Aliette de Bodard’s recent novelette On A Red Station, Drifting, struck me so much to heart that I asked her to join us for a few questions about her work and the genre field. As the author of three novels (Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, collected as Obsidian and Blood last year) and myriad short stories, a winner of the 2010 BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction, and someone who featured prominently on the Locus 2012 Recommended Reading List, she knows whereof she speaks—and let me just say that if you haven’t read her short fiction (particularly last year’s “Immersion” and “Scattered Along The River Of Heaven,” both online at Clarkesworld), well, what the hell are you waiting for?
Go. Read. We’ll be here when you get back.
LB: First question. In your blogpost on Author’s Notes for On A Red Station, Drifting, you mention that reading Dream of Red Mansions* sparked a desire to try your hand at a domestic plot. Would you like to expand on that some more?
*aka Dream of The Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone, a classic of Chinese literature.
AdB: When I read Dream of Red Mansions, I was really struck by the fact that it was built differently from a lot of genre works. Specifically, a lot of the events that should have taken centre-stage—wars, social upheavals—were seen entirely through the eyes of the women of a Chinese household. Dream of Red Mansions is entirely centred on concerns that would have been preoccupying to them at the time: household management, marriages, sicknesses... And it struck me that, mostly, this domestic point of view is what genre doesn’t concern itself with much; I suppose it’s because it has roots in boys’ pulp adventures which had little time for female-coded domesticity; but an explanation is hardly an excuse!
I wanted to write something which would have the same kind of small, low-key focus on the everyday life of a household. Of course, because I wanted this to be SF, I had to throw in at least one space station; and On a Red Station, Drifting became centred on the management of its titular station; and on the women who helped run it. Because I didn’t want a story centred on the male point of view, I made most (male) spouses be either dead or absent (in this I’m very true to Dream of Red Mansions, in which marital love exists but is hardly the prime focus or the prime mover of the plot). This allowed me to focus on “household” affairs: family honour, managing a career, and putting together a banquet in a short time frame and with limited resources (something that is all too often assumed to occur flawlessly and smoothly in many books I’ve read, whereas in fact something this large and requiring this much coordination must have been hellish to put together).
I think the plot didn’t come off too badly, in fact, even though I had to fight a lot of my instincts when I was writing it: I didn’t realise it until I tried breaking it, but my brain had really absorbed an expected mould for genre, and I was having the hardest time NOT throwing in random deaths or random explosions. I’m proud that I managed to make it to the end without drawing a single gun, having a single fight or killing a single person (which doesn’t mean all is rosy or that there is no danger to main characters, but it’s a far more subtle sense of threat that I carried through the narration).
LB: Why do you think the genre mould is formed this way—with the deaths and the explosions?
AdB: I’m not sure! It certainly seems as though a great majority of genre is conflict-focused, and, not only that, but focused on large physical conflicts. I think to some extent, it’s a function of some of the roots of the genre—Verne and the Golden Age are certainly both about adventures with a strong masculine-coded focus. I tend to think of those roots as boys’ adventures; the positives include that strong “sense of wonder” sense which I personally associate with adolescence and the discovery of new things; the negatives include that over-focus on conflict (and the place of women).
But, in a large framework, I also wonder how much of this is a Western set of ideas (or, at least, something that has its roots in the Industrial Revolution, and the vision of science triumphing over obstacles, a very war-centred idea). The other literature I know, the Chinese/Vietnamese tradition, doesn’t value war and violence nearly as much; possibly because their idea of accomplishment is the gentleman-scholar; in the (white, male) dominant tradition of the West, educated men are also valued, but there’s always an underlying suspicion that acts (violent acts) are more worthy than acts of scholarship; that knights are better than scholars, and you find a lot of this resurfacing in current genre literature (where it’s somehow “cleaner” and ethically better to take part in war than in court intrigue or philosophical debates).
LB: Third question! The AI in On A Red Station, Drifting, the “Mind”—the characters refer to her as Honoured Ancestress and she seems very human. Would you tell us a bit more about how that works?
AdB: Minds are peculiar: in this universe, they’re bio-engineering constructs designed by humans and incubated within a human womb before they are born and “implanted” within their final destination, which is a finely-tuned, human-built structure. They’ve featured in a bunch of stories set in the same universe: most Minds have been the animating force behind fast-travelling spaceships; but the Mind here has been put in charge of an entire station.
Because Minds have a human mother, they have a natural place within human familial structures; though matters are made a little more complicated because Minds are so long-lived that they span dozens of human generations. In many ways, they’re very human: they are raised by their mothers, and their inner workings are close to those of humans, since they’re basically a hybrid human/supercomputer.
LB: Both Linh and Quyen are mature adult women with their own concerns. Their maturity and complexity strikes me as refreshing in a genre that often fails to fully develop its female characters. What do you think of the state of SFF today with regard to the position of women?
AdB: Well, I think that we’ve gone a long way since the beginning, but that we still have a long way to go! It’s far too common to see women only as prizes for men, as broodmares and/or existing only in relation with the men in their lives; and also far too common for stories to elude them and their concerns entirely.
Even urban fantasy, which should be centred on its heroine, far too often falls into the trap of the Exceptional Woman with no female friends and no taste for “female fluff,” basically making her a man in disguise. I’m no gender existentialist but I would like women to be able to pick traditionally “female” choices and not be mocked or ridiculed for it; the current situation is just another way of implying that only the things of men are worth writing about.
I note it’s not genre-specific, though: I have the same issues with regards to mysteries and/or Hollywood movies—where the status of women, and especially mature women over 30 or 40, is dire to say the least.
LB: To close out the official portion of this conversation, let me ask: what are your plans for the future? Any projects we should be particularly watching the skies for?
AdB: I’ve got a couple short stories forthcoming in anthologies like Athena Andreadis’s The Other Half of the Sky, and Eric Choi and Ben Bova’s Carbide-Tipped Pens, both set in the same universe as On A Red Station, Drifting. And I’m working on a urban fantasy set in Paris, complete with Vietnamese dragons and family-focused magic—work on it took a bit of a beating following hectic day-jobness, but I hope to make good headway on this now.
Urban fantasy with Vietnamese dragons and familial magic? Is there anyone here who isn’t interested in something like that? (If so, please don’t tell me. You’ll shatter all my illusions....)