Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

Brit Mandelo

I suppose this is going to sound a little obvious, but more stories from a greater variety of voices makes for a stronger body of literature–one that isn’t homogenized. In particular, I’m reminded of a recent TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, in which she spoke on “the danger of a single story”–the way that, when we only have one story about a people or a place, we reduce them to almost nothingness. She also talked about not seeing anyone like herself in stories for a very long time, and the danger of a body of literature where everyone looks and speaks the same.

So, the value of non-Anglo, non-Western storytelling in SF is, I think, in a lot of ways the same as the value of non-Anglo, non-Western storytelling in any genre: it offers entirely new insights and ideas, new ways of making meaning, and fleshes out that single story that Western literature might have about a given people or place. More fully fleshed, fully realized literature is always a good thing; including and supporting narratives from outside the traditional Western paradigm of SF seems to be a great way of filling out our potential “single story” of, say, how the future might look.

Cat Rambo

That Adichie talk was great. Here’s the link for people who haven’t seen it.

I was happy to see Stefan mention the Strugatsky brothers. Monday Begins on Saturday was a book that I read repeatedly as a teen. I am sure much of it flew right over my head, but I adored that book. (I also love Rochita’s work and was happy when I got to publish her in Fantasy.) I’d be curious to hear what other writers outside the “Western narrative” (I’m still not sure how we’re defining it) people particularly love, but I’m also sure Karen doesn’t want this to devolve into a reading list…

Russell Letson

I haven’t updated my critical-nomenclature files for a couple of decades, but if I understand the way that “narrative” is used in phrases such as “the western narrative” (note the definite article), then any text labeled or identifiable as SF is already inside the “western narrative” space to some degree. And like Siobhan, I wonder about the nature of the divide implied by labeling one side of it “western.” Would a genuinely, thoroughly non-“western” vision produce something recognizable to an American or Brit (or a German or Italian) as SF? And if it did, would that signal some kind of imaginative convergence (e.g., a curiosity about what the future might bring, or the recognition that constructing imaginary future worlds can be a way of talking about the present, or a taste for entertainments with a big dose of speculative thinking about technologies and social change, and so on) with the cultural needs that the “west” satisfies with SF? Once it’s “SF,” it’s already in discussion with matters that matter to “the west”–I suppose it has either annexed our “narrative” or been colonized or co-opted by “the west,” depending on the flavor of one’s cultural politics.

I’ve been around long enough to see several attempts to broaden the Anglophone SF world by introducing non-Anglophone SF. They generally peter out, perhaps because, as Ellen suggests, it’s hard (and expensive) to get good translations. Or maybe it’s because SF even from cultures as close to the Anglo-American as those of Poland or Russia (Cold-War politics notwithstanding) seems just the slightest bit wonky to sensibilities formed by commercial Anglophone SF. That was certainly my experience–I never could warm to (or in even finish) the Lem and Strugatsky material that Stefan mentions. Of course, in the case of the Lem, we were seeing translations of translations, so maybe the S/N ratio was just too high.

My suspicion is that translation requires a translator who is at least as good a writer as the original–that’s certainly the case for poetry, and then what happens is not a reproduction of the original psycholinguistic experience but the creation of a new one inspired by the original. Think Ezra Pound. Prose might be a bit more forgiving, but only a little.

E. Lily Yu

Like Dr. Carroll, and along similar lines, I’m going to challenge the premise of the question. There seems to be an underlying assumption in the question as well as several of the answers that SF means Anglophone SF, or SF from the Global North, and that we are trying to explain why SF in other languages or from other countries should be allowed to enter “our” SF. When we stop thinking of ourselves as being at the geographic center of the world, this framing of the question becomes problematic. Readers of Science Fiction World, one of the largest science fiction magazines in the world, are not asking themselves how Chinese-language science fiction can contribute to science fiction—because it clearly does already, and they know that. Just because my Mandarin is atrocious and I am unable to read most of the stories in the magazine does not mean that it is not part of “the literature of the imaginary”; it only means that I myself am unable to read and benefit from this part of literature. My own loss, my own impoverishment. I have no right to fence it out of my definition of “science fiction,” though.

Perhaps more directed questions might be, How would US readers and writers of science fiction benefit from a greater flow of stories from outside our languages and our borders? Or, how can we deliberately include and account for the richness of the stories out there, in different countries and in different tongues, that we ourselves are unable to read?

Something else perplexes me, on a personal level—as a second-generation American, am I inside or outside of the Western narrative?

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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