Love in the Time of Starships: Kinship, Families of Affinity, and Grand Passions

  • Aliette de Bodard. On a Red Station, Drifting
  • Alexis Hall. There Will Be Phlogiston
  • Julio Alexi Genao. When You Were Pixels

How I met these authors and their work

Aliette de Bodard’s work was listed on the RequiresHate blog in a list of recommended authors. On a Red Station, Drifting was the first of her works that I read. My beta-reader TruantPony was researching Chinese folklore and the history of the famous civil-service exams at the same time, for a fanwork in progress.

I first met Alexis Hall’s work via the witty cover designs for the Kate Kane paranormal mystery series, which use sly art-historical references to communicate “stylish lesbian noirish detective!” The designer, Kanaxa, is the same cover artist that my long-term writing buddy Devin Harnois uses.

Julio Alexi Genao I discovered via Hall’s website.

I don’t know any of these writers in person, but I’ve chatted with all of them on Twitter. As I said to another colleague yesterday, “If Mme de Stael were alive today, she’d be hashtagging away on Twitter.” It’s a big international dinner party with unlabeled landmines under the carpet. Luckily, thus far, your humble author is very obscure.

Genre, scale, and social space

On a Red Station, Drifting takes place in a future Vietnamese galactic empire under threat from civil war, with at least two insurgent factions led by disaffected lords. Social advancement in this world comes via civil service exams, and the scholar/administrator/poet is the most prestigious of cultural figures. Social space is organized as center/periphery, with the former being the more prestigious, whether the imperial capital on the First Planet or the center of a space station where its presiding Artificial Intelligence resides. The main action takes place on a space station run by a human-birthed AI, the Honored Ancestress. All the trappings indicate that we’re looking at space opera, but the domestic setting (at times claustrophobic) makes it a chamber piece, every exchange loaded with subtext. De Bodard credits for inspiration the Chinese classic novel A Dream of Red Mansions.

There Will Be Phlogiston is an unabashed queer steampunk romance novella, set in a world where prospectors roam the skies to mine phlogiston, and popular entertainments include carnivorous clockwork horses. The central figure of this story, Anstruther Jones,  arriviste Phlogiston Baron, wants to create a family for himself by marrying into respectable society in the city of Gaslight. Jones hails from Gaslight’s undercity,  in an AU industrial north of England (or so I read it), but made his fortune on the high frontier.  One of the delights of this story is that its comic moments are tightly bound to erotic and emotional vulnerability. Both narration and dialogue play swashbuckling games with nineteenth-century language, with fan tributes to Shaw, Wilde, Austen, and others.

When You Were Pixels is a short story (around 8500 words), a third the length of the other works. It’s cyberpunk-flavored dystopia set in an urban arcology, where hundreds of floors separate the protagonist’s social origin from his alienated and alienating job as a surveillance tech. In the world of this story, no one sees the sky. The association that came to mind immediately was The Matrix, with which it shares similar themes of memory and reality, but it’s structured as a letter, which harks back to the roots of the Eurasian novel form in letters and journals.

Kinship systems and narrative conflict

Linh, a magistrate reduced to refugee status by burgeoning civil war, arrives at Prosper Station. She invokes her kinship bond to the station’s lineage, in particular its acting head, Quyen. Up until her displacement by war, Linh was extremely successful in the terms of her culture: a successful candidate in the civil service exams, a highly skilled magistrate, and the center of a poetry circle. Quyen, on the other hand, is running the station only because her more highly-ranked spouse is at war. Her showing in the exams was not brilliant. The narrative alternates between the close POV of each of the two cousins.

Linh and Quyen are protagonists in turn. Both are trying to do their duty by their own lights, and at the same time, each woman’s particular professional and personal anxieties are triggered by the other. The tension comes from a lack of empathy or experience with the other’s situation. It is by no means a classical western ‘protagonist/antagonist’ opposition. in the background, there is a domestic crisis with an elder, who in this case is the human-birthed AI responsible for the life functions of the station, and a political crisis which is moving nearer.

Interestingly, both of the protagonists are good people who do things with bad repercussions; the resolution of the story lies in the realization and then the attempts to repair the damage done. Neither good nor evil here, only mortals messing up and then trying to fix it.

There Will Be Phlogiston follows a similar relationship arc, with misunderstanding rising to bad behavior and then resolved. The grand passions here are romantic/erotic, but in the end are also political and familial. One of the things I love about Hall’s work is that humor, romance, and erotic feeling all converge; scenes of physical passion are also scenes of great emotional vulnerability; the two POV characters, Rosamond and Arcadius, resolve their desire for freedom and love by forming a highly unconventional marriage with their common love, Anstruther. This plot development parallels real changes in European family constructions; I first learned about polyamory from the Russian revolutionary novelist N. G. Chernyshevsky, author of What is to Be Done? (“the romantic comedy of which the Russian Revolution is one of the fanfics”) Humor and erotica, with their emphasis on tension and release; romance, with its desire for happy ending; social comedy, with its emphasis on resolution and reconciliation: all have transformative potential, and Hall uses them to great advantage in this work.

When You Were Pixels is a monologue in second person, written as a letter. The editing is tight and tense. As film, I imagine it as sharp jump-cuts that occasionally break up in static. The protagonist is alone, having cut all ties with his under-the-city kin to hold the job he has (the under-city is considered a threat). The other character, an assassin from the under-city, undergoes involuntary memory wipes throughout the narrative. Their relationship is correspondingly fragmented, unpredictably alternating between tenderness and violence. The terror under the surface is a product of things implied without words; most of Genao’s social landscape is created by clever use of the editorial knife.

Inspiration for my own work

On a Red Station, Drifting inspired me to think about kinship as survival system. Some of the questions it suggested as I built the social systems in my own Ship’s Heart universe:

  • How are people related to each other? Who is considered kin?
  • What obligations are owed to kin within and across generations?
  • How does parentage work?
  • How are individual and collective accomplishments acknowledged?
  • Who is a person? How are artificial intelligences considered in kinship/citizenship systems?
  • What activities have the most prestige? How powerful are family expectations in children’s choices of life work(s) and/or partner(s)?

I was inspired as well by Octavia Butler’s version of survival and community in the post-apocalyptic Parables series. De Bodard looks at the same questions in a future, already space-faring culture. Kinship obligations contribute to survival and the kinship system includes the AI that runs the station.

As I thought about biological and social ecosystems in the context of an edge-of-survival community on a failed terraforming project, I realized that “all our relations” (plants, animals, humans and their respective life cycles) are critical. The indigenous perspective, ancient beyond reckoning, that we are all related would have even more force in an environment kept going against vacuum or hostile atmosphere. In the quasi-colonial relation of the Mother of Worlds to the dome SRN-E (Sarronny Dome) the kinship systems of the dome-dwellers are part of the technology that runs the starships, with the implied question of whether that’s collaboration, exploitation, or some perverse combination of the two.

Alexis Hall taught me that comedy and romance are divine twins, and his work encouraged me by example to continue my own characters’ impulse to wisecrack their way through difficult situations. Also, I have found a literary sibling here with a similar love of linguistic play (the companion novel Prosperity is written POV an Afro-English urchin who uses nineteenth-century thieves’ cant).

Julio Alexi Genao taught me the power of things not said, and the emotional power of tight editing.

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1 Response to Love in the Time of Starships: Kinship, Families of Affinity, and Grand Passions

  1. Pingback: The Muse of Research: Interview with Aliette de Bodard | E. P. Beaumont

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