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MIND MELD: What Cultures Are Neglected in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

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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…

Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham 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.

Justina Robson
Justina Robson is the author of Silver Screen, Mappa Mundi, Natural History, Living Next-Door to the God of Love, and the Quantum Gravity series (Keeping It Real, Selling Out, Going Under, and the upcoming Chasing the Dragon – all from Pyr).

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.

Rene Sears
Rene Sears has been reading Science Fiction and Fantasy for as long as she can remember. She is the slush reader/ editorial assistant at Pyr. You can find her on Twitter as @renesears

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.

James Macdonald
James D. Macdonald is an author of over 35 fantasy and science fiction novels, often in collaboration with his wife Debra Doyle.

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.

Karen Lord
Karen Lord was a physics teacher, diplomat, part-time soldier, academic and traveller (some of them at the same time). She is now a research consultant and writer in Barbados. Redemption in Indigo, winner of the 2011 Crawford Award, is her debut novel. You can find her on twitter (@Karen_Lord) more often than not.

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?

Lyda Morehouse
Lyda Morehouse is the author of the AngeLINK series, which won her a Shamus in 2001 and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence in 2004. Despite this critical acclaim, she now writes romance and urban fantasy under the pseudonym Tate Hallaway. Tate’s most recent release is Almost To Die For, a YA vampire novel (August 2010). Lyda returned to the AngeLINK universe in March 2011 with the publication of Resurrection Code by Mad Norwegian Press. You can find Lyda and Tate all over the web, but feel free to star at: or

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.”

N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin’s short stories have appeared in Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, and elsewhere. Her fantasy novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit) has been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Here latest novel is The Broken Kingdoms.

Everything outside of the British Isles/Atlantic Archipelago.

Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of Under Heaven

“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.”

Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald is a British science fiction novelist whose novels include the Locus-Award-winning Desolation Road (1988), Out on Blue Six (1989), the Philip K. Dick Award-winning King of Morning, Queen of Day (1991), Ares Express (2001). His widely acclaimed, BSFA-Award-winning novel River of Gods (2004) introduced readers to a future India of 2047. His follow up novel, the BSFA-Award-winning Brasyl (2007), was also well-received. His collection of short stories, Cyberabad Days, is set in the same future India. His latest books include Desolation Road, Ares Express, and The Dervish House,a finalist for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

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.

Steven Silver
Steven H Silver is the editor of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus, the publisher of ISFiC Press, editor of three anthologies for DAW Books, and the author of several short stories. He recently edited a two volume collection of Lester del Rey’s short fiction for NESFA Press.

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. (

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).

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

32 Comments on MIND MELD: What Cultures Are Neglected in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

  1. i think there are many cultures represented in fantasy fiction. and almost always in the same ways. there is always the northerners, strong, brutal, babaric… there are the southeners, black skinned, living in tribes or what not. there are easterners, living in vast unexplored lands, and there is the west, that is often across the sea. an utopian land. or a land of the past…


    the cultures that come from the north south west and east are mostly viewed through a “christian medieval european” perspective. the saracens are black monsters. the Vikings were strong, babaric but honorable or whatever. 


    so maybe the problem is not that there aren’t enough different cultures present in fantasy fiction, but they are all represented by One group. we usually don’t get too many different perspectives. the easterners and so on are there. but they do not have a voice of their own.

    • I tend to agree. so much so that even when an author attempts to turn around these types of thoughts he is seen as being cliche in and of himself for making the opposite true. Vikings as cold blooded killers. The west as a barbaric unwashed peoples invading the civilized world. The east as a place of great learning and decadence. The south as a fading jewel of a long lost era of greatness from which all the others sprang. These are the premises from which I view true history and therefor all my fantasy settings in my stories reflect that. Dark elves with white skin and black eyes due to their dwelling underground away from the sun and so on…

  2. i think you have to differentiate between what’s not written about and what is given a massive platform to be massively consumed. if there is one thing i am tired of hearing is that others cultures are not represented in SF/F. that’s probably because i write about some of those “other” cultures and to hear people saying it’s not done or that these “other” cultures are “neglected” makes me feel invisible. i’ve had four novels published now! and there are several of us (though, fine, not *many*) out there who will agree with me. 

