Monday Original Content: Non-Western SF Roundtable (Part 1)

SF is the literature of the imaginary. How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to this literature?Fabio Fernandes

Fabio Fernandes has recently given Locus a prompt for a round table, above. The resultant round table discussion was notable for a near complete absence of non-Westerners – which is, in itself, a telling comment. Fabio is currently fund-raising for a new anthology of post-colonial science fiction.

With the lack of non-Westerners involved in the Locus roundtable, we’ve decided to run our own. The resultant conversation is fascinating and far-ranging. We are posting the first part today, with the second due tomorrow.

Participating: Aliette de Bodard (France), Joyce Chng (Singapore), the controversial blogger known as Requires Hate (Thailand), Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines/The Netherlands), and Ekaterina Sedia (Russian/USA).

Joining them in Part 2 will be Rachel Swirsky (USA).

We asked them: How do you feel about this idea of “Western narratives” and the problems of inclusion within the sf “field”? for that matter, what are the problematics of some Western writers tackling non-Western settings for their novels, and do they result in exoticism? Fabio is currently raising funds for a fiction project on science fiction and colonialism. How do you see the two intersecting – both in fiction and in the world of publishing today?


Joyce: That is a lot to cover. I am sure others would chip in regarding the problematics of Western writers writing non-Western settings for their novels. Exoticism, cultural appropriation… are the mine-fields they have to tackle.

I encountered such an issue when I wrote “The Basics of Flight”, a steampunk novella featuring a white protagonist. I was told that my writing seemed forced and unnatural, the white characters stilted – and I felt the implicit assumption that an Asian like me shouldn’t be writing white characters. Therein lies the problem. Am I supposed to write solely Asian characters? And given my postcolonial background (Singapore was a British colony), am I supposed to write about a) angst regarding my neither-or-there or b) mother-daughter relationships (ala Joy Luck Club)?

Being a postcolonial writer both labels and pigeonholes me in that category. But I cannot deny the fact that I was born in Singapore and schooled in an education system left behind by the British. I am also the descendant of immigrants from China. I grew up thinking that I spoke fluent English and bam! the harsh reality hit when I ventured out into the real world. I am still identified by my skin color and that the assumption that I should be speaking English as a second or third language.

I support Fabio’s project and even wrote a blog post for it. It is difficult – sometimes, most of the time – to discuss about me being a Southeast Asian/Chinese SFF writer. People in the West tend to have fixed ideas of how and what we should look like or behave. The East is exotic. The East is mysterious. The East is hot jasmine tea/white rice/chopsticks and stir-fries. The East is martial arts and kung fu. The East is the Yellow Peril. The East is scary, but exhilarating.

We are not all of these. To us, they are commonplace, part of our lives. To us, it’s how we grew up and will continue teaching our children about our cultures and traditions. These “Western narratives” hurt us at the end and have damaged perspectives regarding non-Western narratives. The dominance of Western narratives has silenced non-Western voices, reducing us to nothing else but something out of a travel guide. Unfortunately, Western publishing continues to perpetuate such misconceptions and have created problem after problem for people outside the (white) fence.

I have always feel that SF is universal, kind of like Star Trek’s philosophy of IDIC. Oh I am proven so wrong at times. What I have encountered are clear instances where only a select type (white, male, but mostly white) is allowed to write SF. Only that select type is allowed to publish.

My question: Is diversity only lip service?

And as for postcolonial SF – I have written – and am writing – worlds where humankind has colonized and terraformed planets. Yet my roots weave their way in. Instead of fighting the indigenous/alien race, the characters form an alliance. However, the alliance is often fraught with concerns, because as colonizers, something will be lost in translation, no matter how well-meaning or well-intentioned they are. How about the voices of the colonized? I am learning about that myself, about the deep-seated issues within me. Have I internalized the colonizer’s point of view? Why am I behaving and reacting like this? What space does the colonized occupy? Is the space freely given or is it a privilege?

