Q&A: Aliette de Bodard

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Q&A: Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard

According to her bio, Aliette de Bodard is a half-French, half-Vietnamese computer and history geek currently living in Paris. She has a special interest in non-Western civilizations, particularly Ancient China and Ancient Mesoamerica. Her novels, Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm are the first two-thirds of a trilogy of Aztec fantasy noir: the as-yet-untitled sequel will be released in 2011. I first met her in 2009 during the Montreal Worldcon, and with occasion of her second book about to come out in mass market paperback, it seemed like a good time to ask her a few questions.

LMS: I haven’t yet read the first book in your OBSIDIAN AND BLOOD series, but I have an interest in Mesoamerica (though admittedly, I lean more toward the Maya than the Aztecs). What was it about the Aztecs that led you to immerse yourself in their history and culture and write these books?

AdB: Well, it’s a combination of factors. When I started writing, I knew a lot about several mythologies, ranging from Inca to Chinese–but somehow, Mesoamerica had been completely sidestepped in the process. I knew at the time that I wanted to use a non-Western culture, and to find stories and myths that wouldn’t have been retold dozens of time–and Mesoamerican mythology just happened to hit that sweet spot.

The second factor is my Spanish classes–when I studied Spanish as a teenager, we also studied the empires the conquistadors had destroyed, and in particular the Aztecs (on which I did a couple presentations). I was fascinated by the incredibly negative image we had of them; and it didn’t take rocket science to figure out that said negative image came only from one source–the conquistadors themselves, whom I soon realized were hardly saints. I was never much of a believer in intrinsically evil civilizations, and so I determined to learn as much as I could about the Aztecs. And indeed–while their entire society was blood-drenched and their attitude to life decidedly peculiar, they also had very advanced characteristics, among which a great equality between the sexes (basically, if I had to pick a culture to be a woman,it would be either Aztecs or Ancient Egypt. Rome, where women were chattel, is near the bottom of my list), and a justice system that held noblemen to a harsher standard than commoners, on the basis that noblemen were educated enough to behave well, and high enough in society to be held up as examples.

LMS: You probably get asked language questions all the time, but likely not by someone with a PhD in cognitive psychology / psycholinguistics or someone who teaches Klingon, so I hope you’ll indulge me. If memory serves, French is your native language. How is it you find yourself writing fiction in English? What’s the appeal? What are the drawbacks? And how does your background in Vietnamese (I’m assuming you have some knowledge of that language as well) color these issues for you?

AdB: No, that’s probably the first time I’ve been asked this by a psycholinguist! I started writing fiction in English because it was the language in which I started reading science fiction. I’d made some brief forays into speculative literature in French (especially Asimov and Patricia McKillip, who are pretty much polar opposites in terms of genre), but the bulk of my SF reading was done in English, while my family lived in London–so English was a fairly natural choice to start writing. The appeal is both the wider audience (English SF is still pretty dominant in the field), and the very different approach I can have to English as a foreign language: because I learnt the language fairly late, I don’t feel hemmed in by too many usage or grammar rules–I feel much freer, much more able to take the words and play with them. Drawbacks are mainly connotations and idioms: I don’t use English outside of writing, which means that realistic dialogue, in particular, is hard for me to put together–and extra harder to nuance.

I’m afraid I don’t have much of a background in Vietnamese: for years, the only words I could pronounce were “maternal grandmother” and “phở” (a quintessential Vietnamese beef & noodle soup), so I don’t think that part of things has influenced my writing.

LMS: Let’s talk about Machine Vision. I delved into this more than 20 years ago when I was in graduate school and read the writing of the late David Marr. About the only thing I remember from that work was the idea of detecting shapes using the Laplacian of the Gaussian. My big interest at the time was looking at questions such as whether the goal was to produce a machine that could see or whether to produce a machine that could see the way humans see (which, by extension might include our tendency to be fooled by various perceptual tricks, e.g., the Top Hat illusion). But that was back in the 80’s. Can you give a summary of what’s happening in the field now and what some of the hot issues are? And then, tell me how they serve as a metaphor for Aztec blood magic and politics?

AdB: Hum. Wow. I’m not entirely sure. The field has become pretty complex since Marr: you have algorithms which “learn” to recognise objects by looping through a database showing every single variation (in position, size, colour…), and later applying that knowledge to new images; advanced shape detection algorithms which can, for instance, segment medical images (taking a brain scan, for instance, and separating grey/white matter); and some pretty cool things like strong compression algorithms that reduce the memory space occupied by a large image without wasting information. I think (or I like to think) that we’ve gone past the stage of trying to duplicate human vision, and accepted that computer vision is going to have its own rules and own sets of weaknesses–just as any artificial intelligence is going to have its own rules and problems. The hot issues… I’d say you have two different schools: on the one hand, the algorithms are growing more complex and more cutting-edge every year, mainly in order to gain in performance; on the other, you have a strong drive from various industries to incorporate computer vision in their systems (for help in medical analysis; for surveillance; for onboard processing in cameras), and those systems tend to be made with low-cost components that don’t bear much computational load. It’s interesting to see the pull between those two views.

As to common points with Aztec blood magic and politics–I guess the field is pretty much the same as any human field, with rivalries, betrayals and hidden acts of violence (probably performed with publication in scientific journals rather than with obsidian knives, but still… guess some things don’t change :=) ).

LMS: You’re doing cutting edge science work as a computer engineer in machine vision, and yet you’re writing fantasy novels about a preindustrial culture. How do you account for this apparent disconnect? Does one give you insight or relief from the other, or are they utterly unrelated?

AdB: To be honest, I’ve always had both sets of interests: even as a child, I devoured mythology books and historical novels while working out maths problems; and I kept both “orientations,” so to speak, while growing up. Writing about a preindustrial society feels pretty much natural to me–and, as you point out, is a good break from the science work. Whenever I write hard sf, I feel as though I’m sitting down to work again. I get around it by writing alternate history or focusing on characters and culture more than on the actually nitty gritty science; or writing straight fantasy, which has me researching and writing vastly different stuff than at work.

LMS: Do you think Chicomexochtli, the Aztec god and patron of artists would be pleased with you? If so, why? If not, does it bother you at all?

AdB: Well, for starters, I think he’d probably be surprised that I’m not writing by drawing very pretty glyphs and colouring them, as the Aztecs did :=) As to whether he’d be happy: I hope that he’d enjoy his people and culture shown in a more favorable light than the clichéd bloodthirsty Barbarians often depicted in fiction, but I’m sure there are some things I got wrong in the books (if only through sheer lack of data). In the end, I hope he’d recognize I’m doing the best I can and be happy with that.

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And that’s Aliette de Bodard, now it’s time for the commercial: As I mention each week here at the Q&A, writers need readers. If you’re looking for a fantasy setting that isn’t the same old variation on medieval Europe, if you like blood magic and stone weapons of volcanic glass, or if the idea of reading a novel not in the author’s native tongue, consider clicking on one or more of the images below and order yourself a book. Thanks!

Servant of the Underworld Harbinger of the Storm


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