Scattered Among Strange Worlds by Aliette de Bodard
Scattered Among Strange Worlds (2012) contains two short stories and a sample chapter of Aliette de Bodard‘s debut novel Servant of the Underworld. The first story is “Scattered Along the Rivers of Heaven,” first published in the January 2012 issue of Clarkesworld, where it can still be read and listened to for free. It is a far-future science fiction story that incorporates some lines of classic Chinese poetry. The future she describes is clearly Asian-influenced, and the story deals with the fallout of a revolution that alienates a mother and daughter. Many years later, the granddaughter returns to the scene of the revolution to visit the funeral of her grandmother — a funeral her mother won’t attend.
“Scattered Along the Rivers of Heaven” is an ambitious story. There is so much packed into it that I scarcely know where to begin. Structurally, it is an interesting piece. There are two strands in the narrative. One is set in the past: the time of the revolution and its aftermath. The narrator of that section considers itself to be plural. The second strand, set in the present and told in the present tense, is seen from the point of view of the granddaughter, Xu Wen. The two are hardly aware of each other, but they contrast wonderfully, especially once the reader realizes the nature of the plural narrator and Xu Wen’s opinion of them.
As I said, there is a lot packed into this story, but I will limit myself to two elements. One is the way language is used. It is language that sets groups apart, language that is used to fuel the revolution and eventually to mark the victors. De Bodard looks at these events with a sense of loss, which, given the history of the French language and the aggressive movement to force out regional language in the 19th and early 20th century in France, isn’t surprising. Language is an important part of a culture, and forcing a language to disappear a favourite tactic of oppressors. Language is very politically charged in the story. It isn’t the main focus, but it contributes to the mood of the piece.
The second element that hit me pretty hard personally is the climactic scene at the funeral. Xu Wen has made a difficult choice in showing up for the funeral. This was personally meaningful to me because of my experiences during the end of my father’s life. My response to this element in the story was influenced by things going on in my life, and was not necessarily a reaction de Bodard intended, but it does show that this is a story with emotional resonance. It is a piece that will draw as many unique reactions as it has readers. It’s a brilliant story.
The second story, “Exodus Tides,” is more of a fantasy story. It was first published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show April 2011 and can be read online there. I recommend that you do so even if you also purchase Scattered Among Strange Worlds, if only to have a look at the wonderful artwork by Anna Repp that accompanies the story. Exodus Tides tells the story of Emilie, a young girl of mixed mermaid/human origin, who is trying to come to terms with the half of her heritage her parents won’t tell her about. It is told from a first-person perspective, making it very intimate but in some respects also limited.
De Bodard doesn’t give too many details about what drives the mermaids from the sea, but it is depicted as a deadly place. However much her parents want her to be human, Emilie’s heritage sets her apart at school. There is a clear connection to the situation immigrants find themselves in, and that of the second generation in particular. Emilie has no connection to her mother’s life at sea apart from the few stories she has heard and on top of that, her world is not just distant, it has been destroyed. This search for cultural identity shows up frequently in De Bodard’s work. It strikes me as a difficult balancing act, living among the stories of a country that has moved on by the time you hear them, and the reality of a country that doesn’t always appreciate its new citizens (an increasingly frequent problem, unfortunately). Emilie is looking for her own answers, despite her mother’s wishes. It is a painful process. De Bodard leaves the ending unclear. I guess readers get to decide what her ultimate decision is. I have given it some thought, but I’m not sure I have an answer.
Scattered Among Strange Worlds is a great introduction to de Bodard’s writing. These are multilayered stories with a lot of attention paid to tense and point-of-view. There are also a lot of cultural nuances in these works, exposing the readers to Chinese and Vietnamese culture in a way I haven’t come across anywhere else in the genre. I have long since come to the conclusion that I will read anything by de Bodard I can get my hands on, and I very much encourage you to seek out her work. Whether it be her short fiction or one of her novels, it will be worth your time.