Monday, September 21, 2009

"On Horizon's Shores" - by Aliette deBodard

"On Horizon's Shores" actually started as an earth-based story. I wanted to write something in the future, in a world where global warming had made the sea levels rise drastically, and where the depleted stocks of petrol were replaced with fuel culled from huge algae fields.

I ran into a snag at the research stage, though.

It turns out that the Earth is incredibly hard to flood: even supposing that both ice caps melt, the global sea level rise would be a few dozen meters--not really a spectacular flood, but more a gnawing-away of the coastlines. To be fair, it would still have meant catastrophes (there are, naturally, a lot of cities on the seashores), but nothing on the scale I wanted for the story. I brainstormed it a bit with my boyfriend, who doubles as my science consultant, but couldn't find any way to flood Earth that would feel realistic to me.

So I moved the story in space: the sea became that of another planet, and the protagonists expatriate Earthmen. Because I still wanted them to have been influenced by the sea-level rise, I had Thi Loan come from one of the flooded regions (the Mekong Delta, which is very low-altitude and would be one of the first massive tracts of land to go), and her husband Alex come from one of the safer areas--thus making him unable to understand in a visceral way the trauma of losing your home.

The aliens came from another story I had been sitting on for a while, one about language and how different physiologies would have different ways of expressing themselves. We use our vocal chords because that's the most practical way of communicating we have, but what if we could use some other signals, like the colours of our ruffs, or pheromones? That would imply a radically different way of thinking--in fact, it would make translation (already a chancy exercise from one human language to another) impossibly hard. In order to translate, you'd have to become the aliens.

The idea spoke a lot to me, as I'm always fascinated by people who have to stand on a boundary of some kind--most probably because as a half-French, half-Vietnamese who writes in English, I'm already standing on a lot of boundaries myself.

And, of course, you'll have spotted the trouble by now: I'd been piling up a lot of things in this story (and that's not even counting the galactic background, which has India spearheading the space race and Asia gradually ascending to take the place of the Western World).

When the time came to actually write an opening, I was juggling too many balls. The first attempt in media res left my first reader hopelessly baffled (I could tell by the number of question marks he left in the margins of the draft); the second attempt was good old-fashioned infodumping, several pages' worth of it. Fortunately, Edmund is a dab hand with the prose scissors: he cut away just the right amount of the opening, and devoted some of his awesome editing skills to the rest of my story until it all flowed much more smoothly.

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"On Horizon's Shores" by Aliette deBodard is available now in issue 14 of Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show

To learn more about the author, visit her website at:

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