The Universe of Xuya


Wondering about the Hugo-award nominated Universe of Xuya?

Xuya is a series of novellas and short stories set in a timeline where Asia became dominant, and where the space age has Confucian galactic empires of Vietnamese and Chinese inspiration: scholars administrate planets, and sentient spaceships are part of familial lineages. It is a finalist for Best Series in the 2019 Hugo awards.


Because I see this more and more: the dominant inspiration of the Xuya series currently is Vietnamese culture (Kinh/Việt, to be specific, which is the dominant ethnicity and the one I’m descended from). While some of the very early Xuya stories feature protagonists of Chinese descent in a Chinese-inspired empire (namely: “The Lost Xuyan Bride”, “Butterfly, Falling at Dawn”, “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, “Starsong”), all the recent work is based on Vietnamese culture (by “recent” I mean anything published after On a Red Station, Drifting, so anything from 2013 onwards).

The fact that Vietnamese and Chinese culture have similarities doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable, so I would very much appreciate for the recent Xuya stories not to be referred to as Chinese.


By now the universe has grown rather large, so I’m sure you’d appreciate some pointers on where to start… The stories are standalone–the chronological order is below but the main connections are the recurring universe rather than the characters or plot!

Like award-winning short fiction? 

“Immersion” won the Nebula and Locus Award. “Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” was a finalist for the Locus Award and won a BSFA Award. And “A Salvaging of Ghosts” was reprinted in two Year’s Best anthologies.

Prefer longer fiction? 

The Tea Master and the Detective, a gender-swapped retelling of Sherlock Holmes with Watson as a sentient spaceships, won a Nebula Award and a British Fantasy Award.

On a Red Station, Drifting, was a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo and Locus Awards. It’s about half the length of a standard novel (just shy of 40k).

“The Waiting Stars” won a Nebula. It’s a longer short story (10k): you can find it in Athena Andreadis’s The Other Half of the Sky, here. Or it’s available to read here.

Want author’s favorites?

This is a bit like picking favourite children, but all right. “The Days of War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile” is the short story I wrote ten days after giving birth to my first son. “Scattered Along the River of Heaven”  is the very first story I wrote that scared me because it was so personal–it’s about diaspora and memory. “The Breath of War” is my war and pregnancy story. And The Tea Master and the Detective is my gender-swapped retelling of Sherlock Holmes in space, with Watson as a traumatised transport warship and Holmes as an eccentric scholar looking for a corpse to study.


The premise of Xuya is that China discovered the Americas before the West, and that the exploration of this new continent prevented China from sinking inwards (not to mention being invaded by the Manchu, who later founded the ill-fated Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty). Xuya (旴 涯), a Chinese colony founded in the 15th Century in North America, plays a central role in the stories.

You’ll notice this is only partially filled (one of the most glaring omissions being the 20th Century): there’s a lot of corners of this universe where I haven’t quite decided what happened yet, and I’m basically leaving blanks until I can firm up the timeline.

A couple keypoints worth noting in this new chronology: the early arrival of the Chinese brought smallpox much ahead of schedule, devastating the native populations about a century before our timeline. By the time Colombus arrives on the scene, most of the Mexica are considered to be already immunised to the pox.

Also, due to the success of maritime expeditions, the Chinese capital does not move back to the isolated, northern city of Beijing, but remains in Nanjing, a town much closer to the sea, where the Emperor can keep an eye on the maritime traffic.
A stronger Chinese empire means one that is much less vulnerable to Western predations: though the 19th century isn’t conflict-free, it’s not quite the disaster that it was in the real world. As a result, the Empire survives the turn of the 20th century, though it becomes more equalitarian (notably admitting women into the ranks of its officials in the middle of the 20th century and authorising polyandry).

Xuya ( 旴 涯, from “xū”, “first light of the morning”, and “yá”, “shore”, Hù Nhười in Sino-Vietnamese) is used in the beginning to refer to the whole continent, but after the independence it becomes the name of the new country of Chinese Ancestry on the West Coast. The government is modelled on that of the motherland: an emperor, a Grand Secretariat, and a meritocracy of scholars recruited through state-wide examinations. The capital of Xuya is Dongjing (Capital of the East), but the most dynamic city is Fenliu (roughly in the same location as today’s San Francisco).

Greater Mexica covers today’s Mexico and a large northern part overlapping Texas, Arizona, Lousiana, Florida and New Mexico. Its capital is Tenochtitlan (in the same location as Mexico City). It’s more of an oligarchy than an empire: though it has a supreme ruler in the person of the Revered Speaker, the position is only semi-hereditary, the new Revered Speaker being chosen by the highest officials from those of imperial blood.

