Saturday, March 19, 2011

Xuya Universe Short Fiction by Aliette de Bodard (Part 1)

Aliette de Bodard's work frequently features non-western cultures. The two novels she published so far, Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm are set in a pre-Columbian Aztec Empire and many of her short stories also include Aztec, Vietnamese and Chinese cultures. De Bodard has written a handful of stories set in what she calls the Xuya universe. In this alternative time line China discovered the Americas before the Europeans. The Chinese expeditions to the Mexica empire helped reduce the shock effect of the eventual arrival of the Europeans and prevented it's fall. In modern times Mexico and the United States are divided in three power blocks. A strong Mexica Empire in the south, a west coast settled by the Chinese and the eastern United States more or less as we know it, a former British colony mostly settled by Europeans. The first story in this universe I read was The Lost Xuyan Bride, which is included in The Apex Book of World SF and can be read on the author's website. I very much liked that story for the interesting alternate history it is set in (among other things).

Recently, two other stories in the Xuya universe were made available online so I took the opportunity to read them. Although the stories are set in the same universe that are separated by several centuries. They are two very different pieces of writing and hint at a much greater story. De Bodard offers the beginnings of a chronology on her website. For those who like alternative history it is very interesting reading.

The Jaguar House, In Shadow
This story was first published in Asimov's (July 2010) and is nominated for a Nebula award this year. It can be downloaded as pdf here, or can be read on the author's website. Word count is about 7,900.

This story is set in a period of civil war in Mexica. During the rule of the current Revered Speaker all Houses but one, have been destroyed for opposing him. Only the Jaguar House is left, surviving by completely submitting to the will of the current leader. Not everybody in the Jaguar House agrees with this policy. Onalli and Xochitl directly oppose it. Onalli manages to stay out of reach of the head of the House, her former friend Tecipiani. Xochitl is not so lucky and Onalli intends to get her out of the House before Tecipiani can do damage beyond repair.

The Jaguar House, In Shadow is a very good example of why I love to read short fiction. De Bodard does something with this story that would probably not work very well in a novel. The events described in the present are balanced by an undercurrent where time flow in the opposite direction. By taking us further in the past of the characters and showing us a few key moments in the relationship between them, the story it gains an emotional depth the story would not have acquired otherwise. The author effectively shows us the divisions that appeared between a group of friends, a military order and ultimately the whole Mexica empire. Unfortunately, it is a bit hard to really see the historical context of the story without looking at De Bodard’s chronology. I love the way she tells this story but some of it is quite cryptic.

The Shipmaker
The Second story was published in Interzone #231 (November/December 2010). It's on the 2010 BSFA short list and has been made available as a pdf by Interzone. Wordcount is about 5,500.

The Shipmaker is set centuries after The Jaguar House, In Shadow, in a far future where each of the great powers has a presence in space. This story is seen form the Chinese point of view. Dac Kien is a Vietnamese woman who designs spacecraft for the Chinese, that are part machine and part biological. The organic parts are added in the last part of the Construction. The whole procedure is a delicate operation. One that is thoroughly upset when the surrogate mother of the organic element that will be come the ship arrives early. It appears the birth will be much sooner than anticipated. Dac Kien will have to quickly revise her carefully created design.

I guess this story shows the large cultural difference between west and east. The Chinese shipbuilders include principles of the ancient Feng Shui aesthetics into their design. It is not a matter of changing a few sections and cutting out a few others, the harmony of the design will be utterly ruined by such an approach. Qi must flow harmoniously though the ship for it to operate well. On top of that the author weaves in some of Dac's personal life. The problems she faces with her partner (another woman) and the negative response of her family. They would rather see her married. Although the reader will sympathize with Dac's choice to set her own course in life, De Bodard introduces an element of doubt in her main character. The meeting with the surrogate mother of the ship's organic component makes her see matters of family and children in a different light. No easy answers in this story.

The chronology of the Xuya universe also mentions the existence of an unpublished novel titled Foreign Ghosts in this setting. After reading three very good Xuya stories I am certainly curious what a full novel would look like.


  1. When I visited the author's website recently I was surprised at how many short stories she's written. I hope someday Angry Robot or perhaps another publisher will bring some together in a collection.

  2. There's definitely enough for a collection. Angry Robot doesn't seem to do a lot of short fiction though.