I recognize my ability to write as a privilege and that my Anglo-Saxon education has given me that opportunity to write. For that, I am grateful and humbled and terrified. I think about class issues. I worry about gender issues. What kind of legacy has my postcolonialness given me? What am I giving my daughters at the end?


requireshate: Here’s something knee-jerky (but, I think, not unjustified): I don’t think it’s possible for white westerners to write about any non-dominant cultures–and this includes, for example, Eastern Europe–without being exotifying, appropriative, and perpetuating western/first-world supremacy. Ekaterina Sedia articulated it fantastically here: Specifically that an outsider looking in will seize on elements an insider takes for granted. Something that’s everyday to me will be shiny, exotic, and unusual to a westerner: and it is this thing that they will grab and run away with, hooting that it’s beautiful and awesome and so weird, as one might do over an alien artifact. And that’s what it will be to such a person–alien. I’ve seen this over and over even from writers who mean well, who have lived in Thailand, but who nevertheless continue to write and think in the western outsider mode, in short owing their allegiance to their culture, readers who think and consume and behave as they do.

Another particular I’ve to deal with is: there are very few Thai writers working in the Anglosphere, and as far as I’m aware, none at all working in western SFF particularly (apart from maybe Somtow, of whom the less is said the better). Due to this lack, it’s a challenge to be asked “which Thai writer would you recommend?” (often with an implied “so I can fact-check authenticity against this project about Thailand I’ve got”): I very simply am unable to point to many writers. My culture is presented to the western hegemony almost entirely through the eyes of tourists, the eyes of outsiders. This is why I don’t believe that a love of my culture can be expressed by writing about it in your fantasy or SF or whatever–that way lies appropriation; a genuine love can only be expressed by learning my language and translating existing Thai works. As Joyce says, our voices have been silenced, drowned out. More outsiders writing about Thailand? Not the thing we need, and far likelier to contribute to the problem than helping to alleviate it.

I want to respond to a few things Joyce brought up–the expectations for people like us to be exotic. I’m often questioned as to the authenticity of my identity, because to westerners I appear to be writing “just like them,” steeped in “North American culture” (when in truth I know almost nothing about North America!). This assumption comes about because the hegemony is so huge and pervasive that it becomes, itself, an invisible mass and the default assumption. Mostly, if you write in English and aren’t breaking into malapropisms or broken syntax constantly, you’re immediately assumed to be “one of them,” part of the western paradigm.


Aliette: I wouldn’t be quite as radical as requireshate, but I definitely think we need to differentiate between insider and outsider narratives–two modes of narration that come from vastly different backgrounds and vastly different concerns. I do think that, at the moment, the field a distinct tendency to laud outsider narratives as “authentic” (a fraught word I’ll come back to!) and to enshrine them as more valuable and valid than the insider ones.

I’m not saying that outsider narratives have no worth, or that it’s impossible to do them well (see below!); but I do think the current development is problematic on several levels.

There are lots of factors at play that explain why outsider narratives are more popular; but one of the main reasons is one of audience: as Ekaterina mentions in her blog post: at this junction in time, the dominant audience in the field is Western (of US/European culture), and outsider narratives have a better grasp of how to present (ie exotify) elements of a setting in a digestible manner for the mainstream (White) audience. This is very much regrettable, and I really do wish that people would stop using the word authenticity altogether, as it’s either used as an exclusionary factor, to police who within a community has the right to write about the culture (something I find utterly fraught with problems); or as a well-meaning but somewhat hollow reassurance that the writer’s world feels real (the only ones equipped to judge authenticity of, say, a story set in Brazil are Brazilian people, and I certainly would never dream of qualifying someone’s story set there with that word!).

The problem with this whole state of things, as has already been pointed out, is that if outsider narratives are enshrined and taken as gospel truth, then this not only drowns out insider narratives, but also makes them lose value when their writers are criticised for not adhering to the (sometimes harmful) clichés or exoticism perpetuated by the outsider narratives. Like Joyce and requireshate say, non-Western writers easily become accused of not being exotic enough–Vietnamese writers get accused of, say, not getting across the feel of Ho Chi Minh City because it doesn’t jibe with the exoticised description of the city some Westerner made. Indian people are told their stories set in Bangalore are not “authentic” enough because they don’t feature enough description and “sights and smells”–but really, when you’ve lived in a city your whole life, are you really going to pause and describe in minute detail every single fruit on the fruit-sellers’ stand?