The US is much smaller than today, amputated of its western and southern regions. In the 20th-21st Century, it underwent a period of economic depression and isolationism, with an overt racist policy prohibiting mixed-race relationships. (and, uh, yes, there is still a United States, mainly because the Chinese don’t make much progress moving eastwards, just as the English didn’t make much progress westwards in the first decades of the colonisation process. There are still English ships landing in Virginia, and the history of the United States is pretty much the same, barring minor details, at least up to the end of the 18th Century).

Other major players in the region include Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire (which, again, is larger than its 15th-century counterpart), and the Mayas, who hold the bit of Central America the Mexica haven’t conquered (south of Mexico’s current location).

You’ll be wondering about Asia. So far, the only thing I’ve worked on is the history of Vietnam/Đại Việt, which goes pretty much on schedule till the 18th century (mid Tây Sơn period). The one thing that happened in history and which doesn’t happen here is the rise of the Nguyễn in 1802, Vietnam’s last dynasty: China is still strong enough to send invasion troops, which are not defeated, while the French, desperate for a colonial empire of their own, are keen to occupy Đại Việt (instead of supporting the first Nguyễn Emperor Gia Long with money, men and guns, as they did in our time period). There is thus a brief period when the South of Đại Việt is occupied by France, and the North by China–both countries fighting each other by proxy at the boundary. This ends through a combination of events–internal and external troubles, which lead to the rise of a new Việt emperor. This new dynasty spearheads Việt independence: the country will never again be subject to Chinese rule, though it is a loose part of the Chinese influence sphere. It also marks a departure from the strict Confucianism that had marked the court till then–which prevents Vietnam from closing up like a clam.
In the 20th Century, Đại Việt, like the rest of Asia, goes through a period of poverty and political instability, which leads to the arrival of many Đại Việt in Xuya. You can see a few of those in Foreign Ghosts, the unpublished Xuya novel (and their descendants in The Shipmaker).



1411 (reign of the Yongle Emperor in Ming-dynasty China): the power struggle between the eunuchs and the Confucian scholars at the imperial court resolves itself in favour of the eunuchs (the Confucians wanted to look inwards in order to rebuild a country purged from Mongol influence, the eunuchs favoured trade as a way to enrich themselves). At the same time as Zheng He‘s ships sail towards Ceylon, another fleet, headed by the eunuch Sijian Ma, heads east along the coast, with the avowed aim to fight off Japanese pirates. However, struck by typhoons, the fleet finds itself drifting further north than foreseen, and crosses the Bering Strait, landing in Alaska. Fortunately for Sijian Ma, his crew include Mongols, more used to rigorous winters, which allows him to survive, repair his ships and return to Nanjing.
Over the next decades, other ships explore the new land, which is christened Xuya [1]. Not finding any nation worth speaking to (the Chinese, used to central government, deem most native populations barbarians), the explorers move south along the West Coast, until they finally meet the expanding Mexica (Aztec) Empire of Moctezuma I. A trade alliance is struck, and gunpowder is imported to Xuya in exchange for jade and semiprecious stones.

1492: Colombus reaches Hispaniola. However, his successors will not find easy pickings on the continent, which is now defended by the loose alliance between Chinese and Mexica. The Spanish colonial empire will be limited to the islands of the Carribean, and Florida.

Meanwhile, in the north, exploration progresses on much the same schedule as in the real world, leading to the establishment of French and English colonies in the northeast of America.

Independence and territorial expansion

Circa 1770: the US declare their independence from England.

Circa 1810: Political and economical troubles in China. Xuya declares its independence from the motherland.

Circa 1820: rise of a new Việt imperial dynasty, the Rồng (=”dragon”). Đại Việt throws out both the French and the Chinese.

19th century: both Xuya and the US move inland. Greater Mexica has moved past the Rio Grande (occupying parts of today’s Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Lousiana). A few skirmishes between pioneers escalate into a full-blown war.

Circa 1850: Tripartite War over colonised territory.

Circa 1860: A fragile peace is struck in Fell City, on the western border of Colorado. Xuya keeps all the lands west of the Rocky Mountains; the United States the northeast of America, and Greater Mexica a large part of the South (making the country itself much larger than today’s Mexico).

The Modern Era

Circa 1982: Revered Speaker Ixtli is named to the head of Greater Mexica by a divided council. Anxious to establish his legitimacy, he purges the council and the government at all levels. This degenerates into a bloodbath, and a rebel faction seizes the opportunity to start a civil war.

