Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. She studied Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, but moonlights as a writer of speculative fiction. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories, which garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Recent works include The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz), a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2015), a novella set in the same universe as her Vietnamese space opera On a Red Station Drifting. She lives in Paris with her family, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a set of Lovecraftian tentacled plants intent on taking over the place.
DC: Aliette, thanks so much for letting me interview you for Under the Covers. There’s a lot of wonderful, atmospheric darkness in your long fiction, both in the Obsidian and Blood series as well as in your recent novel, The House of Shattered Wings. What’s the attraction of the dark for you?
AdB: I often say I’m not a horror fan–ironically, it’s not so much because the subject matter bores me, but because I’m very sensitive to it: on horror movie night you’ll find me hiding under the sofa. I think dark is an important thing in life, and I’m particularly struck by how the most innocuous situations can be a source of enormous creepiness. The House of Shattered Wings, in many ways, plays upon a familiar setting–Paris, where I’ve lived all my life–and turns it into a darker, more dangerous place.
DC: I find a very strong element of family and familial or clan relationships in your work. Why is this important to you?
AdB: I guess because family is important to me! There’s a tendency in Science Fiction, which I think comes from the “boys’ adventures” roots of the genre, to see family as a stricture that must be overcome in order to be truly free, or to go off on adventures. Often that becomes rather problematic: I was on a panel a few years ago on motherhood in SF, and most of the ones we could think of died very early within stories, or had already died before the stories started, with the exception of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cornelia in the Vorkosigan saga, who is just made of awesome.
Whereas for me, family is also a comfort: yes, it comes with strictures, with ties that are harder to cut, but it’s also a comfort, a support network, a link to the past, and many other things besides. And it’s not only the nuclear family, but also the extended ones including aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents…
DC: You work full-time as a systems engineer, you’re a fairly prolific writer, and you also have husband and a toddler. How do you manage it all? What suffers?
AdB: Currently? My sleep! It’s been rather hard to keep all the balls up in the air: I’d heard that the toddler stage was more difficult, but I hadn’t realised until it happened that toddlers were really a full-time job all on their own. It was fine until he became mobile, at which point all hell broke loose. (grins) I try to do everything, but I also admit that there are going to be moments when I can’t, and when I need to drop some stuff and apologise for dropping so. With luck, it won’t be the really important, unmissable deadlines…
DC: What do you do for pleasure and relaxation?
AdB: I’m tempted to say “sleep” again! (laughs) I read a lot, though a lot of this happens on my commute. I also like to cook: I have a “recipes” section on my website, and I enjoy taking things apart to see how they work. My last project was pizza dough, which was rather more involved than I foresaw: it turns out that I wasn’t kneading dough properly, and also that French flour is rather unsuitable for breadmaking purposes, but it took me a long time to work this out!
We also have a long-running tabletop roleplaying game with a bunch of friends, which is set in an SF universe; and we do regular board game sessions too.
DC: Which games do you enjoy?
AdB: I used to play video games fairly heavily, but sadly that didn’t survive the birth of my child. I tried several times to play games on my mobile, but they never seem to last for long. Now I do board games: current favorites are Shadow Hunters, which is a neat secret role/battle game that’s played in teams, and Mansions of Madness, a rather heavy Lovecraft board game that feels, at times, like a compressed roleplaying game where one player is trying to kill/drive mad/etc. all the other ones. I generally like big, fun games with a random element to spice things up, and also cooperative ones–teaming up with friends is a lot of fun.
DC: Your most recent novel, The House of Shattered Wings, was uniformly praised by critics but has brought mixed reviews from fans of your short fiction. The atmosphere is palpable, the focus tight, the characters and their relationships intense. My own guess—and I raved about this book—is that SF readers don’t easily adapt to or can’t appreciate what is essentially a Gothic novel in tone, albeit classifiable today as Dark or Urban Fantasy. Did you know you were taking a chance when you wrote this?
