Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

Fabio Fernandes is in the middle of a fundraising effort to support a special International issue of the magazine Future Fire. Here’s a description of his project:

We are still at war in many places around the world, but something is a-changing: the socialist Second World has ended almost 25 years ago, and the First World and the Third World are, if not changing places, suffering major alterations in their structure. I think it’s past time we discuss that in our fiction, and what fiction suits best the discussion of the zeitgeist, our times and the times to come, than science fiction?

We are raising funds to publish a special issue/anthology of colonialism-themed speculative fiction from outside the first-world viewpoint, co-edited by Fabio Fernandes and published by The Future Fire.

They’re looking to raise $3000 through Peerbacker, and the last time I checked they had raised a little over $2000. Fabio sent in a question for the Locus Roundtable, and folks got busy deconstructing it. Siobhan Carroll, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Cecelia Holland, Terry Bisson, Marie Brennan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Brit Mandelo, Russell Letson, Rachel Swirsky, Alan Beatts, E. Lily Yu, and Karen Lord all discuss the following:

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

As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.

Siobhan Carroll

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

I think I get what Fernandes is driving at, but I might as well start by worrying at the question.

1) If SF is the literature of the imaginary, surely all imaginations contribute to it regardless of where they’re located? Or are we merely identifying “SF” (the genre) with the North American and British publishing houses that publish “science fiction”? Can there be no such thing as Indian SF, for example, or do the productions of these authors only “exist” when translated into English and distributed in Barnes & Noble?

2) Is there a monolithic “Western narrative”? If so, on what is it based? Who participates in it? Are we talking about a historical narrative or a literary one? Is the “Western narrative” reducible to the history of Western Europe? To the British Isles? Does it include literatures not in English? Or does “Western narrative” merely = the cultural history of Britain and the United States?

3) Given the role played by the “East/West” axis in the Cold War, does Russia and Eastern Europe participate in this “Western narrative”?

4) Does the “Western narrative” encompass former European colonies?

5) Is there an “Eastern narrative”? A “Southern narrative”? Is there a “Northern” narrative?

How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to this literature?

6) Are we talking about living writers or dead writers? Would the Vedas-inspired fantasies of a 19C British orientalist count as a “contribution” from outside the Western narrative? Or are we thinking of contemporary “non-Western” (not Anglophone? not British/American/European?) writers who write SF published in English translation in the U.S.A.?

I think Fernandes is driving at the latter. But I think before diving into an answer it might be useful to hammer out what we’re asking.

I guess I also think the hoary old “Western narrative” needs to be interrogated. Not only do we have the legacy of Oriental/Occidentalism to consider, but the 20C Cold War East/West binary also underpins this phrase, tying “Western” (I think) to “‘developed’ nations recognized by the U.S.A. as its non-subject allies in a communist/capitalist ideological conflict.” By that measure, is China Mieville, for example, a “Western” writer or an “outsider”?

But I’ll leave that question to a future roundtable. Personally, I’d like to talk about the SF influence of writers who hail from outside the United States and the Anglophone Commonwealth, and I’d like to talk about writers who are alive and making their own contributions to SF.

Cat Rambo

I’ve always thought of the imagination as one of the few forces that can overcome the blinders and definitions of “normal” that get put on us by society. To me, visions that come from outside my norm are particularly good at doing that: stirring up my ideas about what constitutes “ordinary” and making me aware of things I hadn’t seen before. That’s one reason I enjoy reading spec fic from outside my own borders.

Click here to continue reading.

18 thoughts on “Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

  • May 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    I find this discussion disappointing. Can you not see what Fabio is trying to achieve here? What imbalances he is trying to redress? It’s a shame that when the question was about non-Western SF/F, the participants spent such an inordinate amount of time unpacking Western SF. The issue of post-colonialism is far too grave for a simple question to be picked apart in such a fussy, academic manner, and the real issues sidestepped.

  • May 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Hi Regina,

    I don’t remember where my brain was during the roundtable, but these are the thoughts I just shared on twitter, for what they may be worth:

    Octavia Butler once said something to the effect of, “Of course science fiction is for black people. Black people have a future.”

    Of course science fiction is about non-Western people. Non-western people have a future.

    Americans (me included) can get tunnel vision, but reality is global.

