The Magazine and Website of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field

Locus Online
Sub Menu contents

Recent Posts

Recent Comments



Site search


A collaborative blog by Locus editors, contributors, and other invited guests. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine or Locus Online.

(Earlier posts end here in April 2010)




Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


Alan Beatts
Terry Bisson
Marie Brennan
Karen Burnham
Siobhan Carroll
John Clute
F. Brett Cox
Ellen Datlow
Paul Di Filippo
Michael Dirda
Gardner Dozois
Andy Duncan
Stefan Dziemianowicz
Brian Evenson
Jeffrey Ford
Karen Joy Fowler
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Theodora Goss
Elizabeth Hand
Cecelia Holland
Rich Horton
Guy Gavriel Kay
James Patrick Kelly
Mark R. Kelly
Ellen Klages
Russell Letson
Karen Lord
Brit Mandelo
Adrienne Martini
Tim Pratt
Cat Rambo
Paul Graham Raven
Graham Sleight
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Peter Straub
Rachel Swirsky
Paul Witcover
Gary K. Wolfe
E. Lily Yu

Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

« PreviousNext »

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.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

When I was younger, I was made more aware of the allegorical and mythopoeic possibilities of science fiction through my reading of writers like Lem and the Strugatsky brothers. Of course, we readers in the west face something of a problem assessing the perspective that “writers from outside the Western narrative” contribute. The non-Western writers who tend to get translated–which is to say, the non-Western writers whom English-speaking publishers are willing to take a risk on in the belief that they will sell–tend to be the writers who appeal most to Western sensibilities.

Siobhan Carroll

And who do not necessarily engage heavily with the specifics of the culture they hail from. Many of the Swedish murder-mysteries creeping up the bestseller lists, for example, don’t strike me as requiring a Swedish setting. You could transplant some of those stories to anywhere with dead bodies, sexual violence, dour detectives, and snow.

I guess that’s one of the reasons I really admire the fiction of my CW compatriot Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, who tries to generate her SF stories from specifically Filipino settings and political conflicts. She’s got an absolutely beautiful story about a jungle that doesn’t adhere to “traditional” narrative conventions at all, but which is captivating and rich and memorable. And, last I heard, unsold. She also has some lovely works like “Return to Paraiso” out there, but damn, I want to see that jungle story in print.

Karen Burnham

Hah, it’s nice to know it’s not just my questions that prompt instant deconstruction!

I think Fabio, being based in Brazil, is acknowledging the huge market dominance of Anglophone sf, and is working to challenge that dominance through many activities, particularly this current translation/internation sf magazine issue. So the question (as I read it) isn’t meant to be exclusive, and I’m hoping that the conversation can be inclusive–expanding our understanding of sf to accommodate lit from lots of countries, not just US/UK/Commonwealth.

I think a lot of people have been making efforts along this line recently, and for a lot of the reasons Cat says. We need different imaginings to give us new perspectives. So you had James and Kathy Morrow’s SFWA European Hall of Fame and few years ago; Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s epic The Weird has a lot of translated stories; Nick Mamatas is putting out an anthology titled The Future is Japanese with stories both in English and translated from Japanese; Cheryl Morgan and others established the SFF Translation Award; Fabio, Charles Tan, and others are involved in the World SF Blog, etc.

It’s a good time to be reading when our tent is getting so much bigger, I’d say.

Ellen Datlow

As an editor, although I’d been very interested in seeing non-English story submissions from around the world while at OMNI and SCIFICTION, it has been traditionally difficult to do so as in the past, there were very few people willing and able to competently translate that material into English for submission. At OMNI I commissioned a Russian story from a US/Russian translator. She gave me about 5 stories to choose from by providing a paragraph summary of each. I chose one. She translated the story. I bought it but utterly hated it. There were two Japanese stories submitted to me already translated into English. I bought both and was very happy with them. The problems I saw over the years from translated material is that the translator must have a gift of language to make the translation “sing” as it did in its original language. Clunky, literal translations do no one any good.

Today, there seems to be more non-English language material being submitted to English language markets and I think this is excellent. The World SF blog and Lavie Tidhar has been instrumental in this change. Just in the past few years I’ve been seeing more stories being published in sf/f/h from writers with a non North America/European background and am encouraged.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Writing as someone who has enjoyed burrowing into Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, and who has been blown away by some of the non-Western contributions to that anthology that I was not already familiar with, I would say non-Western writers in the early to mid-twentieth century seemed less hidebound than Western writers by the notion that the weird or supernatural element of their story had to have a rationale. There’s a stronger sense of “the weird for weird’s sake” in their works–something that becomes more common in Western writing in the 1960s and later.

Mind you, I don’t want to generalize. The non-Western writers in that book are a very select company. And not being able to read the original language their stories were written in, I have no idea if the “looseness” of their themes and plots isn’t due to the translation.

Cecelia Holland

Since the 60’s we’ve been more aware, also, of the limits of our culture.

Being a writer of historical fiction I have found the most inspiration in stories from outside the so-called “western narrative.” My novel Until the Sun Falls was based as much as possible on the Mongol secret history. The Tale of Genji is an excellent lever for prying somebody out of a western mindset. The whole point of historical fiction (for me anyway, I don’t do dresses) is exactly that–to present a perspective not otherwise available to the western reader.

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?

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?

Brit Mandelo

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?

Yes, I think I’d revise my previous formulation, thinking on what several folks like you and Lily have said: what I think we are talking about (or at least me, in this case) is not so much “Western,” but the specifically Anglo-American/British SF tradition, and its narrative dominance in the current English-speaking/reading marketplace?

Rachel Swirsky

I think it’s okay for things to exist in multiple categories at once.

My work is Western. I was born in California; I’ve lived in CA, NY, WV and IA. I only speak English.

I read anthropology because it’s awesome, but I’m still fundamentally, culturally Western; even if I write about other cultural spaces, my cultural identity will inevitably infuse it on some level.

People whose identities are complicated, or whose experiences are complicated, etc, will produce complicated work.

Western is a slippery, not well-defined term, but I’m not sure how to replace it, especially as identities and geographical politics are so complicated that they probably won’t ever be served well by a term that claims to clearly delineate them. Maybe coming from a culture that held colonial power, literally or by direct, contemporary cultural heritage.

Siobhan Carroll

The term “metropole” comes to mind, as in “international/(imperial) cultural center.” When we’re talking about publishing, it seems fair to acknowledge that a book printed by a large publishing house in New York has a larger potential global reach and a larger marketing budget than a book published in Lagos. The Lagos book may have a large impact locally, of course, but when it comes to international distribution I’d think the book published in a metropole has the advantage. (Maybe in a flat world this will prove different?)

Anyway, for me, the geographical idea of writing from the periphery has value. The further you are from the metropole, the less likely you are to have your storytelling shaped exclusively by its culture, the harder it is to tell your stories in the metropole, the more likely it is that you and your stories will be received as “exotic.”

Alan Beatts

The discussion of Western vs. non-Western narratives here has brought up a number of great points but it seems to me that it’s a pretty clear distinction, but it is cultural / social rather than geographic. SF in non-translated English is a product of and exists within a Western cultural context which incorporates a whole slew of underlying concepts, values, myths, and so on. Even if the author comes from a vastly different culture, merely by being capable of writing in English the author is aware and affected (infected?) by that cultural context through the mechanism of learning the language thoroughly enough to write in it.

Whether the author shares common “Western” attitudes about (just to pick a few biggies) — religion (should be subject to the state), sex (is associated with marriage), and politics (the rulers have obligations to the ruled) — is beside the point. The writing is done in with the awareness of those attitudes. And so the work is informed by them.

Which is the reason that work by authors outside that set of values and assumptions is valuable. They tell stories that a more “Western” writer wouldn’t imagine and which can both add richness to the field as well as giving readers new insights into their own cultures and pre-conceptions.

The problems with getting that sort of work to an English speaking audience are the two addressed already — translation is important and expensive to do well plus some of the stories will be unappealing to the audience. But it’s still worth trying.

Karen Lord

Even if the author comes from a vastly different culture, merely by being capable of writing in English the author is aware and affected (infected?) by that cultural context through the mechanism of learning the language thoroughly enough to write in it.

I’m not convinced of that.

Cecelia Holland

I am. There are things you can say in English you can’t say in Russian, and vice versa.

Karen Lord

If it comes to that, there are things you can say in Caribbean Standard English that you can’t say in US/UK Standard English.

Cecelia Holland


Siobhan Carroll

I think Alan just gave away the plot of Embassytown

Karen Lord

Haha! I was thinking the same thing.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

It’s funny–when I read this difference of opinion, I’m put in mind of the original television program Star Trek, which tried to conjure an aura of cultural diversity through the variety of cultures, ethnicities, and terrestrial/extraterrestrial origins represented by its crew members.

Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Karen Lord

(Well, with respect to Star Trek, that was probably about as much diversity as that audience’s era could appreciate, so in a way it did the job symbolically.)

