Interview: Aliette de Bodard

ServantUnderworldToday we are talking to Campbell Award Finalist, and Writers of the Future Winner Aliette de Bodard. Aliette enjoys using non-Western cultures in her stories, particularly those from Ancient China and Pre-Columbian America. Her first novel, Servant of the Underworld, will be released in 2010.

IFP: How did you become interested in Pre-Columbian America and Ancient China?

AB: I’ve had a long-standing interest in Ancient China, because it’s had such a strong influence on Vietnamese culture (and indeed on Asia in general). I read a lot of historical crime novels when I was a child, and among my favourite series was Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee books, which feature a magistrate investigating murders in Tang China. They depicted a culture that had a lot of fascinating ideas and a way of life that was very different from mine (Europe in the Middle Ages is still vaguely familiar; Tang China is very much farther afield).

To this day, I’m not quite sure why I started getting interested in Pre-Columbian America. I first came into contact with those cultures in my Spanish classes and, while they were glossed over, I did realise that they could not possibly have been as bad as the conquistadores made them sound (I had worked out fairly quickly that the conquistadores were hardly saints). I did some extra research for school projects and found out about their mythology, which had many striking, visceral images

I didn’t get into them really seriously until after I stated writing, though. I was looking for non-Western mythologies to include in my fiction – mostly because I had read a lot of Western mythology as a child and was growing bored with it. And then I remembered those old legends, and I thought it would be a unique opportunity to include those cultures in my writing, and hopefully go some way to make people understand how badly Pre-Columbian America tended to be represented.

IFP: How did you begin writing about these cultures?

AB: It did take me a while to get started. At the beginning, I was afraid that I was not going to know enough about those cultures, and that I was going to misrepresent them – so I chose to write fantasy stories in imaginary worlds that were strongly inspired by the Aztecs or the Chinese. It took me a while to realise that this fooled nobody but myself: my settings were too strongly tied to the historical reality, and most people knew so little about those cultures that they immediately assumed the stories to be historical fantasies anyway. I decided I might as well stop pretending, and tipped my settings all the way into historical.

Ancient China gave me a little more trouble than Aztec Mexico, mainly because it was so huge and varied. I had to wait a while until I had accumulated enough research materials and assimilated them before I started on stories set explicitly in China – and, even now, I’m always find whole new areas of thought or culture that I know nothing about.

IFP: What type of research do you conduct for your stories?

AB: Mostly, I read a lot. Before I start a story, I want to have a good idea of the setting; and this not only means geographical locations, but also mindsets. The locations are easy to fill in afterwards, but redoing a character from scratch because they feel wrong for the culture means I can throw away huge parts of the storyline.

My favourite research books are the primary sources, such as literature written during the time period. The main problem with those is that, in order to make sense of what you’re reading, you already have to know enough about the culture. For instance, a lot of Ming China stories have women walking in a dainty, swaying manner – and this kind of description doesn’t have quite the same meaning when you realise that most women of that time period would have bound feet, and they therefore couldn’t walk straight because it was so painful or awkward. So I also own a lot of primers: a lot are old books for children (which are packed with much more information than the picture-filled confections you find today), and the rest are introductory-level books.

I mostly hope to accumulate enough data that it forms a subconscious layer of things I can dip into when I need, say, a metaphor, a simile, or a significant symbol. Sometimes, it really works well: when I was writing Servant of the Underworld, my novel set in Aztec times, I needed a particular symbol for Ometeotl, the God of Duality, and made up on the spur of the moment a drawing of fused lovers. At least, that’s what I thought: I later discovered, or rather remembered, that the God of Duality has several incarnations, and that one of them is a couple engaged in an amorous embrace as a symbol for fertility.

IFP: What is the most difficult part of writing stories about these ancient cultures?

AB: The most difficult part is getting the mindset right, or at least as much of it as I can. It’s really all too easy to default back to my 21st-century, Western point of view, and to introduce colloquialisms or ideas that are way ahead of their time.

