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Today’s guest is science fiction and fantasy author Aliette de Bodard! Her work includes the novels in the Obsidian and Blood series (beginning with Servant of the Underworld); the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus-nominated novella On a Red Station, Drifting; the Nebula Award-winning novelette “The Waiting Stars”; and the Nebula Award-winning short story “Immersion.” In addition to the two Nebula Awards, she has received a Locus Award, a British Science Fiction Award, and several award nominations, plus her stories have been selected for Year’s Best anthologies. I very much enjoyed both On a Red Station, Drifting and “Immersion,” and I’m very excited about her upcoming novel being released in August, The House of Shattered Wings.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard

When I was a teenager, I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series (with difficulty, because they’re rich books intent on texture, with vocabulary and sentence structure that’s not always obvious to a non-native speaker). A lot of things struck me about them; but the one that I want to talk about is the first one, The Game of Kings.

The Game of Kings is set in a male-dominated society: though Scotland is ruled by a child queen, men are the ones holding the titles, going to war, and occupying much of the stage, as the main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, attempts to clear his name and reconcile with his family.

It would be very easy to assume from this that the narrative is going to be all about the men.

In fact, what I remember most about The Game of Kings is its female characters–from no-nonsense, deceptively mild Sybilla, Lymond’s mother; to Mariotta, trapped in a marriage where her husband ignores her; to young Philippa, growing up on a minor holding and having to deal with the invasion of men-at-arms in her well-ordered world.

It’s hard to express, but I think that this was the first time I realised that books and popular media had it wrong.

I was taught, over and over, that stories are about people in positions of power, people who fight; people who go to war. I was taught that women are oppressed in the quasi medieval societies of fantasy, and therefore that the only women worth talking about are those who rebel against this oppression–the ones who have, or who seek to have the same rights and privileges as men, the ones who sneak out of their houses disguised as boys in order to seek their fortune. I was taught that the silent women seemingly only interested in their own households are always inactive, always silent, forever doomed to be background noise. It’s not a conscious thing–rather, it happened by the accretion of dozens, of hundreds of similar narratives until I had internalised them so thoroughly that anything else seems odd and implausible [1].

This idea about powerless and uninteresting women is, of course, wrong on several levels. The first and most obvious is that there were women in positions of power in medieval societies; and that there were women who were having adventures (women merchants, for instance). That they were broadly considered inferior to men does not mean they were all oppressed chattel.

The second, and I think most pernicious cliché is to assume that the oppressed have no narrative but that of rebellion–that lack of power or lack of agency means lack of story. One of the things the Lymond series does tremendously well is showing us the network of women’s friendships, and how these women share information. Women run households, fret over who they will marry and how they will find their places in the network of alliances; and try to navigate their place in a complex tracery of power where they might not have the upper hand, but where they are far from powerless or without opinions.

I wish I could say this was immediately reflected in my fiction; but in fact it took me a tremendous amount of time to go against the received narrative that these types of stories weren’t worth telling–many years and many additional books, until I finally started to write stories where domesticity wasn’t devalued, and where childbirth could be as dramatic as any pulse-pounding battle against an invading army. And, in many ways, I’m still learning–still trying to make space, not only for women, but for marginalised voices in my stories (again, it’s not because one is not in a position of power or actively seeking one that one has no life and no stories worth telling. The slaves, the dispossessed, the oppressed also have their own lives and their own aspirations). But it was The Game of Kings that showed me the way, and I darn well intend to stick to it.


[1] Which is why I try to be conscious, as a writer, of the kind of narratives that I’m putting forward. I don’t believe that my stories can change the world, but I can certainly contribute, even completely unconsciously, to harmful and silencing narratives. But this is not the subject of this essay!

Aliette de BodardAliette de Bodard lives in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. In between programming and mothering, she writes speculative fiction–her stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Award. Her newest novel, House of Shattered Wings, is set in a devastated Paris where rival Houses fight for influence–and features fallen angels, Vietnamese dragons and entirely too many dead bodies. It is forthcoming in August from Gollancz in the UK/Commonwealth and Roc in the US. Visit http://www.aliettedebodard.com.