AdB: I’m very much aware that my novels are different from my short fiction, both in tone and in genre focus. I’m also very much aware that The House of Shattered Wings is overflowing with Gothic. Two big influences were 19th-Century French novels, and European-set manga and anime like Full Metal Alchemist, or Black Butler: I was fascinated, among other things, by the idea of taking what are, to me, quintessentially 19th-Century tropes and giving them a 21st-Century twist, overlaying themes of colonialism and post-apocalypse on my Parisian setting. There are common points with, say, the Xuya SF stories, but the shift is large enough that I expected people to blink; on the plus side, I also expected to gain new readers, and that seems to have worked.
I also knew it wasn’t the most commercial novel ever when I wrote it. However, my previous attempt to write commercial, an urban fantasy set in 21st-Century Paris, was such a dismal failure (lack of motivation on my part) I figured I’d at least go back to something fun to dig into, as far as I was concerned, and then see reader reactions, rather than try to engineer “commercial”.
DC: Do you think that publishers have trained SFF readers to expect fast-moving, formulaic novels, rather as Hollywood has done with SF and Fantasy movies?
AdB: For me, the notion of what is a novel, what constitutes a satisfying plot, etc., is something that is very context-specific. Methods of storytelling, for instance, are highly dependent on time period: the idea of a tight third person point of view, one such POV per scene, which has become a sort of golden standard for SFF novels, didn’t make much sense in, say, the 19th Century—where point of view was fluid and omniscient. They’re also highly dependent on place: a novel like Cao Xuequin and Gao E’s Dream of Red Mansions (China) is pretty different, in shape and in plot, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which roughly dates from the same time period.
As to whether that context, in turn, depends on what’s published…I think partly? Some of this is due to social/economical/political considerations: the nostalgic tone of Dream of Red Mansions, for instance, comes from the decline of the Qing dynasty at the time the novel was written; the long, rambling chapters in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables are here partly because the novel was published as a serial and he had to make wordcount for every episode. And some of it, in turn, is due to what people expect a novel to be—and this comes from published books. But to what extent I don’t know!
DC: What or whom do you enjoy reading?
AdB: Lots of people! In genre, recent stuff I’ve enjoyed has come from Yoon Ha Lee, Tricia Sullivan, Tade Thompson, Ken Liu, Zen Cho, Kari Sperring, Kate Elliott…. I also read a lot of crime novels: I’m still working my way through the Louise Penny Armand Gamache series, which are great psychological mysteries set in Québec. And I have a weakness for historical fiction—I haven’t read a lot of straight historicals lately because I’ve been satisfied with historical fantasy, but I still reread Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles every few years.
DC: I’m intrigued that your short fiction is almost exclusively Science Fiction whereas your novels fall squarely into the Fantasy genre. Can you say why?
AdB: Mostly because the science fiction novel I want to write would require a lot of research and I have no time! I want to write a Xuya mosaic novel; this would require me to brush up on Vietnamese in order to read some books and websites, and I’ve been putting it off for obvious reasons! Also, I find writing fantasy at short lengths really hard: I tend to want to cram a lot of worldbuilding into my stories, and for some reason, this seems to be easier with SF than fantasy.
DC: Many of your short stories, such as Weight of a Blessing, and even your recent novel, revolve around war. Why?
AdB: I’m a child of war. For starters, I wouldn’t be here today if not for war and its aftermath. But, as a result of this, I grew up always very much aware of the costs and consequences—of how bloody and painful and destructive the aftermath always is, often for years and decades after the war ceases; of how conflict impacts people who aren’t necessarily soldiers but are caught in the whirlwind regardless. And I guess a lot of it makes its way into my fiction.
DC: You live in Paris, which has seen two horrific terrorist incidents in the last year. Are you optimistic about the medium-term future and our ability to address the root causes of humanity’s current predicament, or are we looking at decades of turmoil?
