“Heaven Under Earth” mostly started as a dystopia: I wanted to show a society in which women were so scarce that men had had to improvise around their lack. This involved quite a bit of handwavium (mostly a background biological weapon developed by neo-Confucians to keep women in their place, and which backfired when used in the field), none of which actually showed up in the story but was necessary to help me design it!
The caihes are named after Lan Caihe, the mischievous Immortal who is alternately male and female. Some of you might have recognised the setting as a colonised Mars; likewise, I drew on a lot of Chinese pre and post-imperial customs for the everyday details, though I modified them to adapt to a new society where gender dynamics had been redefined.
I was reading Dreams of Red Mansions for the first time when I wrote this, and thinking on domestic plot, and how I wanted to write a short story that wouldn’t have any “action” in the sense of explosions, but where the emotional tension would be running high throughout: this is basically a “feminine” story in the old-fashioned classification, in the sense that it’s concerned throughout with the running of a household, but its main protagonist is male, which makes for an interesting reversal (other bits of Dreams of Red Mansions in the story include the motif of cutting away the string of the kite, a Chinese tradition which is pivotal in the book for one of my favourite characters, Jia Tanchun).
When I brought this to Villa Didodati back in 2008, it had very precise and very realistic science; and Benjamin Rosenbaum quite rightly pointed out that in an alternate history, science had no reason to have developed on the same lines as ours, and extrapolating from existing stuff made no sense. It was like a revelation for me, and I promptly set about to applying it not only to this story but all the subsequent ones!
This story is also a great demonstration of the time machine effect: I finished the revisions in 2008, touched it up teensy bits and finally sold it in 2010 (ETA: Electric Velocipede subsequently sat on it for 2 years, but this is still a 2012 publication), but essentially the basic premises remain more than four years old. It shows a bit in the prose, which is a bit anemic, but mostly it shows in embarrassing places: some of the gender issues are a bit iffy, in particular the trope of a eunuch/sexless person being hit on by a woman and having a reaction to it (and an entire story revolving about whether their–enforced–gender change can be reversed so they can be “normal” people). Another thing I realised only afterwards was that I hadn’t implied anything about the outsider society Fourth Spouse’s true love comes from–in my mind they were Chinese, of course, but with people’s tendency to assume a default whiteness for the not-described, I fear that people will simply read the story as “Chinese people are horrible among themselves, but the West is OK, and liberal because it has LGBT people!”. Which, er, is a bit embarrassing as said before.
On the plus side, he, I can see that in four years I definitely became a better writer