Rochita: Oh, I have to laugh reading what Aliette is writing because I had to think of one instance where I critted a work of someone I was in a workshop with and being told that my insight couldn’t be right because history and reference books said it was so. This was on crit about a story which makes use of Chinese culture. Now, I am no expert in Chinese culture, but I did have a number of extended family (this is a very Filipino concept) who were part of the Chinese community and what was written just didn’t compute with what I knew or what I had absorbed of it. I shut up at that point because my immersion was more tribal and I found myself doubting my own experience of the culture.


Aliette: ha ha ha. I once had someone (non-Vietnamese) argue with me about how I’d got Vietnamese history all wrong because it was in the (American) history books. I’m much less pacifist than you, and I basically fought an urge to strangle the person at that point…
(the extended family is also a Vietnamese concept, I think–and one that is very lacking from a lot of genre books. I really should do stats on which protagonists have living parents and/or siblings, and move from there to uncles and aunts and parents’ friends…)


Ekaterina: Thank you guys for linking and mentioning my article. And yes, same experience with books about Russia by Westerners being lauded and preferred over Russian narratives. Russia does have a well-developed SF/F tradition, and it creates an interesting situation: when something DOES get translated into English (not too frequently, I may add), they are often chastised for not being rooted in their own culture enough — which is, not being exotic enough. Heck, I read reviews of my work when readers expressed disappointment that I missed a chance to teach Western audience about my culture. Because apparently it is my job to make Russia-based narratives as surface-alien as possible (inside, of course, they should speak to Western sensibility). Also, when Western writers choose Russia as their setting, they more often than not are unfamiliar with the existing Russian-language literature — that is, they write into the tradition they are not familiar with. They are writing into American/Western tradition, which presents its own narratives of Russia, and THIS is what feels authentic (I hate that word too) to the Western reader.


Rochita: For many writers coming from colonized nations, the act of putting words on paper is fraught with certain matters. In this, I speak from my own experience of Filipino literature, how it was taught to me and how I absorbed what Filipino literature means to the Filipino.

When I write SF, I am fully aware of the history of my people and our history of colonization. I carry this sensibility with me into my work and I see this as continuing on in a conversation with the poets and writers and activists who struggle against the impositions of colonization. At the same time, I hope to contribute to the ongoing conversation which leads to understanding between cultures.

I think that the non-western writer brings something different to the field of SF not just because of the insider perspective, but I also think it’s difficult to say that this is a true story of the culture without having been immersed in it yourself. But as Requires said, these things have been exoticised and appropriated so that the reader comes to expect the exotic and doesn’t understand why our stories don’t match preconceived ideas of how our stories should look like.

I admit to being automatically suspicious of work that is set in a non-dominant setting using non-dominant culture when the work is written by a writer from the dominant culture. I question the motivation of the work in the first place and until I find evidence of sincerity (it’s not just being used because it’s pretty but because it really is integral to the story) I tend to carry on being suspicious. I guess, this is my anti-colonialist bias setting in.

I have mentioned this to Aliette before and it is a concern that still plagues me because I do write mostly in the context of my own culture: I don’t want to play tourist guide to the reader and yet I also want to write about what is most beautiful and most precious to me. And that is my culture.

Regarding narratives: I want to point to Aliette’s post

I think it’s very clear that a person coming from a colonized nation would have a very different perspective of story as compared to a person coming from a nation that has been the colonizer.


Rochita: I want to address something that was raised during the Locus Roundtable with regards to the effects of colonialism and how learning to write and to think in English has affected/influence the cultural narrative. There was also a comment made about the true narrative being only that which is translated from the original language into English.

I have issues with these statements because it negates the work of poets, writers, activists and artists who have struggled in order to reclaim culture. I was reading a book by Manuel Dulawan, probably the most prominent of Ifugao culturebearers, and he writes about how the imposition of the English language was part of the campaign to suppress/erase indigenous culture. In practice, the culture bearers have often been demonized (their rituals are anti-christian). That the rituals and the narratives of the original culture have been preserved speaks of the resilience of these culture bearers and of the people around them.

