MIND MELD: What Cultures Are Neglected in Science Fiction and Fantasy?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Please let us know!]
An overwhelming number of fantasy and science fiction novels borrow from the same Western European cultural tropes, images and ideas. From the Hobbit to A Game of Thrones, a lot of novels and stories do not look beyond some overused cultures and civilizations as inspirations or even settings.
Our question for this week’s fearless panelists:
Here’s what they said…
Almost all of them are under-used and almost none of them are utterly ignored. And there are reasons for both of those things to be true. Most fantasy and science fiction is less in conversation with real history and culture than it is with other fantasy and science fiction literature, so there winds up being a feedback loop in which fantasy is about faux-medieval quasi-Europe because it’s all in the shadow of Tolkien (rather than because of some particular virtue of faux-medieval quasi-Europe). And at the same time, genre writers try new things and reach for the unfamiliar in a way that encourages experimentation with non-standard cultures. Barry Hughart’s The Bridge of Birds, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood books, and Who Fears Death? by Nnedi Okorafor all come to mind. All of them are bringing something to the table that broadens that conversation within the genre, but none of them have yet brought that so much into the mainstream that their settings have become standard.
If I got to pick what cultures and civilizations got more stage time in our genres, I’d like to see more of India, especially in the era of the East India Company. I think having a fantasy set in a similar place and time would open up some really interesting possibilities. I’d also like to see more use of eastern Europe and Russia of the kind that Ekaterina Sedilla and Catherynne Valente have been doing.
More than particular civilizations and cultures, though, I’d be very interested in seeing more stories set in contexts of poverty. Class is the third rail of American culture, and when I see what noir does with rural poverty in something like Winter’s Bone, it makes me interested in seeing something similar in other genres.
Given that so much of our genre has historically been the product of a narrow band of human beings with a relatively narrow area of interests I’d say without actually surveying it that the answer to this must be MOST of them. Whether you regard said inspiration as plundering or reinvigorating is probably another question, but given the way writers operate it won’t make any different – everything is grist to the mill and the mill grinds what it will. Now that the internet is here making it so much easier to have access to previously-tough-to-find anthropological information I guess things will change and anything with a relatively rich fabulism will find itself put to new use.
One thing that’s so exciting about SF/F right now is that many writers are exploring cultures that aren’t as well-trodden in the genre. In no particular order:
Nnedi Okafor’s powerful Who Fears Death is set in a post-apocalyptic Africa, but very much draws from contemporary issues, and despite some extremely grim events manages to be hopeful.
I’m seeing more stories now with Asian settings as well. Cindy Pon’s YA books Silver Phoenix/ Fury of the Phoenix are set in Xia, an alternate China, and employ hunger-inducing descriptions of food as well as creepy monsters. Richard Park’s Lord Yamada stories at Beneath Ceaseless Skies are set in Japan. I don’t know of any SF/F set in Korea, either historical or contemporary, but would love to see some.
I’m very much looking forward to Elizabeth Bear’s forthcoming Range of Ghosts, which will have cultures analogous to those of the Central Asian steppe. One of our own forthcoming books, Blackdog by K. V. Johansen, is not directly analogous but has a similar steppe-culture feel.
There have been several books out recently set in or drawing from various periods of Russian/ Soviet history. Jasper Kent’s Danilov Quintet begins with Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow in 1812 and follows the Danilov family to 1917 in a Russia suffering the depredations of the vampires it invited in and can’t get rid of. Cathrynne Valente’s Deathless combines the Russian folktale of Koschei the Deathless with a Soviet-era setting, while Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow is set in the 1990s. Ken MacLeod’s forthcoming Restoration Game takes place in a near-future informed by the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
I’d love to see more books set in contemporary South America, and more books drawing from Native American/ First Nations culture, both past and contemporary. I would be thrilled to read stories set in Hawai’i, as well as Australia and New Zealand– I’m aware of Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead, which has Maori elements, but have yet to read it. I’d welcome suggestions about any books or stories I’m missing.
I’m also interested in books that take several cultures and give them an alternate history together. Kate Elliott describes Cold Magic as “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman Regency novel.” I haven’t read it yet, but that description is certainly enticing. Fusion history sounds as fun as fusion cuisine.
Under-used world cultures and settings?
Perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places, but while there’s tons of stuff in temperate zones, I don’t see a whole lot set in the tropics, particularly urban Latin America (Panama through Colombia). And for world cultures, non-medieval Spanish cultures aren’t being done a lot. I’m not talking about Castenada nor about the magic realists, but the current folklore and society of around 7% of the world’s population.
Spain has a vibrant science fiction tradition, but I’m not seeing it translated, or used, in the English-speaking SF world.
The old places are too familiar: sci-fi set in MegaMetropolis, fantasy in pseudo-mediaeval country. New locations sometimes arise, but they remain unique, or, if they generate sufficient appeal, they can spawn enough imitations to win a subgenre label. Our fictional cultures and civilisations are reused and recycled, just as Hollywood has developed a peculiar demographic and aesthetic that little resembles reality. We live in the real world, but we prefer to step into the Matrix for our fiction.
It would be interesting if we could scale back the Hollywood and absorb some influences from Bollywood, Nollywood and wuxia. But, given that they too have their flaws, it would be even more interesting if our new fictional worlds were not obtained second-hand from old fiction, but primary-sourced from the real. The real is complex, changing and surprising. Its truths are vulnerable when documented by the hostile, uncomprehending, or fetishising researcher. In spite of (and because of) these challenges, quality, not quantity, should be the aim. Why list underused cultures and civilisations when we can’t even do justice to the ones we’ve already have?
For science fiction, clearly: white male scientists! In fantasy: Ireland.
In all seriousness, my first impulse was to say Africa, but I think that more and more authors are turning to Africa for fantasy and science fiction settings — particularly authors like Nnedi Okorafor and Stephen Barnes among others. I used North Africa, specifically Egypt, for the setting of my new science fiction novel _Resurrection Code_. Very likely, however, we could still more science fiction, in particular, that uses Africa as a setting.
My next guess was going to be the Arab world, but Saladin Ahmad had been taking up that setting quite nicely. In fact, I just discovered and really enjoyed a couple of his short stories: “A Judgment of Sword and Souls” a fantasy that I listened to at PodCastle, but which was originally published in IGMS, and a science fiction story “A Faithful Soldier, Prompted” which appeared in the all-Arab/Muslim issue of Apex Magazine last November. He will have a new novel set in the Arab world _Throne of the Crescent Moon_ coming out in February of next year from DAW.
What about American Indians? I remember being really struck that the actor who played Helo on the new “Battlestar Galactica” was a First Nations actor, and that’s not something you see a lot: Native Americans in space/in the future. Of course, there was Chakotay on “Voyager,” so maybe I’m wrong. There is also Eleanor Arnason’s “Mammoths of the Great Plains” is a lovely science fiction/alternate history (with a fantasy feel) novella.
So what setting or culture is completely untapped? I’m not sure, but, focusing on science fiction, I would like to see more Latino/Latina characters represented. I feel like Mexico and South America could use a bit more attention, though my friend and fellow writer Barth Anderson set his near-future novel _Patron Saint of Plagues_ in Mexico City. He followed that book up with a fantasy that takes place partly in Central America, _The Magician and the Fool_.
As far as cultures go, I’m still always up for more queerness in science fiction and fantasy. I know that, for me, finding echoes of myself in science fiction stories like Theodore Sturgeon’s “World Well Lost” and fantasy like that written by Elizabeth A. Lynn were critical to my survival. I’m not entirely being hyperbolic there, either, because growing up in a small Wisconsin town in the 1970s, science fiction was, in point of fact, my version of “It Gets Better.”
I know that things like “Race Fail” have made white authors like myself a little nervous about writing characters of color, but I think that’s mistake. The far bigger mistake is to dismiss/ignore a future of color or claim a future “beyond race.” Because what we say about the future is what we say about ourselves. I continue to hope that “it gets better.”
Everything outside of the British Isles/Atlantic Archipelago.
“I’m never contrarian (!) but it does feel a bit wrong to imagine writers cynically prowling in search of underexploited real estate in fantasy. (Maori! Toltec!). The key, surely, is to work from within, let research be guided by what engages, animates; for authors to be steered not by claim-staking but by passion. I am happier reading, say, another Renaissance-inspired work if it is genuinely inspired, rather follow a writer who has done routine due diligence on some apparently under-used time and place purely because there was no one else exploiting it. If a writer’s intense engagement steers them to new settings, that’s wonderful – for all of us. But intense engagement + talent will give us something wonderful, even in areas covered before.”