    also, i write african stories because i am african and that is my foundation. this isn’t something i “use” to be different or to “do something new”. even that sentiment is a very specific western perspective. it assumes a Western/white default, when, to me, my persoanl default is Nigerian. i’ve always been nigerian american. this is just who i am.

    back to my point: how many of the existing novels featuring other cultures are super bestsellers? you cannot say there are no novels that feature other cultures. nor can you say that there are none written by people of other cultures. also, you cannot say that there are no excellent sf/f novels by or about “others”. how many authors of color get to have shows like Game of Thrones produced from their works? that’s what bugs me. only certain “mainstream” usually white perspectives get those massive boosts in this way.

    i personally am NOT that interested in Game of Thrones. it may be excellent but to me it’s the same old place/time/pov/intent. it’s telling the same story. it’s weaving legends and myth from the same type of thread. I want diversity, *real* diversity (example-stories where a white male main character is surrounded by aliens and people of color does not count at all). mind you, i love anything HBO does and i’m sure the novels are great, but the fact is that most of these huge platforms that draw cult followings and money and create new myth, etc, (even when they are set “somewhere else”) feature a white main character and white ideas and perspectives and blah blah. this is where the neglect lies. the solution to this is complicated because the problem is a manifestation of deep set old western world ways.

    p.s.–let me admit, i plan to see the Hobbit as soon as it comes out. πŸ˜‰




  3. David K. // June 22, 2011 at 9:04 am //

    Personally, I think the contemporary world is the most neglected culture. I love science fiction but I’m so weary of far flung civilizations with unpronouncable names with unfathomable cultures or grim post-holocost settings. I rarely pick up those types of novels. Give me contemporary sci-fi or near future sci-fi! Why are these books so rare?

  4. B.C.smith // June 22, 2011 at 12:38 pm //

    What bothers me is that no one (Gaslight dogs, I’m looking right at you) can write a SFF novel set in another culture WITHOUT making a big political statement. So much so that it destroys whatever interest I had in the story or charactors. That and some just can’t simply write good stories (hint: just because a SFF novel is set in X culture other than europe and has a POC protagonist DOES NOT MEAN IT’S GOING TO BE A GREAT BOOK). Shall I point people to the awful short story ‘pimp my airship’ (damn, does it pain me to have to bring that up) and the urban fantasy series by maurice broaddus. Not exactly quality literature and not even good SFF period. That and the fact that some authors take the lousy route of just doing a LOTR\D&D clone set in an arabian fantasyland (hey! just like a certain saladin ahmed novel coming out). I personally can’t wait to see somebody do an asian fantasy that reads more like Joe abercrombie, scott lynch, GRRM, brent weeks, glen cook or steven erikson rather than said D&D clone masquerading as something creative or original. And I like my share of fantasy in other cultures (the desert of souls and the winds of khalakovo), but when somebody writes in those settings just to use their charactors just to carry out their political themes (resulting in me being bored to TEARS) or get praise for being different but who really CAN’T be orignal with anything else, that just reeks of sheer fail. Heh, I could get shot down for all that, but please consider it.   

  5. Though I’ve not read Mr. MacDonald’s works, which are widely praised, I’m always underwhelmed by SFF set in India, especially if it’s written by non-Indians.  So I’m not sure I’d like to see more fiction set there unless, y’know, it’s my work. πŸ˜€ (just kidding. kind of.)

    From my own experience, it appears to be a difficult culture to parse for many in the West.  When folks have read my India-inspired stories, the universal response is how strange the names seem, which always seems kind of funny to me, especially when you consider the colorful names used throughout the history of the genre!

    I did like what Neal Stephenson did in Snowcrash with the Aleutian Islands culture and would like to see more done there.


  6. Nick Mamatas // June 22, 2011 at 1:32 pm //

    I thought “Pimp My Airship” was hilarious!

  7. TheAdlerian // June 22, 2011 at 1:52 pm //

    I’m big on character and that means the psychology of the character is fully explored. He writes fantasy, but a fairly new author who’s great at it is Joe Abercrombie. His characters are like psych reports and very good. Not everyone writes like that but I think it’s very important when writing about characters from other cultures.

    There are these books about a Chinese investigator of supernatural events that have great potential but the guy has no personality because he’s written by an English female. I would like to read the same novel as written by a Chinese male because that would allow me to learn how his thought process differs from mine a westerner.

