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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:
Q: What Civilizations and cultures are neglected as inspirations in Fantasy and Science Fiction?
Here’s what they said…
is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author. His work includes the International Horror Guild Award winning and Nebula nominated “Flat Diane” and Hugo nominated “The Cambist and Lord Iron.” His Long Price Quartet novels are published by Tor in the US and Orbit UK, along with editions in half a dozen other languages. Daniel’s latest novels are Leviathan Wakes (which he co-wrote with Ty Franck under the shared pseudonym James A. Covey) and The Dragon’s Path
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.
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