Tag: vietnam

The stories I wanted to read


The stories I wanted to read

I’m ten, and voraciously reading–bespectacled, and a head shorter than everyone in class, good at maths and utterly oblivious to the fact that I’m different from everyone else (only later will I work out that the string of people asking me “where do you come from” are comparing me to a class that’s 99.99% white and Catholic, and where the next most diverse person is the lone Ashkenazi Jewish kid, who probably isn’t having a great time either). I take to Science Fiction and Fantasy [1] like a fish to water: people fleeing this world for another; the wonders of space and faraway history where magic is real–where a farmboy can rise to become king; where ordinary people can stop evil in its track; and where science is a force for good, and the future has everyone equal without questions of creed and race.

There are a few… wrong notes, though. I cannot help but notice that Tolkien’s heroes are basically Europeans; and that the Easterlings–yellow-skinned or swarthy–seem to be mostly fighting on the side of evil. I cannot help but notice that most of the cool things in the future seem to be happening to men; and that, for all the talk about appearances not mattering, most women seem to need to be blonde, and young, and beautiful; the dark-haired, yellow-skinned ones mostly seem to be left by the wayside or to be antagonists.

In the midst of this, Andre Norton’s Year of the Unicorn is a breath of fresh air. Gillan is dark-haired and more clever than pretty; and she waltzes through the book on (it seems to me) nothing more than sheer strength of will, and a stubborn refusal to be left behind, or to take anything at face value. When she does get left behind, she fights tooth and claw to find her husband; and make a place for herself in a world that doesn’t want her.

I love Gillan; and I reread the book over and over. It’s not, after all, so hard to see why.

There’s a lot of books in my reading that feature China, or some representation of the Far East–I read them all like I read invented worlds, because the China they depict is so out of touch with my family stories (I won’t say my family stories are all positive! Vietnam has… a complicated relationship with China)–surely they have to be about some kind of fictional China/Far East that doesn’t exist. They speak of martial arts and inscrutable, passive people awaiting to be saved; of some fount of mystical wisdom that awaits the traveller. I think fake!China must be some kind of faraway land invented by writers, because it cannot possibly be the real thing.

I’m in my twenties, and I still love maths, and work to make a living out of it. I discover the American Library in Paris, and discover Le Guin; and it’s like a revelation: SF doesn’t have to be about equations and maths. The SF that speaks to me is about people in the future, about their interactions with technology and with each other; but I’m less interested in whether the technology is feasible. I design feasible technology for a living; and books that strongly focus on this as an element remind me too much of my day job.

As I’m checking out all the Le Guin books ever written from the library, I read The Word for World is Forest. Many, many years later, someone tells me that it’s an allegory of the Vietnam War. I blink, because I know all about the Vietnam War; because it’s shaped my entire childhood; and this isn’t the image that I have. My Vietnam War involves pain and heartache and displacement, and massive family upheavals–not this odd (though good) story about colonists savagely exploiting an alien species, and the natives rising up against them. I realise, then, that there are always several sides to a story; and that not all stories are given the same precedence.

I start writing. I have a master’s degree in science, and general knowledge of physics and electronics; and yet I still do not feel confident that I can write science fiction. I have this image–propagated through books and discussions on forums–that true science fiction is rigorous scientific extrapolation (whether that science is mathematics or anthropology), and I feel I don’t have the credentials for any of this. It will take me many, many years to understand that this set of expectations is stifling and silencing me; and that I’m my own worst enemy, telling myself not to write because I’m not good enough. That I’m far from being the only one in this position or with this experience–that definitions of “proper SF” can end up being a cage for writers and readers alike, an excuse to dismiss everything that doesn’t seem to conform.

I still read books. Most have silent women, or women who use their looks as a weapon. There are no female friendships. There are no mothers, no families. People drink coffee and speak English, and most of them are blond and pale-skinned. When someone who does look or sound familiar appears; when someone seems like they’re going to respect their ancestors and value their families–they’re the aliens. They’re the funny guys with odd customs colonists meet, the ones they try to commerce with or understand or (in the worst cases) subjugate. They’re the invaders that have to be fought back for the sake of civilisation.

And I think “what civilisation?” I wonder how people like me fare, in the future. Or in the re-imagined past of fantasy. Probably not well.