But to clarify my lack of conviction on the language acquisition point, cultural contexts change and shift. If my country ‘learned English’ back in the 1700s, what were the Western values then? Were these values applied to my ancestors (e.g. sex associated with marriage, rulers have obligations to the ruled)? As the values shifted, to what extent did we take those values on board? Did the other cultural values present (Indian, African, Chinese) overrule or modify them to produce a creolisation or hybrid?

English-speaking I may be, but I’m aware of the value systems of different eras and different cultures. I often consider more than one when I’m writing, and sometimes I leave out one or two. I have also gained awareness of cultures where I do not speak the language.

In conclusion, I really can’t see Western/non-Western as a binary. Learning language is not the only way to gain cultural awareness. With respect to values, globalisation can make us all creoles.

This is not to say that we don’t have a discussion point, but I believe it’s important to acknowledge that the boundaries are, if not diffuse, at least porous.

Karen Burnham

As we’re talking about the Western/non-Western binary which is probably a spectrum, I’m also thinking of the question of audience.

I remember reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The Wizard of the Crow, and it is an amazing book that I love. However, I suspect that I read it very differently than would a reader in Thiong’o’s native Kenya. It’s trivial to say that no two readers read the same book, because we bring our personal experiences to bear on the story. However, again looking at a spectrum, I’m betting that myself and a person who has lived in Kenya read very different books compared to me and another random American who has never traveled to Africa.

Same book, two different audiences, an infinite number of readings. I suspect that no matter who reads The Wizard of the Crow, they will find it to be phenomenally good and interesting, because it is a deep complex work that can support that many readings.

Siobhan Carroll

Western is a slippery, not well-defined term, but I’m not sure how to replace it

Like the term “white” it is used to constitute a large umbrella community that erases the significant differences between members of a newly-constituted “majority.” We no longer have English people and Irish people, we have white people. We no longer have Caribbean writers and German writers, we have Western writers. And therefore we all now belong to a monolithic group with an shared culture and history. But we shall not discuss what that “shared” culture or history is, nor will we allow anyone to “earn” membership in our group, because it is important that majority membership be unquestioned, unexamined, and naturalized. Why are you one of “us?” Because you were born into “us.” To suggest otherwise — that there might be active qualifications for belonging to this community — would quickly lead to this illusion of unity falling apart.

And of course now that we have an “us” we must have a “them.” I’m still stuck a little bit on who our Other is in this discussion. Middle Eastern SF writers? Non-anglophone writers? “Foreigners”? I rather suspect that the reason “non-Western” writing is proving hard to pin down is because in the wake of the Cold War, “the West” has lost traction as a term that obviously defines “us.”

Sorry if I sound cranky. I just don’t want to start this discussion by turning a diverse group of writers and nations into a homogenous, unexamined blob.

I’ll start on the question of international SF by listing some of works on my current reading list: Padmanabhan’s Harvest, Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, Okri’s The Famished Road, and Kunzru’s Transmission. All of these works are using SF elements to grapple with postcolonial politics. I wouldn’t say that they’re writing “outside” a western narrative, given that they rely heavily on recognizable Anglo-American narrative techniques. But they are writing speculative fiction from postcolonial perspectives, which would be one form of departure from the SF “norm.”

Marie Brennan

Very much this. Pick a criterion for “western” identity, and I will give you examples of groups we would generally classify as western that don’t fit into that box, or non-western groups that do. (“Religion should be subject to the state.” Not according to a lot of white theocratic American evangelicals, it shouldn’t. “Sex should be associated with marriage.” Most cultures across time have promoted that ideal, because of the way genetic relationship and economic inheritance have been tied together.) It’s the world’s messiest Venn diagram, and while there’s an amorphous mass in the center where lots of things overlap, not everybody will share every criterion, nor are the boundaries easily pinned down.

Which is not to say that the concept of western-ness doesn’t have power; obviously it does. But it’s very much in our best interests to poke at it with sticks, and use other words when a more accurate term is available. In the case of the roundtable question, I think we’re generally looking at Anglophone SF/F (including Australian, South African, etc.), with a secondary angle of European derivation. English-language stories based in a Chinese or Nigerian or Indian worldview, or non-English-language stories, are two types of Other in this scenario.

The two things that come to mind for me, when I consider stories of those types, are that a) they may very well be in conversation with something other than Anglophone European SF/F (other traditions of literature, or local folklore), which means they may be asking different questions and advancing different arguments than we’re used to; and b) they may valorize different virtues and demonize different sins than the usual Anglophone European SF/F audience is accustomed to. I enjoy both those things, but I also recognize I can bounce off them if they go too far from my own frame of reference. If you’re only hearing one side of the conversation, or have trouble seeing why a certain action should be considered virtuous or wrong, then the narrative will lose a lot of its power for you.

