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Rick Novy Interviews Luc at Entropy Central


Writer Rick Novy (FishPunk, etc.) interviewed me for his Wednesday Writer series at Entropy Central: . In the interview, we cover subjects like the origin of Codex, why I gave up music, influential writers, and what new projects I’m working on.

To my regular readers, I hope you’ll excuse how unusually quiet the site has been over the past two weeks while I’ve completed and launched the  CSA Matchmaker, which helps residents of the Champlain Valley of Vermont and New York connect with farms to get deals on great local food, and then went on a brief family vacation. The articles will start flowing again this week.

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Aikido Interviews #5: It Helps Us Dump Our Egos


This is the final post in a series  interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

Previous posts in this series are Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover TruthsAikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”,  Aikido Interviews, #3: Like Learning How to Play Music, and Aikido Interviews #4: Something Had Been Activated.

Phil and Marsha

Luc: What, in your mind, are the greatest insights aikido can help teach to the world?


I think the best thing about aikido is that it offers a different way of looking at conflict: the idea that there is a positive and active middle ground between a purely aggressive forward-moving approach to solving a problem and being passive and surrendering. Now, accepting that as a life lesson assumes that you are willing to believe that the physical element of aikido truly possesses a social or perhaps psychological equivalent in the real world. Though, that’s okay with me, because aikido does not really “work” unless you are willing to believe in it conceptually in the first place.

Now, I’m not saying that I think an aikido approach to life is better or superior than any other. Would have an aikido-type strategy have worked for the Allies in their fight against the Axis? Would Gandhi have made faster progress if he approached things with aikido in mind in dealing with British colonialism as opposed to pure passive resistance (and I honestly don’t know what form that would have taken)? Who can say? That’s not what happened and not the approach that folks used to win.

I’ve also heard stories about some aikido instructors who have found themselves in actual fights (attempted muggings, street brawls, bar altercations, etc.).  And in each of those stories (which might be apocryphal) the results certainly didn’t seem in the spirit of aikido’s philosophy. One story I heard basically involved the instructor punching a guy in the face and breaking his nose. I see a couple of questions in that story. Was his ability to deliver that punch a product of his aikido training or simply because he knew how to fight on a fundamental level unrelated to aikido? Is this actually a story of aikido failing, since he didn’t really do any of the techniques we practice regularly? Does this story diminish the significance of aikido since someone so accomplished in the art seemed not to demonstrate the supposedly peaceful philosophy espoused?

I have met more than a few students of aikido, and some instructors, who say they think all the philosophical stuff is B.S. That the only thing that matters in the study of martial arts is if it is real.

My personal take: Aikido represents an ideal.  Its philosophy, its techniques and its approach represent a possible outcome to situations of conflict if we are willing to accept them.  And by ideal, I mean something that we should all strive to accomplish, but that does not mean it is something we must accomplish or even can accomplish (depending on the person or situation).  If you start doing some serious comparison and analysis, very little of aikido’s techniques are unique to aikido on a technical level. You can find stuff in common with judo, jujitsu, Chinese chin-na grappling arts and other things.  The human body can only be manipulated in so many ways.

Put simply, aikido is an attitude.  That’s why we have all the bowing and ceremony, a specific dress code and remove our shoes and socks.  None of those elements have anything to do with practical fighting.  If that was the case, we’d be training on concrete or open ground in our street clothes.  It’s an act of shedding our regular outward affectations in hopes that it helps us dump our egos and opens our mind up to new experiences.

Photo by Maggie Mui

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Aikido Interviews #4: Something Had Been Activated


This post is the fourth in a series  interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

Previous posts in this series are Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover TruthsAikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”, and Aikido Interviews, #3: Like Learning How to Play Music.

Dwight and Andy

Luc: What’s the most dramatic thing that comes to mind that has happened to you outside of Aikido but because of Aikido–or to ask the question a different way, has the practice of Aikido changed your experience of the rest of your life?

Dwight: As to whether Aikido has brought about a change in my life: my answer is a definite yes.  On the most basic level, it completely changed my relation and attitude towards my physical self.  When I started Aikido as an exchange student in Japan in 1993 I was somewhat overweight, out of shape and generally disliked any kind of athletic activity.  It’s bizarre in retrospect that I even tried Aikido.  Since I was a young child, I was essentially a bookworm, was physically awkward and utterly hated gym class.  I never found much success or fun in any sport I attempted to play, which has basically lead to a general uninterest in even being a sports spectator. (To this day, I fully admit, I really have no knowledge of the ins and outs of professional sports whatsoever, a big social disadvantage in the United States of America.)

My early days of training were fairly brutal.  Despite Aikido’s peaceful reputation, college Aikido students in Japan are an ultra-dedicated, ultra-serious, borderline militaristic group.  We spent as much time doing basic physical training as we did rolling and falling drills and learning techniques.  There were days where it took all I could do just to keep up with them, and I always got the impression that they were particularly hard on me because I looked like I should have known better with regard to both training and etiquette. (To clarify, two other exchange students joined the Aikido club with me, and they were both Caucasian-looking.)

But here’s something funny: I refused to quit.  Which was also strange, because I had a bad habit of giving into defeatism through most of my childhood and adolescence.  Every time I tried something new, I was easily discouraged when I didn’t feel I was getting it right.

But for some reason, with Aikido, I absolutely refused to stop.  Something had been activated.

I remember when I returned to the U.S., several people would remark that I looked taller.  But I wasn’t at all.  My posture had improved.  I was walking upright and maintaining eye contact much better than I use to.

Also, as I continued my Aikido training, I simply got better about things like exercise and diet, and even learned to appreciate it a lot more.  Being the nerdy guy I was, I was one of those who tended to disparage sports and physical activities (partially sour grapes, I realize now).  Aikido didn’t just make me better appreciate taking care of myself, but gave me a greater appreciation of all physical activity, whether sports, dance, acrobatics, etc.  (However, to be fair, I’m still totally lost during any conversation about pro football, baseball, etc.)

Advancing in Aikido has definitely helped my confidence over the years.  It’s as if climbing over the personal hurdles of training really made me feel like other hurdles were surmountable as well.  When it has come to acting, standing up for myself, starting my own business (my main work is as a freelance Japanese document translator), my Aikido experience has certainly contributed to a sense that things can be accomplished.

Readers interested in finding physical activity that transforms you may also want to read “Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example

Photo by Maggie Mui

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Aikido Interviews, #3: Like Learning How to Play Music


This post is the third in a series begun back in October interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

Previous posts in this series are Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover Truths and Aikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”

The discussion in this post follows up on an idea Dwight brought up in the previous interview of becoming calm and not focusing on an attacker or problem.

Dwight Sora

Luc: If we’re engaging with an opponent (and I really mean this both in the literal and figurative senses), but we’re not letting the opponent take our focus, how do we strike a balance between being aware on the one hand and not getting sucked in on the other?

Dwight: First off, this is a question for which I still do not have a definitive answer. While prepping for my three degree black belt test recently, I was acutely aware that during Aikido randori (which takes the form of defending against multiple attackers) the very act of extending one’s attention to more than one attacker felt simply exhausting. Even though the situation was extremely safe and very controlled (for form’s sake, attackers during Aikido randori should be taking smooth ukemi or “receiving the technique,” not allowing the situation to turn into a knock-down dragged-out fight), I could feel my heart start to race, my fight-or-flight mechanism kicking into gear, etc. In particular, there were moments where I was aware that my back was turned to an oncoming attacker as a result of throwing aside another, and though this moment was brief, I could feel a spike in my stress level.

On one level, I do think it’s simply a matter of constant practice. You need to simply drill all those techniques into your muscle memory so that you can “think” with your entire body and respond to situations accordingly without wondering where your hand or foot is going. I really feel like learning martial arts is a lot like learning how to play music, especially improvisational forms like jazz. Drills and exercises are like practicing your scales, forms are like studying the work of other musicians so you understand what works and what doesn’t, and techniques are like chord progressions or melody lines that you can adopt, modify or riff.

In that sense, I believe the majority of those of us studying martial arts are more like musical students than actual musicians. We’ve practiced our scales a lot, have memorized a lot of pieces of music and have mastered a handful of melodies and chords; but only a handful of us really know how to make music. (To add, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as you realize whether you’re a real fighter or not.)

Another way of looking at this question is to steal an idea from another teacher. I was once told to think of martial arts as not an external series of techniques by man, but a refinement of our basic animal instincts. Think of the way a common squirrel responds to its surroundings and possible

threats. It’s not thinking the way a person does, but it’s paying total attention to everything – sights, sounds, smells, movement. Its thoughts (whatever they are) are in total alignment with every fiber of its being, and if it needs to high tail it out of there, it seems almost instantaneous.

The idea is that maybe the study of martial arts allows us as human beings to get back to that sort of state, a kind of pure intuition. That, combined with the techniques we study, gives us a refined series of physical responses, a stronger “vocabulary” if you will, than simply running away (like the squirrel).

I don’t think this state of mind is particular to martial arts. I’m pretty sure when pro athletes talk about being “in the zone” or race car drivers feel like they’re watching their own actions in slow motion it’s the same thing.  [A note from Luc: There’s some good research to back this up. Interested readers may want to read “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow] I work as a stage actor, so I’m constantly hoping to reach that sublime moment where I can connect with the audience and really bring a character to life, while still taking care of those pesky technical details (hitting my marks, remembering my lines and cues, etc.).

For my own training lately, I’m working on “forgetting” my body. Basically, I’m trying to allow myself to trust that I actually do know all this stuff I’ve been studying over the years and to remove any self-conscious movement.

That even goes to trying not to think about getting into a proper starting stance and putting my hands in the right place, and see if it happens automatically. It’s a little strange trying to “turn off” parts of my brain, and very disconcerting (especially when you end up responding late) but it seems to be the only way I’ve been able to free myself of the crutch of thinking of technique all the time and see if I can have natural responses to a situation.

Photo by Maggie Mui

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Aikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”


This post is the second in a series begun back in October interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

The first post in this series was Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover Truths. New posts will go up on the next three Mondays, February 4, 11, and 18.

Dwight SoraLuc: What’s the relationship between engaging with the world and engaging with an attacker? What approach or approaches does Aikido indicate for a practitioner who is being attacked?

Dwight: This may seem overly simplistic and reductive, but it really does seem to boil down to staying calm. And furthermore, that really seems to be what all martial arts ultimately strive to achieve.

Naturally, Aikido, with its strong philosophical component, places a lot of emphasis on keeping the body relaxed and centered and keeping your mind focused. However, I have met senior Judo instructors who emphasized the exact same points. Also, years ago I attended a series of Aikido camps in the Colorado Rockies where the guest instructor was Kenji Ushiro, a traditional Okinawan Karate instructor. It seemed odd to have a Karate instructor at an Aikido camp, until I saw what he was teaching. His technique was amazingly soft, and he never broke posture (or a sweat) and moved with total control. (Clip below.)

[Note from Luc: I don’t know if the following will be as fascinating to you as it was to me, but I do recommend checking out this short video Dwight sent.]

In terms of attitude, Aikido teaches one to respond to attackers non-aggressively. Now, that doesn’t mean passively, as some might assume from my earlier statement. The response is still dynamic, but you try to avoid ideas like “I’m going teach this guy a lesson” or “I’m going to put this person down.” And by keeping a cool head, you keep an open mind, and hopefully are able to see more possibilities (and of course, strategic openings) in a situation.

In terms of technicalities, the idea is that your body will also respond faster and stronger if your muscles are relaxed and not tense. And this does make a lot of sense even in street terms (I believe). I was once told that statistically speaking, a large number of the women who study martial arts will pick a striking art over anything involving grappling or throwing (So, Karate or kickboxing instead of Judo, Aikido or Jujitsu). The answer is understandable – A lot of women don’t like the idea of being in a room having to grab and possibly roll around the floor with men. However, I’ve also heard that if the intent of their study is self-defense against a mugger or rapist, there’s a hole in their decision-making. Most attackers on the street don’t want to fight you; they just want to subdue you or get the jump on you (often from behind) and grab on. The advantage of studying a grappling art is that you become desensitized to the fear that is induced during the act of being grabbed or choked, and learn how to keep your muscles relaxed (and flexible) while in such a situation to allow an effective response.

My senior teacher is always telling me to avoid being aggressive. He’ll even raise his head and say, “Don’t think about the other guy, lift your head and say ‘ Isn’t today a great day’.”

Photo by Janna Giacoppo


Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Anatoly Belilovsky on Atrocities and Menschkeit


This is the eighth interview and the tenth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far in the series at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, I talk with Russian-American writer and physician Anatoly Belilovsky.

LUC: Your background and origins are very different from most English-speaking writers and readers. How does that affect how you read and write fiction?

ANATOLY: That used to be an easy question, until I found at least three other Anglophone writers with backgrounds somewhat similar to mine, whose writing and criticism of science fiction and fantasy (and much of everything else) is either different from mine, to varying degrees, or, in one case (and, no, I won’t drop names here) diametrically opposite. So, in a broad sense, I am not sure how my origins feed into my weltanschauung. I think the best I can do is tell my story and let readers make their own conclusions.

I grew up in a culture whose dominant language has no words for privacy and appointment, with an entire set rules of etiquette for behaving while on a queue, with another set of traditions for communal apartments with shared kitchens and bathrooms; a society in which, for most of its history, its own government, while pretending to look out for the good of the common people, committed unparalleled atrocities against them.

It was also a culture that took art and literature seriously – as serious tools for social engineering. “Inclusion” and “marginalization” had very different meanings there and then: “Inclusion” meant membership in Writer’s Union, which opened doors to publication, and “marginalization” meant being relegated to Samizdat (“Self-publishing,” a tricky proposition in a country in which typewriters were registered with samples of output to permit matching pages to their sources) or Tamizdat (“There-publishing,” by Russian emigre markets – the route that led to highly embarrassing Nobel Prizes in literature for Joseph Brodsky and Boris Pasternak, for works never published in their native country.) The Writer’s Union also took seriously the question of publishing underrepresented populations: having praises of Worker’s Paradise sung by a variety of voices in a variety of languages was a major priority. This led to a highly amusing episode: two banned writers encountered an unknown aspiring poet who was bilingual in Russian and another, obscure, language. Forming a mini-conspiracy, the trio wrote ideologically impeccable poetry that brought in money and prizes by the bucketful, and continued to circulate what they wanted in Samizdat.

Outside of the never-never land of inter-ethnic harmony in Social Realist literature, things weren’t all that rosy:

To make a long story short, coming to America was a culture shock of which I’ll talk in another installment. Suffice it to say that, right from the start, much of what would be considered a dark dystopia by a Western reader, felt like a lighthearted satire of the real world (A Clockwork Orange, 1984.)

As for “literary” fiction, I never could bring myself to care for most of its characters and conflicts. Catcher in the Rye is emblematic of that: I’m afraid I never could see Holden Caulfield as anything other than a spoiled brat in search of excuses for his upper-class ennui.

LUC: What kinds of issues about inclusivity or disregard do you see in other people’s fiction that the authors themselves often miss?


I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.

–James Watt

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

–William Shakespeare

Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.

–Walter Miller Jr

I chose these quotes to illustrate a few points.

The second is to illustrate what inclusivity is, all too often, exclusively defined as: writing about characters whose “differentness,” and society’s callousness in dealing with that “differentness,” is the sole, or the major, driving force behind the plot and the character’s actions. That’s a perfectly valid way of looking at inclusivity, but it really isn’t mine. I look for common ground, for the universal experience.The first one is to illustrate what inclusivity isn’t. Hogwarts inclusion of the Patel twins and Cho Chang cannot be called inclusive: the twins’ roles rise barely above those of furniture, and Cho gets to break under pressure and then feel terrible about it. If plot is a river, Cho gets swept away by the current while the twins get to sit on the banks and stare at the water. Whatever roles were given to individuals who shared the panel with Mr Watt, they were clearly not the ones who rowed that boat.

Which brings me to the third quote. It bears repeating:

Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.

Miller is writing about a Jew – never mind what happened to that Jew later, he’s certainly a Jew writing these words – who is thinking what anyone would be thinking, with apocalypse looming beyond the horizon: he is thinking of his family.. And instead of drawing a huge red arrow that says, “LOOK AT ME – A JEWISH MENSCH WHO LOVES HIS FAMILY!” he is keeping that feeling in the subconscious, the tip of the iceberg of genuine powerful love showing up as a note to self to bring home some food. Leibowitz’s Yiddishkheit quite literally shows up in the grammatic construction (of is superfluous in languages that have a genitive case) and in the food choices, the limbs and outward flourishes, while his universal, transcendent Menschkheit (which I choose to translate as “humanity,” not “masculinity”) is responsible for the caring that drove it.

Now I get to talk about my kind of inclusivity.

Ken Liu’s Nebula and Hugo-winning Paper Menagerie [note from Luc: between when we conducted this interview and now, the story also won the World Fantasy Award] is about a kid who’s ashamed of how uncool his mother is. OK, the kid is half-Chinese and his mother barely speaks English, and the descriptions are good enough that you find yourself totally immersed in the story, you can see the scenes and the characters as vividly as if they were on film, and yet it brought up memories of my late, decidedly non-Asian mother, and the catharsis of the story’s protagonist triggered one of my own. I had a conversation with Ken about that story at Readercon, and I think it surprised him, at least a little, how broad an appeal this story had.

On the same Hugo ballot was Mike Resnick’s Homecoming. It’s a universal “fathers and sons” story, relevant to anyone, and here is the funny part: I first heard it as a podcast, narrated by an African-American voice talent. I could see the characters of this story as well, in my mind’s eye, and the father came across as a very definitely African-American elderly man. Didn’t change the universality of the story, only grounded it in a very specific mental image. And I really don’t know if I would have had the same image if I had read the story in print, first.

On the subject of “exclusion,” I have a bone to pick.

There seems to be an approved list of oppressions and atrocities as subjects for fiction. The deportations by the Soviet government of a number of ethnic groups dwarf in size, in casualties, and in sheer nastiness, the Japanese internment of WWII. Seen any Anglophone stories set in the Holodomor? Me neither. No one seems to be protesting the exclusion of such oppressed minorities as Koryo-saram, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Russian kulaks, Don cossacks, geneticists, students of Esperanto and abstract painters, all dealt with rather harshly back in the old country.

Amusing anecdote: I have my mother’s old 1950’s Soviet psychiatry textbook, somewhere. On page 100 there is a pearl the equal of which I have never seen – here in my translation:

Homosexuality is not necessarily a form of psychopathology. In reactionary societies where payment of bride price is customary, it may be the only possibility available to men of the poorer classes who cannot afford to marry.

I always wondered how drunk the editors had to be to come up with that.

I get the sense of Western civilization being singled out for criticism in both Western and non-Western literature, and I see this being accepted as the right and proper course, and I am not willing to leave this assumption unexamined in a comparative analysis. Suffice it to say that back in the old country at least, being “disregarded” was, for an individual or a minority population, the best of all possible states, and any kind of attention would have been immeasurably worse.

LUC: Now you’re bringing up a point that I don’t think I’ve really heard discussed before: prejudice and persecution of other cultures by other cultures. For instance, I suspect the reason we hear so little of Soviet oppression of the Koryo-saram (ethnic Koreans in the Soviet Union) in English-language literature is that English-speakers often have little familiarity with either Russians (and other Soviet cultures) or Koreans, to say nothing of Korean-Russians. It seems to be much simpler and more obvious for people who are trying to fight bigotry to focus on the bigotry of the people they know, yet the death by deportation and neglect of 40,000 Koryo-saram–not to mention some of the other atrocities you mention–dwarfs much of what happens in our own culture. What’s the case for learning about and writing fiction about persecution in other cultures?


It seems to be much simpler and more obvious for people who are trying to fight bigotry to focus on the bigotry of the people they know

There was an old Russian joke: a Russian and an American soldier are facing each other across Checkpoint Charlie. The American says, “It’s really better in the West. I can stand here all day yelling, “Down with Reagan!” and no one will bother me.” The Russian says, “So what? I can stand here and shout “Down with Reagan!” all day, too, and they might even give me a medal!”

I think the problem is better stated as, It seems more rewarding to focus on bigotry that affects them and the people they know. Which is a perfectly valid approach; my own activism, such as it is, is aimed at thwarting social – psychohistorical, if you will – forces that have a chance of leading us down the same terrible path as the one that had led to the 70-year Soviet nightmare, and to the crushing bigotry to which the resulting society subjected myself and my own family. And the first and most insidious of those forces is the demonization of success.

Before I get lumped in with Ayn Rand, I find demonization of lack of success equally repugnant. In fact, the only things worth demonizing are hypocrisy, in advocating changes sure to produce results opposite to those promised, and stupidity, in believing such promises.

What’s the case for learning about and writing fiction about persecution in other cultures?

Well, what’s the case against learning and writing about persecution in other cultures? Is it that it has no relevance to our world? Is it something that can’t happen here?

Or is it that, by pursuing one of these lines of thought, we…

ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita?

[find ourselves lost in a strange and darkened forest, where the direct path is lost — Dante’s Inferno]

as we realize that, in limiting ourselves to axes of oppression that intersect upon the standard model of privilege, we have been writing exclusively about spherical cows.

Let’s start with Internationale, which I remember by heart (in Russian, of course) having had to sing it countless times:

Весь мир насилья мы разрушим
До основанья, а затем
Мы наш, мы новый мир построим, —
Кто был ничем, тот станет всем.

We will destroy this world of violence
Down to the foundations, and then
We will build our new world.
He who was nothing will become everything!

Koryo-saram, Volga Germans, and others were not oppressed because they were poor, powerless minorities. They were oppressed because they were perceived to have power and privilege (in the form of land, a sufficiency of food, and a few non-spherical cows,) for not succumbing along with everyone else to revolutionary mismanagement. They were oppressed in order to make them into poor, powerless minorities that the Soviet state could then manipulate at will.

And to those who don’t think this has any relevance to the world we live in, I say: “Blessed are they who share the Universe with spherical cows.”

Anatoly Belilovsky came to the US from the USSR in 1976, learned English from watching Star Trek reruns, worked his way through Princeton as a teaching assistant in Russian, and ended up a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is the 4th most commonly spoken language. It is perhaps unwise to expect from him anything resembling conventional fiction. His fiction appears in NatureIdeomancerAndromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine the Immersion Book of Steampunk, and elsewhere. He can be found online at

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Aliette de Bodard on Crossing Over


This is the seventh interview and the ninth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far in the series at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, I talk with British Science Fiction Association award-winning French/Vietnamese writer Aliette de Bodard about writing, reading, cultural divides, and the bridges that span them.

LUC: Just to bring your work to science fiction and fantasy readers in North America, you’ve had to bridge a number of gaps–ethnic, linguistic, geographical, and more. Does this affect how you choose your characters and how you think about writing?

ALIETTE: I have to admit that I didn’t quite think of it that way! For starters, I was hardly aware of the SFF market as being sharply compartimentalised when I started writing–and, if anything, I would have targeted my work at the UK market, since that’s where I started reading most of my genre. I also seldom think in terms of gaps when writing: rather, I write passionately about things that matter to me, and trust that this enthusiasm will communicate itself to the reader.

But yes, if we’re talking quite plainly–of course my origins, my personality and the milieu I grew up in and am still part of deeply and irrevocably approach how I’m choosing characters and how I think about writing. I would be a very different person if I had grown up white on the US East Coast–my family, my education, my friends, etc. have shaped me as a writer, and continue to shape me.

I tend to pick characters from non-mainstream backgrounds, mainly because I’m somewhat disquieted by how SF, which should be the literature of the mind-blowing and mind-opening, tends to over-feature characters from a certain background (overwhelmingly male, white and American or Western Anglophone) and from a certain mindset (what I would call “tech-loving” with a strong faith that science will make things better). Not, of course, that I have anything against those views myself, but the over-representation of these can be a little overwhelming in the bad sense of the term…

I approach writing as the sum of everything that I have read, which means traditional French/English/Vietnamese/Chinese literature as well as genre from Ursula Le Guin to Alastair Reynolds to Jean-Claude Dunyach. Reading so much in so many traditions has enabled me to see that the “rules” of writing (like “show don’t tell”) are deeply problematic because they enforce the conformity of a certain type of fiction–they’re a great help as you’re starting out, but taken too rigidly they can easily lead people to stifle their own creativity in the search of the technically perfect, but soulless story.

It’s hard for me to tell how much my approach to writing is shaped by my background and which specific bits are “different”–I know that I place a high importance on family in my fiction, and immigration and living between different cultures (obviously a very personal preoccupation!), but I assume there are more subtle effects on themes, characters and storylines that I’m not able to see because I’m too close to them.

LUC: There are a lot of interesting threads in that response, but let me grab onto one particular one, because I don’t think it’s ever even come up in this discussion for me until now: science fiction tending to include people of a certain mindset. I had never thought of it that way before, but it strikes me immediately as having a lot of truth to it. When science fiction stories emphasize strongly tech- and science-friendly characters, what points of view would you say aren’t getting a lot of representation?

ALIETTE: Hum, it’s one of those questions where I don’t think I can give a complete answer to, but I can provide a few examples… By and large, SF is mainstream US, 21st-Century and tech-loving, which means that anything outside those points of view is getting poor representation. I can mention a few things that struck me, beyond the most obvious ones of poor POC/female/non-US representation, but this is obviously very limited!

  • the paucity of stories where family is important, and in particular family outside the nuclear family (SF sometimes gets around to mentioning fathers and mothers, but aunts, uncles and cousins somehow seem beyond the realm of possible relationships)
  • a marked dichotomy between allegiance to a church or allegiance to science, generally failing to recognise either that the two points of view are not incompatible, or that religion doesn’t necessarily mean full allegiance to a church (in many Asian countries, people practise bits and pieces of religions depending on the circumstances, and don’t refer to a single church for prescriptions on every aspect of their daily lives)
  • a presentation of individualistic, lone mavericks who strike out to seek adventures as intensely heroic, and a deriding of people who do not follow that mindset as being cowardly (in Asian culture, people who abandon their families to strike out would be the cowards because they shirk their duties to provide for their relatives, and the act of falling out with your own family would be a tragedy rather than a cause for celebration).

LUC: Recently on your Web site, you quoted Juliana Qian:

Our cultures are exotic, fashionable, fascinating and valuable when contained within or filtered through a white Western lens – then our cultures are glittering mines. But drawing from your own background is backward and predictable if you’re a person of colour. Sometimes white people try to sell me back my culture and I have to buy it. My China is as much the BBC version as it is the PRC one. There are things I want to eat but cannot cook.

This brings up the question of how different it is for someone within a group–whether we’re talking about, for example, Russians, transgendered people, or people with physical handicaps–to write about that group than for someone outside in terms of how the writing itself is viewed. How does this affect your work, or the work of other writers whose work you follow?

ALIETTE: It’s all but inevitable that someone within a group will perceive it in different terms than someone outside a group: it’s what I call “insider” writing vs “outsider” writer. There are two different problems: who is writing this, and for whom it is intended. I’ll leave aside the obvious combinations of outsider writer for outsiders only (which is a very dodgy proposition and fairly exclusionary) and insider writer for insiders only (posing no particular issue: write what you know for people who know it as well). That leaves the “crossing overs,” i.e., outsider writers writing for an audience which includes insiders and insider writers writing for an audience which includes outsiders.

If you’re an outsider, it is possible to achieve a sufficient degree of empathy with the group to make your depiction of it from the inside plausible, but it takes a lot of hard work, and I think people don’t understand how seldom this happens: the authors who pull this off, say, for Vietnamese culture, can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand, and generally have thoroughly immersed themselves into it for years. A few more authors will produce a passable description, and the bulk will unfortunately perpetuate majority stereotypes or latch onto what seems to them shiny elements of a culture–elements that are totally natural to insiders (one of my favourite examples from Sino-Vietnamese culture includes the over-emphasis on face, which is an unconscious thing–people don’t spend their time going, “oh, I’m going to lose face if I do this” every two lines!). Hence the importance of thinking very carefully about what you’re doing when depicting a culture and of getting beta-readers from said culture to correct you.

If you’re an insider, you have a slightly more difficult problem. I’ve already said that the elements of a culture that appeal to outsiders are not necessarily the ones that insiders think most important, and also that many things that seem natural to you (like food) will require explanation in order to make sense to outsiders. There’s a hard line to draw between making your culture a little more “accessible” to outsiders, and between twisting it out of shape so it appeals to the market.

In my work, I’ve done outsider and insider depiction: when I do outsider (such as in the Aztec books), I do my best not to exoticise or demonise practises that the main characters would have found totally natural, like human sacrifices. When I do insider writing, I find myself very often having to explain behaviours and attitudes that are perfectly normal to me, but that make no sense to outsiders (like filial piety or Confucianism): the first draft of my novella “On a Red Station, Drifting” basically had every (non-Vietnamese) reader terminally confused, and I had to do my best to clarify what I meant without having the impression that I was putting the “crunchiest bits” of my culture on display for Westerners (I enjoy writing about my background, but I certainly don’t want the feeling that I’m debasing it in order to sell better!).

LUC: I was interested when you mentioned those authors that you could count on the fingers of one hand, because while we’ve all seen examples of mishandling of other cultures, examples of people who do the job really well seem harder to come by. Are there any writers that come to mind to you offhand who really do an exceptional job, whether they’re outsiders whose writing rings true to insiders or insiders who make a real connection with outsiders?

ALIETTE: It’s going to be hard for me to point out outsiders who really do insider narrative well, as I can’t really appreciate anything beyond France and Vietnam in fiction; and a lot of portrayals of both, as I said above, are very debatable to say the least. That said, one of the works I thought did a great job of evoking the spirit of 17th-18th Century France was Kari Sperring’s debut, Living with Ghosts: the intricate plot and delicately-drawn characters made me think of a modern-day, more nuanced Dumas.

There are more than a few people who are insiders and who create a real connection with outsiders: the first one who comes to mind is the unstoppable Ken Liu, whose fiction is basically everywhere, and who creates really strong stories driven by Chinese culture. I can also cite Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, whose idiosyncratic Filipino SF is bound to make a huge splash (check out her “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life“, which tackles emigration, mixed marriages and power dynamics in a very spec-fic way), and Zen Cho, who has a knack for mixing comedy and poignancy in really well-realised stories (her “House of Aunts” is a really awesome not-quite-our-vampires story).

As far as novels go, can I point out to Thanh Ha Lai’s truly awesome “Inside Out and Back Again”, which shows emigrating to America from the point of view of a young Vietnamese girl and the resultant culture shock; and to Joyce Chng’s Wolf at the Door and sequels, urban fantasy set in a vibrant and rich Singapore and featuring a very strong main character in the presence of werewolf pack leader Jan Xu.

Aliette de Bodard lives in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and writes speculative fiction in her spare time–her Aztec noir fantasy trilogy Obsidian and Blood was published by Angry Robot, and her short fiction has garnered her a British Science Fiction Award and nominations for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award for Best New Writer. When not writing, she blogs and posts recipes over at


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Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover Truths


This post is my first in a series interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

Dwight tests for his 3rd degree black belt (Sandan) 

Luc: My impression of aikido is that it’s a little different from most martial arts both in techniques and in general philosophy. What’s aikido about, on the most basic level?

Dwight: Ah, the classic $65 million dollar question. It’s one I don’t have a fully satisfactory answer for myself. When I consider what I myself think aikido is, I realize that my perspective has changed radically from when I first started as an exchange student to Japan in 1993. Naturally, I have my “sales pitch” answer to prospective students at the dojo to which I belong: It’s a Japanese martial art, it incorporates empty hand practice and armed techniques involving traditional weapons (wooden sword, staff, dagger), it’s based on a non-aggressive philosophy, you use the enemies energy/movements against them, etc. etc.

Lately, the idea I have been pondering the most is that although I can definitely say that aikido is a martial art, I would not call it a fighting art. Certainly, the techniques practiced and the objectives informing all the movements are drawn from traditional Japanese fighting forms, primarily swordwork and old-style grappling (the same roots of jujitsu and judo). However, I’d be the first to admit that a great deal of our regular practice lacks modern-day utility as a fighting art: We train barefoot, we wear training gear completely unsuited to modern warfare or street fighting, many of our exercises involve a level of stylization irrelevant to strict combat.

I guess one way of putting what I think aikido is, is that it’s a philosophical (and possibly spiritual) study with a strong physical component. Like any philosophical study, you’re trying to discover truths about yourself and the world around you. However, instead of disengaging into a world of your own thoughts, aikido promotes the idea of study through engagement. If meditation is the act of centering yourself while keeping your body still, then I’d say aikido is a way of maintaining that center within while your body moves about.

Now, as I said above, I still definitely say that aikido is a martial art. It’s vocabulary, etiquette, actions, etc. are all drawn from traditions and concepts rooted in the practice of warfare or one-on-one combat. So, I would never put it in the same category as certain types of dance, or practices solely identified as physical exercise.

That being said, I know in my own practice that one gains greater insight and appreciation of aikido when one occasionally explores the fighting aspect. A major part of aikido is the study of kuzushi, of breaking the balance of an attacker, thus facilitating the easy execution of a martial technique. Now, from what I can gather, a person with absolutely no interest in fighting could possibly focus all of their aikido study on this aspect, simply to study how to keep their body relaxed and stable, and how one can adjust their posture and movements in a way that affects a training partner engaged in movement. In turn, this study could be effectively practiced simply with basic grabbing of the joint targets (wrists, shoulders, etc.), skipping over punches, strikes or kicks. The result would be very much like the study of pushing hands in Tai Chi, or a kind of two-person interactive yoga.

However, for myself, actually studying the vulnerable points of one’s body and an opponent’s as they move in reaction to each other, the lines involved in executing a punch or strike, will aid in the study of the above, which is mostly focused on aikido’s internal aspects.

I think the points I mention above are why there are such radically different approaches to aikido depending on the school or teacher. There are some who take an extremely martial approach (like Steven Seagal) and insist on emphasizing the fighting aspects. Others (such as the Ki no Kenyukai or “Ki Society” of Koichi Tohei Sensei) really de-emphasize the martial part and give pre-eminence to breathing exercises, centering drills and seeking to achieve a solid mind-body equilibrium.

I think the trap that some people who practice aikido fall into (and the reason that occasionally we’re the butt of jokes from other martial artists) is that some people think they are practicing afighting art, when their training has not really provided them with any such skills. By way of analogy, I ask you to consider a championship Olympic fencer. Fencing, though a competitive sport while aikido is not, shares with aikido roots in traditional forms of fighting. However, if I was to somehow transport the greatest 21st century fencer back to Renaissance Europe and force him to engage in a duel with live blades, he’d probably be killed very quickly. Sure, he can whip a foil around with incredible dexterity, but that’s a world of difference from being placed into a situation involving life-or-death combat without the comforting presence of judges, referees or movement restricted to a plinth. However, that does not detract from the fact that fencing is excellent in developing a keen eye, fast reflexes, a sense of balance – qualities that could both serve someone well in fighting, but also might simply be good in general self-development.

One other thought I have is that I have met some real fighters, and by that I mean combat-experienced soldiers, not people who won tournaments or participated in MMA, who study aikido, and they are among the most focused and centered students of the art I have ever known. And whenever I have felt doubts about whether there is value in studying a martial art which seemingly contains so much ceremony and abstraction from the physical realities of combat, I think of them. Because despite the fact they truly know how to kill another person, and in some cases have done so, they have found something inherently enriching about studying aikido.

Photo by Maggie Mui

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Interview with Del Law: World Building and Character Building in Beasts of the Walking City


Recently I had the opportunity to read Del Law’s debut novel, Beasts of the Walking City, and between the world-building, the characters, and the hard-driving plot, I was engrossed from beginning to end. Since I know Law, I asked him if I could interview him for this site, to get a better idea of how he pulled off this surprising and entertaining story. He agreed, and here is that interview.

Del Law can be found online through his blog, House on Bear Mountain.

Del, what immediately jumps out at me about Beasts of the Walking City is the huge amount of world-building–actually, worlds-building might be more accurate, since the story takes place in a world that overlaps with a number of others. You’ve created geography, very distinctive types of magic and combat, multiple political groups, various kinds of sentient beings, cities, and history behind all of it. Where did the world of your story come from, and how did it get so detailed and layered?

I’m dying to say I found it all behind a back door in an alley somewhere in Hoboken, but no: I’ve been developing Blackwell’s world for a long, long time, almost as long as I can remember.  I played role playing games in elementary and early high school and caught the world-building bug then–as a teen-ager I covered walls of my room with maps and sketches of worlds and characters.  I bet if I were able to find those maps and dig some of them out, that aspects of Kiryth would be in them, though it’s grown and changed and morphed many, many times since those years.  Versions of some character showed up in my undergraduate writing thesis, but even then they were very early versions, written about by a writer who (I think) was still working to find a voice.

I daydream when I can.  I try and look at things from strange angles.  When I travel I try to find small details that imply a whole lot more behind them.  I watch my kids and how they see their world.  I try and write it all down and layer it in somehow.

So much modern fantasy is based on our own history here on Earth, and for good reason–it’s a shared reality we all know parts of, it’s easy for a reader to connect to, and by reading or writing books set in different aspects of our world, we all learn more about the world while enjoying a good story.  Plus, it’s easier as a writer to not have to make everything up, and if someone’s writing on a deadline you need to get your book done.

But with Blackwell’s world I didn’t want to do that.  I wasn’t on a deadline, and I wanted to build something from the ground up, something unique, with characters that feel vivid and real and embedded in social and political contexts as we ourselves are.  I wanted it to feel real and dirty and as messed up as our own world often is, not simple and contained.  I suppose I cheated a bit by then connecting it all with Earth, but by doing that I got to layer some of our history and details up against the ones I made up, and I think that gives the histories and the characters even more a sense of ‘real-ness’.

At what point did your main character, Blackwell, emerge, and how did you create or develop him?

Blackwell emerged over time, really, and for such a big guy he was pretty quiet about it for a while.  I know some writers say they have characters that stick in their heads and sort of lead the story along–not me.  I knew I wanted to write from a non-human perspective, since that doesn’t happen very often, and plus it’s a nice way to bring in more detail about the world.  But all the standard fantasy races were out for me–overdone, not much room left for originality.

So along came the Hulgliev.  Aspects of them came out as I was working through the drafts: once a pretty big deal, now pretty rare.  Hated by many–but why?  There’s a mystery.  They can pigment themselves like a squid does–that’s pretty cool.

But if the book was going to work, Blackwell really had to stand out with a strong voice, and he had to be someone that you could relate to, and not all-powerful or all-knowing.  I rewrote big sections of the book and things started appearing.  His really bad childhood.  His complex family structure.  His fondness for bourbon and noodles (things I can relate to).  His impulsiveness and poor self image and general naiveté.  His desire for something better for himself and his friends.  All of these things emerged as being pretty central to how the plot plays out in the book, so there was a lot of juggling to manage it all.  I rewrote a lot to try and get it right.

In the end, for me, he was fun to spend time with, as was Kjat, the woman who’s in love with him (though he’s pretty blind to it).  I hope they’re both intriguing for readers, too.

So Blackwell emerged in rewrites, a little at a time. I’ve had that happen myself, but it’s not an approach we hear talked about much, even though it seems here to have been pretty successful. Did other important elements of the book present themselves in the course of rewrites as well?

Del Law

Yes, completely.  Al Capone came late, and he’s pretty critical now, but early drafts didn’t have him and I think the story was more limited as a result.  Fehris, one of the important secondary characters, became not-quite-human as drafts progressed, to make him more compelling.  Some of Kjat’s backstory, and how that’s tied to Blackwell’s life, came later.  A lot of the smaller details that give the world a broader context tended to come later, too:  the Singing Dragon of Barakuu, or the Bakarh Contest of Symmetry, say.  This book doesn’t go into them in any detail, really, but the fact that the reader hears of them, knows that there’s something with this kind of mysterious name to it is out there, makes the world feel bigger.  (Unless you overdo it, and then there are just too many names and details flying around.)

Some of this comes from me knowing my own strengths and weaknesses, and how to work around them–I’m less great at plot, so I try and work that out first.  I’m better at description, so knowing that, I can give myself the leeway to push this off a little while I get the plot pinned down.  But then there are cool ways that descriptions interact with and affect the plot–you have to be perceptive enough to roll with that, even when it means a lot more work to get it all right.

The Amazon reviews so far have been overwhelmingly positive, but it’s notoriously hard for new novelist to get much attention for a new book. What future do you see for the Walking City series? What are the chances of a seeing a sequel in the next year or three?

I think there’s a great chance of another book.  I’m working on it now, though it’s hard to say how long it’ll take.  I don’t want to rush it out and have something I’m not happy with.  But there’s a lot in Blackwell’s world that I didn’t touch on in the first book.

Funny, your question came in the middle of a big promotion weekend I’m running on for Beasts.  The book was available for free, and was on the top 10 lists for both free Fantasy and free SciFi, and closing in on the top 100 overall free books for Kindle.  Hundreds of people were downloading it every hour.  For me, that’s totally cool, great publicity, and I think Amazon’s created a great opportunity for early authors to get their work out there. [Note from Luc: As of this writing, Beasts of the Walking City remains in the top 10,000 Kindle books, outdoing a great many novels released by traditional publishers.]

Will it make a ton of money?  Probably not this month.  But that’s ok for me right now.  I’d rather get Beasts out into the hands of readers, give them a chance to get interested in the series, and that’ll give me even more reason to write more of them.  Unlike writers who are working for a big publishing company, I can afford to be patient–my book isn’t competing for bookstore shelf space, doesn’t have just a few months in which it has to sink or swim.  Beasts can gain an audience slowly, over time, and that’s just fine.  I’ll be working on the next book, and the one after that.

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Vylar Kaftan


Last week I began posting a series of interviews about inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction–that is, what groups of people are conspicuously underrepresented in fiction based on their race, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, age, ethnicity, disability, or other factors; and why; and what can we do about it?

I started with this interview of Leah Bobet and followed up with a short post about the lack of female villains. Today’s post is an interview with Vylar Kaftan, who has described herself as a “queer white writer” and who has made inclusivity a particular mission in her work.

LUC: A few years ago, I gather you spent about 5 hours putting together statistics on the characters in your fiction in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and class (readers: you can see Vylar’s results for all her characters and for her protagonists. Aliette de Bodard and Marshall Payne followed Vylar’s lead and reported their own results). I think it’s safe to say that in most categories, your numbers were much more diverse than the general run of English language fiction in North America and Europe. Were you satisfied with where you landed? Did anything change after you saw your results?

VYLAR: I thought the results were fascinating, and I’m sure glad I did it.  I was generally satisfied with where I landed.  What I found most interesting was that despite conscious efforts to diversify my characters, I still suffered from a touch of “me-ism” where my characters reflected my own experiences as a queer white woman.  After looking at my numbers, I made an extra effort to increase characters of color, both from my own culture and others around the world.  The results were very rewarding.  I have sold many of the new stories I wrote, and I feel like I learned more about the world as a result of the research I’ve done.  In fact, both the stories I’ve sold to Asimov’s stemmed in part from my desire to include more characters of color.  “Lion Dance,” which will be out in August 2012, has mainly Chinese-American characters; my forthcoming novella “The Weight of the Sunrise” is an alternate history with mostly Incan characters.  My diversity analysis directly contributed to my development of both stories.

LUC: What’s the difference for you, if any, between writing a character from a culture that no one living has experienced and writing a character from a contemporary culture or group that isn’t yours? Do you worry about “getting it wrong”?

VYLAR: The biggest difference is ease of research.  If there are living people in the culture, it’s my responsibility to be a good listener and learn everything I can.  If it’s historical research, I’m forced to rely more heavily on books–but it’s still crucial to read accounts from people who lived in and wrote about their own culture. This question is actually more about primary sources than about diversity; you need to find sources written by people in whatever culture you’re working with, whether that’s the Roman Empire, the New Orleansjazz scene in the 20s, or modern teenagers in Nagasaki.  It’s easier when there are living people to email, because they essentially write some primary sources for you.

Of course I worry about getting it wrong.  If I didn’t worry, I shouldn’t be writing it.  I’m sure I’ll get something wrong, or maybe I already have.  All I can do is try my best. If someone points out a mistake, I need to listen and learn gracefully (instead of getting defensive).

LUC: In addition to races and ethnicities, you identified and measured how many of your characters fell into some other often-disregarded groups, such as seniors, people with disabilities, and people in working class families. Does the issue of racial diversity in characters have a different kind of status or different challenges than some of these others? Do these other groups pose special challenges for writers?

VYLAR: Every kind of diversity has its own challenges.  Some are easier to show in text than in others, just by their nature.  I think many writers are more afraid of writing characters from different racial backgrounds than some of the other “isms,” and I’m not entirely sure why that barrier seems harder than other ones.  I do think that the book “Writing the Other” by Nisi Shawl is a great way to learn how to explore these boundaries and diversify the characters in your fiction.  Sorry to have an incomplete answer here, but I think other writers have covered this topic far more eloquently than I.  The Carl Brandon Society is dedicated to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the speculative fiction community, and their set of resources will be very useful for a writer looking to learn about this topic.

LUC: How included do you yourself feel in the novels and stories you read? Is it a different experience from when you were young? Is inclusiveness in your writing ever a response to what you’re reading?

VYLAR:I generally prefer writers who make an effort to have diverse characters in their fiction, so this hasn’t been a huge problem for me.  Sometimes I find story ideas by asking myself, “Who’s not being written about?”  And the answer to that stems from what I’ve been reading and seeing in current sf/f stories and novels.

Vylar Kaftan is a Nebula-nominated author, about three dozen of whose stories have been published in places such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Realms of Fantasy.  She has new work coming out in Asimov’s this year.  She’s the founder of FOGcon, a new literary sf/f convention in the San Francisco area, and she blogs at
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