Wednesday, February 13, 2008
by Chris Roberson
The Celestial Empire began, as all good things must, in a hotel bar.
At the 2001 World Fantasy Convention in
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,
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
The first strategy used in the
For example, the story “
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
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 “
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
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
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
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
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)
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 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.