Scattered Along the River of Heaven

Scattered Along the River of Heaven
Aliette de Bodard

Today’s post is a little off the Two Dudes beaten path. I’m not normally a big consumer of short stories because I prefer the storytelling possibilities of novels. It’s rather like how some people argue that three and a half minutes is the perfect length of time for a song, while I prefer the challenges inherent in music that stretches out to seven or eight minutes. There’s simply more to it. But just like a Bach fugue is generally perfect at its length, there are plenty of short stories that pack a level of power equal to their longer cousins. (Conversely, there are plenty of books and tunes that are far, far too long.) Some short stories are even meaty enough to justify an entire review. This is one of them. (Do yourself a favor and read it before finishing this review. You’ll be glad you did. </second person>)

I found out about Scattered Along the River of Heaven from the author’s blog. She posted that Clarkesworld had picked up the story, confessed that it was one of her most ambitious efforts to date, and asked for opinions. Being the hard-nosed critic that I am, [Ed note: Change to “obsequious suck-up.”] I immediately used some of my employer’s valuable time to read it and post some thoughts. The story and its reactions are a fascinating summation of broader conversations going on in a particular corner of SFF, one that Two Dudes is a very small part of. Ms. de Bodard is part of a new cadre of writers. Science Fiction has traditionally been the preserve of white men with science backgrounds, writing in English for a Euro-American audience. Fantasy has been a bit more open to women, but is still aptly described by a famous Mystery Science Theater 3000 ditty from Mr. B. Natural: “Gosh, we’re white, we’re really, really white, we’re really, really, really, really whiiiiiiiiite.” A rising generation though, is seeing more writers of both genders (dodging the rest of this debate!), different racial makeup, and different backgrounds gain notoriety. Aliette de Bodard could be a poster child for this movement, a true global citizen of science fiction, and one challenging the (unrealized?) Western biases sprinkled throughout SF.

How does this rant fit in with Scattered? I’m glad I asked. Scattered is a far future story with, I think, no white people. It’s Asia in space. (China and Chinese influenced SE Asia, to be precise. Not a whiff of Japan in there; things would be very different if there was.) The author responded to my comment that she intended the San-Tay, the colonialists, as “sort of Franco-English,” but to me they came out looking like Communist China in their dealings with subjugated territories like Tibet and Xinjian. The Mheng felt a bit like the Vietnamese, or any other of the Asian groups that were long dominated by the Middle Kingdon. The Mheng revolution, however, read very much like Mao’s Communist uprising in China. I may be assigning these purely based on my own biases towards Asia, since Scattered has much to say about colonialism and revolution in general. More on this later, though.

How, someone might ask, can I be so certain that these are all Asians? To me, the words basically rearrange themselves into a large, flashing, neon sign that says “ASIA AHOY!” I wonder how others read it though, people who aren’t used to mannerisms and customs from the Mysterious Orient. I think the brightest flash was when the bots, buglike robots that perform menial tasks for the San-Tay, prepare a snack for a visitor. “Mmm, gyoza,” thought I (or dumplings, or pot stickers, depending on language). Those words are never used, but to someone who makes, or at least eats, gyoza every few weeks, no words were needed. These were accompanied by tea, of course, another touch that an American writer would never include. (Quick: how often to people on fictional spaceships drink coffee? Eat a burger? Eat anything that we assume is a common Western dish?) It’s not only food and drink, though. Character mannerisms, relationships, and interactions are all distinctly Asian. Each person’s sense of place relative to others in the room, a lingering but ever present touch of Confucianism, colors every scene in ways we oblivious Westerners plow through like William “The Refrigerator” Perry at the goal line. The atmosphere in this story is completely unlike anything John Campbell ever published.

The whole Asia in Space thing, said in a dramatic Muppet voice of course, is not actually the point of the story. The story proper is about a revolution and its aftermath, with more attention paid to what happens after the revolutionaries win and the news cameras leave. I think it’s easy for us Americans, with our Bill of Rights, our checks and balances, and our Constitution that we all but offer human sacrifice to, to forget how messy revolutions are and that democracy is not necessarily a natural progression. Scattered doesn’t address the form of government that the Mheng settle on, but shows both the brutal side of revolution, no matter how justified, and the ruthless politicking that occurs once the new regime consolidates its power. In many ways, as we’re learning now with Libya, the fight between revolutionary factions is every bit as desperate as the fight against the oppressors.

Scattereds dual narrative follows one woman as she goes from prisoner to revolutionary, then hero to exile; it also tracks the woman’s granddaughter as she comes to terms with her family heritage and its uncertain place in the Mheng societal narrative. Anyone who has studied Mao, Castro, Lenin, or almost any charismatic freedom fighter, will recognize the perilous transition from insurgent to politician, and the tragedies inherent therein. We can’t all be Vaclav Havel. The fact that these lessons are reflected in a short story about space stations and funerals is even more remarkable. I don’t know if the author was watching the Arab Spring while writing Scattered, but the politicians monitoring its halting progress should probably take twenty minutes sometime to drop by Clarkesworld. Certainly much of US punditry could do with a refresher course on what usually goes on when governments are overthrown. (Hint: it probably doesn’t involve flowers floating gently through the air to land at American military feet.)

Amazingly enough, there’s even more to the story. There is generational discord, minority relations, moms and daughters making sense of each other, and Chinese poetry. I’m not really into family stuff and my appreciation for poetry is limited, but the author’s breadth is impressive. (Note: I don’t hate poetry, or think it’s for pansies, or anything like that. I just don’t have a taste for it, like I don’t for opera, or French cuisine.) It should say something that I’ve spent as much time on a short story as I have on entire trilogies. If any dear readers haven’t read Scattered Along the River of Heaven, despite my earlier urgings, here‘s the link again. Go read it now.

Rating: Futsal championships. Not as big as the real thing, but just as cool when done right.