If we sat down and talked about colonialism and the resistance to colonialism, I could go on and on. <g>


Ekaterina: That English-language comment gave me pause too: in a general sense, we live in the world of cultural dominance of Anglophone cultures, English is the international language, and many people HAVE to speak it, and write in it. It’s a remarkable move, really: write in your own language, and we’ll ignore you; write in English and we’ll doubt your authenticity. Failure to acknowledge the cultural hegemony of the English language and WHY many non-Anglophone writers might choose to write in English is disingenuous. Not to mention, are we saying that only monolingual folks have a grasp of their own culture?


Joyce: Ironically, when I added in dialect or Mandarin Chinese as a form of pidgin in my SFF, I got comments stating they didn’t understand or that something was lost in translation.

By the way, a lot of postcolonial writers are able to code-switch. I do that a lot myself. I use English for communication but when I am at my parents’, I use Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese (for my mum – when I want to describe something, but only Cantonese could express it better).


Aliette: I code switch a lot too, but I wonder if it’s not a multilingual thing rather than a post-Colonial one ? (I do it between English and French at my parents’, with the odd smattering of Vietnamese for food items)


Rochita: I had to think about a comment my brother made when he my work. How reading the story and then coming across a word or a phrase that is so obviously Filipino to the Filipino reader gave him that jolt of recognition. And I think this is something people forget. Readers from non-western places read SF too. It’s not something that’s confined to the West.


requireshate: Aliette sez: “but really, when you’ve lived in a city your whole life, are you really going to pause and describe in minute detail every single fruit on the fruit-sellers’ stand?”

Yes, this very much. I become very impatient with this kind of writing by outsiders, and one particular book begins on this very note: at a fruit-seller’s stall! The description is of course of reeking durians. As well, white western writers are rarely charged with inauthenticity: outside of a charge from peculiar national-supremacist groups, no one’s likely to say a book is not “American enough” or “British enough” (unless perhaps it’s an American writing about the UK). There’s no obligation pressed upon a white westerner to pander, no expectation that what they write will be representative of so-and-so. There is no “single story” for them, as Chimamanda Adichie pointed out. They are under no pressure to sell their culture, and if they write something negative about say the white middle-class American life (or, indeed, a white American serial killer) it won’t be used against them or against their culture: nobody will say “Oh, what a shame it is that all young US men are serial killers!” to again paraphrase Adichie. They don’t have to think of what they write, or even how they conduct themselves, will shape outsiders’ view of all white westerners.


Joyce: THIS. I have folks remarking that Wolf At The Door isn’t Singaporean enough and that the descriptions of the city could well describe other cities in Asia, like Taipei. In other words, not authentic! I am not your travel guide, white reader. I do not want to educate you. I am not obligated to turn my novels into tourist attractions.


Rochita: Yes. This. You say it so very well. I had to think of how for most writers from the dominant (white/european) culture, commerciality of the work becomes a primary concern. Whereas for the non-white/non-western writer, there is a consciousness of expectation as well as awareness of the baggage you carry with you. Not that we aren’t thinking about the commercial aspect, but there are other things that supercede that concern.

To be continued in Part 2 Tomorrow!


50 thoughts on “Monday Original Content: Non-Western SF Roundtable (Part 1)

  1. Non-Western diversity in SF is shown primarily through postulating that the West and its dominant narrative, have won the future. As long as Western writers dominate SF this will continue. Only a shift towards non-Western SF writers will produce long term parity in the field.

    Exoticizing of non-Western settings and cultures is certain to occur. It seems entirely inescapable. The West exoticizes its own culture frequently both in SF and Fantasy. That Western writers of SF novels/stories who focus on non-Western locations/cultures look at it invariably through Western, travelogue eyes, only shows their Western origins.

    Inherently, there is nothing wrong with such a Western viewpoint beyond the obvious issues of continued dominance of the genre by Western authors and the re-entrenchment of Western colonialism which is alive and well around the globe and has real world repercussions.

    I would only expect a rare handful of Western writers to be able to depict non-Western SF as anything but a viewpoint which represents and strengthens their own idea of the non-Western portions of the globe. Even a skilled and insightful author who has lived in a non-Western country, or one seeking to broaden their inclusiveness through rigorous research, may manage at best a more enlightened and “expatriate” viewpoint – itself not a true expression of the culture it is viewing/commenting on and historically part of the machinery of colonialism.

