Category: author notes

Author’s notes: The Weight of a Blessing

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“The Weight of a Blessing” is one of those stories that took me a long time to write–by my standards, that is. I first had the idea for it around August or so, walking around in Brittany with the H; I wanted to do something about “refugees and virtual realities”.

(spoilers after the cut, please read the story first!)
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Author’s notes: On a Red Station, Drifting

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So, it’s occurred to me I didn’t actually provide this for my latest release–accordingly, there you go, author’s notes for On a Red Station, Drifting.

I started writing On a Red Station, Drifting after one too many readings of the Chinese classic  Dream of Red Mansions, and musing on old literature.

It’s no secret that “classical literature”, at least the brand taught in French schools, is overwhelmingly male and concerned with “male” affairs: wars, violence, fatherhood, father/son relationships… I found the same preoccupation prevalent in SFF, to a point where it became unsettling–it’s a subject covered by Ursula Le Guin in her Language of the Night  and by Joanna Russ in many of her writings. One of the things that drove this home for me was seeing the statistics compiled by Martin Lewis for the Clarke Award (among the highlights: around 90% of the books had at least a male protagonist, a good quarter featured no women main characters at all, and a good 81% of the books had the protagonist kill someone, while only under half the protagonists were in a stable happy relationship).

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Author’s notes for “Heaven Under Earth”

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“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!

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Author’s Notes for “Immersion”

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“Immersion”, like many stories, grew out of conversations–specifically with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and several other Asian bloggers/writers such as @requireshate, JY Yang, J Damask/Joyce Chng, @automathic and Zen Cho.
I wanted to write a story about cultural domination; about how the cultural norms from the dominant culture also infect the non-dominant ones; about how globalisation and its products don’t necessarily make the world smaller and communications between cultures easier, but tend to foster a harmful atmosphere in which one culture or subset of cultures (US/Europe, to be specific) takes over the existing ones and remakes everything in its image. That the takeover is subtle, not done by guns but rather through commerce and the diffusion of media, doesn’t make it less visible or excusable: not all wars are waged with weapons and violence; and the more subtle and insidious version of cultural colonisation that’s currently going on in the world is a phenomenon with obvious and damaging impact (and also includes Western tourism in developing countries, which is often intensely problematic and fraught with coloniser attitudes).

The story is also very obviously based on our trip in Vietnam and my rants at the guidebooks which distill a culture in an outsider, monolithic (and many times wildly inaccurate) version: the immersers from Galactic to Rong are guidebooks V2.0. I also imagined their counterpart from Rong to Galactic, something that would make it clear that unbalanced cultural exchanges could lead to severe cultural distortion, as well as rejection of one’s home culture–a phenomenon that’s not always harmful, but is taken to its extreme in Agnes. I also tried to tackle how damaging the imposition of languages and standards of beauty could become, though through lack of space I had to go for a fairly caricatural version of it.

(mild spoilers, plus somewhat long rambles)
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Author’s Notes: Scattered Along the River of Heaven

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This one started with poets: to be more specific, Aimé Césaire and Qiu Jin. You might have heard about both or either, but if you haven’t: Aimé Césaire was a Martiniquais, and is famous for a lot of things–but the one that got my attention was his poetry. He wrote in French, having received a classical French education; but his poems concern themselves with cultural identity, and in particular the cultural identity of Black people in French territories (at the time he, Senghor and Damas founded the négritude movement, Africa was still crisscrossed with French colonies).
He was both an activist and a poet; the same can be said of Qiu Jin, aka the Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, a Qing dynasty revolutionary, who fought against the misogynist authorities, and sought to free women from the tyranny of their husbands and fathers (and from the custom of bound feet in particular). Qiu Jin had received a classical education, and wrote impassioned and beautiful poetry about her role in a revolution–and was ultimately executed after a failed uprising.

The whole Qiu Jin angle tied in with some thinking I’ve been having about revolutions and wars of liberation; and about messy transfers of power. Mainly, that revolutions always have a losing side, and that they create exiles–the Russian émigrés to France and Britain in the beginning of the 20th Century, the Iranian diaspora from 1979, who got hounded out of the country for being loyal to the Shah; the loyalists to Chiang Kai-shek, who had to forcibly relocate to Taiwan… And that revolutions might indeed be liberating for a country as a whole, but that beneath you’ll find power struggles, and that one social strata or one region will often come to dominate everyone else. Finally, the fact that social dominance often translates into language power-plays: for instance, the “standard” dialect of Vietnam is now Northern Vietnamese (because the Communist Party rules from the North); the “standard” language of France was imposed over all local dialects aka patois in the 19th Century (see here for an account of how non-French dialects gradually lost the struggle). I’m not saying it’s necessarily and completely a bad thing to have one dialect become dominant: if we had kept all the patois in French, we still wouldn’t be able to understand one another and wouldn’t have a sense of national identity; but there is still a tremendous loss in languages that can happen when a country unifies itself and becomes a whole.

Somehow, all of this merged together into a story of colonial empires and uprisings and poetry. Yup. Go figure.

I wanted one of the strands of the story to be poems: the idea was that Anshi’s life would be seen through her writings; and what better writings for a scholar than poems? Most scholars in Vietnam or China composed poetry; and the ability to do so was widely praised; in a quasi-Asian future, it made sense that poetry would still be very important. Qiu Jin’s poems provided much of the verse that I put in the story: see the first three poems of this post, and you’ll notice many familiarities… Another poem I used for inspiration was Bei Dao’s “The Answer”, which you can read here, probably his most famous one, as it was written during the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations, and was taken up as an unofficial anthem in the 1989 ones.

For the very last poem, though, I wanted something a little mellower, about separation–it’s an easy theme to find in classical Chinese poetry (much of which was written between friends who had known each other in the capital and been posted to opposite ends of the country), so I turned to the Tang poets. Not remembering my sources quite so well; but I went for an amalgam of poetry about loss and nostalgia, which also–quite naturally–gave me my title. For once, I didn’t have to struggle to find one :)

D-7: titles and other considerations

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So, this is actually the leadup to the Master of the House of Darts release (it’s out in the US on Oct. 25th, and for some odd reason the UK has to wait a little bit more, till Nov 3rd. The ways of publishing are impenetrable…).

So, to prepare for next Tuesday, I’ll be publishing one blog post a day until Friday (process, research tidbits, behind-the-scenes bonuses, and more…)–and watch out next Monday for a competition with neat prizes (including a tuckerisation and an Aztec print!)

(warning: minor spoilers for Servant of the Underworld)
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Author’s Notes for “Shipbirth”

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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)

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Interzone 231, and author’s notes for The Shipmaker

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So, I thought I’d trying out something new when a story comes out: author’s notes, the equivalent of DVD extras. Might contain mild spoilers, though this time they don’t. Every story has those extra little bits that I couldn’t fit into the main narrative, and I figured I’d share some of them with you.

We’ll start with “The Shipmaker”, which is in issue 231 of Interzone, now out in the wild. It’s the Jason Sanford special issue, with three stories by him (you can see previews here, here and here), and an interview. The remaining stories are by Matthew Cook, and by me.

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