INTERVIEW: Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris. She shares a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and with two Lovecraftian plants gradually taking over the living room. She has a day job as a Computer Engineer; and writes speculative fiction in her spare time, indulging in her love of mythology and history: her trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, Obsidian and Blood, is published by Angry Robot, and her short fiction has appeared in venues such as Asimov’s and Interzone, garnering her nominations for the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Note: This interview first appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, and was conducted by Moshe Siegel.

The argument between Tiger and Crane in your story “As The Wheel Turns” centers on how best to upkeep the Wen-Min Empire, which on the surface sounds a noble goal: maintaining civilization. Yet these two Founders thrive on carnage and misery, sowing both among their people. What do you think that portrays about their true motives for holding together the society they founded? Is this perhaps a statement about empires in general?

I’m an innate pessimist, and tend to think that most noble goals can only remain so in principle: carnage and misery form a very large part of how things come to fruition—not only in the maintaining of empires, but also for things that might seem noble, like self-defence or even the attainment of freedom and equality. The French Revolution aimed to free the masses from the tyranny of the kings, and yet ended as a particularly messy and bloody episode. Likewise, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia committed one of the worst genocides in Asia, and yet their goals, on paper, sound wonderful: to make the country into a modern, egalitarian society and free peasants from oppression.

Mankind being what they are, much of human history is written in blood and atrocity, and the noblest of goals very often mask raw self-interest, or community interests (including, among others, nationalism, religion, tribal interests . . .).

Much of your writing involves far-flung regions and alternative history. Does “As the Wheel Turns” shadow or draw influence from any real-world mythologies or cultures?

Much of my writing draws on Chinese and Vietnamese cultures—because my mother is Vietnamese and much of my education was in the Confucian tradition. “As the Wheel Turns” draws on Chinese mythology and philosophy, though in a very simplified, bastardised version (the arguments between Tiger and Crane echo questions that Chinese philosophers asked themselves during the Warring States period, and the Lady is drawn from Meng Po, the goddess who purges the souls of the dead before they reincarnate).

There is an air of fatalism surrounding Tiger and Crane: The Lady, for example, advises Dai-Yu to choose between them and have done, because (ironically), “There is no choice.” Tortoise defies the will of fate (and dwindles away to nothing) by making no choice at all, whereas Dai-Yu eventually realizes that, in this case, the choice itself is illusory. Where do you stand? Do you think fate guides us, or is it merely a philosophical concept, with potential both for exploitation and inspiration?

Ha, I don’t have such a clear-cut, absolutist answer! But I do believe that, at some points in life, people will have no choice, or illusory choices—not through any fault of their own or lack of care, but simply because things are the way they are. For me, a large part of life (and one that I think genre too often ignores) is that we often have to bow down to necessity, to hunker down and endure rather than cling on to the illusion that we can affect what happens.

That said, it’s also a very neat concept to explore through stories. 🙂

Is Tortoise just as sadistic as his brothers, for burdening a mortal child with the choice he himself could not make—knowing full well the lifetimes of suffering involved in the choosing? Or, is the crucible of time (as lived by Dai-Yu; as written in our histories) the only way to come to a full reckoning of civilization’s best shot at survival?

For me, this is very much a case of things working out better than intended (which, I suppose, makes a particular ironic statement about fate . . .). The way I saw it in the story, the only thing that separated Tortoise from his brothers was his refusal to play the “game”—my intention was that he’d run away from his responsibilities and passed them on to his child without realising the consequences of this act (in the beginning, I don’t think he even envisioned that this would lock Daiyu in a circle of reincarnations without forgetfulness; then his behaviour became more blamable, because he saw but didn’t act).

Daiyu is definitely able to make her decision because she’s been through history, and has seen that the arguments between Tiger and Crane are purely theoretical, the work of philosophers who have never experienced either history or the human condition. But I don’t think it was part of Tortoise’s plans so much as something Daiyu worked out for herself with the weight of her experiences . . .

Is there anything you can share with us about your upcoming (or current) projects?

I’m currently working on an urban fantasy set in contemporary Paris, where dynasties of magicians have been at war for centuries. It’s set from the point of view of a Vietnamese-French character who is unwillingly dragged into the latest flare-up and deals with the magic and history of the city in what I hope is an original take. Otherwise, I’m working on short fiction as usual: I have a story forthcoming in Athena Andreadis’s feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky.

What is the appeal of epic fantasy? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write it? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

I am a bit embarrassed, because I don’t write a lot of epic fantasy, though I do enjoy reading it… For me, a lot of the appeal of epic fantasy has to do with the large stakes. It’s not that I like large stakes per se, but rather that the scope of the story enables me, as a reader, to discover an entire universe, or at least a large subset of it, as well as meet a diverse range of characters that make this universe come alive. One other trait of epic fantasy which contributes to its appeal (and which I am less fond of), is a tendency to sharpen divisions between good and evil to create sweeping narratives–this has undeniable appeal, though at times it can be a bit simplistic.

What are some of your favorite examples of epic fantasy (in any media*), and what makes them your favorites?

My favourite epic fantasy remains Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea tales: it does the expected things (worldbuilding, large stakes, solid character-building and numinous magic) extremely well, but it also does two more unexpected things that lift it above the rest of the genre. The first is that, like a lot of Le Guin’s fantasy, it has a tremendous depiction of ordinary life in Earthsea, of quiet scenes in which the characters rest and share a moment of respite–and thus afford us a bitingly realistic glimpse of what it is truly like to live in the Archipelago when the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance. The other is that, for all that it starts as a very male-and action-dominated fantasy, Earthsea shifts radically in its final volumes, establishing women as characters in their own rights, and developing a strong elegiac meditation on the nature of death and immortality.