I can’t really answer that much for fantasy, though I could imagine a dearth of South American-inspired -and-located epic fantasy. Science fiction is indeed more my area. There the landscape is a little different –there’s always been the tradition of the ‘one-culture-planet’ in which one Earth nation has enetirely settled one extrasolar planet and written the homeland extemely large across the stars. One of the funkiest examples was Richard Lupoff’s ‘With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Li’l Ole new Alabama’, which, IIRC, featured a spacewar betwen New Alabama and New Haiti –and some very cool zombies.
I set my novel ;River of Gods’ and the story collection ‘Cyberabad Days’in India because it seemd to me that it was a global culture that had been largely overlooked by Western Science Fiction. Likewise, I’ll never (but then again, never say never) set a novel in China becaiuse it’s too obvious and too much the default state of the imagination when we in the West think of ‘Asia’. I’ve been reading about Central Asia recently (not Fantastika) and it’s fascinating and pretty underrepresented — I can think of Geoff Ryman’s ‘Air’ and that’s about it. ‘The Dervish House’ is set in Turkey –or, more specifically, Istanbul, because it seemed to me that here was a major country undergoing an economic and political boom withan inteersting Imperial past that had really featured in SF before,
North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa –particularly West Afruca, which is where I suspect the next global boom will happen– seem poorly represented. Indonesia and the Pacific nations –though I’m thinking a little about them for the putative Next Novel. Germany! And, where I’m writing this, at a convention in Stockholm, Sweden and Scandinavia (though Norse myth is one course one of the preferred fuels for fantasy). I’ve been visiting the former Yugoslavia in the past year and it’s one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. Of course, my own home country of Northern Ireland is a tad neglected –but then again there’s Stina Leicht’s ‘Of Blood and Honey‘. Writers from all over the planet are looking around them at the world and engaging sensibilities with geopolitics. That’s exciting.
Because the majority of speculative fiction in the English language is written by and for people whose culture is based on Western Europe, the majority of cultures represented in the field are based on those civilizations, whether Roman or Celtic or Greece. However, even when an author turns their attention to a non-Western civilization, in writing about it in (or using it as the basis for) a work of speculative fiction, they have a tendency to view the culture through the lens of that same Western civilization which informs so much of the average reader’s world view.
Several science fiction authors over the years have explored other cultures, and although there have been some egregious examples (Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan stories spring to mind), other authors have been able to write about different cultures with respect and accuracy, using foreign cultures to tell their stories, from Raymond Feist & Janny Wurts’s Korean based Empire Trilogy to Kara Dalkey’s Indian-based Blood of the Goddess trilogy. Other authors have made good use of their own cultures as the basis for their speculative fiction, whether it is Nalo Hopkinson or Tobias Buckell using the Caribbean, Somtow Sucharitkul’s use of Thailand, Nnedi Okorafor and Nigeria, or Ekaterina Sedia and Russia.
In a lot of cases, a potentially interesting historical culture has only left behind tantalizing hints about day to day life and beliefs, nothing tangible enough to form the basis of the type of culture needed to create the background for a work of speculative fiction. Therefore, the Angkor Wat society, or Timbuktu traders, or the Clovis culture (a moniker which always makes me think of Merovingians in America), are not ripe for fully realized settings in science fiction or fantasy.
One problem with writing in a foreign culture is the potential for cultural misappropriation, especially when there are people who belong to that culture who feel that an author’s use of their heritage is disrespectful or outright incorrect in its representation. For this reason, writing about long-dead, or extremely altered, historical cultures provides a degree of safety for the author. When writing about any culture that isn’t one’s own, the author should be careful to do their research and treat the culture with respect. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward offer a writers workshop, Writing the Other, and have an accompanying book, Writing the Other: A Practical Guide to help authors with the complexities of writing in a foreign culture. (http://www.sfwa.org/members/shawl/other/)
But the focus on the Mind Meld is supposed to be on some of the under-represented cultures, which are legion, that speculative fiction could make use of. Some intriguing cultures which spring to mind include the Basques, the Armenians, any of a number of different African and Asian cultures. While certain major cultures around the world do find themselves used in various ways, including India, Brazil, and Russia, many of the different cultures surrounding those areas are overlooked. There isn’t a lot of SF that draws from Bangladesh, Uruguay, or Kazakhstan. And, of course, each of those and so many more cultures can draw from history. The only stagnant culture is the dead one (and even then, our understanding can continue to change).
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