Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

Gary K. Wolfe

I enthusiastically support what Fabio is after, but at the same time I’m a little uncomfortable with the notion of “Western narrative,” which suggests a simple geographical divide, rather than a far more complex set of multicultural dialogues. Are Native American Coyote stories part of a “Western narrative”? Are the Mexican stories included in Small Beer’s fascinating Three Messages and a Warning anthology, or for that matter is Brazilian SF, which I still know about mostly through Elizabeth Ginway’s accounts of it? I tend to agree with Siobhan that much of what we’re referring to here is a set of largely Anglo-American narrative traditions that tend to get reinforced by the Anglo-American publishing industry, including the SF and fantasy industry. And in the latter case, that sometimes simply seems to mean non-English language fiction, even if it’s from Germany or France or Spain, which certainly would seem to be part of any reasonable part of a Western narrative tradition.

So if we’re mostly talking about translated SF and fantasy, we come back to the simple problem of how to make it cost-effective for American or British publishers, given the initial cost of rights, royalties, and translator fees. Very rarely will you get a Perfume or Name of the Rose, and that’s even more rare in SF & fantasy. There have been a lot of attempts to address this for decades; back in the 1960s Damon Knight tried promoting French SF in the U.S., sometimes translating it himself, but few of those authors gained any real traction. More recently, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards has been trying to promote awareness of translated fiction, and calling attention to a lot of good work.

I know none of this really has much to do with the question of what different viewpoints might bring to the “master narrative” of Western SF (if there is one), but they are some of the problems involved in getting that dialogue going.

Marie Brennan

I find myself thinking of Japanese anime and manga, which have quite a high degree of market penetration, compared to a lot of other translated works. So far as I can tell, those got traction in the U.S. through unlicensed fan effort: Japanese-speaking Americans who spread their translated versions through networks of friends and conventions, until there was enough interest over here that it became profitable for companies to put out official versions. Now you have manga sections in chain bookstores, and Neil Gaiman writing the English script for Mononoke Hime.

Technically, that earlier stage is a flagrant violation of copyright. Fan-subbed shows and movies are being copied without permission, and manga “scanlations” are posted online. (Not to mention that sometimes the quality of translation is abysmal.) But they can create a market where one didn’t exist before.

I don’t have anything like stats or a comprehensive body of evidence to back this up, but I feel like East Asian imaginations are having a clear, if limited, influence on Anglophone SF and fantasy (using those terms because I agree with what Siobhan and others have said about the problems with a western/non-western binary). Avatar: The Last Airbender is a hybrid creature; I just read a friend’s post arguing that it’s a very Asian-American show, more than Asian or American alone. I feel like I’ve been seeing more of that kind of thing lately, where East Asian influence is concerned.

Karen Lord

The Western/non-Western binary problem is making it hard for me to comment. I’m writing Caribbean SF, Anglophone Commonwealth. How should my work be categorised?

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.

  • Pingback:SF Tidbits for 5/2/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  • Pingback:May Day Links with Bonus Cover | Cora Buhlert

  • May 4, 2012 at 8:08 pm

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

  • Pingback:Monday Original Content: Non-Western SF Roundtable (Part 1) « The World SF Blog

  • Pingback:Looking for the Colonized/Decolonized in Speculative Fiction | There's A Story In Everything

  • Pingback:INTERVIEW: Some Thoughts on Post-Colonialism and Politics in SF with Djibril al-Ayad, Editor of “The Future Fire” Magazine - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  • 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
    browser because I’ve had this happen before. Thanks

  • 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.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *