Saturday, July 28, 2012

Scattered Among Strange Worlds - Aliette de Bodard

There is plenty of Alliette de Bodard's short fiction scattered about on the web I've paid attention to a couple of those stories in the past, all  linked to the Xuya alternative history. Earlier this month, a short fiction sampler became available on Amazon. It is something of a first for me. The first Kindle file for which I actually paid. Not that I have anything against buying e-books but I don't own a Kindle (my e-reader prefers epub) so I can only read them on the laptop. I spend an awful lot of time looking at this screen, but for reading purposes it is not ideal. Still, 58 pages is manageable and the quality of these stories more than made up for any discomfort. In fact, I was so curious about this work that I didn't bother to look around to see if it was available in other formats too.

Scattered Among Strange Worlds contains two short stories and a sample chapter of de Bodard's debut novel Servant of the Underworld. The fist one is Scattered Along the Rivers of Heaven, first published in the January 2012 issue of Clarkesworld, where it can still be read and listened to for free. It is a far future science fiction story that incorporates a lines of Chinese poetry. I must admit the names de Bodard mentions at the end of the story are completely unfamiliar to me. The future she describes is clearly Asian influenced and the story deals with the fall out of a revolution that alienates a mother and daughter. Many years later, the granddaughter returns to the scene of the revolution to visit the funeral of her grandmother. A funeral her mother won't attend.

I think de Bodard is almost being too ambitious in this story. There is so much packed into it that I scarcely know where to begin. Structurally it is an interesting piece. There are two strands in the narrative. One is set in the past; the time of the revolution and its aftermath. Note that the narrator of that section considers itself to be plural. The second strand, set in the present and told in the present tense, is seen from the point of view of the grand daughter Xu Wen. The two are hardly aware of each other but the contrast wonderfully. Especially once the reader realizes the nature of the plural narrator and Xu Wen's opinion of them.

As I said there is a lot packed into this story but I will limit myself to two elements. One of the things that is very relevant to me personally at the moment is the way language is being discussed. It is language that sets groups apart, language that is used to fuel the revolution and eventually to mark the victors. De Bodard looks at these with a sense of loss, which, given the history of the French language and the aggressive movement to force out regional language in the 19th and early 20th century in France, isn't surprising. Language is an important part of a culture and forcing one to disappear a favourite tactic of oppressors. As some of you may know I have recently started trying to learn some Norwegian.* In this country the struggle between local dialects and a standardized language has taken quite a different path. In the story, language is very politically charged. It isn't the mail focus of the story but it contributes to the mood of the piece.

The second element that hit me pretty hard personally is the climatic scene at the funeral. Xu Wen has made a difficult choice in showing up for the funeral. My father is currently very clearly in the last phase of his life and so his last wishes came up recently. We've had people over coming to say goodbye this week. My family is not one to show a lot of emotion so it is not the dramatic scene you may imagine. He does have very particular ideas on his own funeral though. He has always been very socially active and if he wanted to, the funeral would have attracted hundreds of people. A lot of them, people he hasn't seen in years. He has made it very clear that he wants to keep it more intimate though. His reasoning is that you can't be bothered to show up now that he is obviously going through a very tough time in his life, you have no business at the funeral. I can't say I blame him.

In the story, Xu Wen has some of her choices made for her of course, but the fact remains that she really is too late. My response to this element in the story is much more influenced by things going on in my life than anything de Bodard has written. It is clearly an unintended reaction but it does show what kind of a story this is. I have lifted two elements from it I responded most strongly to but there is plenty more in this story. It is a piece that will draw as many unique reactions as it has readers. I think it is a brilliant story and I fully expect it to show up in awards nominations next year.

The second story is not quite as easily characterized as science fiction. It has a bit of a fantasy atmosphere about it. Exodus Tides. It was first published in Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show April 2011 and can only be read online there if you have a subscription. Even if you don't, you should go check it out anyway, if only to have a look at the wonderful artwork by Anna Repp that accompanies the story. Exodus Tides tells the story of Emilie, a young girl of mixed mermen/human origin, who is trying to come to terms with the half of her heritage her parents won't tell her about. It is told from a first person perspective, making it very intimate but in some respects also limited.

De Bodard doesn't give too many details about what droves the mermaids from the sea but it is depicted as a deadly place. However much her parents want her to be human, her heritage sets her apart at school. There is a clear connection the the situation immigrants find themselves in and that of second generation in particular. Emilie has no connection to her mother's life at sea apart from the few stories she has heard and on top of that, her world is not just distant, it has been destroyed. This search for cultural identity shows up in De Bodard's work more often. It strikes me as a very difficult balancing act, living among the stories of a country that has moved on by the time you hear them and the reality of a country that doesn't always appreciate its new citizens (an increasingly frequent problem in the Netherlands unfortunately). Emilie is looking for her own answers, despite her mother's wishes. It is a painful process in a way. De Bodard leaves the ending unclear. I guess readers gets to decide what her ultimate decision is. I have given it some thought yesterday but I'm not sure I have an answer.

Scattered Among Strange Worlds is a great introduction to de Bodard's writing. These are multi layered stories with a lot of attention paid to which viewpoint the story should be told from and what tense to use. There is also a lot of cultural nuances in these works, exposing the readers to Chinese and Vietnamese culture in a way I haven't come across anywhere else in the genre. I have long since come to the conclusion that I will read anything by de Bodard  I can get hands on and I very much entourage you to seek out her work. Whether it be her short fiction or one of her novels, it will be worth your time.

* I have written a long ramble about my first encounter with Norwegian on my Livejournal. Since I feel the piece very much shows my ignorance of languages and all things Norwegian I have made it a friends only entry.

Book Details
Title: Scattered Among Strange Worlds
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Nine Dragons River
Pages: 58
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2012

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