I publish my first stories. I go to cons. I meet other people, offline and online, and start having my first long discussions about genre. I start thinking about what SFF really is. I meet other POCs, other women; learn about feminism; read a lot of essays. I learn that I am not alone; that others have had those same experiences; that others struggled or are struggling, trying to reconcile their love of SFF with that feeling that those universes have passed them by.

And then it hits me: if I want to have a place in those futures, in those reimagined pasts, I’m going to have to be like Gillan. I’m going to have to forge ahead, in the footsteps of those that came before. I will write my own stuff. My universes do not have to be white, or scientific, or sterile and lonely. And, if I don’t write my own experiences, my own cultures–then who is going to write them for me?

I wish I could say it goes without a hitch from there on. That I don’t have the odd conversation (“you write wonderful aliens!” in reference to my future diaspora Vietnamese people); the shouts from various corners telling me I don’t write proper SFF. The nagging doubt that perhaps–just perhaps–they’re right, that there’s no place for me at this table. It’s nonsense, of course. It should be. But thirty years of conditioning are hard to break through; and pushing through boundaries sometimes feel like pushing through tar.

That’s me and SFF, I guess? I feel kind of embarrassed sharing this, but I think it needs to be said–I’m not writing because of politics, or because I want to preach (well, sometimes I do want to write about specific themes that speak to me. But who doesn’t?). At heart, I’m writing my stories: the stories I wanted to read as a child, the adventures in space where I don’t have to feel excluded; the fantasies where you can be small and dark-haired and Asian and still be a hero. At heart, I’m sharing my side of the story, and the things that matter to me–war and exile and devastation, relationships between mother and child and extended families and how these evolve and change in the future. I love SFF. I want to see it thrive and grow and change; and include more and more people from all walks of life. And some of those changes will be uncomfortable. And some of those new stories by new writers won’t be for me or won’t speak to me, and that’s quite fine, because they will speak to someone else.

I hope that things will continue to change. I hope that the taste for this kind of stories grows; that there will be a wider appetite for them as people discover them. I want a future where it’s ok to write the kind of stories I wanted as a child; and where people read them and enjoy them and it becomes a new, significant chunk of the field (and it’s already happening, to some extent, for which I am very grateful). I want the field to reach outwards, step after step after step; until the table is large enough to include all of us on the margins, and we all learn to appreciate and love each other’s experiences and conceptions of the future–for, if SFF isn’t about openness of mind and change, then what is?

[1]It will be many years before I am aware of science fiction as a genre and consciously seek it out; but even before that it makes up the bulk of my reading.

Books books books


Now that my life is no longer about edits, a few books:

-Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown (ARC obtained from publisher). Zacharias Whyte is the newest sorcerer to the Crown, and he’s got his work cut out for him: he’s black in a society that has no liking for people of colour, suspected of murdering his predecessor and guardian; and to top it all, the magic that England was relying on is steadily draining away. As he travels to Fairyland to determine the cause of the magical penury, Zacharias picks up Prudence, an impoverished gentlewoman who is determined to make her own way in the world–and who has a decidedly peculiar inheritance. Magic, mayhem (and interfering aunties) in a Regency setting: it’s a hilarious book, but also one that pokes sly fun at the social conventions of the time and the place of women and POCs. Sort of a cross between Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and PG Wodehouse, with a postcolonial slant. Also, it’s got Malaysian vampires, and they’re awesome.

-Pat Cadigan, Tea from an Empty Cup (book bought). I first read this ten years ago, and it hasn’t lost its power. It’s short and punchy–a double tale of a murder investigation in an immersive artificial reality and a woman looking for her friend and getting caught in some shady dealings involving stolen virtual artefacts, and access to a special level in said artificial reality). I loved the world building (in a dystopic future where Japan has disappeared and the survivors struggle to find a sense of national identity, something that really resonated to me as a second-gen whose maternal country was lost to war for a while); and the artificial reality is amazing–I’m sceptical of SF’s ability to predict the future, but Pat Cadigan was square on, on both the saturation of the AR by ads, and the gaming culture that develops around it, with its accompanied mysticism, its prizing of avatars and things found online and its search for hacks, new levels and new sensations (which reminded me of MMORPGs and Second Life).

(a few minor quibbles: I wasn’t quite sold on the idea of racial memory, or on the idea you could tell someone’s racial mark-up just by looking at them–as a diasporan, the elevated mysticism and mythology that develops around the lost land of Japan feels very accurate, though sometimes a little too forced and forceful for my personal taste. And sometimes the world building rang a little hollow–I wasn’t sure what Yuki did for a living or how she was able to drop everything to follow Joy Flower. But that’s very much a function of this being a short and to-the-point novel).

