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Jay Russell

Brian Aldiss

Steve Perry

Rob Chilson

from the April 1999 Locus Magazine

The Next Wave

by Roberto De Sousa Causo

Gwyneth Jones, in her essay, ‘‘Metempsychosis of the Machine’’ (Science-Fiction Studies # 71) establishes an interesting relationship between the emergence of feminist SF and the lack of ethnicity in the genre: ‘‘The phenomenon of feminist science fiction… raises the question: why hasn’t the same thing happened with ‘The Third World’?’’ Indeed, one may argue that feminist SF was the next moment in science fiction, next to the New Wave of the ’60s, in the sense that the feminist approaches and attitudes were absorbed by the genre, adding to its spectrum of possibilities and to its general evolution.

Ms. Jones gives a commercial reason for this lack of SF with Third World colors: that Anglo-American SF is a branch of a larger process of economical domination. ‘‘Science fiction must export: and therefore must control the economy of the other place by any means necessary,’’ she wrote, and she probably wouldn’t be surprised to know that a lot of her colleagues in the Third World agree with her - though a larger number of writers and fans would disagree. They still believe in the ‘‘consensus future’’ that science fiction has sold to the world - that we are all, regardless of nationality, culture, or ethnicity, bound to be the citizens of a high-tech, romantic, and adventurous spacefaring utopia.

Ms. Jones also gives some sociological arguments to the absence of the Third World in science fiction: ‘‘Why are there still so few Black, Hispanic, or Asian SF writers in the USA, never mind in the world in general? Perhaps this is a stupid question. Dedication is rare, and you have to be pretty dedicated to devote yourself to scribbling futuristic fantasy if you have a pile of other troubles to deal with.’’ So, poverty may be blamed. In other cases, it will be the industrial capacity of a nation or region. Mike Resnick used this argument to excuse himself for not having any South-American authors in his anthology Future Earths: Under South American Skies (1993).

In his quite international anthology, The World Treasury of Science Fiction (1989) David Hartwell wrote, ‘‘There is not yet a really identifiable third world SF. The underdeveloped countries have not responded to the technologically optimistic appeal of SF, perhaps because that visionary future filled with mechanical wonders seems so far beyond their present resources.’’

This is the kind of fallacy that contributes in keeping the view of SF as an ‘‘American thing’’ all over the world. The idea that SF can only develop in highly rationalistic, industrial countries such as the US, England, France, and Russia, the notion that SF springs out of the social tissue of those nations. Well, it is time to put this down and remember that literature relates to literature. Any one, from any nationality or culture that can read in the language that produced SF, is capable of, if sufficiently stricken by it, to write some of that stuff. A country’s context doesn’t forbid an individual from pursuing a particular knowledge or art form. I will give you an example drawn from the history of my country, Brazil. From 1530 up to around 1800, Brazil was a Portuguese settlement and the production and importation of books was forbidden. Yet a lot of Brazilians, specially among the clerics, had huge libraries with up-to-date books with the European scientific and philosophic ideas, and here and there authors managed to circulate their productions.

Latin American nations such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico had some kind of SF in the 19th century, when they were all agrarian, rural countries with virtually no technology or industrial power at all. Yet authors such as Argentines Horacio Quiroga, Leopoldo Lugones, and Eduardo Holmberg, Mexicans Amado Nervo and Francisco L. Urquizo, and Brazilians Joaquim Felicio dos Santos and Augusto Emílio Zaluar managed to produce works in reaction to their readings of Europeans Jules Verne, Camille Flammarion, H.G. Wells, Guy de Maupassant, and E.T.A. Hoffmann.

The notion that a certain literature cannot develop in a given place because of any particular national circumstance - economical, technological or cultural - is a bias in itself. It is the same as to say that a country such as Brazil in the late 1800s could not produce an author like Machado de Assis, or that Argentina could not produce a Jorge Luis Borges or a Júlio Cortázar, or that poor Africa could not ever generate a Wole Soyinka or an Amos Tutuola. In the SF arena, I prefer to believe in the testimony of Frederik Pohl, when he visited Brazil back in 1989, along with Elizabeth Anne Hull and Charles N. Brown. Pohl told us that he has visited most continents in the world and in every country he arrived there were local science fiction authors.

Mike Resnick should have given us a more obvious reason for not having South American authors in an anthology of SF about South America - that he would not pay for translations or to check for South American authors that could also write in English.

This economic factor is the main reason for the American readership to not have more translated SF. Or, putting it in another way, the main reason the American readership does not have more translated SF is the genre’s status of ‘‘commercial fiction.’’ Checking the Locus lists of received books, over many years, I learned that you have some translated SF, but most of it associational and published by companies not related to the SF field - they are small or literary houses dedicated to provide ethnic communities in America with a link with their original culture. That’s why the only Brazilian speculative fiction recently published in the US is from mainstream authors such as Jorge Amado, Márcio Souza and João Ubaldo Ribeiro - and never marketed as speculative fiction. The same probably happens with non-English speaking authors from other parts of the world.

But when you think as SF as commercial fiction for export, part of an attempt to control the economy of the importing place, any strategy that contemplates cultural exchange and cross-fertilization has no reason to be. The purpose of commercial fiction is to make profits, so why pay for translations to make the importing culture known in the exporter’s country?

When Bruce Sterling was in Brazil in 1997, he told us ‘‘trying to conquer the American publishing industry would be the same as trying to conquer the US Air Force.’’ The USPI is a gigantic, powerful entity, and Sterling’s proposed strategy is the creation of a relationship between the importing nations that would swap their local production to the point that the loss of market would finally claim the giant’s attention. This does not mean that the USPI would then open itself to the rest of the world, just that the rest of the world would probably gain some room to start a true dialogue with American SF production, still the most influential.

But then, I will not allege that the American audience is completely closed to a real presence of ethnicity and multiculturalism in science fiction. Indeed, in recent years and in growing proportion, we have seen signs that Anglo-American SF is opening to other voices, to non-Western, non-White, non-European ways of thought and attitude, to the many absent colors that Ms. Jones mentioned in her essay. Indian post-colonial author Amitav Ghosh won the 1997 Arthur C. Clarke Award with The Calcutta Chromosome, which is mostly set in India. This is a ground-breaking novel that not only delivers a clever, spirituous prose full of strange scenes, but also undermines Western rationalist traditions, and subverts the history of science. The Clarke judges acknowledged the post-colonial approach: ‘‘The science is still there, but is employed in a complex, multi-layered story about colonialism and the control of research, about identity and the quest for immortality.’’

In April 1997 occurred the very first gathering of Afro-American SF/fantasy writers, including Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, and Jewelle Gomez, at the Clark Atlanta University, as part of the 28th Annual Writers Workshop Conference. Afro-Caribbean-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson won the Warner Aspect New Author contest with her multicultural novel Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), beating a thousand other works.

Native American writer Owl Goingback won the Bram Stoker Award in 1996 for First Novel with Crota. The amazingly funny but also thought-provoking ‘‘The Undiscovered’’, by Cherokee author William Sanders, also claimed a lot of attention and award nominations. A Native American trend seems to be gathering strength.

What can we understand from all this? The next new wave in speculative fiction is likely to bring new colors to the field, and a whole lot of disturbing visions to confront the consensus future.

-- Roberto de Sousa Causo

© 1999 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.