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Interview: Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard is an engineer, a writer, and a keen amateur cook. Her love of mythology and history led her to speculative fiction early on. She is the author of The House of Shattered Wings, the first Dominion of the Fallen novel, plus numerous short stories, the Aztec noir trilogy Obsidian and Blood, and the award-nominated On a Red Station, Drifting, a space opera based on Vietnamese culture. She has won two Nebula Awards and a Locus Award.

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The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns are the books in your latest series, the Dominion of the Fallen. Tell us about where the premise of fallen angels vying for power in a post-apocalyptic Paris came from.

I’d originally planned to write an urban fantasy about families of magicians vying for power in twenty-first-century Paris and things didn’t work out quite as planned . . . I wasn’t feeling any fire for that story, so I went back to the drawing board and—on the advice of the always-excellent Rochita Loenen-Ruiz—incorporated one of my old stories set in a city where angel bones were ground and sold to drug addicts.

I can’t really remember where I got the idea of destroying Paris in a magical conflagration. I think it’s because I’ve always had a fascination not with war, but with the aftermath of war—with what gets rebuilt and what doesn’t, with trauma that people have to deal with, with how ranged battles might cease, but other, subtler things take their place, political intrigues and power games. So I invented the Great Houses War, a sort of analogue of WWI fought between magical factions. But I deliberately set the story not during that war, but sixty years after it, in a city so devastated that it’s still struggling to recover: where the Seine runs black with ashes, where monuments are piles of rubble, and where magic is as much of a scarce resource as clean water or food.

The series takes place in an alternate Paris whose geography is situated in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. What attracted you to this past incarnation of the city?

I wrote the book as homage to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French literature like Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The nineteenth century, in addition to being a great source of literature, was also a time of great upheaval in France: several changes of regime, not all peaceful, accompanied by rapid social change that saw the rise of a new social order, as well as the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution to people’s ways of life. It was a time of great contrasts: of elegant men and women attending glamorous balls while workers struggled to make both ends meet mere streets away and soldiers conquered colonies like Vietnam to satisfy an endless need for money. It’s a time period I’m fascinated by, and given that my Great Houses War was the analogue of WWI, it seemed natural to me to have the pre-war city conform to nineteenth-century geography.

A little Easter egg is that many of the names of characters come from Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, a series published in the first half of the twentieth century featuring the adventures of a gentleman-thief.

You’ve listed Ursula K. Le Guin and Patricia McKillip as literary influences. In what ways have their work influenced this series?

I still remember the day I got my first Ursula K. Le Guin book: I bought The Earthsea Quartet as a teenager with my own pocket money at WH Smith in Paris, because the book looked thick and had an attractive looking dragon on the front cover (yes, shallow reader here!). I subsequently binge-read all of her books from the library: She’s been a huge influence on my writing. Steering the Craft is one of those how-to-write books I return to, time and time again, because it’s still as true now as it was then, and I still have shivers down my spine when Ged embraces his shadow at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea. And it’s from that scene that I took something I’ve always tried to put in my work: that everyone has darkness inside—and that, conversely, everyone has light inside. People are complex beings: No one is perfect, but no one is irredeemably evil either. Part of my series explores what people do to survive, and the ethical cost of that. I’ve got characters on a spectrum, from Lucifer Morningstar, who believes that anything is fair game if it saves his House, to Annamite (Vietnamese) ex-Immortal Philippe, who would rather starve and die than do the wrong thing—and yet, when push comes to shove, almost everyone does reprehensible things, Philippe first among them.

Patricia McKillip’s prose isn’t deceptively simple, but it’s flat-out gorgeous, and it’s a definite part of her worldbuilding, because it weaves a spell that makes the entire world feel like it’s magic. I hope I’ve channeled some of that in the series (except that my universe is a great deal darker and more unpleasant than hers!).

You’ve written both books through varying perspectives of several characters. How did you decide on telling the story with an ensemble?

I wrote my first trilogy, the Aztec noir fantasies of Obsidian and Blood, as first-person, and by the third book I was finding the format immensely frustrating, because so many interesting things happened outside the frame, and also because Acatl, the narrator, was terribly biased. It was really hard to show this when he was also the only voice in the story. When I started writing The House of Shattered Wings, I was determined to have an ensemble cast in order to get multiple points in view of the story.

I tried to have a variety of characters: In both books, they cover several social classes, natures of beings, and magical factions. I didn’t quite get the same perspectives for The House of Binding Thorns, mostly because the setting changed, and the story needed some fresh blood, so to speak!