For instance, the idea that women should be the equal of men tends to creep into my stories: it’s an anachronism, since feminism didn’t really start until the 19th century, and didn’t get to full steam until the second half of the 20th century. I’m sure that there are other things I don’t notice; I hope that, as I become more familiar with the cultures, I’ll get better at mimicking the way they thought.

IFP: Conversely, what’s the best part?

AB: I think the best part is that it expands the reach of what I can imagine: writing about ancient cultures allows me to find out about ways of thinking that are so different from our modern one that they might as well be alien.

It’s part of the strong appeal of speculative fiction (or, for that matter, of historical fiction) to me: it’s a way to discover people with a very different way of thinking and a society very different from our own. When done well, it can put a whole new slant on your idea of humanity. It’s hard to do, though, and putting that into fiction is a challenge, but when it works, it’s beyond rewarding.

IFP: What do you think about the representation in non-Western cultures, such as the Aztecs/Mexicas, in speculative fiction? Enough, too little?

AB: Given how many cultures over the world are not Western, I definitely think not enough. I can understand the reluctance to care about people who are so different from us, but I think in the long run it’s a mindset that does more harm than good: it’s all too easy to slide from there into rejection of anything that looks a hair askew from what we know.

However, I also think that there is a lot of speculative fiction that we don’t see: the fact that the field is dominated by anglophones means that this is the SF that we read, and translations are hard to find, mainly because publishers, especially in the US, barely do translate anything (I’m not quite sure why this is, but I think it can be attributed to the sense of cultural dominance that comes along with economic dominance). I’m quite sure that Chinese SF is a lot more centred on China, and likewise Indian SF, but at present, it’s quite harder for that writing to cross borders than it is for U.S. writing.

IFP:Can you tell us some interesting fact about these cultures most of us might not know? We have 2012 opening this month, which is supposedly based on a Mayan apocalypse prediction, even though such prediction does not exist. What are some of the most common misunderstandings or myths regarding ancient cultures such as the Aztecs/Mexicas?

AB: The most common misunderstanding is that they’re all a bunch of bloodthirsty and cruel savages, which crops up time and time again (whenever someone needs an evil religious culture with blood sacrifices, the Aztecs tend to be the ones they go for). In reality, sacrifices were done for a religious reason, which was to keep the world going, and to be sacrificed was an honour. Furthermore, though they certainly could seem gruesome, the sacrifices were not cruel: the Aztecs actually did not understand the point of torture, and were horrified when the Spanish started practising it liberally.

Also, the justice system was fairly egalitarian – certainly more so than in many Western countries: it held noblemen to a far higher standard than commoners. For an offence such as being drunk in public, a commoner was beaten; a nobleman was killed. The point was that the noblemen had the means to behave themselves, and that they held important functions; and that therefore, they should behave with dignity and morality at all times.

The second most common one I see about Aztecs and Mayas is that people keep merging both cultures, which is about as pointless as saying that Turkey and England are really both the same. It’s one of my pet peeves: although there are common elements, both the Aztecs and the Mayas are really quite different. The Aztecs were a single empire in the marshes of the centre of Mexico; the Mayas were a widespread set of city-states in the southern jungles, and they lasted far longer than the Aztecs (at least one millennium, if not more, versus barely two centuries for the Aztecs).

A common fallacy I’ve found about Ancient China is thinking the culture was static and remained the same over its history: when you’re talking about Ancient China, you’re talking about a huge country the size of a small continent over at least three millennia. To take just one example, women were very free in the Tang dynasty (7th Century AD-10th Century AD), with several noted princesses rising to an insane amount of power. By the time the Ming dynasty rolled around (14th Century AD-17th Century AD), women had become confined in their apartments, and they had all had bound feet, which made it extremely difficult for them to have any kind of direct influence. Likewise, beliefs changed: the bodhisattva Guanyin (known in the West as the Goddess of Compassion/Mercy) was male to start with (as is the Indian equivalent Avalokitesvara), and it’s not until the 10th-12th Century AD that you find him turning into a female and being worshipped, particularly for fertility problems.

