File Under ‘B’
Aliette de Bodard is the Nebula Award-winning writer of numerous short stories, many set in the Xuya universe of her acclaimed novella ‘On A Red Station, Drifting’; the ‘Obsidian & Blood’ trilogy of Aztec-themed mystery novels and, most recently, the fantasy epic ‘The House of Shattered Wings’.
Her father is French and her mother Vietnamese, a heritage that informs the tone and subject matter of her fiction. Although Aliette lives in Paris, she never writes in French, which terrifies her translators who know that for once the author will be able to check up on them. This question of accuracy recurred throughout the interview to the extent that it felt like a theme, if not in Aliette’s completed works then certainly in their creation.
History is a particularly fertile area; when asked how much of it went into the ‘Obsidian & Blood’ novels, Aliette explained that because the Spanish had destroyed so much Aztec culture it was hard to include specifics. Her solution was to employ a combination of fantasy and improvisation; giving suitable nods to history instead of being a slave to it.
Aliette’s admitted passion for history doesn’t prevent her from reverse engineering past events to create the futures required for her science fiction. She starts with a clear idea of what she wants from a narrative and identifies the historical changes required to enable it. However, her reading of the past has revealed very few turning points in which entire civilisations alter direction. Even major battles involve a huge number of variables, no one of which may be important enough to bring about the desired future.
For example, science-fiction’s galactic empires tend to follow the Roman model, but Aliette’s Xuya civilisation is based on Imperial China and Vietnam. She needed to look at sixteenth century China, when extreme Confucianism caused the country to shut itself off. Aliette suggested that perhaps a faction who wanted trade would come to dominate; one of their ships became lost and smallpox arrived in the Americas ‘ahead of schedule’. China had vaccines against smallpox so the disease was less devastating in this alternative history than it was in the established one, especially as China was more interested in shared belief than shared race. As a result the ancient Americans survived and Asian countries like Vietnam did not decline and become colonised. Vietnam was thus able to enter the space race and establish a galactic civilisation with its culture by and large intact.
As well as being a writer, Aliette also somehow balances a dual career as a computer specialist responsible for hardware that manages the safe operation of underground trains. She brings an engineer’s practicality to depicting viable scientific progression in her fiction, but confesses she would rather have cool stuff in her stories than accuracy that may be less interesting. Besides, it’s the unpredictable niggles that lead to breakthroughs like relativity and string theory; no one, however, smart, could foresee the discoveries that have actually changed the world. She subscribes to the Arthur C Clarke view that any technology, if sufficiently advanced, will seem like magic, especially if an idea is extrapolated beyond the realms of current knowledge.
Despite her striking use of tropes like spacecraft, planetary colonisation and interstellar war, Aliette defines her science fiction as personal rather than anthropological. Content to blur the lines between science fiction and fantasy, she even acknowledges a soap opera element, describing the Xuya universe as a Vietnamese ‘Dallas’ in space, with fish sauce instead of oil. This description is disingenuous though. A phrase she repeated throughout the interview was ‘this system is fucked up’. For instance, she observed that one of the many flaws of ‘Revenge of the Sith’ was a civilisation which had achieved faster than light travel was unable to prevent a woman dying in childbirth.
Anger at distorted priorities like these runs through Aliette’s work. She described how fictional worlds with just one magic system are based on the domination of Christian mythology and that the reason alternatives are rarely heard about is because they are repressed. Historical accounts of Vietnam, for example, were written by French colonisers.
Aliette’s ambition for her work is to show what it means for one person to have a belief system inconceivable to the other characters. Genre fiction is ideal for exploring the gulf this difference creates, whether through use of beings who experience time in a different way (immortals and fallen angels in ‘The House of Shattered Wings’; semi-organic artificial intelligences with life-spans of centuries in the Xuya stories) or through a more direct engagement with alternative history.
The ‘Obsidian & Blood’ trilogy is based on the premise that the Aztec belief system was real; for example, that blood sacrifices genuinely prevented the end of the world. Aliette was drawn to the Aztecs following a requirement in French education for students to study two living languages and two dead ones. Aliette’s work in Spanish led her to the Conquistadors, but her concern that they were not the best character witnesses for the ancient Aztecs led to closer study of the people and their time.
She became fascinated with the way different cultures reached different conclusions. To the Aztecs pain from torture was an offering to the gods, whereas in Middle Ages Europe it was merely punitive. Similarly, Aztec war was a ritual that came to a natural end when one group managed to demolish the other’s temple. They saw the Conquistadors’ wholly destructive warfare as not following the rules; while the Conquistadors wilfully ignored the Aztecs’ sophistication and regarded them as barbarians.
After spending five years on ‘Obsidian & Blood’, Aliette wanted to set her next book in France. The result was ‘The House of Shattered Wings’. The novel is about a group of people living in the ruins of nineteenth century Belle Epoch Paris, following an apocalypse brought about by a pan-European war using magical weapons.
Aliette avoids depicting the wasteland, immediately setting the book apart from other post-apocalyptic novels. Her interest is in the sanctuaries, where an assortment of mortals and fallen angels live in favoured splendour. Resources are short, however, and this microcosm dramatizes the price of survival when everything consumed is at the expense of someone else. The narrow geographical focus, which centres on an area around Notre Dame, both expresses and intensifies the drama as characters sheltering in the titular house are forced to leave while others are forced to remain.
Vietnam is represented by the immortal Phillipe, an outsider who is taken prisoner at the beginning of the story. He comes from an ancient, unfamiliar place and is in possession of an Eastern magic that the ruler of House Silver spires cannot fathom and is threatened by. Aliette’s interest in the clash of different cultures finds a subtle expression here, not least because Phillipe does end up bringing about violent and radical change.
Phillipe, elements of his native community and its related mythos feature in the sequel, ‘The House of Binding Thorns’. The book will be based in House Hawthorn, which like House Silver spires uses real-world geography and history. Hawthorn is formed of old country mansions with their spectacular gardens, which were slowly absorbed by Paris. Aliette explained that one of the narrative strands will be about resisting hostile overtures from a rival house, comparing the story to the nineteenth century colonisation and subjugation of Asians by Europeans.
Next, Aliette plans to write linked novellas about generational mind ships and their families. She needs time she says doesn’t have to do carry out the required research; however, given that she holds a job of daunting responsibility and has managed to produce a substantial body of acclaimed work as well as raising a young family it is safe to assume that she will work something out. She explained that she fits everything in by judicious use of commuting time (in both directions), by compartmentalising tasks and with the support of her husband.
When asked about whether her books are listed under ‘D’ or ‘B’ she explained that the question was actually a fraught matter back home. ‘De’ means ‘from’ and this aristocratic prefix can be an uncomfortable fit in the republic of France. Aliette’s parents insist she be listed under ‘B’, but that allowances have to be made for foreign publishers. It’s a perfect summary of what was discussed this evening, including history, translation, politics and poetry (‘Aliette de Bodard’ is a name that really stays with you). Finally, there’s that ambiguity again; a need for accuracy forever subtly thwarted. Perhaps this is the essential tension in Aliette’s work: she has an engineer’s need for precision and an artist’s desire to mess it all up, beautifully.
Three days after this interview, ‘The House of Shattered Wings’ won the Best Novel prize at the 2016 BSFA Awards and ‘Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight’ won the award for Best Short Story.