One of my favorite characters is Madeleine, the alchemist. She navigates the power games between the Houses of the fallen angels and the dragon kingdom as an outsider like Philippe and Emmanuelle, the archivist of House Silverspires. At the same time, she’s battling her addiction to the drug made from ground angel bones, which you call angel essence. Why did you give her this flaw?

I really like Madeleine. She’s compassionate, completely useless in any fights, and also a complete geek who would quite happily remain shut in her room working out magical spells rather than get dragged into intrigues. When I threw angel essence into the worldbuilding, I always knew that I wanted to have an addict character, because it seemed too good a flaw not to be used (in fact, I used it twice: Emmanuelle is an ex-addict). Madeleine seemed the best character to have it: She had easy access to essence through her job as an alchemist and a traumatic past that made her vulnerable.

I don’t actually think of her as an outsider: She’s in the middle to lower rings of House hierarchy, in the sense that she benefits from the system but has very little power within it (and, to be honest, very little interest in exerting any kind of influence. Her alchemist counterpart in House Hawthorn, Sare, is part of the inner ring of the powerful).

In the section on further reading at the end of The House of Binding Thorns, you mention that the relations between the dragon kingdom and the Houses is based on the opium traffic run by the British into the Chinese empire that led to two Opium Wars. How did you develop the idea of the angel essence drug from this historical detail?

In The House of Binding Thorns, a key plot point involves an angel essence traffic run into the Annamite dragon kingdom by the Houses. As soon as I knew the book was going to be about the relations between the kingdom and the Houses, I was pretty certain that I wanted some kind of drug traffic: I had the drug, and the historical precedent was too strong to resist, especially given the closeness in political situations between that and the start of the First Opium War (I also had an isolationist kingdom/empire ruled by Confucian ideology, and a host of smaller Western factions—the Houses—that were hungry for power and money). It also played well with my existing characters, particularly poor Madeleine, whose bucket list most definitely didn’t include being sent on a diplomatic mission in dragon country with temptation always within reach!

There are a lot of neat magical powers in the series, such as capturing angel’s breath in mirrors. Which one of them would you like to have?

I’m rather fond of the dragons’ capacity for manipulating water. The instant ability to make locks rust from within would be rather handy!

One of the lines of The House of Binding Thorns that really called my attention was what the grandmotherly character Olympe says: “Everyone needs someone.” Next to power, this appears to be one of the salient themes of the novel. On one level, it refers to the friendship and love your characters need to survive post-apocalyptic Paris. What led you to explore this theme?

I tend to find out my themes for a novel after I write it, so I’m not sure how much help I’ll be on that one! It’s true that while The House of Shattered Wings was about exile, displacement, and the weight of the past, The House of Binding Thorns ended up more concerned with the present and with the necessity of joining communities—with friendship, families (whether blood ones or found ones) and love, and how they all bind the characters, whether they’re Fallen or mortals or dragons.

This same remark also applies on another level to the overt theme of colonialism. Both House Hawthorn, helmed by fallen angel Asmodeus, and the dragon kingdom have something the other one wants. Both of their magics need to be invigorated by the other if they’re going to survive. Is this development in the story meant to subvert our understanding of the impact of colonialism?

I was trying to present a variety of reactions to the early stages of colonialism: Much of it is based on the interactions between the Nguyen court in Vietnam and the French in the nineteenth century as the French nibbled at territory and influence within the country. Researching this time period is like watching a slow, heartbreaking train wreck, because you know exactly how it ended, and everything the Vietnamese tried just seems to make matters worse. We all know the only ideal solution to colonialism would have been the Western nations packing up and leaving and making reparations for the damage they’d done, all of which was never going to happen.

Within the book, I ended up writing about two opposing strands: ex-Annamite Immortal Philippe, who sees talking to Houses as the beginning of a slippery slope, and dragon prince Thuan, who realises that isolationism or fortifications aren’t going to make the problem go away. But really, they’re all groping for responses to an all-around terrible situation when the fix isn’t within their power.

You’ve researched ancient cultures—Aztecs, Ancient China, Ancient India—for previous projects. Were there any particular cultural details you had to research for this series?

My books tend to be put together with large amounts of research: I always have a preliminary phase of six-plus months where I just read non-fiction books and soak in the historical/cultural atmosphere. For this series, obviously I was starting out as an insider to both the cultures involved (French and Vietnamese), but I was also separated by a century from the historical periods I wanted to evoke. Attitudes have changed a lot between France in the Belle Époque and France now, for instance, and I had very little idea of what daily life in the Nguyen Imperial Court in the nineteenth century looked like. I now have stacks of old black-and-white photographs from the time period that are just fascinating.

