We had a fantastic discussion with Aliette de Bodard, who kindly joined us all the way from Paris!
She has a new book coming out from Gollanz in 2015 entitled House of Shattered Wings. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic Paris that was "nuked" during the Magician's War, roughly equivalent to World War I. The story was apparently a merging of two concepts, one of a society where magician families controlled banking etc. and one involving a drug made of ground angel bones. Aliette described this world as being more free-form than the world she explored in her Obsidian and Blood series.
The Obsidian and Blood series was very research-intensive and involved much history so as not to make mistakes. Delving into the details of a culture that has been exterminated is very difficult. She said that if she had it to do again, she would like to reach out to the contemporary indigenous population. Much of the research information was written by the Spaniards. The Aztecs considered pain and blood sacred, and their concept of war was fighting just until the temple fell, not actually bringing about total destruction.
She said she went about picking the point of view to be an insider because she is something of a contrarian, and she didn't want to play into the common narrative that presupposes Aztec society as doomed. Thus she needed to change the entire mindset - a difficult and to some extent impossible task. She used as many primary sources as possible and also some insider-vs.-outsider analysis. One of the challenges of using insider sources is that they don't explain things that they consider to be normal. For example, a Chinese story of a certain period will describe a woman as being carried in a palanquin because she can't walk, but won't mention that her feet have been bound. The risk involved thus becomes that we tend to apply our own biases when we try to fill in those blanks left by insider descriptions.
We then moved on to talk about her Xuya universe, an alternate history universe using a different blend of Chinese and Aztec cultures. In this universe, China has discovered the Americas first, and the Aztec civilization does not fall. She has the history sketched out on a basic level from this divergence point all the way to the space age. The west of the current US is Xuya, the south belongs to the Mexica (Aztecs) and the east is a smaller version of the US. She picks up many of her stories after these groups establish colonies in space.
There are tons of incredibly interesting ideas here. One is "ship minds," artificial intelligences that are a mix of organic and non-organic components. Part of their development is that they are carried in a human parent's womb. People in this universe have different attitudes to the technology. The Xuya tend to integrate ship minds into their families, and design them to have long lives. The Mexica use them as enlisted soldiers and do not extend their lives, while the people of European descent are catching up, still somewhat disgusted by the idea of incubating a ship mind in a human mother. Reggie asked how this intersected with women's rights. Aliette explained that the Xuya think it is an honor to have a mind as a child. The minds with their long lives and long memories are of great value to society and to a family. The Mexica see it as s duty, and the surrogate mothers are paid. The Mexica society has a degree of gender role segregation, but changing your gender is easy, which changes the game quite a bit.
Family is an important theme in the stories of Xuya, which are based on Imperial China and Vietnam. Aliette explained she likes to include families, and if possible, extended families (which is not done much in SF/F). She explores how technologies change the relation between family members. Ships participate in family life through avatars. The idea of ancestor worship, where ancestors help from beyond the grave, takes a technological twist in which people can get implants of simulations of their ancestors - not to pray to, but to receive advice from. In this universe, the Imperial examinations still exist, and put a huge memorization burden on people. It becomes much easier to pass if you have ancestor implants of people who have taken the exams before. The Imperial family has an entire wing of their palace dedicated to ancestor simulations. The more distant the ancestor, the more likely there is to be corrupted data. These are not alive; it's the advice but not the person. In contrast, the AIs are people, relatable and personable. Ancestor implants can conceivably be removed; AIs can potentially be hacked, but you don't want to anger a ship! A ship can run away from home, and it's more complicated than bringing a child home.
The ships have human crews who provide company for the ship's mind and who operate the life support systems and weaponry. Ships are used for transport through "deep spaces" which operate like hyperspace, to allow travel faster than light. In the deep spaces, time and space "get weird." Ships are necessary to use the space. There are also places where ships can go but humans can't. Ships can have ulterior motives or lie. They must be raised like children to have a strong moral framework. A ship could conceivably jettison its entire crew, but it would then face consequences.
Aliette tends toward selecting female protagonists. Sometimes people do ask her "where are all the men?" Her Vietnamese alchemist character from House of Shattered Wings was female in early drafts but became male. She does try to put women in positions they ordinarily would not occupy. The head of the most powerful House in Paris is a woman. If a character dies, she doesn't want it to be "fridging." There are enough books showing men in a dominant position.
Her favorite part of research is buying the books. She researches general background, and then follows up with specifics necessary to the story. She prefers to research in English because it's easier to transfer the information to an English language story. She also does research in wikipedia Vietnam, books in English, and books in Spanish. To name an Empress, she retro-engineered the Vietnamese dynasty and used Google translate between Chinese and Vietnamese. She says she researches slowly but writes fast. "Big changes are cost-efficent at the outline stage." Generally she will do about a month of research for a draft that takes her only a few days.
Aliette, thank you so much for joining us and giving us these great insights into your process! My report on our chat with Maurice Broaddus will be out soon, and today's hangout will be at 5pm Pacific, featuring Joyce Chng, who writes as J. Damask. I hope to see you there!