The Big Idea: Aliette de Bodard
On occasion I’ve had someone say to me that writing speculative fiction must be easier than writing straight fiction, because you don’t have to worry about being accurate about facts and settings. Well, that’s of course not true at all — and the amount of research that fantasy and science fiction writers do is often both large and deep. To make this point, recent Campbell Award finalist Aliette de Bodard is here to tell us about the work behind Servant of the Underworld, her fantasy murder mystery set in the world of the Aztecs(!) It’s fascinating stuff, about fascinating stuff.
ALIETTE de BODARD:
Servant of the Underworld started out as a historical mystery–albeit a very peculiar one. I love the historical mystery genre, which combines the strong twisting plot of investigations with great immersion into a time period. With this book, I was trying to do was to factor in religious belief.
When you think about it, mythology and religion should be an integral part of the historical setting: a lot of the old myths and legends might seem the stuff of children’s tales now, but there was a time when believing in the gods and magical feats was as natural as breathing. And if gods and goddesses did indeed have presence and power–then this power would manifest in the earthly world not only through divine manifestation, but also through their priests. What I wanted to write was a historical mystery in which the belief system had a real, tangible presence–giving the story a natural fantasy component. Basically, what if Brother Cadfael’s prayers had had an effect on the investigation?
I picked the Aztecs for a combination of reasons. I wanted a non-Western culture because I’d read far too many medieval fantasies and mysteries and wanted to go further afield. I didn’t know much about Aztec culture at the outset, other than their reputation for bloodthirstiness–which seemed to me a bit dodgy once I realised that it came from the accounts of the conquistadores, who were hardly saints themselves.
As I researched, I found plenty of positive points. The justice system, for instance, was unequal but fairer than in Europe, placing more responsibilities on noblemen than commoners: a commoner who stole was let off with a warning; a nobleman doing the same thing was killed (the idea being that the nobleman had the means to know better and to behave himself, whereas the commoner had neither). It was also, for a medieval society, surprisingly equalitarian between sexes. While men and women had separate spheres, both were equally honoured, and women had strong divorce and property rights.
To stretch my legs, I had first explored the premise with a short story: “Obsidian Shards” was an investigation in the point of view of Acatl, a minor priest who had to deal with magical incursions in his territory. It was well-received (it won Writers of the Future, and was mentioned in the yearly summations), and this encouraged me to take it further.
Of course, this was where it got complicated. For the short story, I hadn’t needed more than a flavouring of Aztec culture; for a whole novel, I was going to need far more research. Accordingly, I invested in several books, and took notes. The short story had been vague as to the historical setting: it was set in a suburb of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, but the time was unspecified. For a novel with an explicit historical component, I couldn’t afford to remain vague. I made a choice of time period for the political background, and documented myself on the city of Tenochtitlan for the setting. I drew maps, and coloured in points of interest; I filled in a glossary with the main Aztec concepts, and gradually fleshed out how the Aztec mythology would apply in my setting.
My main character Acatl retained his original affiliation to Lord Death, the god of funerals and the underworld; but he became High Priest, responsible for investigating deaths that had a magical component . The magic system gradually fleshed itself out: the Aztecs believed blood was all that kept the sun in the sky and the earth fertile. I expanded that belief to make priests capable of casting spells, as long as they had a proper sacrifice and knew the proper hymns to call upon the gods. As High Priest, Acatl could thus access a variety of spells; but the necessity for somewhat large amounts of fresh blood and lengthy preparations restrained his powers, which provided me with built-in limitations for the magic (always a good idea).
Acatl’s powers also have a strong mundane component: the Aztecs had advanced medical knowledge of anatomy and of drugs (such as peyote), which provides a solid backbone of practicality. One of my favourite scenes in the book is when the characters examine a dead body. After a non-magical examination which determines the victim died of drowning, Acatl decides to go into the afterlife to summon their soul (and runs into trouble, of course; but I’ll let you read the book to see what happens). The scene is pitched in the mundane world, but magic and faith are an integral part of it, from the hymns Acatl says over the dead body, to the trip into a supernatural waterworld where only the gods’ word holds sway. Hopefully, the whole book achieves a similar balancing act.
So there you have it. Servant of the Underworld is a mystery–but, like all historical mysteries, it’s also a journey into a strange and alien world, and a chance to discover an unfamiliar society and mythology as the plot unfolds.
And it’s even got fingernail-eating monsters. Seriously, what more could you want?