    What does that leave? The long answer is this leaves Western speculative fiction rampaging around the globe in a form that isn’t significantly different from what was being produced fifty years ago, with a world and a future dominated by a Western narrative. This includes Western narratives that even postulate a “fall” of the West and a victorious “other,” with the other always imagined through current Western propaganda and the inherent limitations of a Western viewpoint.

    The short answer is that only non-Western authors can produce non-Western SF(F). Hardly rocket science. And I don’t imagine this is exactly a surprise for anyone other than a certain segment of readers and writers of core Western SF.

  2. I find the discussion on inauthentic/authentic depictions of cultural experience extremely interesting. As requireshate indicated, there is no “single story”, no standard of authenticity, applied to works that depict the dominant cultural experience (i.e. Western/White). And with the multitude of points of view and experiences within that dominant culture, any such standard could easily be rendered false. And this is also the problem with having “single story” perspectives on so-called “other” cultures–there are equally varied experiences and points of view within ALL cultures (dominant or otherwise). Which, I think, makes holding works written by Western/White authors that depict cultures outside their own to an insider’s standard of authenticity/legitimacy equally problematic.

    I do think that expanding the diversity of the genre is important and valuable. And in order to expand that diversity, writers are simply going to have to sit down and write outside of their comfort zone–both Western and non-Western authors. And editors and publishers are going to have to get over their hide-bound notions of what’s marketable in a ever-flattening world market. But I think outright rejecting the efforts of Western/White authors that are trying to bridge that divide in a legitimate way isn’t very helpful, either. If true communication and understanding is to be achieved, those that legitimately try need to be allowed to fail and regroup.


    1. Which, I think, makes holding works written by Western/White authors that depict cultures outside their own to an insider’s standard of authenticity/legitimacy equally problematic. […] But I think outright rejecting the efforts of Western/White authors that are trying to bridge that divide in a legitimate way isn’t very helpful, either.

      That’s impressively self-serving.

      1. Why? What would be the value of simply ignoring Cat Valente because she is not Russian, Lauren Beukes because she is a white South-African, Aliette de Bodard because she is not meso-American, Karen Lord because she does not live in Africa.

        Yes, a lot of awful stuff is written, often by people that don’t even notice what happens. And the same happens in other countries that while treated only in caricature by the dominant culture still treats other cultures with disdain and exoticism.
        That does not mean there are no people that honestly try, and partially succeed. And it does not mean that those people don’t listen to critique and comments, and try to do better.

      2. Yes, Aliette and Karen Lord are both white western–oh wait.

        You’re only interested in some vague idea of multicultural paradise probably because you feel it’ll make your life more interesting or more flavorful, not because you believe that these cultures are real things that get constantly appropriated and that that’s a problem which requires addressing; you don’t really understand, not really, what’s being said. I’m afraid I don’t have time for you any more than I have time to teach calculus to a buffalo.

      3. You might be right. After all I do come from a culture high upon the chain of privilege, that has a long history of oppressing others and appropriating elements of those less privileged cultures.
        But at the same time at least 90% of what is discussed in these posts remains equally valid if all the references in the piece are replaced with USA and all non (whatever small part of the US population is actually represented in the dominant culture) are seen as colonized, including most of the western world.
        Yes I am privileged up to my ears, yes I can never actually understand how it is like for people of cultures farther for the western privileged ‘norm’. Does that mean that you are right and my idea that I can have some comprehension of what the discussion is about is delusional? I certainly hope not, but I hope I’ll learn.

      1. Admittedly, I can’t produce an example that’s going to be adequate to the conversation.

        But that’s the point I was trying to make–or rather, the question I was trying to ask (and, perhaps, clumsily): Is it possible that the impression that writers cannot write outside of their culture due to an unattainable standard of authenticity? I’m not saying that it is, but I do have a hard time buying the notion that writers cannot (and therefore, should not) write outside of their cultural experience. In a genre that is essentially all about writing outside one’s direct experience, I have a hard time accepting the notion that such a thing can’t be done. I’ll admit it’s difficult to do. I can even concede that it’s not been done well thus far (I completely agree that the examples cited in the blog post/discussion were clumsy attempts) . But “don’t” and “haven’t” are a far cry from “can’t” and “shouldn’t”.

