Editorial: The Dilemma of the Term “World SF” Redux
Last year, I wrote an essay entitled The Dilemma of the Term “World SF” on my blog. Right now, a couple of people in the blogosphere feels indignant at Norman Spinrad’s latest column, “Third World Worlds”, and I bring up my previous essay because Spinrad’s editorial tackles some of the themes which I originally brought up. What gets lost in some of the rants is that Spinrad does bring up some important and valuable points. For example, he writes about American and British writers tackling foreign cultures in their fiction (and I’d like to add writers like Geoff Ryman and Paolo Bacigalupi to that list). In some cases, they work, while in others, they don’t. Whether it’s the former or the latter however, it begs the question: can writers like Mike Resnick and Paul McAuley and Ian McDonald be considered World SF writers?
There are several points in Spinrad’s essay that I find problematic but his column is an interesting exercise in discourse because, at the very least, he’s consistent. I don’t know Spinrad (whether personally or his work), but it seems to be that he’s operating from a cultural paradigm. Take for example this quotation of his that has drawn the ire of several people:
So, for now at least, and in the apparent absence of a significant body of science fiction written by born and bred Africans, this Caucasian American is probably the closest thing there is or has been to an African science fiction writer, with the exception of Octavia Butler. Who did write the same sort of thing, and did it well, and was Black to boot, but I use that politically incorrect word rather than “African American” because aside from her genetic heritage she was no more African than Mike Resnick.
People are interpreting this as Spinrad saying that Mike Resnick is African American due to his fiction (more so than Octavia Butler) but where I’m coming from, that’s not what he’s saying. It’s more of the reverse: Octavia Butler is American (and not African) because she grew up and was raised in America. There is some merit (but I’ll air the opposing paradigm later) to this line of argument. Take me for example: I’m genetically Chinese but was raised in Philippine culture. I consider myself more Filipino than Chinese. Or take South African writer Lauren Beukes (who is of French and Dutch descent). To quote her, in an interview I conducted last year:
In answer to your question, I think of myself as South African full stop. Those European ties are so old, so frayed, they’re not even a sepia photograph, they’re a faded oil painting dating back 350 years when my family first came to this country.
What Spinrad neglects, however, is the opposing paradigm, which shouldn’t easily be dismissed. It’s the classic argument of the expatriate: does Kaaron Warren stop being Australian just because she lived in Fiji for a time? Or our very own Lavie Tidhar, who has traveled all around the world (and is currently still seeking a home!), is less of an Israeli just because he doesn’t live in Israel? Or, following Spinrad’s line of thinking (growing up in the said country’s culture), doesn’t that qualify Tobias Buckell as a Carribean writer because he was born and raised in Grenada before moving to the US? And America has several writers who’ve traveled in their youth, whether it’s Jay Lake or Jeff VanderMeer.
Or let’s talk about me. Sure, I consider myself Filipino, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to contribute to the Chinese experience. My Filipino life is different from the Filipino life of an American-Filipino, a Korean-Filipino, a Spanish-Filipino, etc. in much the same way that my Chinese experience is different from that of a Chinese living in mainland China vs. one living in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. My Chinese heritage, from genetics to the rituals we practice, does have an impact on me and who I am, even if I consider myself Filipino.
The problem with picking just one paradigm is that it’s reductionist. Butler is an African American writer of science fiction because of several factors. Yes, genetics plays a part, but so did her upbringing, even if she was raised in America. Just as there is no Platonic Filipino, there similarly is no Platonic American. There is no single true American experience, any more than there is a single American accent. America is a plurality of cultures: I visited L.A. and San Francisco and the Filipino-American culture in each place is different. How much more when we compare the Filipino-American experience of California vs. New York? Or perhaps the Chinese-American culture vs. Latino-American culture in Texas? There’s room for overlap but each one is also distinct. Butler is simultaneously an American and African writer, although it’s up to her where her as to where her ultimate loyalty lies, if such a choice was ever forced upon her (but that’s also faulty logic because just as American might have declared war on Iraq, not every American is anti-Iraq). The only honest answer I can give is that it’s complicated instead of a binary reply (and people are free to change their minds later on).
Another point that I want to argue with Spinrad is the way he breaks down culture into its component parts. Take for example this line:
With the exception of the Japanese, I at least, am at a loss to point to any science fiction that I know of that has evolved independently in non-European languages or cultures disconnected therefrom.
First off, it’s already difficult to separate the culture of a single nation. Now he’s including an entire continent, Europe, in his line of argument. If we’re just going that route, why don’t we ask the opposite question: Has there been any science fiction that has evolved independently of Indian languages or culture? How about Asia? (And I’d like to add that Palestine is in Asia, so when we’re talking about Christianity and the Bible, Asia has had a significant effect on European culture.)