    I tend to instantly avoid novels written by native westerners with no connection to the existing culture they’re writing about. From what I’ve read you end up with token characters who aren’t deep and it’s like the writer is using the ethnicity as a “clever” prop and I’d prefer they write what they know. If a person from that ethnicity doesn’t say “Hell yeah, you nailed it” (In their own slang) then I’m not interested.

    Maybe publishing ought to do a talent search for the real deal.

  8. Ashley Guy Watson // June 22, 2011 at 2:23 pm //

    First of all, I want to state that I read science fiction mainly with a rare delving into the  book realm of fantasy, so I am not qualified to make a determination on the fantasy books.  To answer the question in this topic, it is not that difficult as there is one heavily neglected culture in the science fiction literary,  that is the Deaf culture.  There may be an occasional Deaf character but usually from the hearing perspective (yes, I used the term, hearing, as we, Deafs, label people who rely on hearing and voices, as).  But I throughly enjoyed two books, Silent Dances, and Silent Songs by A.C. Crispin and Kathleen O’Malley because the Deaf character and culture were well represented in those stories.  Best of all, that author went to Gallaudet University to research the Deaf culture and understand it better  before writing those novels.  The frustrations with the hearing society in the name of audism in those novels was expressed by that Deaf character. Audism is a term which define that the notion that ability to hear and use voice is more superior than one who use sign language.  So, aside from those novels,  the Deaf culture continues to be severely under-represented int he science fictional context.  Here are the links to those novels:


  9. Well George McDonald Frazier did not write SF but he did base many of his novels in India, Afghanistan, China, Zanzibar(or is that Madagascar?), the American West with Native Americans, Russia, Turkey, and other parts. Now it is adventure genre amd often regarded as politically incorrect but it is funny as hell. And if Pres. 43 had read the Indian and Aghanistan based novels carefully he  would have learned valuable lessons about the clans and tribes of the NW frontier and the adjacent borders and I think our footprint would have been very smaller and less costly in lives, honor and dollars.

  10. Daniel Abraham’s and Nora Jemisin’s answers are the best here. Authors take niblets of inspiration from all kinds of sources, but it seems that escaping the Western Rim’s gravity well is difficult, for a lot of reasons.  It'[s easy to draw from, comfortable to orbit, and there are lots of folks who will buy what you produce. There are some powerful forces that maintain that hegemony. To experiment is not just difficult, it is often not rewarded. That’s why it’s so gratifying to see works like Who Fears Death (which, I hate to break it to B. C. Smith, is a good book, despite being written by an African, which given his/her examples means a book is automatically suspect and problematic) getting lots of attentions and some honors. I hope that more authors both branch out and use their own experience and background to create works that are better because they are more diverse in perspective and contents.

  11. B.C.smith // June 23, 2011 at 12:09 am //

    John: I don’t think I ever once mentioned Who Fears Death. Nor have I’ve had interest in reading it (some weird kink of mine). I’m not saying that you can’t write fantasy outside the western spectrum, but what does get written is either boring, dull or just downright banal (see above comment for the examples I’ve listed). Again, we just need somebody who can write a POC fantasy of scifi that appeals to what sells now in fantasy (read: grim\gritty and realistic fantasy like what I’ve listed in the above comment). Something that is well-written but can easily appeal to fans of those books (only one I can think of is the ACACIA novels by david anthony durham). Something like that rather than books like that crapshot attempt at a POC steampunk   The Gaslight dogs or anything that maurice broaddus writes. I’ll thrown in also that I wasn’t too impressed with N.K.jemisin’s debut (issues with the writing among other things).

  12. I’ve already ground my teeth together over some really stupid comments on this thread <a href=>here</a>.

    But the above comment by B.C.smith just takes the cake.

    Complaining that your taste hasn’t been adequately served by the current lot of non-white, non-Western European fantasy (even if you haven’t read all of it, as you admit) authors has to be one of the funniest things I can recall seeing.  Backing that ludicrose claim up with a weak plea for “better” examples before you try more, is a right howler.

    How many mind-destroyingly bad SFF novels have been produced, and continue to be produced, which do not represent this?  Answer: far more than the total output of any of these counter examples B.C.smith feebly complains about not being up to their standards.

