[GUEST POST] Shaun Duke on World SF and the Global Archipelago of Worlds
Shaun Duke is a PhD. student at the University of Florida studying Caribbean literature, postcolonialism, and science fiction. His fiction and non-fiction publications can be found on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag, where he writes about SF/F and related topics (mostly, he just causes trouble nobody notices). He is also one of the hosts of The Skiffy and Fanty Show. He is also fundraising for travel expenses to attend Worldcon this August. He hopes to bring The Skiffy and Fanty Show and the World SF Tour there to expand the project’s scope. If you want to support the effort, head on over to the GoFundMe page, read about the milestone perks, donate, and spread the word.
by Shaun Duke
In Archaeologies of the Future (2005), Fredric Jameson proposes that we “think of our autonomous and non-communicating Utopias — which can range from wandering tribes and settled villages all the way to great city-states or regional ecologies — as so many islands: a Utopian archipelago, islands in the net, a constellation of discontinuous centers, themselves internally decentered” (221). While I won’t get into Jameson’s larger project here, I do want to take a moment to apply this idea of the archipelago to the world sf concept. To clarify, utopia here is perhaps a somewhat nebulous term, since Jameson’s use is certainly not the colloquial “perfect society” kind, but rather an “in the moment” utopianism whose primary concern isn’t an end result, but, as Ernst Bloch would suggest about utopia in The Principles of Hope (1954), a desire or drive. An intention, if you will.
World sf, I think, is a part of this tradition, though intention is, in most cases, not a necessary component. It is not utopian in a colloquial sense, but it is utopian in the sense of a desire. Of representation. Of imagination. Of possibilities. Imagine each literary tradition as a star in the sky and you’ll see why world sf is, as in the quote by Jameson above, that archipelago (of worlds): it’s a gateway into the myriad ways people can engage sf/f within their living spaces (nations, cities, states, etc. — i.e., worlds). They might be discontinuous, decentered, in conflict or isolated, but in them, there’s a renewed freshness waiting to be explored.
This is one of the reasons why I think world sf is an important and necessary point of discussion within our community. It’s a reminder that our world doesn’t revolve around where we live, and that there is no “one true way” to write sf/f. If this genre is one of unlimited imagination, it must also be one of unlimited authorial boundaries in a globalized world. And that’s a key point: the globalized world. It has become increasingly more difficult to ignore, by intention or by ignorance, the immense body of work originating elsewhere, in no small part because the forward expansion of the Internet means it is easier for those other voices to make their way into what is undoubtedly one of the centers of publishing and discussion: the West. This is how cultures influence one another, for good and bad. By transmission. By interaction. Our little piece of that culture is certainly on a path towards expansion of a more positive sort, incorporating those voices we didn’t know about before, or perhaps didn’t care enough to search out. For me, this change has reminded me how many fascinating works of sf/f are hidden by the languages I do not and maybe never will speak; the material realities of publishing — its limitations, especially — leave much to be desired for a little postcolonial scholar such as myself.
That’s not to suggest, of course, that there aren’t problems of representation in sf/f around the world. As was pointed out to me a recent episode of The Skiffy and Fanty Show on Australian sf/f (w/ the lovely Tansy Rayner Roberts and Marianne de Pierres), sometimes the influences of a particular part of the West have a profound impact on how other countries can (or are willing to) engage in the sf/f tradition. Secondary world fantasy, for example, often assumes a faux European world, rather than, perhaps, an extrapolated Aboriginal empire or a Somali metropolis. That’s not universal, of course, but it is a trend — one which some U.S. authors have been pushing against, such as N.K. Jemisin in The Killing Moon (2012) or Saladin Ahmed in Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012).
And this isn’t to suggest that the sf/f community has never had an interest in work from elsewhere (in the broadest sense). Between 1939 and 2013, Worldcon, one of the core fixtures of the sf/f world, has visited Toronto (1948, 1973, and 2003; 6th, 31st, and 62nd), London (1957 & 1965; 15th and 23rd), Heidelberg (1970; 28th), Melbourne (1975, 1985, 1999, and 2010; 33rd, 43rd, 57th, and 68th), Brighton (1979 and 1987; 37th and 45th), The Hague (1990; 48th), Winnipeg (1994; 52nd), Glasgow (1995 and 2005; 53rd and 63rd), Yokohama (2007; 65th), and Montreal (2009; 67th). This year, it’s once more in London, with upcoming bids for Beijing (2016), Nippon (2017), Montreal (2017), Helsinki (2017), Dublin (2019), an unannounced location in France (2019), and New Zealand (2020). These possible and past locations are almost exclusively situated in the West, of course, but they are also a reminder of a possibility: sf/f is a global genre, an archipelago of literary islands — worlds. We just need to make the connections, to bring all those other pieces to the puzzle together so it is not just one voice, but many, speaking to one another, publishing and discussing one another, sharing in the tradition of progress and wonder and criticism and beauty that makes this genre so fascinating.
In saying that, I realize I’ve set up what might look like a manifesto in the service of an agenda or idea: I want to see a genre that embraces its potential all over the world, that sends its conventions to places that have for so long been outside of the scene in the West simply because “they’re over there” or “they’re not translated into English” or whatever. A genre which discusses Amos Tutuola alongside Jeff Vandermeer and China Mieville; N.K. Jemisin alongside Nalo Hopkinson and Ben Okri; Myke Cole alongside Hiroki Endo and Hannu Rajienemi; or Tobias S. Buckell alongside Karen Lord, Lavie Tidhar, and Liu Cixin. A genre that interacts with those communities, not just through its authors who occasionally receive accolades from these exciting places, but also through our organizations, our fans, and our media properties (again, in the broadest sense). In greater quantities. As part of a regular conversation.
This is my agenda. This is part of the motivation behind the World SF Tour, our special 2014 theme on The Skiffy and Fanty Show. Throughout 2014, we’ll interview authors, editors, and fans from around the world, discussing the sf/f traditions, books, and movies from countries other than the United States. But we’re just dipping our toes in the global waters here, adding a tiny piece to the puzzle the World SF Blog, Locus Magazine’s Small Blue Planet series (such as this episode on Chinese sf/f), the European Science Fiction Portal, and so many others have put together over the years. I firmly believe it’s a good project. I also believe it is a necessary one, not just for my show, but for the field at large. Hopefully, you do too.
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