Aliette de Bodard is an engineer, writer and apprentice cook who lives in Paris, France, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a couple of Lovecraftian plants in the process of taking over the living room. Her trilogy of Aztec noir novels, Obsidian and Blood, has been published by Angry Robot; and her short fiction has won a Nebula, a British Science Fiction Association and a Writers of the Future Award. Her latest release is the SF novella On a Red Station, Drifting, a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo and Locus Awards. Visit AlietteDeBodard.com for more information (and recipes!).
by Aliette de Bodard
A copy editor once told me that I ought to stop writing detailed descriptions of food in my Obsidian and Blood Aztec novels; and they did have a point. Along with an over-enthusiastic love of the colon, em-dash and semi-colon, food porn is probably one of the most identifiable characteristics of my fiction.
I was probably doomed from a young age: coming from two families that both highly rated the importance of food and meals, I couldn’t help but grow up a food fanatic. For me, food is an essential element of worldbuilding: what people have on the table is as revelatory of a culture as religious beliefs or language. It is a matter of ingredients and dishes; a matter of meal customs and what they reveal; and of course a matter of food as a national pride and a reminder of home for exiles.
For instance, Vietnamese cuisine as practised by my maternal family clearly has influences from Chinese cuisine as well as from the cuisines of its neighbours in Southeast Asia (my maternal grandmother makes a curry that is very clearly a simplified version of a Thai green curry); but one can also trace the influx of dishes due to the French influence in Indochina: dishes such as banh mi (the Vietnamese version of a sandwich) and bo kho (which has more than a few similarities to boeuf bourguignon) are clearly the result of a fusion of ingredients and influences. It is a subject that never fails to fascinate me; equally fascinating is the evolution of Vietnamese cuisine in various overseas countries, as the cuisine mingles and merges with other dominant cultures (Vietnamese-American food and Vietnamese-French food are fascinating not-quite-mirrors of Vietnamese food in Vietnam, more like cousins than brothers or sisters). In my novella On a Red Station, Drifting, which features an alternate-history Vietnamese culture, I imagined that the production of fish sauce (a staple of Vietnamese food) would have been modified in order to adapt to space stations: notably, the fish sauce has different vintages, depending on the electromagnetic properties of the light the fish has been exposed to. Prosper Station, the main setting of the novella, derives its wealth from trading in fish sauce; and a major scene (which was a lot of fun to write) is set among the vats where their special fish sauce is fermented.
Meal customs, of course, are also equally important: there is a world of difference between a French and a Vietnamese meal. The former is generally composed of an appetiser, a main dish and a baked dessert; the Vietnamese meals I’m used to might have appetisers, but they will above all have a mixture of main dishes that people will pick from, and which are chosen in order to serve a balance of flavours at the table (my personal rule of thumb is three different salty dishes, one soup and one dish of vegetables). In fact, in restaurants it is considered impolite to order your own dish without paying attention to others, or not share what you are eating with the rest of the table, a source of great puzzlement to French people who eat with Vietnamese. Baked desserts are, generally speaking, not a great success; my maternal family usually goes for fresh fruit (again, understandable in a country where there is little wheat flour and therefore few possibilities to do complicated Western-style baking. Rice flour, tapioca flour and potato starch only get you so far).
When worldbuilding, those are factors I also try to keep in mind: that different cultures have different staple foods, different meal customs and different ideas of what is considered polite and impolite; and that a lot of this is influenced by the recent history of the culture. For instance, in On a RedStation, Drifting, though everyone is of Vietnamese origin, the banquet that is one of the centrepieces is a formal Chinese-style one; and the ranks of officials that determine placement at the banquet tables are also taken from Chinese history; because in that alternate universe China remained a global power from the 16th Century onwards, and its culture spread much farther in Asia than it did in our world.
The other thing about food, of course, is that it is one of the easiest things to miss when you leave the place it originated in. I’m sure everyone who has gone abroad has vivid memories of the staples they could no longer get: I’ve missed baguette and cheese in the United Kingdom (fortunately, pho was more easily available!); and viennoiseries in the US (you can find some, but they seldom taste like what I’m used to, being made in another country). When returning from Vietnam it’s taken me a while to adjust to the lack of tropical fruit such as rambutan, mango and pomelo; and to the impossibility to have a noodle soup for breakfast unless I’m ready to make my own broth (which is a time consuming experience I don’t often have the courage for…). As such, a lot of the food in my fiction becomes a sign of living in another culture; of travels and exile and alienation. In my short story “Immersion“, the dish of lemongrass chicken symbolises the culture one of the characters has tried to cut herself off from; and ultimately the impossibility of ever surrendering her childhood memories.
So that’s why there is food in my fiction; and why a lot of my time is spent devising meals in the streets, in homes, in restaurants, at banquets and festivals… It is a great worldbuilding tool; but more than that it is a strong cultural marker, and a powerful indication of what shapes people’s lives and memories–a very useful tool to have in my writer’s arsenal.
Well, that, and of course the fact that I enjoy making people hungry. I am a cook, after all…