    You know what, that’s not an excuse.  Read more books which don’t “appeal to fans” of the “western spectrum.”  Good books, bad books, loads and loads of bad books, if that’s what it takes.  Because you know what, you’ve done that for the “western spectrum” until you can’t hardly taste anything else.  You’ve gotten *used* to soggy breakfast cereal alright, so long as its unthreatening corn flakes.  For f*&^%% sakes, grab some cocopuffs, or fruitloops, or some of that awful no-salt, no-sugar puffed rice the health store likes to push.  

    It may still turn to mush in your bowl, but so what?  We’re so oversaturated with the other, that a change, can only be good, only break down some of those barriers an exclusive corn-fed diet has created in your lower colon.

    Unclench and get over it.  People write books, and waiting for the person who is exactly like yourself to write your authentic experience is cowardly and foolish, especially when in the case of the “western spectrum” it has been done to death and back again.  People write flawed books, and insisting on all or nothing when it comes to moving outside your comfort zone, outside the “western (insert straight, male, I’d say as well) spectrum” when it comes to SFF and speculative fiction is equally so.


  13. Jeff VanderMeer // June 23, 2011 at 11:09 am //

    I’m really trying to figure out what was didactic about Gaslight Dogs.

  14. B.C. Smith’s initial response. No political statements. Okay. Also – no D&D-esque fantasy that takes place in a culture other than Western/European one. Okaaaaaaaaaay.

    There’s plenty of room for other kinds of fantasy, sure. At PodCastle we’ve published three of Saladin Ahmed’s short stories (as reprints). I can’t say any of them were intensely political *or* D&D-esque.

    But it sounds like you don’t want anything from a perspective other than those written by white men. That’s up to you as a reader, and it’s not to take anything away from the authors you’ve mentioned – those that I’ve read, I certainly appreciate. But they’re not the be all and end all to fantasy fiction – there’s no such thing. In fact, one of the reasons I love fantasy fiction as much as I do is that it’s borders seem almost limitless – there’s so many perspectives and boundaries to explore. That it’s not all grim and gritty is (IMO) a feature, not a bug.

    YMMV, of course (again – almost limitless borders and perspectives). I also thought “Pimp My Airship” was hilarious and great, and that Jemisin’s books are some of the best fantasy I’ve read in recent years.

  15. Jeff: Given Smith’s responses so far, the crime is that it was not written by a straight white male?

    Smith: You didn’t mention Who Fears Death; I did as an example of a good work. Based on the examples you’ve used so far, you have a snarky or quirky little excuse for not reading or just plain disliking anything not written by Anglo-American/European/Canadian male authors (except for a small bone tossed in david Anthony Durham’s direction), often without having read it. What you want, given what you have stated so far, is for Abercrombie or GRRM to appropriate some other cultural setting and write gritty epic fantasy about it, incorporating the setting into a certain idea of fantasy rather than letting the setting open up new ideas for telling the story. Seems kinda boring to me.

  16. B.C.smith // June 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm //

    E. M. edwards\Dave thompson: It’s completely fine if you don’t agree with me. I’m just wishing that we’d see other types of scifi and other types of fantasy be experimentated in outside the (yes, I know I’m repeating that) ‘western spectrum’. Is it too out of the question to see something as vast, sprawling, and unexpectedly ruthless as GRRM but in a imagined inviroment based on ancient japan or even ancient china (lord know they have a load of historical figures\wars\events to draw from). And there’s absolutly nothing wrong with having political themes as long as it serves an integral purpose to the story and charactors. Otherwise it just becomes annoying and pointless, especially when an author (terry goodkind, anybody?) uses his\her charactor as a mouthpiece for whatever theme or message they are trying to express. Again I’m welcome to any type of SFF, but really my hope is that someone reads from the authors who now write in fantasy and scifi like that ones I’ve mentioned in previous comments, adapt those themes\elements to a non-western setting and the ground running with them. Somebody who might look at let’s say a Joe abercrombie novel and go “wow, how cool would that be in a non-western setting”. But hey, that’s just me. If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine. Just thought i’d throw my 2 cents in. 

  17. B.C.smith // June 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm //

    John stevens: to adress your answer to jeff, I wasn’t at all mad about it not being written by a white male. Quite the contrary. I just have problems with the writing (and come to think about it, I can’t even look at or type the words ‘pimp my airship’ without cringing a little). But to explain that will probably take several more posts so i’ll leave it at that.