        And if the point is for the genre to progress by opening up to all the varied points of view outside of Western/White culture, I think that preemptively discounting any efforts of that culture to contribute doesn’t get us closer to that goal.

      2. It is definitely possible for a writer to write outside of their experience. The problem is when they’re faking it. And they know that they are faking it, but why bother and make a honest effort at research when they can get their Hugos anyway?

      3. Well, I know for a certainty that anything Shendrick attempts to write outside his own culture will be godawful and to be avoided at all costs.

      4. @Next : I certainly understand that. Half-assed or obviously ill-informed writing isn’t going to cut it and actually does more harm than good. And I agree that the onus on the outsider-looking-in is to be damn sure they’ve got it as close to 100% right as they can.

        My original thought was based on my firm belief that creative people do have the ability to dig in and write according to perspectives outside of their own. Everyone’s belief and biases are going to have a tendency to bleed into their writing, though, so it does make it extremely hard to do. Which means that getting it 100% right is an impossible standard.

        But, upon further reflection, this could very well be a case of my privilege showing, or at least my misunderstanding the core of the discussion. While I still believe people can absolutely write, and write well, outside of their experience, the question is actually whether or not they should. And a better solution to the dearth of non-Western/White SF is to open venues from those folks for whom that is their experience.

      5. I’m amused how every time this type of discussion is reduced to the theoretical possibilities for a westerner to get things right. Depending on our luck, we can also encounter the fear of (OMG!) censorship. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that Stephen King would actually look up those three out of five “Russian” words that he used in his latest RPF. The truth is that he didn’t. Just like Neal Stephenson didn’t bother to update the tropes that he picked up from Robert Ludlum.

      6. @next: and many of the Brits complaining quite rightly about how badly Connie Willis ignored British history and culture will let make the same mistakes about other cultures. Myself included probably.

      7. Well, I can only speak for myself, but I wasn’t trying to reduce or diminish the argument to that point but trying to start my reasoning out with one of the fundamental questions of the discussion.

        If we can agree that it is theoretically possible for a Western/White person to write non-Western/White works, then that opens up a flood of other questions that need to be addressed (If they can, have they? If they haven’t, why haven’t they? Even if they can, should they?).

        If we start with the premise that people of the “dominant culture” cannot write well outside of it, then it renders a lot of the other questions rather moot. Why haven’t they? Because they can’t. Should they? No, because they can’t.

        I wasn’t trying to imply that the point is the end-all-be-all of the discussion. This is a lot more sticky than that. And since my POV is admittedly a little skewed, I’m trying to take one piece at a time.

      8. No, but you’ve barged into a conversation conducted mostly between non-westerners/POC and demanded that we make it alllll about white westerners and what white westerners can do.

        I suggest shutting up.

      9. @acrackedmoon/requireshate Whatever the goal is one of the problems is that the worldwide market discussed here is still dominated by western writers that play on the easy level.
        If the goal is to broaden the market, both for readers and writers the question remains what are the possible solutions. Getting everyone to read broader, how? Getting attention to non-western writers writing in their own traditions, but that fall outside of the current western-dominated tastes, how? Getting attention to non-western writers getting attention by writing stuff in the dominant western tradition in the hope it gets noticed, how, and do we actually want that? Get western writers to pay attention to non-western themes and do somehow them more good then harm, how?

        Of course the ideal would be for works not represented by the dominant culture, and not written by people belonging to those cultures, to spread widely and be read.
        But I feel that simply shouting down people that wonder how writers that have it relatively easy in the international market could help is slightly counterproductive. Of course those writers can never be the proper answer, but that does not mean they could be a good tool to improve the situation.

      10. @KS Oh… OH! Tsarpunk! That’s what it is. I’m already loving it. I’ll make sure to share my love with amazon. Not that it would make much difference. *sigh*

      11. @acrackedmoon Or perhaps a fish thinking it understands thirst because it has seen hunger.

      12. Upon reflection, my participation in this forum over the past couple of days has been, at best, unwelcome, and, at worst, offensive. And while this was far from my intent, it is nonetheless true. All I can do acknowledge it and offer my sincere apologies.

      13. @NF — Da, Moi Soverennyj. My god, if there ever was a better example of Google translate abuse, I don’t want to know about it.

