. On one hand, they have more exporting capability compared to a country like Singapore or the Philippines, even when English is mutually their first language. But on the other hand, awareness and accessiblity to their literature isn’t automatically assured, and their fiction can be obscure. It’s an unfair generalization to group them as part of the US, but they clearly have a better advantage than most third-world countries.
Which brings me to the second problem: if World SF excludes the US, then how do we define who writes World SF? The term is malleable, open to interpretation, and will mean different things to different people. For example, let’s determine that for a work to be considered World SF, it needs to be written by an author that’s not American. Does that mean by nationality? Ethnicity? Do we do percentages of heredity? What happens if an American author moves to another country? Or the children of foreigners who migrate to the US? Do we strive for a more inclusive policy, or an exclusive one?
It’s not a question that can easily be answered. Nor should it be. It ignores plurality. Take myself for example: I’m Filipino-Chinese, a Filipino citizen born to pure-blooded Chinese parents. Don’t make me choose between being Filipino or being Chinese. I’m a product of both worlds and if I were to simply pick one over the other, I’d feel completely alien. You can’t isolate and excise the parts of me that are Filipino from the parts that are Chinese. If I hypothetically migrate to another country, that creates a new dynamic. My children will similarly have an entirely different paradigm compared to mine.
The third problem is that no one is an expert on World SF. It’s hard enough to keep track of all things SF in the Philippines (and I’m not necessarily succeeding). Or the US. Or—insert country here. How much harder would it be to keep track of the whole world, which implies hundreds of countries? And then we go back to plurality: no culture or race is a monolithic entity. There will be opinions, debates, even schisms within a particular community: just because I find a particular story to be very Filipino doesn’t necessarily mean another Filipino will find the same value in it, for example.
Although no one can be an expert in World SF, we shouldn’t stop trying. Perhaps, after reading this issue, or a copy of the The Apex Book of World SF, you think that you’ve fulfilled your quota of SF beyond the US. But no. Neither this magazine nor Tidhar’s anthologies are a comprehensive (or even holistic) summary of the World SF scene. If you gave us half a million words to work with, it still wouldn’t be enough. Heck, it’s not even enough to comprehensively tackle the literature of a single nation. Instead, they are biased snapshots, which will hopefully pique your curiosity. This should be the beginning of discovering what World SF truly means, rather than the final word on it. So don’t be surprised if I’m wrong when it comes to a lot of things.
There’s a certain comfort when you’re asked about SF from other countries. If you mention Serbia, I can name Zoran Živković. South Africa, Lauren Beukes. France, Aliette de Bodard. Finland, Johanna Sinisalo. But that’s actually false relief. For example, what else do I know about Serbian SF aside from Živković? It’s easy to jump to conclusions based on the works of a few writers, but just as no single author encapsulates all of American SF, there’s no single author—or even a set of writers—that fully encapsulates the SF field of any country.
Awards and Recognition
There’s no perfect system to gauge or determine acceptance—except perhaps being an actual best-seller, selling in the hundreds of thousands—but awards give the impression of recognition, by the voting jury at least. So awards are important.
It would be remiss of me not to mention what is perhaps the most important award when it comes to World SF: the relatively new Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards. One of the most difficult processes in propagating World SF, whether financially or logistically, is translation. For such an award to exist is a great boon, and their agenda similarly reminds me of one of our shortcomings: recognizing translators. Just approach your typical SF fan and they’d (and by they, I include myself) be hard-pressed to name a translator who works in the genre specifically, unless the translator is a prominent author to begin with, such as Ursula K. Le Guin or Ken Liu.
In 2011, the Translation Awards winners for long form and short form were A Life on Paper: Stories, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin, and Elegy for a Young Elk, Hannu Rajaniemi, translated by Hannu Rajaniemi, respectively. Honourable mentions went to The Golden Age, Michal Ajvaz, translated by Andrew Oakland, and Wagtail, Marketta Niemelä, translated by Liisa Rantalaiho. The special award went to Brian Stableford.
One of Lavie Tidhar’s frequent complaints is that the World Fantasy Awards is a misnomer, for while there’s the occasional nominee or two that’s not from the US, it’s mostly a very Western-centric award. However, last year’s nominees, at least for the novel category, were impressive: Nnedi Okorafor, Lauren Beukes, N.K. Jemisin, Graham Joyce, Guy Gabriel Kay, and Karen Lord were the nominees, with Okorafor winning the award for Who Fears Death. Angélica Gorodischer was the lifetime achievement winner, while Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press won the special award in the non-professional category. I hope to see this trend continue.
There’s also the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which Dubravka Ugresic won in 2010 for Baba Yaga Laid an Egg.
The Future of World SF
I honestly don’t know where World SF is headed, or if our efforts to spread awareness will succeed. But I’m cautiously optimistic about the field. Half a decade ago, for example, who would have thought there would be a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards, an imprint dedicated to translating Japanese fiction into English, or a second—much less a first—anthology dedicated to featuring SF from around the world? While there have been a few such anthologies in the past, there have been none this century and, previously, such efforts were by American or British editors who did not themselves represent World SF as we have attempted to define it.
Who would have thought readers would be interested to hear what I have to say? I’m not from America. I’m not white. I’m not famous.
That’s not to say all is well. The status quo is still against a global SF field. But change is coming and, hopefully, it swings in our favour. There’re a lot of voices that haven’t been heard; it’s not because authors aren’t writing.