Author’s Notes for “Shipbirth”


Second installment of Author’s Notes, this time for “Shipbirth” (in the February 2011 issue of Asimov’s).

Hmm, first off, this one requires an apology: the tonalli, the life-force according to the Aztecs, is of course not located in the heart but in the head. I realised I made this mistake only after the issue of Asimov’s went to the printers, when it was already too late to correct this.
The Aztec medicine system was fairly complicated, admitting the presence of no less than three entities in the body: the tonalli (in the head), which is the lifeforce, and, when chased out of the body by a fright or a spell, can result in catatonia; the teyolia (heart), which is the closest to what we think of as a soul (in particular, it’s the part that survives into the various afterlives), and the ihiyotl (liver), which is more numinous. See Mexicolore for more information, if you’re interested.

(more after the cut, though spoilery)

The inspiration for this story was the particular Aztec attitude towards women who died in childbirth. The Aztecs viewed the role of men and women as equal but separate: men took prisoners in wars to bring blood offerings to the gods; women fought in childbirth to bring forth new worshippers for the gods. So, when a woman died in childbirth–to be extremely specific, died with the child still within her body, not of a postpartum infection–it was considered that not only had she fought long and hard, but that she’d also died bearing a captive (the baby) in her womb. This was her apotheosis: like the warriors who had died in battle, she rose into the Heavens as a goddess, a celestial woman who would accompany the Sun on his journey from the zenith into the underworld.

It’s an interesting belief–it’s certainly surprising to see a civilisation acknowledge how painful and dangerous childbirth was, to the point of granting it its own glory. The whole Aztec conception of the universe is in fact pretty interesting, as it’s a dual one–man/woman, external/domestic, war/childbirth. That division is a fairly classic one (bringing to mind the Chinese yin-yang system, for instance); what isn’t is that both sides of the equation are given equal weight: most gods have male and female aspects, and the supreme Deity, the Duality, had both genders. This guided me when crafting my Aztec future society: I wanted something with a strong gender segregation: men and women would have different, but equal, opportunities for careers. Contrary to those gender-segregated societies I’d seen in books, I also wanted transition between both halves of the society to be easy–since gender determined so many things, it seemed only fair that people would be able to choose which path they’d want to take in life. Thus, gender-changes are fluid and easily available, to the point where Acoimi can make a casual suggestion to the midwife about getting one.

It’s not mentioned explicitly here because the rest of the universe has little bearing on the actual plotline, but this is part of the Xuya continuity (in which China discovered America first and prevented the Spanish Conquest). It’s also a companion piece to “The Shipmaker”: the Mexica of this future are the same ones as in “The Lost Xuyan Bride” and “Butterfly, Falling at Dawn”.

I was planning a third story, this time from the point of view of the Americans ship-builders, but I’ve found it harder and harder to channel my inner Westerner, so this has gone into the “to be done when I have time” pile of projects.

Writing-wise, this was part of my work on endings: the challenge I’d set myself for this one was an ambiguous ending, and it was hard because I’m not very good at ambiguity and would much rather have definite closure. My brain was insisting on closing off the story neatly, and I reworded the last few paragraphs maybe a dozen times before I was satisfied (and then had to reword a little ahead of the ending when Sheila Williams pointed out to me some things were unclear).

ETA: I’ve seen a bunch of reviews of this, and I did want to clarify one thing because it’s slightly embarrassing to me. A lot of reviewers praised the portrayal of Acoimi as a transgender person and thought I’d nailed it. Which is, er, not quite what I intended? Acoimi might be a transgender physiologically, but I didn’t intend him/her to be the poster child for female-to-male transgenders (of which he/she is a bad representative, being ill at ease on either side of the male/female dichotomy). Acoimi is actually pretty much a pre-op transgender to me–someone who feels ill at ease with his current sexual identity and at odds with what society expects of him. He didn’t change from female to male because he felt male inside; he did so for purely pecuniary reasons (he thought he’d be more successful in life–wrongly, as it turned out).
That’s the reason he’s so ill at ease and so uncomfortable: because of his choice, he’s quite entirely stuck in the wrong body and the wrong identity, and the story is partly about his dealing with the consequences of the wrong turn he took when he made that sex reassignment decision. I haven’t dealt with many transgendered people, but I should imagine they feel infinitely better and infinitely less confused after their surgery.
I don’t like posting this because I hate spoon-feeding interpretations of my stories to the reader, but I felt it had to be said lest people take away the wrong idea altogether.

ETA of ETA: I saw some reaction from Bogi Takacs, and realised that she was right, and that I’d been thinking about completely binary gender lines when I wrote this postscript, as if I were still stuck in the world of the story. Her interpretation of Acoimi as a person terminally ill-suited to his society makes a lot more sense than my hastily typed postscript, I have to say…


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