  3. This is an interesting discussion, with a lot to think about.
    On one level I think some of the criticisms made about Western SF tourism, like Aliette’s “when you’ve lived in a city your whole life, are you really going to pause and describe in minute detail every single fruit on the fruit-sellers’ stand?” actually apply to most SF regardless of setting. I think it was Gardner Dozois who coined the term the ‘grommet factory tour’ where every detail is described as a wonder despite being mundane to the characters involved. It’s a part of why I insist China Mieville’s The City & The City fails intrinsically. So SF does this badly anyway, and SF readers are comfortable with this, maybe expect this. So the exoticising of other cities is deemed necessary as part of SF’s dominant paradigm, take away the exotic and the authenticity is not just about the sense of place but the sense of what SF looks like, for many readers.
    I don’t say this to lessen the issue here, I can’t speak as to how being exoticised might feel for you, but to propose that from my side there is a need for a fundamental paradigm shift in SF generally that ignores the lazy trap of generic exoticism and aims for a more realistic approach. It may sound odd demanding that Fantastika becomes more realistic but I do think it necessary. So white male readers like me need to stop accepting lazy cliches as atmosphere, sense of place, and authenticity, and call foul when even the genre darlings get it wrong.

    1. Kev, thanks for weighing in! Can I turn the problem on its head though? I think it’s the other way round: the SF genre, or at least some of it, has many of its origins in a “space colonisation” framework, and picks a lot of its problems from there, including exoticism (the “grommet factory tour” has many troubling common points with the wide-eyed “oh, those people are weird” narratives produced by 19th Century Western “explorers” and colons. You can set side by side accounts of, say, Vietnam or China in the 19th Century and early SF, and find a lot of telling and somewhat scary parallels…).
      I’m not saying this makes the genre worthless, or that I don’t love it (I do, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing it, and I really enjoy the old stuff in spite of its problems); it’s just that I think we should acknowledge some problematic stuff, and think of how we can make it better!

      1. All true, but you also have to recognize that each group (culture? ethnos? define it as you will) has its own common background, and like it or not, readers from that group will interpret literature through that background. The problem is not how to write SF (or any other kind of literature) that avoids these pitfalls, because I think that’s impossible. The solution is a broader mindset on the part of Joe Reader out there in the monolingual, ethnocentric wilderness.

        A lot of people don’t like Picasso, either, but many people still feel his works are art. Many don’t.
        The ones that enjoy them get the benefit of their enjoyment, the rest get nothing.

      2. Yes Aliette, I have long argued that there is a significant element of Manifest Destiny in most western space SF. Even a superficially non-colonial work like Robinson’s Mars series takes much of its lead from the Turner Thesis. There are no subjugated martians, and I think Robinson is analysing the process rather than advocating it, but it still has more in common with colonial Sf than not. Those few counter-examples I can thinkof, mostly short stories by Ballard, Russo etc, ignore colonialism and consider the changes to humanity involved.

  4. Sometimes it feels it’s better to be invisible to ‘western narrative’. Every time I see another half-assed attempt of a western author writing about non-western cultures I cringe. It’s so easy to tell when it’s half-assed even when you know nothing about that other culture, because the patterns haven’t evolved since the first James Bond movies. You get the same ‘multiculturalist’ lego set that is made up of smelly foods and streets (oh, slums), flashy religious ceremonies, unfamiliar medical practices, random google translations, mismatched endearments, messed up honorifics, prostitutes (bonus for dressing up), mail-order brides, mafia (the meanings of all those tattoos!!), and dramatic historical events – all of it is used to showcase a western protagonist, or a protagonist whose cultural values are essentially western.

    Do they even have a clue? The more I look at it, the more I think that they have a clue. They just don’t give a damn. After all, last time I mentioned cultural appropriation, I was told to google creative license.

    So currently I move towards more radical stand on the issue. Until this travelogue lego set is retired, it’s either translations or books by people who went global and write in English. That’s what you read if you want a bridge, and not an illusion.

  5. “it’s either translations or books by people who went global and write in English”
    I want to see more translations. There has to be a way to make this happen. There is much lost in translation, but it seems hegemonic to me that writers must be forced to write in English to be heard.

    That said, is there a way that “western” (I’m a little confused what that word means here, see below) writers — who are not all white, and many of whom have complex and “hyphenated” (I need a better word here probably) identities — to write future worlds that are not monocultures respectfully?

