Monday, February 5, 2018

Writing "Kite Dancer"

I was doing research for a different World War I story when I got a request to submit something to a steampunk anthology. I don't consider myself a steampunk writer, though I've been told sometimes that my stories resemble it, but World War I tends to be the later end of the steampunk period, so I figured I could probably write something appropriate with the research I was already doing. That's how "Kite Dancer" came about.

The book I was reading for research was Strangers on the Western Front by Guoqi Xu, which discusses the Chinese presence in Europe during World War I. It's a very obscure topic as most things taught about the western front focus on the conflict between the English, the French, and the Germans.

I hadn't gotten deep into the book yet, but one of the things that stood out to me, as a ethnic Chinese person raised in the United States, was how mistreated China was by the Entente, or Allied Powers (which included Japan and the UK), while China was still neutral. The British were actually surprised that when China entered the war, it chose the side of the Entente, precisely because they knew exactly how rotten they'd been. They thought that if China chose anyone, it would have been the Central Powers, because then China could reclaim all the territory that the British and the Japanese were holding.

The Chinese government at the time probably understood it was siding with its own abuser, but the prevailing thought was that if it was going to be on any side, it wanted to be the on winning one. This was a very weak period in Chinese history and the fledgling government wanted to make its debut on the world stage.

The thought that China could have sided with the Central Powers, and had a reasonable case to do so, stuck with me. So in my story, I made a justification in having Kaiser Wilhelm II going out of his way to woo China to join his side. It probably would not have taken a whole lot to push China a different direction. If the Germans had stood more of a chance, China might have gone with with the Central Powers in our world too.

This gave me a chance to write a World War I story told largely from the eyes of an outsider, Ke-feng, whose name is written in the old Wade-Giles romanization system to show the hold that colonization has had on her part of the country. Ke-feng is from Qingdao, then known as Tsingtau to the Germans and Tsingtao to the English speaking world, which was a German colony in the early part of the 20th century. If you ever wondered why there's a Chinese beer called Tsingtao you can thank/blame the Germans for that.

Because I like fantasy, I gave Ke-feng wind magic. It felt like something could have started as an art form and later weaponized with the advent of airships. If I was going to do steampunk and World War I, how could I not set a story on a zeppelin? This allowed the zeppelins to be the serious threat that they never were in real life. (Wind currents often carried them off target.)

And for fun I got to add in the airborne equivalent of an aircraft carrier. The larger naval ships were often named after German states, so I wanted to name my airborne carrier in the same fashion, only to find out that a lot of the good names were taken, so I looked at some of the former states that are no longer a part of Germany and found a couple potential ideas. Naming it the SMS Pomerania was vetoed on account of potentially reminding people of small dogs, so it became the SMS Silesia. The zeppelins themselves continued the numbering sequence from the real world under the assumption that the Germans made additional, more improved models in this alternate version of the war.

Ke-feng is a very angry individual thanks to having been reassigned on the opposite side of the globe from the part of the war she wanted to fight. She signed up to free her city from the Japanese, but because the Germans need kite dancers elsewhere, she finds herself all the way in western Europe in a battle between two countries that don't entirely matter to her.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the ending for this one, because I wanted to show the difference between individuals and the countries they belong to, so I hope that comes across.

Though I wrote "Kite Dancer" for an anthology, I ended up selling it to Galaxy's Edge instead, and you can currently read it there for free up until the end of February.

Music listened to while writing: "Brave Shine" by Aimer