    And it’s not like I haven’t read Nnedi’s work (one of her young-adult novels was pretty entertaining), There was just an element of Who Fears Death that really kind of turned me off trying to read it (I can swallow scenes of torture but even that had my skin crawling). And like I said in the previous comment, I’d like to see SOMEONE ELSE take those ideas and write that gritty fantasy with them. Hell, it would be awesome to see them use elements of their POC setting to really twist and bend them in unique ways.


  18. Smith:

    Right, so, write it like a straight white man, the way other straight white men have written it, but maybe in someplace you deem cool, like Japan.  None of that Africa or Middle Eastern crap; they don’t have any interesting historical figures or wars to play with.  Actually, screw new writers and settings/subject matter you’ve never seen before, let’s just ask GRRM and Abercrombie to write some gritty samurai.  (Only ancient Japan, note.)  Check.  Got it.

  19. B.C.smith // June 24, 2011 at 10:48 am //

    *sigh* My patience is already wearing thin, so I’ll get this over with before it gets bad. Jemisin, I would like it in an african, indian, arabian setting too. I’m not that type of person to wish that Abercrombie or GRRM can write it. I just want to see (what ever non-western culture it is) that aspect taken to and expanded upon into a POC narrative. And for the last time, I know that you and a lot of others might (and still might) not agree with me. I get it, that’s fine. I will tell you this though: I DID in fact read D&D and tolkien, and I have slugged through other imitations and ripoffs of the type before eventually discovering the good stuff (and not just the gritty fantasy type either). And if somebody does decide that they’ll write that type of fantasy, my other hope is that they be dark and grittty in their OWN right. It dosen’t need to be a GRRM carbon-copy nor does it need to be. It can be as original, engaging, deep and sprawling as they see fit. You can make of this what you will. Besides, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t start spewing bucketloads of haterade all over the place. And on a final note, If you like something that I didn’t, that’s fine. But to me, it really dosen’t matter what skin color you are, bad writng IS bad writing. And to say something positive here, I didn’t totally hate your novel, I just had some issues with it (but it still is and interesting world you built up and one I’d like to return to in your second book).

  20. what i found interesting in this is that, while different cultures are name checked, there was never any suggestion to look at what those cultures do with speculative fiction. it’s all very fine to say, well, here is a bit of culturally russian inspired stuff, or here is a culturally african inspired, but isn’t there a concern that those cultures will just be filtered through a western point of view, thus stripping them of their initial difference, and leaving them as nothing more the curiousities that a western audience filter as ‘the other’?


    anyhow, just a thought.

  21. Jeff VanderMeer // June 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm //

    Ben: I think the most exasperating thing is that there is *lots* of fiction by writers in other countries translated into English that’s really wonderful and coming from a different perspective. But if it’s not published by a fantasy/SF imprint it’s pretty much invisible. And it’s also invisible to a certain type of reader if you’re the kind of reader who absolutely must, for example, have a dragon pop up in the middle of a story. Which may not be the kind of non-realistic fiction on offer from certain traditions. –JeffV

  22. jeff: yeah, it is frustrating. in many ways, it ensures that the small world view of SF is never challenged because of it, which is probably the biggest challenge for the genre in this new century.

  23. Ben, it’s only a challenge for the genre in Anglophone countries.  The rest of the world will continue doing its own thing wrt SFF, as it has been for decades.  (Note the circulation of half a million, though that dropped recently after a scandal with their editor.  Now their circulation is only ten times that of any US market.)  Personally, I think Anglophone SFF’s small world view will change when it becomes more obvious to English(-only)-speakers just how small a part of the world we really are.

  24. i honestly don’t think that the spec fic small world view is proved or disproved to be a western country issue only by the circulation numbers of the chinese sf magazine. in fact, if you were to draw anything from the article you listed, it might be the note that the scene has recently drawn ‘some female’ authors to it, thus hinting that the issues of gender and race that exist in the western scene also exist in the asian market as well.


    but be that as it may, i was talking primarily about the spec fic scene in western countries, since i am in no way qualified to say much about another culture’s sf scene. it might be argued that i don’t have much to say about this scene, either.


    i certainly wouldn’t claim that the small world view of spec fic was due to english only speaking writers not recognising that they were only a small part of the world, though. or, perhaps, that it will be fixed when they realise they’re not the only language in the world.

