Wednesday, February 13, 2008


History Repurposed

I've just received my contributor copies of the 254 issue of Vector Magazine, the "critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association." The issue is devoted to alternate histories, and I was asked to do a piece on the origins of the Celestial Empire. For the benefit of those who aren't members of BSFA and might be interested in seeing what I came up with, here's the essay as it appears in the issue:

History Repurposed – The Celestial Empire stories
by Chris Roberson

The Celestial Empire began, as all good things must, in a hotel bar.

At the 2001 World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, anthologist and editor Lou Anders invited me to submit a story to his Live Without a Net. On the flight home, I outlined a story entitled “O One,” which featured a conflation of an incident from Richard Feynman’s autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! with the story of John Henry and the steam engine, set in an alternate history heavily inspired by Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. In the story the emperor of a China which rules the entire world and who now wishes to conquer the heavens is visited by an inventor from Britain who has come to demonstrate his steam-powered difference engine. The story ultimately appeared in the anthology, and went on to be nominated for a World Fantasy Award and to win a Sidewise Award.

The following year, in another hotel bar at another convention, Lou asked me if I’d consider writing another story in the same world, and asked if I knew what happened next. I had no idea whatsoever, but of course wasn’t about to admit to that, so I simply told him that the Chinese went to Mars and found the Aztecs there waiting for them.

Committed to writing the new story, though, I had my work cut out for me. In the story of the British inventor and the emperor, China had really been little more than a cultural idiom, a backdrop against which the story could play out. I hadn’t devoted any time to considering how China might rise to world dominance, what sort of divergence might allow for such a thing to happen, nor what the rest of the world beyond the walls of the Forbidden City might be like. Faced with the prospect of writing more stories in that world, though, I had to start making definite what had simply been suggested before.

I have a background in the study of history. Though my major at the University of Texas was in English literature, my minor was in history, and for a time after graduating I taught history to the middle school-aged children of migrant laborers in the Rio Grande Valley, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. History has been an avocation of mine ever since, along with the study of science, and consequently I have a fairly wide selection of sources in my personal library. Raiding these, I gradually pieced together an eleven century-long history of this Chinese dominated world, diverging from our own in the early days of the fifteen century, which I had come to call the Celestial Empire.

In the years since I’ve slowly filled in the gaps in that history, writing a dozen or so short stories, a novella, and three novels in the sequence. As the world has developed, I find that the stories of the Celestial Empire fall into one of three basic types, three different strategies which I employ to repurpose history for my own ends. That first story, “O One,” in essence encapsulates all three in the way it translates a historical event from one context and idiom to another, suggests a divergence from “real” history, and transposes an individual or their story from one context to another.

The first strategy used in the Celestial Empire stories is what I usually call “translation.” These are stories in which a historical event from our timeline is translated into a different historical context and cultural idiom. Aside from the particulars about setting, language, and culture, these are fairly faithful accounts, with characters and events closely mirroring their historical counterparts.

For example, the story “Gold Mountain” details the story of immigrant workers from North America (here called “Vinlanders”) who are brought to China to help construct an orbital elevator called the Bridge of Heaven, which rises from an immense artificial structure called Gold Mountain. Despite the somewhat exotic nature of their work, everything else about the immigrants’ journey—the hardships they endure, the economically depressed circumstances they left behind, and the kind of prejudice and stigmatizing they experience in their new home—were drawn whole-cloth from historical accounts of Chinese immigrants in the American west in the 19th century, taking part in the Gold Rush or helping to construct the transcontinental railroad.

Similarly, in the novella “The Voyage of Night Shining White,” I retell the real-life events that befell the crew of the Soviet submarine K-19 in the summer of 1961 in the North Atlantic, but instead using the Chinese crew of an atomic powered spacecraft that’s part of an interplanetary Treasure Fleet bound for Mars.

Part of the interest for me in these types of “translations” is the way in which a historical event, shorn of its context, can be reexamined from a novel prospective without prejudice or preconception. Readers can approach the story of the crew struggling against the odds in “The Voyage of Night Shining White” without being reminded that these are members of the Soviet military, at the time inimical to the majority of the English-speaking world. Or a reader of European descent can approach the privations endured by the immigrants in “Gold Mountain” without the potentially distancing effect of the different cultural imperatives and standards Qing-era Imperial China.