IFP: Can you give us some recommended books and stories related to your favourite ancient cultures?

AB: For Ancient China, as I’ve already said, there are Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories, starting with The Chinese Gold Murders. They’re detective stories featuring the eponymous judge and his three assistants. Van Gulik was Dutch, but he had lived for a while in China, and he really captures the mindset fairly well.

For fantasy, you have Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds and sequels The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen, which are hilarious romps through a lot of Ancient Chinese myths. Professional crook Master Li and his simple-minded assistant Number Ten Ox are caught in adventures that involve everything from ginseng fairies to fake tea (and a bamboo ornithopter, which is as fun as it sounds). And, if your hankering is more for epic fantasy, Daniel Fox’s excellent Dragon in Chains is a brutal tale of a civil war around an isthmus where an ancient dragon sleeping for centuries is about to be released from her bonds, to disastrous effect.

For Ancient America, I’m afraid I have not found as many books I loved. I have some issues with Gary Jenning’s Aztec, but it’s still one of the only books I’ve read that captures the setting perfectly, so it’s definitely worth reading. For older fiction, try Miguel Leon-Portilla’s In the Language of Kings, an anthology of Mesoamerican literature that ranges from Aztec and Maya poems to post-conquest Christian plays, to more modern poetry.

IFP: If you could travel back in time to any place and time period, where would you go?

AB: Actually, probably to Ancient Egypt, which is a time and place I’ve always been fascinated with, long before I was ever fascinated by Ancient Mesoamerica. I still have whole bookshelves about Egyptology (and fiction books about archaeologists such as Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series), and I would love to walk the streets of Thebes or Memphis in the hour of glory of the Pharaohs. I’ve been to Egypt, and in spite of all that has changed, it’s still a beautiful place that leaves a deep impression. I can’t imagine what it would have been like with the monuments intact – which is why I’d want to go there.

IFP:Can you tell us about your upcoming novel, Servant of the Underworld?

AB: Servant of the Underworld is a mystery set in Aztec times, with magic. Basically, it’s a historical mystery where the magic and the religion are real: the world continually totters on the brink of extinction, and only the magic of the living blood can keep the sun in the sky and the earth fertile. It’s my homage to all those historical mysteries I read as a child: Ellis Peters, Paul Doherty, Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, Robert Van Gulik… Except it’s got blood magic, ghostly jaguars and fingernail-eating monsters.

My narrator Acatl is High Priest for the Dead (a cross between a coroner and a priest), and part of his work consists in investigating magical offenses that break the boundaries of the mortal world and put in jeopardy the current order of the Aztec Empire. What Acatl hasn’t expected is that the latest offence he has to investigate involves Neutemoc, his long-estranged brother – a man with whom Acatl still has a lot of baggage…

IFP: Tell us a bit about yourself and the kind of things you do when you are not writing.

I’m a computer engineer in real life – in other word, a kind of mild geek. I do research into algorithmics, which is basically the art of designing algorithms in order to solve a particular problem. In my case, it’s how to solve vision-related problems, such as knowing where a car is in an image, or guessing what brand it is.

As might be inferred from the rest of the interview, I’m a huge history geek: I regularly drag my hapless boyfriend to places with historical remains or museum exhibitions. I also enjoy video games, the odd spot of tabletop roleplaying and board games, and of course reading. As long as it’s not sappy romance or really scary horror, I’ll read and enjoy pretty much anything. I dread the day when the huge set of bookshelves at my flat will finally overflow and force me to discard books.

IMG_0304_smallBio: Aliette de Bodard is a half-French, half-Vietnamese computer engineer who writes speculative fiction in her spare time. She was a Campbell Award Finalist and a Writers of the Future Winner. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s, Interzone, and Fantasy Magazine among others. Her Aztec fantasy, Servant of the Underworld, will be released in 2010 by new HarperCollins imprint Angry Robot.

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IFPInterview: Aliette de Bodard