  • May 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm

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

    Great question, Fabio. As you know, I’m developing an anthology of first encounters from cultural perspectives beyond the western. How would people’s culture affect an alien encounter differently than Western cultures? I have done a lot of work, travel and study in various places from Africa to Europe to your own Brasil, and I have found rich cultures and peoples with diverse and fascinating customs and beliefs. I believe there are things they know, wisdom and insights, that the rest of us might benefit from. For example, the traditional cultural views of community in many African nations, for example, where everyone belongs to everyone and everything you do affects the community as a whole, is very inspiring and could be very helpful in our “me first” culture of the U.S. The way Latin American families take care of their sick and elderly, even living peacefully with multiple generations in a house, this too is inspiring. Attitudes toward future, conservation, sharing, economy, health, etc. So many things which may push us outside our boxes and comfort zones but, at the same time, may open our eyes to a bigger world than we’d imagined. These have great benefit for speculative fiction readers and for fellow writers. Opening my eyes to new cultural viewpoints has both changed me and solidified my own views. I don’t shy away from it because it’s different. I seek to understand the reasoning behind it and the motives, knowing that, while I may disagree or not entirely agree, they are also human beings of equal value and as a writer, being able to see things from different POV is invaluable to my success.

    The global reality is so much bigger than what we typically see. It’s good to be forced outside that sometimes and willingly step outside as well, take the blinders off or have them washed away and be refreshed in our own view.

  • May 1, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    To clarify this discussion, the original prompt was: “Fabio Fernandes is in the middle of a fundraising effort to support a special International issue of the magazine Future Fire” followed by the question. There was no mention of colonialism or first-world perspectives. I think having those contexts supplied would have resulted in a different discussion.

  • May 1, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    I found this round-table frustrating on several aspects. It’s sad that because there was no “explicit” mention of colonialism or first-world perspectives it would not be considered crucial to the discussion.

  • May 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    I think the fact that Fabio is doing an anthology of non-Western perspectives on Colonialism is becoming too central. It’s obvious that was added to frame the discussion by an editor. It appears, per Siobhan’s comment, it was not sent to the commentators for framing their discussion, so they cannot be expected to read minds and discuss this topic in that framework. The fact that Colonialism is important is not being denied or negated. And it can be discussed now in these comments if people so desire.

  • May 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    I’d like to apologize for the shifting frame between the original discussion and what you see on the website. I added the summary pitch for Fabio’s Peerbacker effort after the fact, and the Roundtable group didn’t see it originally. I can imagine a significantly different discussion that may have occurred had that been part of the original topic, and with luck we’ll have that discussion in the future.

    It’s clear that people care deeply about this topic, and I hope that concern will translate to a higher profile for The Future Fire’s fundraising efforts. As of now only two people have clicked through on the Peerbacker link, and I *really* hope that number goes up.

  • May 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    @Siobhan: how can you read the question “How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to SF?” without seeing that it’s about colonialism and first-world perspectives?

  • May 2, 2012 at 1:36 am

    @Regina – I assumed this was a discussion about translation, and I therefore read “outside the Western narrative” as “unaffected by the historical narrative created by colonialism.” In other words, I thought the question was explicitly taking postcolonial writers *off* the table. That’s why, in my initial response, I asked whether “the ‘Western narrative’ encompass former European colonies.” That’s also why I ended my initial response with the suggestion that we think about living non-Anglophone writers and segued into a list of postcolonial works we could discuss. In short, I wanted to analyze postcolonial SF but I thought (as, apparently, did many of the other respondents) that the context of this dicsussion was “international” SF, broadly defined.

    I’ll add that I found the “how *can* the imaginations… contribute new perspectives to SF” formulation a bit off-putting — as though SF writers from different countries weren’t already making contributions to SF by writing fiction. I jumped in feet-first in part because I didn’t want a rambling discussion of “well, maybe other people *can* contribute if they do x y or z.” I wanted to talk about the contributions contemporary authors had actually made and were currently making.

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  • May 4, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    I. A. Richards, would thou wert living at this hour!

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  • February 3, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everyone else experiencing problems with your blog.
    It looks like some of the written text on your content are running off the screen.
    Can somebody else please comment and let me know
    if this is happening to them too? This may be a issue with my
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  • November 2, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Would anybody here be able to advise me on some non-western science fiction Zines? Its for a library that I am putting together.
    Thank you.


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