Of course, it is in the details and the setting that history is often at its most interesting, so I would never dream of shearing events of their proper context in every instance. In fact, in the second strategy it is the context which is itself the point of the stories, in large part.

This second strategy is employed in stories in which I tell a story about a particular moment in history, presented as faithfully as possible in its original context and idiom, but with subtle changes resulting from an earlier divergence from our history.

Probably the best example of this tactic is the story “Fire in the Lake,” a murder mystery which takes place in the fifteen century within the Forbidden City in the last days of the Yongle Emperor. A reader who approaches this story without a fairly detailed knowledge of the lines of Chinese imperial succession would likely read this as nothing more than a straight historical detective story. In fact, this is the point at which the history of the Celestial Empire diverges from our own, as the outcome of the murder investigation here leads to a different successor taking the throne than happened in our own history, and the clear implication is that the course of Chinese history from this point onwards will differ from that followed in actual fact.

To a somewhat lesser extent “Thy Saffron Wings” employs this strategy, here used to offer a view on cultural influence. The story centers around the historical figure of Sir Robert Anstruther, a nobleman who came to London with King James after the death of Elizabeth I. Unlike the historical Sir Robert, though, the character in the story is dispatched to the docks to escort the first ambassador from the Chinese emperor to the British court, who has lately been in Italy reading the work of Galileo and looking over Leonardo da Vinci’s designs. At the story’s end, before the ambassador unveils the latest Chinese innovation, a rocket-propelled glider, the characters join the audience of William Shakespeare’s new play, “Prestre Johan,” about the legendary figure’s visit to the court of the Great Chan, which serves to show the cultural influence the Chinese have already had by in Europe by this stage in the alternate history.

In a history that ultimately diverges so widely from our own, this strategy can be of somewhat limited use, since after a certain point the world of the Celestial Empire resembles our own so little that such stories aren’t really possible. It is, of course, a matter of subjective opinion, but those alternate histories that resonate most with me as a reader, and the type that I try to create in my own fiction, are those which recognize that small changes can lead to considerable effects. Stories in which alternate histories that diverged from our own centuries or even millennia ago still had an Adolph Hitler ruling over 20th century Germany, or a John F. Kennedy presiding over a mid-century United States, may well be well-intentioned (and well-written) counterfactuals, presenting the world as different than it is, but as a student of history I find it difficult to accept them as rigorously conceived alternate histories. The more time passes after the point of divergence in a well-conceived alternate history, then, the greater the degree of difference with our own history. But in those first decades following the divergence the changes are of a more subtle character, and its here that I can make the most of presenting our history in a more faithful manner. For stories set further along in the alternate history, though, taking place in a quite changed world, a different strategy is needed.

This third strategy is what I call “transpositions,” and is almost a blending of the previous two. In these stories, characters based on historical figures from one context and idiom are transposed into another, and made the central player in a historical event transposed from yet another.

A good example is my story “Red Hands, Black Hands.” The main character, Song Haugu, is a thinly-veiled portrait of the French novelist George Sands. She affects male dress, smokes tobacco, has a complicated relationship with the consumptive composer and musician Pan Xo (which, if written in the Western-style of “given name first, family name second” fashion would be Xo Pan, pronounced something like “show pan”), and is the writer of popular fictions but yearns to write something more meaningful. This character is deposited into a city which is the cultural hub of a terraformed Mars some centuries into the future of this alternate history, on which political tensions and adverse economic conditions in the rural areas have created widespread insurrection, inspired by the Red Turban and Boxer Rebellions of Imperial China.

A perhaps somewhat less exotic example is my story “Metal Dragon Year,” in which the fourteenth century Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta is reimagined as a Muslim engineer who emigrates from North Africa to a technologically advanced China to work on the first manned space launch. The story takes place during a cold war between the Chinese and the Aztecs, who are also working on their own space program but who are not above employing espionage to gain an advantage. Against this backdrop a crew of taikonauts are killed in an analog of the Apollo One disaster, and the engineer learns that a friend is not all that he seems.

