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How to Level the Playing Field: Reexamining Power Dynamics in The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard


How to Level the Playing Field: Reexamining Power Dynamics in The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

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How to Level the Playing Field: Reexamining Power Dynamics in The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard


Published on February 22, 2023


SFF and romance grew from the soil of Gothic fiction, a genre whose hallmark has always been the allure and terror of the powerful outsider: Dracula, Rochester, Frankenstein’s monster. The two genres branched off from the question, Shall we kiss him or kill him?, with SFF choosing the latter and romance the former. In either case the natural order of society gets affirmed at the end, when the monster is either killed, or brought into the patriarchal fold via the taming institution of marriage.

This leaves both genres with deep-rooted ideological problems. Are we quite certain that the outsider deserves to be killed? Is it truly a monster, or is Lovecraft just really really racist? On the other hand, are we quite certain that we believe in the power of love to redeem the wicked? Does love really conquer all, or should the second Mrs. De Winter have grabbed Jasper and gotten the hell out of dodge?

My personal favorite type of alluring outsider—in romance or in SF or especially in the television program Black Sails—is the pirate. If there were a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for pirates, the lowest level would be pirate, and then as you went up the pyramid it would be captured by pirate and then captured by pirate you want to kiss, and like a naïve fool I would have said that was the end of the pyramid. But the galaxy-brained Aliette de Bodard correctly detected that there’s a whole other level at the tippity-top of the pyramid, which is captured by pirate who is also a sentient ship whose hot lady avatar you want to kiss. This is art; this is living; this is why we first crawled out of the sea.

The Red Scholar’s Wake, the latest entrant in de Bodard’s Xuya universe, opens with a marriage of convenience. Captured by pirates of the Red Banner, tech-savvy scavenger Xích Si can only hope to be killed or sold into indenture, until she meets the head of the banner, the recently widowed mindship Rice Fish. Rice Fish fears that one of her fellow pirate fleets was responsible for the death of her wife, and she wants Xích Si to use her powers of data analysis to find proof. Please do not worry too much about why they need to get married for this deal to work. They just do. Mind your own business.

Though the Xuya universe is far removed from the girl-fleeing-house Gothic novel, Rice Fish is the very model of a monstrous-seeming outsider, at least in Xích Si’s eyes. Xích Si fully expects her pirate captors to rape her, sell her into indenture, or murder her. While working a previous job as a scavenger, her close friend and ally was brutally tortured and killed by pirates, and Xich Si has no expectation of honor among thieves. Let alone kindness. Let alone kissing.

In the early days of genre romance, a captured (female) protagonist would, in all likelihood, be raped or otherwise abused and mistreated by her (male) love interest. Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, widely considered to have kick-started the reign of the bodice-ripper, laid out a pattern for this type of romance. Its heroine, Heather, is kidnapped by a ship captain who rapes her so many times I lost count, prior to eventually falling in love with her and living happily ever after. Imitators soon followed, and abduction and rape remained a staple of the genre. In the 1992 classic Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance, Daphne Clair argues:

Romantic heroes are arrogant autocrats and macho males…. Victory over a weak and ineffectual adversary is not worth having. But when a woman has a big, tough, powerful male on his knees and begging her to marry him, that’s a trophy worth having!

Feminist romance writers have been contending with this original sin from the genre’s inception. In a 1984 murder mystery, Gothic romance writer Barbara Michaels satirized the trend of romance authors who insisted that their heroines were “independent, sexually liberated women who control their own destiny”—despite the minor problem that they were all then falling in love with their rapists. While the unreconstructed alpha hero still shows up in some sectors of romance, the genre’s liberation wing delights in renegotiating those tropey power imbalances to create a satisfying, non-gross happy ending.

In The Red Scholar’s Wake, Aliette de Bodard navigates with a steady hand the rocky shoals of power, sex, love, romance, and normativity. Rice Fish begins with the power of life and death over Xích Si, although, unlike many of her romance forebears, she understands that when you are holding someone captive, you morally shouldn’t try to kiss them. From the first, she lays out clear parameters for the marriage, emphasizing to Xích Si that it’s a contract and nothing more. She gives Xích Si a staff of three (one mindship plus two extremely delightful twins), weapons for protection, and the power to lock Rice Fish’s consciousness out of her room.