    And that these worlds could be places in which characters with the same cultural or racial or ethnic (I’m flailing for words here) backgrounds as the writers do not necessarily dominate the landscape or necessarily function as viewpoint characters? Or if they do serve as viewpoint characters (if the narrative is structured that way), or do have culturally or politically dominant positions, can these stories have settings in which their dominance is called out or contested, where there are major characters who are not “western”, for whatever that means in this context? (I am not using quotation marks to say that the idea behind this round table is flawed, I am using them because I am not sure what that word means here.)

    As I noted in the parens, I’m not sure what “outside the western narrative” means here. Does it mean writers of color (distinction worth making, although racial identity — is this the right word? — is a complex part of colonized and post-colonial indicated above) from Asia, Oceania, and South Asia? Does it mean writers of any ethnic background who grew up in anywhere that isn’t North America, Western Europe (perhaps a foggy classification), Australia, or New Zealand? Or what I just said, but including writers of color or of hyphenated identities from the places ruled out?
    I think I know what it means, but my understanding can’t be definitive.
    If this is a 101-level question, please feel free to say so and disregard.

    It bugs me that because anglo writers and white writers have such market power
    Part of the answer seems to be to make it so somehow that writers of color, writers who are of color and not-anglo (and dividing the world up this way is so simplisitic and hegemonic I know), writers of many backgrounds get heard, whether within the commercial publishing marketplace or outside of it (as the idea of a livelihood as a writer, of a room of one’s own, is very much an idea from a certain cultural context that isn’t one size fits all).
    But it doesn’t seem right to me that anglo writers and white writers should write worlds peopled only by people like themselves, market dominance or no, and my reasoning (which is doubtless flawed as I am writing this comment quickly and clumsily) because that seems to me to be a rejection of the positive aspects of the hyphenated reality many of us live in (not to arrogate that realism is the most important thing, but it does seem in sf that a certain view of the reality we live in as observed — complex — is generally relevant) or as a veiled or explicit assertion that peoples of different backgrounds should remain separate.

    This comment is doubtless rife with errors in logic and awkwardnesses in writing, but I’m hoping it sparks conversation on the subjects I’m discussing in it, and I apologize in advance if I have misstepped. I have tried as well as I can in the time I have, and will be thankful for any correction.

    1. The thing I have noticed about SF in translation here in the UK is that as already noted there is very little of it, but almost all that there is is marketed and published outside of genre circles. It also appears to be targeted very much at the upper middleclass highbrow litfic reader. Add in the non-western authors (in origin at least) writing in English there is still no place on the SF shelves for Murakami, Tokarczuk, Marquez, even Rushdie.

  6. Thank you for a fascinating article.
    I’ve spent the last few decades facing many of these issues, working from Japanese into English. From my (admittedly limited) POV, many readers seem quite happy with non-American settings done well (Millenium did very nicely, thank you, although it is not terribly foreign to the average American reader). Much of the problem seems to be with publishers, who still somehow believe that unless the story is Americanized and homogenized, making it more “readable” while stripping off most of the juicy parts that taste like something other than Colonel Saunders, it just won’t sell. Maybe they’re right; I don’t know. I’m more concerned with selling dozens of books, not tens of thousands.

    All we can do is keep pushing at that wall, I’m afraid.

    Edward Lipsett

    1. The following comment by Charles Stross on his recent novel set in Edinburgh (exotic Scotland!) gives an idea of the steepness of the hill that is to be climbed here (in terms of how marketing considerations shape the books we get to see, and don’t see):

      “”Rule 34” is set in and around Edinburgh, a city I have lived in for nearly two decades. I’ve taken some liberties with the vernacular, both as spoken by Leithers and by incomers from elsewhere. Regrettably, the local editor I’d planned to work with on the final draft wasn’t available due to a family emergency: I’m told I didn’t do too badly, for a southerner. What I did do was drag in a bunch of argot from elsewhere: from the worlds of policing and the internet, both of which are to some extent trans-national in scope. Finally, “Rule 34″ was edited for its largest market—American readers. I should say no more on this subject lest I incriminate myself, but: there’s a reason for the internet puppy thing.”

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