  25. Mahesh Raj Mohan and Jeff V. bring up an interesting point… how do we (do we?) reconcile ‘non-Western-culture SFF’ written by non-Western culture authors with NWCSFF(tm) written by (mostly) white guys? I’m thinking specifically of Ian McDonald, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Nancy Farmer, since those are folks I’ve read. Mahesh points out that he’s often underwhelmed by SFF set in India written by non-Indians, and while I dug CYBERABAD DAYS, I certainly don’t know how it would strike someone who actually comes from that culture. Ditto books by PB (Thailand) and Nancy Farmer (Mexico, Zimbabwe).

    Put another way, is it more important to encourage and support diversity in the works or in the authors (and yeah, it’s not a straight either/or proposition, I realize)?

    Please note that I am explicitly NOT trying to make the ‘Only native people can write about their cultures, so it’s ok that we only pay attention to white Eurocentric books around here’ argument, nor am I talking about ham-fisted cultural appropriation where white/Eurocentric author picks the bits he likes out of another culture to add ‘spice’ to his cool fantasy world. But it does seem to me that there’s a danger (ain’t there always) of giving too much weight to NWCSFF written by the same white guys who are *already* getting the lion’s share of the attention, at the expense of writers who are actually a part of those cultures.

    On the other hand, I want to read (and write…) SFF that’s not stuck in Western cultures.

    Not sure where that line is. Not sure there is a line. Not sure exactly what my point is. Not sure I needed that last whiskey…


  26. I totally understand where you’re coming from, JGS. I can’t deny that Ihave a protectiveness toward my ancestral culture.  But I think it’s totally possible for someone who’s not South Asian to “get it right,” and from all accounts MacDonald did that with his novels.  It’s cliche, but we’re all human, after all, and there are universal themes that we can all relate to. 

    I also really liked The Wind-Up Girl, and I also appreciated the caveat that Bacigalupi put in the acknowledgments, that his novel was not representative of modern Thailand, and he listed a bunch of authors who were knowledgeable.

  27. Uh…one of us has dabbled just a bit in Africa: 8 novels, more than 20 stories, enough to more than one mainstream critic has stated I was black (I’m not).

    — Mike Resnick

  28. Jeff VanderMeer // June 30, 2011 at 7:18 am //

    I didn’t intend to come back here, but I want to make it clear JC is misunderstanding me entirely as to my comment above. I wasn’t saying anything about fiction by UK/US writers about other countries. .

    To add on to what I did say: Lots of translated fiction out there with some sort of speculative/fantastical element doesn’t fit the idea of “commercial SF/F” and as noted is published by imprints not exclusively devoted to SF/F. Therefore, it becomes invisible to the genre subculture. I.e., in some cases the cultural divide is that the traditions or foci most prevalent do not correspond to what the core genre audience thinks of as core SF/F.

    One add-on to what Nora said–for a variety of reasons, some writers in other countries could give two shits about being translated into English…and that’s a perfectly legit position, too.


  29. JeffV,

    Didn’t mean to imply you said anything about UK/US writers, only that your bringing up the wealth of non-UK/US SFF available got me thinking about actual non-western SFF v. western SFF with non-western settings or characters. Clumsy wording on my part.

    (I’m assuming you were responding to me when you said ‘JC’.)


  30. I’d really love to see some New Word based cultures: Inca, or better, Wari. Or how about early nomadic Middle Eastern? Or later Caliphate Islamic? Etruscan? I suppose it is the archaeologist in me. ~ Gail

  31. Unfortunately those referred to as First Nation of the Americas range from the Eskimos of the north to the Inca of the south. They are many, varied and so different one from another that you cant lump them into one category. I would say that they all are often left out of the sci-fi portion of the genre. As for the fantasy side, you sometimes see them pop up but not as the hero or villain but as the lost civilization that needs rediscovering or some such. Again I refer to the Weiss/Hickman Dragonlance series where two of the main characters came from a plains tribe Goldmoon and Riverwind. That was one of the only fantasy books I think that attempted to make the native americans shine. Unfortunately, they made the girl Blonde haired and blue eyed (dont recall any First nations with those traits) but hey it was a step in the right direction.

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