The truth of the matter is, however, this is faulty logic. Each continent and culture has influenced others, whether on a major or minor scale. Can you imagine Chinese culture without India (goodbye Buddhism) for example? As science fiction fans, we all know about the Butterfly Effect and how this is one of the most overused tropes in time travel stories. How much more with real cultures and people?
Another problem is that while there are similarities between countries and cultures, that doesn’t mean they’re not distinct from each other. The Philippines for example was colonized by Spain. That doesn’t mean Philippine culture is the equivalent of Spanish culture. Nor does it mean that we’re the equivalent of another Spanish colony, like Mexico. So while there is some level of interdependence between cultural evolution–such as literature–it does not mean that just because that’s the case makes it less culturally unique. A concrete example of this is language: Filipino English is different from Indian English, Singaporean English, Korean English, British English, and American English. “Salvage” in Filipino English is slang for killing you indiscriminately and tossing your corpse into the river, the equivalent of “sleeping with the fishes” in The Godfather lingo. Clearly not in the same context as salvaging a sunken ship.
And of course, there’s all sorts of world science fiction out there–we’re just ignorant of it. Gord Sellar for example has this comment when it comes to Korean SF:
Korean SF is preoccupied with educational issues, to a degree that seems weird to a Western, in a way that reflects the society’s overwhelming and, to westerners, baffling preoccupation with education; it also seems, from what some Koreans describe and what little I’ve been able to read, to be less focused on problem-solving as an active, agency-driven process. Which also makes it hard to translate in a form that would make the text satisfying for most Western SF readers… we see deus ex machina where a Korean reader might see a happy ending that came the only way realistically imaginable.
Take my interview with Wu Yan, a Chinese writer, editor, and scholar:
Cixin tends to use a kind of globalization viewpoint to look at the world. He thought science could solve most of the problems in the future. His story has a lot of changing styles. Sometimes it looks like a thought experiment. For example, he wrote a story titled “I Do not Care to Die If I Have Got the Tao of Nature” (2002). It comes from a quote from Confucius Analects. Talks about people devoting their life to seeking the Tao (way) inside the world. In Liu’s story, it turns to be a testing platform in front of earthmen. Answer the question correctly, or die for not succeeding!
Or Jacques Barcia on Brazil Science Fiction:
Again, that has everything to do with SF literature. Brazil was cyberpunk and it’s becoming post-cyberpunk. If Brazil used to have marginal tech with a dirty, gritty and violent setting, now the country is techy, edgy, and hopeful. There are tons of examples of how things could get better with technology and how literature could represent those facts and hopes in fiction.
Or Nnedi Okorafor’s interview (part of a larger article on SF in Africa) with Naunihal Singh, a professor of comparative politics specializing in conflict, civil-military relations, and the politics of Sub-Saharan Africa at Notre Dame University:
“The Ghanaians just weren’t connecting to it. Bring the Terminator to West Africa, and he’d stop running in a day. He’d sit there and glitch. It’ll be hard to make people afraid of a future where computers take over the world when they can’t manage to keep the computers on their desk running. These are very western stories. On the other hand, classic science fiction, like space exploration stories, would probably work better…assuming it was adapted for the audience. Africans would love to see stories about Africans on a space ship. The idea that Africans might be dominant in the future would resonate so well with nationalism.”
And Nick Mamatas when it comes to Japan:
Japanese SF authors will often proudly wear their influences on their sleeves, and those influences include American science fiction writers of the Golden Age and New Wave, as well as manga, the space race, philosophy both Western and Eastern, etc
Mamatas’ quote is something I want to highlight because it’s proof that a piece of text can be influenced by other cultures, yet still be unique.
And for all my complaints against Spinrad, his essay does bring up good points when it comes to writers trying their hand at writing “alien” cultures, or as Jeff VanderMeer pointed out:
He talks about colonialism. He talks about the insertion of the white guy into a non-white culture/setting, and understands that that’s often a recipe for terrible cliches. An interesting quote near the end, where Spinrad also talks about how understanding other cultures is a way of deepening your self and your writing.
The end of Spinrad’s essay also fittingly concludes with the following:
Except to repeat the old saw that travel broadens the mind, and extend it into the contemporary realms of the virtual; fiction, music, cuisine, language, to travel within the realms of as many Other Cultures as you can by whatever means available; directly, or via media, on every level possible, from the lofty heights to the rhythms of the gutter, so that while they may remain different from your own, your mind is opened to the infinite multiplexity of human cultures and styles, real and to be imagined, so that nothing different remains alien.
Travel in this extended sense indeed broadens the mind.
It also renders it deeper.
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