Magical Mysteries in the Time of the Aztec Empire: TFT Interview with Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard, a 2009 finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, wraps up her Obsidian and Blood trilogy this November with Master of the House of Darts. The series is a “cross between a historical Aztec fantasy and a murder-mystery, featuring ghostly jaguars, bloodthirsty gods and fingernail-eating monsters.”
In all three installments, de Bodard masters the atmospherics needed to pull readers into this dark and magical world. The protagonist, Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead in charge of the Sacred Precinct, a position that can be thought of as a mix between priest and coroner, is a sympathetic character with personality flaws that transcend time and culture. Time and again he finds himself unwillingly dragged into impossible investigations and forced to confront both internal struggles and external demons.
Vivid imagery, flowing prose, and natural dialogue are at the heart of de Bodard’s writing. One of the most original storytellers out there, Aliette merges her love of mythology and her desire to bring more non-Western influences to the science fiction and fantasy realm.
Aliette and I talked about the days of the Aztec Empire, the trouble with mainstream narratives, and how to pitch a book idea on the fly.
The Obsidian and Blood series takes place during the time of the Aztec Empire. This civilization was wiped out in the early 1500s by Spanish colonizers and what’s known about them is largely taken from archaeological digs. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that part of your motivation in writing this series was to repair the damage done to their legacy. I hope I’m being accurate, feel free to correct me. What was most important to you when you sat down to recreate this world?
What was most important to me was to present the world in a fair way: as you mention, a lot of the narratives we have around the Mexica/Aztecs are Spanish ones, and the surface ones are deeply biased. I’ve mentioned it in other interviews, but I was always struck by how often narratives reach for the Mexica when they need a bloodthirsty, evil culture. And it seems… wrong. I have issues with caricatures; and I don’t believe every single aspect of a culture can be irredeemably evil. Plus, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the conquistadors were hardly saints or trustworthy witnesses, and when I set out to tell stories set in the heyday of the Mexica Empire, what I wanted was to avoid falling into the same clichéd depiction of the culture. I’m no Nahuatl, but I did try my best to research the culture and bring to light its achievements.
What achievements did you unearth during your research?
Once you get past the stumbling block of human sacrifices, you realize that the Mexica civilization was a very advanced one in many respects–that they had fantastic astronomy and medicine, that their women had vast amounts of rights compared to most medieval civilizations, and that their justice system was harsh, but much fairer than its English or French equivalent, putting the onus of responsibility on noblemen (who could afford to respect the prohibitions) rather than on commoners (who couldn’t).
And what about the notion that we only have archaeological digs to go on?
Archaeological digs aren’t the only source. We have at least three major sources for the Mexica civilization: the remaining Nahuatl people in Mexico, though they did not fare well under Spanish rule; the accounts of the Spaniards such as the Codex Florentine, who attempt to account for the civilization they destroyed, but which are–naturally–hardly free of bias; and finally, the archaeological digs themselves, though those are made difficult because the Spanish were thorough in destroying anything Mexica they could find, and also because Tenochtitlan itself is under Mexico City, not the most propitious of places to dig.
Have you always been sensitive to marginalized cultures?
That’s a tricky one… I’m not exactly sure what we mean by marginalized culture–I’m choosing to interpret this as “not mainstream where you and I hail from”, but I’m aware there are degrees of marginalization, and that things can vary across the globe (you can argue, for instance, that Thai culture is marginalized in the US, but you can certainly not say the same about Thai culture within Thailand, or even within the Indochinese peninsula). If we go by this definition of marginalization, I’m not exactly in the dominant cultural ballpark. I live in France, but I don’t fully hail from a Western country, and there are bits and pieces of my cultural bedrock that are, not standard, for want of a better word?
Do you have any examples from your personal life?
I remember growing up on a mixture of French and Vietnamese fairy tales, and not realizing until fairly late that the things which seemed normal to me were, in fact, far from the norm in society (ranging from something as simple as rice cooking to deeper ideological divergences, such as the Confucianism I picked up from my mother and grandmother). I think my interest in non-mainstream culture comes from this; and from the fact that I’ve always been a cynic and a contrarian, pretty much disinclined to believe in the standardized versions of history, science, social interactions.
What bothers you the most about them — those standard versions that many of us learn in school and find reinforced in mainstream culture?
The narratives are my biggest pet peeve. I’ve always been mildly annoyed by the exclusive nature of the mainstream narratives–which are all or almost all Western-centered and Christian-centered. I’m not only talking about novels and short stories; but also about the more insidious stuff: the stories we use to shape our everyday lives; the way the newspapers structure and present facts, even the way science is framed (I’ll come back to that later); the sentiments around which our worldviews end up centering (because, no matter what you do, it’s hard to avoid internalizing stuff if you’re breathing it in every day). I try to present other options in my writing, though I’m unsure how successful I am at all!
You have this amazing ability to bring characters and their surroundings to life. When I read your books, I can feel the darkness of the world — it’s kind of like being wrapped in a heavy velvet blanket — but it’s never oppressive or claustrophobic. You’ve now written three books inside this atmosphere — and feel free to correct me here as well — what drew you to it and how does it compare to your personality?