-Nghia M Vo, Legends of Vietnam: An Analysis and Retelling of 88 Tales (book bought): I’m really conflicted about this book. On the one hand, it’s a reasonably good book of fairytales and Vietnamese folklore, with legends from the North, the South and some (all too few) from ethnic minorities. It provides context, both cultural and historical (and it’s got all the proper diacritics, which is awesome for following up on stuff), and there are lots of tales and tidbits that I’ve heard but not seen elsewhere, so I think it’s fair to call it the most complete compilation I’ve seen yet. On the other hand… the commentary sometimes grates. There’s the odd swipe at passive Vietnamese, incapable of banding together or of understanding progress, unlike Western nations (which is just wtf); and a lot of sallies against the Northerners  (and I know there was a war; I know unforgivable things were done and I’m not minimising the pain people went through; heck, I live in its shadow. But I really don’t think a book of fairy tales is the place for this kind of stuff). Of note, there’s a bunch of tales in the post-war years, but I can’t comment on these because I found them triggering, and had to skip this section.

-Kari Sperring, The Grass King’s Concubine (book bought)  This is a book with several narrative strands: one in the present, where Aude, born to wealth, runs away and seeks to understand where her family’s fortune came from; and one in the past, where a man called Marcellan enters the Rice Palace, domain of the Grass King, the mythical being who embodies the earth and the harvest. In the present, Aude gets kidnapped by the Grass King’s bannermen, and taken to a deserted, devastated Rice Palace, where she is told she must fix what her ancestors broke…

This is slow, intimate and quite wonderful. I love the contrast between the Brass and Silver Cities and their endless hunger for wealth (and one of Kari’s strengths, I think–in addition to lush prose–is that she nails social class, social oppression and the way the progress of the Industrial Revolution was built on the misery of the many), and the Rice Palace and its fairytale logic; and the driving mystery of what exactly happened in the past is very well done (and going to an unexpected conclusion). It seems at first that the two halves (the Industrial Revolution cities and the Rice Palace) belong to two wildly different books, but on finishing the book you realise that the unifying theme is the devastation of greed and hunger for power–and that, in that respect, the present is not so different from the past–it’s a very clever and subtle juxtaposition, and it works all the better for never being outright said.

I have a couple quibbles, the first is that you should avoid reading the cover copy before you start the book, because it has the worst spoilers I’ve seen in quite a while; the second is that the ending feels a teensy bit rushed–and by far the most major one is that this begs for a sequel, and there is none yet! (I have a plan which involves pestering Kari until she gives in ^^).

Next up: Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings!

House of Shattered Wings and one sequel sell to Gollancz


House of Shattered Wings and one sequel sell to Gollancz


Once upon a time, in a far, far away galaxy, I began working on this odd little project. It had started as a urban fantasy set in 21st century Paris, where families of magicians held the reins of power in every domain from banking to building. Then I couldn’t make it work, because the worldbuilding wasn’t clicking with me. I wrote perhaps three chapters of it before it became painfully clear that my heart wasn’t in it.

So I nuked Paris.

Well, sort of. I made up a Great Magicians’ War, comparable in scale to WWI: a war that devastated Paris, making Notre-Dame an empty shell, the Seine black with ashes and dust; and the gardens and beautiful parks into fields of rubble. I set the action back several decades, to have a technology level equivalent to the Belle Époque with magic; and I added Fallen angels, whose breath and bones and flesh are the living source of magic; and whose power forms the backbone for a network of quasi-feudal Houses who rule over the wreck of Paris. And, hum, because it’s me, I added an extant colonial empire, a press-ganged, angry Vietnamese boy who’s more than he seems; Lucifer Morningstar (because you can’t have a story about Fallen angels without Morningstar); and entirely too many dead bodies.

In short, I mashed so many things together that it started looking a bit like the Frankenstein monster right before the lightning hit; but my fabulous agency (John Berlyne and his partner John Wordsworth) didn’t blink (at least, not too much!), and duly sent out my little novel, called The House of Shattered Wings. And lo and behold, the awesome Gillian Redfearn of Gollancz picked it up, along with a sequel. To say that I’m thrilled is an understatement: Gollancz is a superb publisher, and their list includes many friends of mine—I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Official synopsis:

In HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS, Paris’s streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. De Bodard’s rich storytelling brings three different voices together: a naive but powerful Fallen angel, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a young man wielding spells from the Far East.

