Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Xuya Universe Short Fiction by Aliette de Bodard (Part 2)

Last year I wrote a bit about two short stories by Aliette de Bodard set in her fascinating Xuya universe. In this time line the Chinese discovered the Americas before the Europeans did, which lead to a dramatically different history from the one we know. De Bodard offers the beginnings of a chronology on her website. I recently stumbled across another two stories that are available for free online. The Jaguar House, In Shadow and Shipmaker were both nominated for prestigious awards. These two stories weren't, but in terms of quality I'd say there is very little between them.

Butterfly, Falling at Dawn

The word count for this story is about 9,000 and it was first published in November 2008 in Interzone 219. Recently, it has been reissued by International Speculative Fiction, a site that has started publishing short science fiction from outside the English language world. I definitely need to have a closer look at their other stories some time. A PDF of Butterfly, Falling at Dawn can be found here.

In the time line it is set 2006, about 20 years after The Jaguar House, In Shadow and has some clear references to the conflict described in that story. With a crime at the heart of it, superficially the story has more in common with The Lost Xuyan Bride though. The story about Magistrate Hua Ma, a woman of Mexica descent, working for Xuya (Chinese) law enforcement. She is sent to investigate an apparent murder of a Mexica hologram designer. The lives of the investigator and the victim turn out to have certain similarities. It is a case that brings up all sorts of uncomfortably memories about her own youth in the Mexica empire and the events of the civil war that made her turn away from her nation.

There are two distinct layers to this story. One is of course the finding the murderer, which turns out to be reasonably straightforward. The real attraction of this story is in the more personal side to the case. It is written in the first person and with each discovery about the life of the victim, Hua Ma is reminded of what happened to her family after she moved into Xuya territory. She has buried herself in her new life but finds out it is not so easy to leave a past one behind. Or even wise. I guess some people do learn from other people's mistakes.

I have read several stories by de Bodard where characters struggle with cultural differences or find themselves in a culture that is not they one the grew up in. Perhaps this choice of theme not entirely surprising given her own background. These stories always contain a lot of details about where these cultures differ, clash or overlap. Given that de Bodard has had to extrapolate from limited historical material what a modern Mexica culture would look like, it is quite a feat of both imagination and research. Her attention to detail regarding these different cultures and the way the are seamlessly woven into the story is something that set her stories apart.


The second story is set in the future. De Bodard doesn't mention a year but sometime in the next century seems reasonable. It was first published in Asimov's in February 2011 and was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2012 which has recently been awarded to Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie. The word count is about 6,400 and it can be downloaded as epub or mobi, or read online at the author's website .

Shipbirth takes into space, aboard a Mexica spaceship that is about to be completed by the birth of a mind. This crucial part of the ship allows it to travel through space. The minds are carried by volunteers and giving birth to one is a risky and very dangerous to both the mind and the woman carrying it. Aicoimi is a physician overseeing one of these births. Minds always make him uneasy and this particular quickening, as the birth of a mind and its joining with the ship is referred to, turns out to be particularly haunting.

This story is quite a different creature than Butterfly, Falling at Dawn. Much more ambiguous. Where the previous story leads you to the answer, this story raises questions. One of the things that struck me about the story is how the atmosphere is both similar and very different from Shipmaker, which is set on board a similar spaceship, only built for the Chinese fleet. De Bodard somehow manages to give these ships a very different feel. The loneliness of space is present in both but the Mexica ship feels much more like a living (somewhat scary) creature, where the Chinese feels more harmoniously designed.

Aicoimi is a complex character. When we meet him he is male but that was not always the case and throughout the story he moves up and down the spectrum of masculine and feminine thoughts and behaviours, constantly aware of society's conventions and stereotypes and constantly linking it to choices and actions. De Bodard stuffs a lot of his past in this story. Memories of his youth, as a young girl witnessing death, his military career for which he changed his gender and the revulsion that makes him turn to his current profession. The author works in a these aspects (birth and war) in the Aztec deities mentioned in the story as well. It is a detail but it pays to read up on the deities she mentions. It is one of the details that shows how much care and skill went into this story. It's a story that keeps the reader on their toes. Not as straightforward as the first story but certainly the one that stayed with me longer. I wonder if de Bodard is going to do more stories in the space age Xuya setting.

The Xuya universe is still largely unexplored and offers all kinds of interesting possibilities. I have immensely enjoyed the five stories I've read so far and I am looking forward to more. There is at least one story that I am aware of that I haven't read yet. I'll also keep an eye out for that one so perhaps there will be a part 3.

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