When the attraction between them becomes undeniable, Rice Fish takes further steps to level the playing field. She gives Xích Si an emergency override key that will allow her to open any door in Rice Fish and leave the banner at any time (Xích Si will of course lose the protection of the Red Banner if she does this, but then, she didn’t have that protection before the book began, either). Perhaps more importantly, the key gives Xích Si access to Rice Fish’s heartroom, the physical space in the ship where Rice Fish’s mind and consciousness reside. It’s an act of trust and vulnerability that lessens Rice Fish’s power over Xích Si while handing Xích Si the ability—if she wishes—to do Rice Fish real harm. Moreover, their ultimate HEA requires Xích Si to save Rice Fish, reinforcing the equality of their romantic partnership through a direct reversal of their starting dynamic.

Throughout their relationship, the open question of monstrosity hangs between them. From Xích Si’s perspective, Rice Fish’s world is brutal and unjust, as captives who can’t pay ransom are sold into indenture or outright killed. The first time Xích Si lets her guard down in pirate society, she finds herself confronted with the hard reality of the Redeeming House, where indentures are bought and sold. She muses: “Violence and exercise of power… underpinned everything in pirate society. It could have been her in that market, but for the choice she’d been offered.”

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The Red Scholar's Wake
The Red Scholar's Wake

The Red Scholar’s Wake

The problem with outsiders is that they tend to have a point. Dr. Frankenstein really shouldn’t have built a whole person that would forever be doomed to live in isolation. If Killmonger hadn’t killed his girlfriend and disrespected Angela Bassett, a sizable chunk of the audience would have found it hard to keep rooting for the hereditary monarch to keep hoarding resources. Xích Si is accustomed to thinking of pirates as the bad guys, but she’s unable to deny that her life before Rice Fish was worse. Where she and her daughter Khanh lived in constant fear of being sold into indenture, children under the Red Banner may not be indentured. When Xích Si finds out that Khanh is in danger back home, it’s the resources of Rice Fish’s pirate banner that afford her the ability to save her little girl. As Rice Fish keeps arguing, and Xích Si finally comes to agree, the world of pirates is not any more monstrous than the one Xích Si came from, and it’s a world in which they two have the power to keep making things better.

Secure though she is in the comparative moral rectitude of her piracy, Rice Fish carries her own feelings of otherness and inadequacy as a mindship. In her previous marriage, her wife refused to be romantically or sexually intimacy with her (yes, mindships can have sex), and Rice Fish doesn’t expect, or believe that she deserves, the kind of marriage she desires.  She rejects Xích Si’s judgment of her monstrosity as an outsider to the so-called civilized world but desperately needs the assurance that she is worthy of the love she’s dreamt of, the love that she and Xích Si come to share.

Outsiders are perhaps not problems to be solved, as we’ve so often been asked to believe, but rather windows into a way of life that might have something to teach us, if we’re open to learning. De Bodard eschews easy answers, recognizing that the world is morally complex, and it’s possible—it’s imperative—to work for a better world in the knowledge that better won’t ever mean perfect. As much as Xích Si needs Rice Fish’s resources and vision to attain a safe and happy life for Khanh, Rice Fish needs Xích Si’s freely given love and hard-won ingenuity to survive the enemies who hunger for power and violence. Xích Si’s encounter with the outsider does not lead her to reaffirm the status quo, but to question the world she’s been given, and work to make it better.

Because as it turns out, the world offers us a richer tapestry of options when we encounter the monsters we’ve taught ourselves to fear. We can kill them, sure; we can kiss them if we want to; but maybe the best option of all is to become them, and let them become us. Just a little. Just enough.

Jenny Hamilton reads the end before she reads the middle. She reviews for Strange Horizons and Lady Business and can be found at her website or on Twitter @readingtheend.

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Jenny Hamilton


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