Here is more official info at the Bookseller, here at Zeno Towers; and here at Gollancz.

Release is slated for August 2015. You can pre-order here at amazon or Waterstones if you want a shiny hardcover (I’ll work out other vendors later, promise. I don’t need to tell you how crucial pre-orders are to a book’s success–so get in early, get in strong, and make this a big big success). If you don’t feel like pre-ordering right now, no worries. There’ll be plenty of opportunities :p

ETA: and here‘s a fresh new page devoted to the book, with more detailed copy.

More on the book when I have normal (ha! Who am I kidding) non-zero energy levels.

(picture credits: Kirkstall Abbey by Rick Harrison. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License).

“The Moon Over Red Trees” up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies


My colonial Indochina story “The Moon over Red Trees” is up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies: you can read it here. This is something of a departure for me: I haven’t done historical fantasy in a while, especially not in that time period. Would be very happy to hear what you think.

I’ve updated the story page of “The Moon Over Red Trees” with copious author notes: go here, though they’re spoiler-filled and better read after the story.

Links aka Aliette on the web


Briefly emerging from my winter sleep, aka “full-time care of the snakelet while holding a day job and writing a novel/novella ™”, to point out a couple of places I’ve been this week:
-Roundtable on fantastical creatures at The Book Smugglers, with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Shveta Thakrar, Octavia Cade, Marie Brennan, Whiti Hereaka, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, E.C. Myers, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Bogi Takács, Joyce Chng and me: part 1, part 2. I talk dragons (rồng) and turtles (rủa) in myths!
-My Beneath Ceaseless Skies Aztec steampunk story “Memories in Bronze, Feathers and Blood” is re-released as part of the Audio Vault, with a new introduction by me on the genesis and worldbuilding of the story: listen here.
-Still at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the new issue, available at Weightless Books and Amazon, contains my colonial Indochina fantasy “The Moon over Red Trees”, as well as fiction by Richard Parks, K.J Parker (OMG I’m sharing a TOC with K.J. Parker!), and Gwendolyn Clare

Sale: “Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile” to Subterranean Online


Hum, so, that story about the phoenix?

I’ve sold it to Subterranean Online for a future issue. Many thanks to Yanni Kuznia for the invitation, and to Gareth L Powell and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for the feedback (extra thanks to Rochita for putting up with my total absence of a brain). It’s set in the Xuya continuity, some time after On a Red Station, Drifting (and even has a returning minor character from that novel). Features mindships (of course), the Four Saintly Beasts, and the Vietnamese concept of “duyên” (wonderfully economical concept, a headache to translate into English though!). Also, I actually wrote this while feeding the snakelet nonstop, which is probably worth a zillion achievement points all by itself…

A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF


A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF

This is a collection of stuff I’ve already said elsewhere or on this blog, but for what it’s worth… The usual disclaimer applies: these are my personal opinions and my personal experience (I know not everyone has the same opinions and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for everyone!). I also don’t pretend to have easy solutions for everything I mention here (and God knows I made some of those mistakes myself, and will continue making them, but hopefully I’ll improve on that front as time goes by); but I think it’s better to know all this stuff and then decide how to handle it rather than go on being blissfully unaware of it.

Warning: this is me in ranty mode, not helped by the 3 hours of sleep I got over the past few days (yup, I know that I volunteered for that whole sleepless thing. But doesn’t change much to how I feel…)
Continue reading →

Today’s amusing cookbook


A guide purporting to be an encyclopaedia of Asian ingredients. Under fish sauce, it recommends the Tiparos and Squid brands as being the best ones. Maybe, if you’re doing Thai cooking? They’re both Thai fish sauces, and for Vietnamese dishes I have to admit I’ve never found them to be much use (the book doesn’t go into the fact that there are huge regional variations on fish sauces, which is odd because it specifies this for soy sauces…).
Bonus points: under “typical dishes”, it lists “larb (Vietnam, Thailand)”. I have no idea about Thailand, but larb sure as heck isn’t a typical Vietnamese dish (in fact, I had to look it up on the Internet, and Wikipedia tends to suggest it’s a Lao dish. Way to go on mixing up all the countries of the Indochinese peninsula, guys).