AdB: I am not feeling very optimistic currently, I must say…. More and more, I’m wondering if, in Europe at least, we haven’t reached the failure mode of democracy: hard, long-term unpopular decisions need to be made to reform societies, but the politicians who make them are only elected for short periods of time and are therefore unlikely to do things that, short-term, are perceived as having negative impact.
We live, too, in an age of unprecedented information available, which is both a great success and a great failing: knowledge is no longer the province of the elite and can no longer be denied to people. But it is also tempting for everyone to think of themselves as experts, with costly results. See, for instance, the rise of the anti-vaccination movements, fueled partly by people ignoring medical consensus, and partly by the lack of memory–we have had herd immunity for so long that people, by and large, don’t remember what it was to die of polio or whooping cough.
DC: There’s been a lot progress in the field of Deep Learning systems. What’s your stance on AI? Are we going to see anything like self-aware systems anytime soon?
AdB: Algorithms and robotics have both made huge amounts of progress in past years, definitely–watching the explosion of the field has been very satisfying for me personally. Yeah, I’m a geek and I program stuff for a living! (laughs)
I don’t know if we’re going to see self-aware systems soon, though. Part of the issue, for me, is that the definition of “self-aware” is highly specific to us humans. I worked in Computer Vision for a while; and the fascinating thing, for me, was realising that there were a number of tasks that humans found trivial–like pattern recognition–that were extremely hard for computers. Conversely, a number of things we find really hard are easy for computers–like detecting a red balloon in a large, overcrowded swimming pool. This is because of the way they encode and process things, which is very different from our eyes’ and brain’s way of doing things! So for me, an AI would also be very different from us.
It would develop independence and a sort of conscience, but might well be going on a totally different path to us, probably with a notion of “self-awareness” that we wouldn’t even be able to apprehend. It’d genuinely be like talking to something alien, with a totally different base through which to filter reality, and totally different ideas and biases…but kind of totally cool, too.
DC: Do you think a Vingean Singularity, true AI, would be a good or bad thing for humanity?
AdB: Probably an interesting thing, but we would probably end up with something that had little interest in us–which could actually be a good or a bad thing depending on what it gets up to!
DC: You love to cook and also blog about cooking. What do you enjoy about it?
AdB: First off, I love good food, so obviously that’s a huge factor. The other thing is that I enjoy finding out how things work and doing things myself, two very important things when tackling recipes: I’m the kind of cook who always goes “what if” and tends to run live experiments, modifying recipes on the spot, sometimes much to my husband’s sorrow when I have a bit of a heavy hand with the chilies! I find there’s something really satisfying about preparing food: the gratification is instant, at least compared to novels when I have to wait for feedback for weeks and months, whereas with cooking I know within a couple of hours; and it’s also a nice break from my more intellectual activities.
DC: What’s your next writing project?
AdB: I’m currently writing The House of Binding Thorns, a sequel to The House of Shattered Wings which is still set in post-magical war Paris, but focuses on a different part–the House of Hawthorn, for those who’ve read the book. It should be, like its predecessor, standalone, though of course characters from The House of Shattered Wings will be making a comeback. It’s basically more Gothicness, more political and magical intrigues, and a lot more Vietnamese dragons, and it’s slated for a Summer 2017 release.
I’m aware that’s a long way off. For the impatient reader, there are also a number of short stories set in the universe of The House of Shattered Wings: see http://aliettedebodard.com/bibliography/novels/dominion-of-the-fallen/ for more details)
DC: Aliette, thanks so much for taking this time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?
AdB: Buy my books? (laughs) More seriously, my website http://www.aliettedebodard.com has short fiction, articles, and recipes in addition to semi-hemi-regular bloggage, so if any of these happen to be your thing…
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Read my own review of The House of Shattered Wings (vol. I of Dominion of the Fallen)
Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with, award-winning , bestselling romantic suspense and thriller author LORETH ANNE WHITE, live right here on Saturday April 2!
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