On your website you have a blog post, “A Few Disjointed Thoughts on Other Cultures and Diversity in SFF” (aliettedebodard.com/2013/09/13/a-few-disjointed-thoughts-on-other-cultures-and-diversity-in-sff/), which outlines eight observations of writing fiction about other cultures. Nisi Shawl wrote a post with similar observations and advice called “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” (sfwa.org/2009/12/transracial-writing-for-the-sincere/) published on the SFWA website in 2009. Were you aware of her post? Is your blog post in dialogue with hers? Or did yours come about from the writing you’d already done?

I’m aware of Nisi’s post (and of her sterling and seminal work in general in giving advice on Writing the Other). I didn’t set out to write my blog post in response to hers: It was a bit of a rant, actually, in which I wanted to correct some fallacies and blind spots I’d seen too often in writing. I was exhausted (I’d given birth to my first son not long before and was subsisting on a diet of always thirsty and not enough sleep), and couldn’t actually think of a way to link all my objections into a coherent post—so I didn’t, and just left it as a list of bullet points.

When readers respond to your work, do you notice any cultural difference between what American readers react to and what European readers react to?

I think the main differences I’ve seen between reactions to this series are due to people having radically diverging expectations: Readers were disappointed that the setting of the story was not immersive enough, and that the plot could have happened in any other city. From the little I’ve seen, it tends to be a difference between French and other readers more than a European/American dichotomy (though nothing is as clear cut, of course!). It had me very puzzled, because this is a series intrinsically dependent on setting: The city of Paris is key to it, and I just can’t imagine this happening anywhere else.

It took me a lot of time, but I finally worked out what the issue was: Readers wanted a tour guide of Paris with detailed outsider descriptions of famous monuments and recognisable places and a plot that included more travelogue and detailed setting description—and that’s just not the series I wanted to write! Both The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns are written from the point of view of people who consider Paris their home and who just won’t provide detailed descriptions of places they see every day.

You’ve won two Nebula Awards and three British Science Fiction Association Awards, and you make appearances at several conventions in Europe and the US. What is the fandom of your work like? How does fandom in the US differ from fandom in Europe?

Ha! I’m not too sure what the fandom of my work is like, other than they’re pretty cool, awesome people who are tremendously helpful in a pinch and interested in all sorts of niche subjects (while I was writing The House of Binding Thorns, I outsourced several French translation queries to Twitter, and got a ton of really useful suggestions, including pretty darn precise ones about battle tactics!).

Quite honestly, it’s hard to characterise European vs. US fandom, not the least because European fandom covers quite a lot of countries with different languages, different conversations, and quite a different character. They’ve all been amazingly welcoming, though. Probably the most surprising experience I had was meeting Romanian writer, translator, and philosopher Christian Tămaş in Romania and getting around in French, which is certainly not my first pick for an international language!

I certainly have a huge advantage in European fandom, though. By dint of being published in the US and UK, I already get a lot of attention online, and people know me. The converse certainly isn’t true. We were having this conversation at Eurocon that it was extremely hard for authors in Europe (outside of the UK) to be well-known outside of them, because so much of the tone for the field is set in the Western Anglophone world with many books translated from English but much fewer translated into English. It’s changing slowly: Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” won Hugos in 2015, and there’s been a slow increase in translations published (as well as English books from India, Malaysia, South Africa, etc.), but there are lots of structural issues to be overcome (not least of which is the question of paying for the translation, a budget that’s routine in European countries, but that Anglophone publishers are less used to).

Fans will be anticipating the continuation of the Dominion of the Fallen. Can we expect a third installment of the series?

I don’t have a third installment under contract, alas: I only signed for two books! They’re both standalones, so hopefully they resolve any hanging plot points, though I do have plans to write short fiction set in that setting. I already have written a novella that’s set between The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns and features Emmanuelle getting caught in House politics.

Are there any other future writing projects you can tell us about?

I just released an ebook and a print edition of The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a book set in my Xuya universe (a space opera series set in a Confucian/Vietnamese galactic empire). It’s available via all major retailers and as a print-on-demand book via Createspace with a gorgeous cover by Maurizio Manzieri. And I’m currently working on a novella about life aboard a space station with various characters trying to deal with health-related crises.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.