I think the main reason it’s not oppressive or claustrophobic is that neither I nor my characters view it as claustrophobic–it’s a violent world, one that I’m not sure I would want to live in; but at the same time it’s also a world that was home to millions of people, and they didn’t think of it as unbearably gloomy. For them, it was all perfectly natural, and I think that if I can manage to make this come across in my writing, then the readers will put themselves in the main characters’ shoes, and see it as perfectly natural.
Though I will note that I’m not the world’s foremost optimist, which might have helped when putting myself inside Acatl’s mind (who isn’t particularly noted for his positive outlook on things either).
The story behind how you came to be a published author is well documented. It’s a great story: your flight back from the World Fantasy Convention in Canada was delayed and you were stuck in the same hotel as literary agent John Berlyne and Marc Gascoigne who, at the time, was about to start up Angry Robot, a science fiction and fantasy imprint, then under HarperCollins.
While this was part luck, the fact is you were at the fantasy convention in the first place and outgoing enough to have a conversation with strangers — not to mention able to pitch your ideas without warning.
Were you at all prepared to pitch an agent and publisher?
It does make for a great story… I think of myself as fairly shy, so it was a surprise to find out, when I started going to cons, that I could actually be sociable enough to engage strangers in conversation without warning. Having shared interests in the field of SF actually helped a lot when it comes to engaging conversations–I could hold my own in a discussion, and didn’t feel utterly lost. The other thing that helped me was, perversely, my being shy: I was far more interested in making people talk about themselves than talking about myself, which doesn’t make for great self-promotion, but does make for great conversations. Most people will willingly talk about themselves and their projects, and I learnt tons of great things that way. Now I’m more experienced at this, and I can usually have a two-way conversation, but back in 2008, I couldn’t manage it all at the same time.
Coming back to World Fantasy, I was prepared to pitch to an agent or a publisher; though, if I remember correctly, I didn’t manage much pitching during the convention itself. As I said, I’m shy; so when I met both Marc and John I mostly engaged them in conversations about who they were and what they were doing; even after I found out who they were I was reluctant to pitch, as I was afraid this would be perceived as too forward. As I recall, the original pitch offer came from Marc, who basically said “well, we’re here, we’re bored, why don’t you pitch to us” (and sent my heart racing at 100 mph). That was when I fell back on the only thing I had, which was the original pitch. So, yes, definitely a lot of luck, but without that preparation I would have been lost.
What lessons are there in this story for aspiring writers?
To an aspiring writer, I’d say that the most important thing is the writing. Once you get past that, the last 10% is the presentation: you need to be able to talk about what you’re writing with enough clarity and passion; and it’s not only for agents and publishers, it’s also for everyone who will ask you the dreaded, “Ah, you’re a writer. So, what do you write?” question at parties, at work, in your family… I don’t think it’s indispensable, but it’s certainly helped me a lot to be able to condense books into fast pitches; to write clear and legible synopses; and to prepare query letters. But it’s the sort of thing that only comes with a lot of practice: I was writing for ten years before I finally became able to write a decent query.
And now back to your books: how has writing about an ancient world steeped in magic changed the way you view modernity around you?
Ha. I think again, that it’s the reverse. As I’ve said above, I’ve always had a healthy scepticism about modernity. I’m not saying the past was a golden age (it certainly was not, and when I see, for instance, the status of women even forty years ago, I’m very glad I’m not living in those times); but I don’t think today’s world is better, either. The rise of individualism, the way our society over-values youth at the expense of old age, our blind worship of science… I don’t think any of those are healthy developments, and I definitely hope that we come to realize that those, too, could bear questioning.
Out of all the modern developments, which one do you find the most disconcerting?
Probably the one that has me most worried is the worship of science. I suppose it’s because I’m a scientist and I can see the seams (and, as someone interested in history, I can also see the way our science framework evolved from Western ideology, which says to me that either there is a startling coincidence and the way we view reality coincides with our way of thinking; or this is an indication that the framework itself is flawed, in that it might give good results, but starts from false or simplified premises–it wouldn’t be the first time this had happened).
I’m also more than a little disturbed by the way some people decry blind faith in God, and proceed to believe in scientific results with the same blind faith. To be sure, there are conceptual differences between religion and science (though I think their “incompatibility” is largely end-of-19th century anti-clerical propaganda that we’ve never quite shaken off), but you can’t just blindly believe in something no matter how sound it might seem when seen from afar. Every system of thought has its limits, and for me one of the great things about science is when we’re conscious of said limits, and ever open to changing our minds and making things evolve.
What’s next for you?
Well, Master of the House of Darts will be released at the beginning of November, and should wrap up the Obsidian and Blood trilogy: all the books are standalones, but as this was the last one I wrapped up as many of the dangling plot arcs as I could–and gave the trilogy an ending I hope will satisfy readers. Also, I put my main character Acatl through the wringer; but that’s only to be expected in book 3 of a trilogy!
Next, my agent is shopping around Foreign Ghosts, a novel set in an alternate history universe where China discovered America before Europe, and radically changed the history of the world (the setting for my Nebula and Hugo nominated “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”. And I’m putting what I hope will be the finishing touches on a novella set on a Vietnamese space station, which should read a bit like Dreams of Red Mansions in space (complete with AIs, genetic modifications, and robots).
Master of the House of Darts is now available from Angry Robot books. You can find it on Indiebound.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes