Xuya, or why alternate history


So, I’ve finished the editing pass on Foreign Ghosts, which took it from first draft with a beginning and an ending to first draft I could lob off to poor Matthieu. And I’ve been thinking a lot about Xuya, my alternate-history universe, and why I write alternate history.

At its heart, Xuya is, like any alt-hist, about big changes. In this case, a scenario often considered: that China would have discovered America a century before the Europeans. Most of the changes I then posit are borderline plausible: the first European explorers find a Mesoamerican population already immune to smallpox and the other European diseases, and backed by Chinese gunpowder. The history of the American continent thus essentially happens without the Spanish occupation, resulting in my tripartite North America: Xuya (the Chinese), Greater Mexica (the Aztecs), and the United States (mostly English, with a dash of other immigrants).

There’s a lot of handwaving involved: I don’t think a century would be enough to recover from a plague, and the 15th-Century Chinese never demonstrated particular scientific ability–in particular, while they had gunpowder, they never made any efficient use of it as a weapon.

But that’s not the main point of Xuya. It’s not a prediction of what the future might have looked like, anymore than most SF universes are (SF’s predictive capacities have been mostly disastrous: see, for instance, the inability of most Golden Age writers to predict the rise of Internet or any kind of network). It’s not a sandbox for what the world would have been like under great empires, because I don’t really believe in a bipolar or tripolar world; I’m a child of globalisation, which has proved that although the US dominate some of the world’s economy, the actual geopolitical situation is a complex, shifting tangle of allegiances that would take a lot of time to apprehend.

It’s not exactly that I’m lazy, but rather that I’m, at heart, not really interested by politics. What I’m fascinated by instead is cultures: how they are born, how they evolve in response to both external and internal stimuli (encounters with other cultures, the birth of new technologies), how they establish themselves in other circumstances. At heart, Xuya is about culture boundaries: about the outsiders who seek to fit in but do not have the innate capacity to do so; about the children of two cultures who wonder where their place is; about the way cultures in the same city will learn to come to terms with each other.

Because it’s all very well to be born a Chinese in China, but what will you do when you immigrate to China–will you try to hold on to your culture and your religion, which is what moulded you into what you are now, or will you try to fit into Chinese culture, knowing that it’s ultimately impossible, because no matter how well you ape the local customs, you’ll never have the unconscious understanding of the Chinese culture that comes from having been born and raised within it?

That was the heart of “Butterfly, Falling at Dawn”, with the two sisters, Coaxoch and Papalotl, both representing two differing attitudes of Mexica migrants: Coaxoch, who opened a Mexica restaurant and stayed mostly in the company of Mexica, chose to cling to her culture in the face of change; and Papalotl, who broke the social taboos of the Mexica by having a succession of lovers, was the one who rejected as much of her culture as she could. Hue Ma, who chose to abandon the Mexica ways to become a Xuyan magistrate, was the extreme of that position: rather than retain anything of her culture, she chose to be subsumed within the dominant culture.

It was also an important component of “The Lost Xuyan Bride”, with both main characters choosing to become outsiders: Brooks in Xuyan culture, and another character ultimately emigrating and becoming part of a totally different culture.

And it’s going to be–God willing–an important part of Foreign Ghosts, since the novel reprises the two main characters of “The Lost Xuyan Bride” and “Butterfly, Falling at Dawn” and shoves them together for extra fun.

It’s not really something that I set out to do consciously (in fact, I only worked this out about three months ago, well into Foreign Ghosts and a year after writing the original stories), but it’s a pretty significant theme, at least for me. In many ways, I consider myself an outsider–to French culture, both by virtue of the mixed-raced thing and the two-year stint in London, which gave me a very different outlook on things–and to SF culture, because I write in English, while English is neither my first language nor the language of my everyday life.

So that’s what Xuya is really about: it’s this huge sandbox that exacerbates cultural differences. In my alternate North America, I have cultures from three different continents (Asia, Pre-Columbian America, and Europe), and the cultural differences go way beyond languages: the Xuyans (Chinese), to whom blood and blood sacrifice is distasteful, have to deal with the Mexica (Aztecs), for whom it’s vital and respectful; the Europeans, who tend to have a very individualistic world-view, have to cope with the Xuyans, for whom the individual must give way to the needs of their family. How characters deal with this, in the end, reveals a lot about who they are, because there are few more sensitive subjects than culture, which cuts right to the heart of what you believe and the assumptions you make about the world.

I hope I can work more stories into this universe–they’re not always easy to write, but they sure are interesting.

(and, by way of cultural bonus, and because I’m muchly impressed by Tales of the Otori at the moment, Lian Hearn’s take on Writing Other Cultures. Hits a lot of points worth considering, and that I’m still struggling with)


  1. Thanks for writing this, liloo. Even though I don’t write alternate history (too involved, too difficult), I’ve certainly enjoyed reading it, in your stories and others, and I’ve thought over the same question. Why alternate history? I’ve considered it mostly in a broader guise: Why appropriate historical cultures for speculative writing in the first place? I failed to come up with anything decisively satisfying, but your points are cogent and well taken. Next time the question comes up with a friend, I’ll try to remember to point them here for the author’s perspective.


  2. No problem, thanks for dropping by! It’s been bugging me for a while. I do find the whole research phase of alternate history to be fun, which also explains why I can afford to launch myself into crazy endeavours like this.
    Why appropriate historical cultures for speculative writing in the first place?
    I’m not sure what you mean there… Why use historical cultures for spec writing, or why are some cultures particularly appropriate to spec fic? Both would make interesting subjects…

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