1985-1992: Mexica Civil War. The war ends when Palli, a youth of imperial blood, seeks shelter in Xuya, and gives the Xuyans a pretext to intervene in their neighbours’ affairs. After a protracted invasion, Palli is instated as Revered Speaker in 1992, conducting a policy of open trade.

1986: Events of “The Jaguar House, in Shadow” (Asimov’s, July 2010).

1990: Events of “Fleeing Tezcatlipoca” (Space and Time, June 2010 issue).

2004: Racial riots in Fenliu, started by a magistrate ignorant of Mayan rites.

2005: Events of “The Lost Xuyan Bride” (Interzone, issue 213, November 2007).

2006: Events of “Butterfly, Falling at Dawn” (Interzone, issue 219, November 2008. Reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection

The Space Age
21st century: The development of Minds, large AIs capable of piloting ships into deep space, soon becomes the key to colonising space.
Somewhere in the 21st-22nd century:
-events of “Starsong” (Asimov’s, July 2012). The events in “Starsong” are the inciting incident that leads to the development of Minds.
-events of “Shipbirth” (Asimov’s, February 2011)
-events of “The Shipmaker” (Interzone 231. Reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection).
-events of “Ship’s Brother”Interzone July 2012
-events of “Two Sisters in Exile”, Solaris Rising 1.5
-events of “Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight”, Clarkesworld, January 2015
-events of “In Blue Lily’s Wake”, Meeting Infinity, ed Jonathan Strahan, December 2015
-events of “Crossing the Midday Gate”, To Shape the Dark, ed Athena Andreadis, May 2016
-events of “A Salvaging of Ghosts”Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2016
-events of “Pearl”, The Starlit Wood ed. Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien, Saga Press, October 2016
-events of “The Dragon that Flew out of the Sun, Cosmic Powers ed. John Joseph Adams, Saga Press, reprinted in Uncanny Magazine
-events of “The Citadel of Weeping Pearls”, Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2015 issue, reprinted as standalone book

Also somewhere in the 22nd Century but in another corner of space altogether:
-events of “Scattered Along the River of Heaven”, Clarkesworld, January 2012
-events of “Immersion”, Clarkesworld, June 2012
-events of On a Red Station, Drifting, Immersion Press, December 2012
-events of “The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile”, Subterranean Spring 2014 issue
-events of “The Weight of a Blessing”, Clarkesworld, March 2013
-events of “Memorials”, in Asimov’s. Reprinted in Apex Magazine, June 2016
-events of “The Waiting Stars”, The Other Half of the Sky, ed. Athena Andreadis, 2013
-events of “A Slow Unfurling of Truth”, Carbide-Tipped Pens, 2014
-events of “The Frost on Jade Buds”, Solaris Rising 32014

-events of “A Hundred and Seventy Storms”, Uncanny Magazine July 2016 issue
-events of The Tea Master and the Detective, standalone book, Subterranean 2017
-events of Seven of Infinities, standalone book, Subterranean 2020
-events of “Rescue Party”Mission Critical, ed Jonathan Strahan, July 2019

Those are my “colonised space stations” stories, which take place in a corner of space where a Galactic (Western) culture rubs against a diminished imperial Chinese/Vietnamese culture.
(and yup, the universe is totally getting bigger all the time!)

And in a completely different corner of space:
“The Breath of War”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies March 2014

So, about those other authors working in similar universes…
I frequently get the remark that both Chris Roberson and Thomas Harlan are writing futures where the Aztecs and China (Japan in Thomas Harlan’s stories) are the dominant cultures. I was completely unaware of this before I started working on Xuya, and I’ve barely read them, so any resemblances between their universe and mine are purely coincidental. The “Asia and Mesoamerica become dominant world powers” is, fortunately, an idea large enough to accomodate a variety of approaches.

Any connections between Servant of the Underworld/Obsidian & Blood and Xuya?
Well, there are Aztecs in both…
Seriously though, Servant of the Underworld is a different beast from Xuya, since it’s basically an Aztec historical fantasy with magic. Xuya is… well, a historical fantasy with Aztecs, if you get right down to it: the parallel universe is plausible, but does require a lot of handwaving to come into being. But it’s still more SF than fantasy, if you’re someone for whom that sort of distinction matters.
I did reuse a lot of the research I did into Ancient Mexico in both universes, though, so there are definitely a bunch of similarities in the earlier stories.