These “transposition” stories tend to approach history from an almost post-modernist perspective, to use the term in its architectural sense, treating the past as a reservoir of characters, concepts, and settings to mix and match as the story requires. Here the impulse is not to examine history itself, as such, but to use elements from history as props, furniture, and set dressing for another story entirely. The historical elements themselves, though, serve as models for different way of viewing the world, such as George Sands providing a model for a woman acting at odds with the traditional gender roles of her society. If the reader is unfamiliar with the relevant history upon which I’m drawing, their enjoyment of the story is not impaired in the slightest, and in fact I often don’t include overt “signposts” pointing the reader in those directions, but those who are familiar with the sources will hopefully appreciate additional layers of meaning.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that there are Celestial Empire stories which fall outside of this taxonomy. Typically, those types of stories repurpose fiction in the same way that stories of these three types repurpose history, while employing a strategy of transposition to help flesh out the background and setting. For example my forthcoming young adult novel Iron Jaw and Hummingbird features a character who is equal parts George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, making her way through a terraformed Mars and getting embroiled in an armed uprising that commingles aspects of the White Lotus Rebellion and the later Boxers. Or the story “The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea,” which imagines what form something like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics might take in a Confucian-based society. Or the novel The Dragon’s Nine Sons, which might fairly be termed a kind of response to the film The Dirty Dozen transposed into a war in space, with the Aztecs playing the part of the Nazis.

As the Celestial Empire sequence grows, and the alternate history is gradually filled in, though, I’m confident that I will continue to employ these three strategies, and to experiment with different variations and approaches. At present I’m at work on a novel, Three Unbroken, which is the story of a war between the Chinese and the Aztecs for control of Mars. Employing my translation strategy from a somewhat different perspective, the novel is conceived as a history of a war that never was written in the style of historian Stephen Ambrose (of Band of Brothers and Citizen Soldiers fame), with incidents drawn heavily from the historical accounts of Allied soldiers, sailors, and aviators in World War II, but instead told through the eyes of characters from a Chinese-dominated history in sixty-four chapters, one for each of the hexagrams of the I Ching. Three Unbroken had its genesis over drinks at a convention when my editor at Solaris, George Mann, asked me for a Celestial Empire project that might be serialized in installments online. As all good things must, then, this latest project too began in a hotel bar.

Timeline of the Celestial Empire Stories

1424 “Fire in the Lake” , Subterranean, Fall 2007
1611 “Thy Saffron Wings, Postscripts (forthcoming)
1712 “The Sky is Large and the Earth Small”, Asimov’s, July 2007
1924 “O One”, Live Without a Net (Roc, June 2003)
1940 “Metal Dragon Year”, Interzone #213
1962-2024 “Gold Mountain”, Poscripts #5 (and in Dozois’s 2006 YBSF)
2024 “The Voyage of Night Shining White”, stand-alone novella from PS Publishing (and in Best Short Novels: 2007)
2051 “Line of Dichotomy”, chapbook and in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2 (Solaris, 2008)
2052 The Dragon's Nine Sons (Solaris, 2008)
2052-2053 Three Unbroken (Solaris, 2009; serialized online 2007-2008)
2305 “Red Hands, Black Hands”, Asimov's, December, 2004
2515 Iron Jaw and Hummingbird (Viking, 2008)
2650 “Dragon King of the Eastern Sea”, We Think, Therefore We Are (DAW, 2008)

Are you ever going to collect the Celestial Empire stories in a collection? :-)
Great overview.

BTW, just got the chapbook today, Chris! (Thanks!)

Going to read it together with Dragon's Nine Sons as soon as I finish my current reading material.
The subject has come up a time or two, banzai cat. It'll happen sooner or later, I'm sure.
Thanks, Paul. Hope the book and chapbook don't disappoint!
What did I think of it?:
Where does "All Under Heaven" fit into the above story timeline?
There's actually an error that's crept in there. "All Under Heaven" is the story that takes place in 2650, and "Dragon King of the Eastern Sea" is actually set in 2675.
Thanks. The listing at Uchronia is now up to date:

The only problem is that the stories have been published in so many different venues that I've only been able to read a few. I'm looking forward to the point when they're collected in one volume.
Thanks, Robert! And I'm sure the stories will be collected, sooner or later. (Sooner, if I have anything to say about it!)
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