(True story, though at this late remove I’ve forgotten most of the concrete details: one of my folklore professors once had us listen to a tale that I think may have been from the Swahili tradition (her area of specialty). For much of the tale, the heroine was being chased and threatened by the demonic severed head of her grandmother. When she finally found a way to get rid of the head . . . she was punished for her lack of filial piety. This was, needless to say, not the reward most of us expected, nor what we considered to be satisfying outcome. I would need to know a lot more about relevant the culture and folktale tradition to have any hope of understanding why the story ended that way.)

Siobhan Carroll

…they may valorize different virtues and demonize different sins than the usual Anglophone European SF/F audience is accustomed to.

I was chewing on this point before I saw your response, Marie. I admit that this is one of the things I see as lacking in many texts I’d otherwise point to as “representing non Anglo-American points of view.”

Specifically, I was pondering Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which I happened to read alongside Halima Bashir’s autobiography, Tears of the Desert. Both narratives feature strong African women who undergo female circumcision, make their way across a war-torn country, and take dramatic steps to defend their communities. But Bashir is a Muslim Zaghawa woman speaking out about her experience of rape and abuse, and she does not present herself in the ways that an American feminist would. For example, she legitimates her decisions by relating how she consulted male authority: her father, then her husband. Okorafor’s fictional protagonist, on the other hand, is a much more American-style feminist figure, and her relationship to male authority is hardly marked by humble obedience.

I enjoyed Okorafor’s book very much, but I caught myself wondering at times how much the Anglo-American conventions of SF dictated its narrative structure and the characterization of its protagonist. American SF readers seem to want active, strong, individualist protagonists to serve as their vehicles of wish-fulfillment. We can tolerate the occasional jinn instead of a dragon, but how tolerant are we of characters who embody different cultural values? Women who consult men before acting? Granddaughters who value filial piety over escaping the severed bouncing head of evil grandma?

And, in the case of Who Fears Death, Okorafor’s shapeshifting protagonist gets to heal herself of her genital mutilation. As her circumcised female friends point out, its very easy for her — she gets to go through this horrific “rite of passage,” and thus can claim to fully belong to her community, but she also gets to escape the physical consequences.

I was rather puzzled by this moment in the novel. I was relieved, of course, that the character got healed. But I found myself wondering whether this undoing of trauma was dictated by the convention of SF wish fulfillment. Or, whether it was undertaken because someone thought that American readers wouldn’t want to identify with a character who was sexually mutilated — which is a slightly different matter.

Marie Brennan

I was rather puzzled by this moment in the novel. I was relieved, of course, that the character got healed. But I found myself wondering whether this undoing of trauma was dictated by the convention of SF wish fulfillment. Or, whether it was undertaken because someone thought that American readers wouldn’t want to identify with a character who was sexually mutilated — which is a slightly different matter.

Or wouldn’t want to identify with a character who accepts that mutilation, rather than trying to heal it. My training (as you know, but others don’t) is in anthropology, and one of the hardest aspects of that discipline is the necessity of that kind of perspective shift. I read a book on the topic of female genital mutilation in one of my classes — I think it was Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod, but I may be crossing that with a different book — and it presented the arguments of women who support the practice, women who think it is good and admirable and a thing to be desired. As a reader who feels strongly otherwise, I could barely stretch my brain to understand those arguments on an intellectual level. If I’d been asked to identify with them in fiction? I don’t think I could have done it.

That’s an extreme example, of course, but we could outline a whole spectrum leading back toward my own value-set, or that of another reader. I have a hard time fully enjoying a story in which the protagonist sacrifices her own dreams for the good of her family and community. But I can do okay with one where the protagonist transgresses for really important and laudable reasons, then accepts punishment for it anyway — even though my own impulse is to say she should be forgiven. I find a lot of value in stories that push against my assumptions (that good intentions should get you out of consequences, or that it’s better for the community if individuals pursue their dreams), but I may not enjoy them as much, on an emotional level.

Rachel Swirsky

Or wouldn’t want to identify with a character who accepts that mutilation, rather than trying to heal it.

More likely this, I think.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Digression alert (moi?) but the below is interesting. It is why, I have been frequently informed, translations into ‘smaller’ languages (Hungarian, say) in earlier days were often so good. It was considered a literary duty on the part of major authors to do translating if they could, to bring to their compatriots important works from other tongues. In English this is less ‘normal’ and where great writers do engage in translation it is often (in poetry) in the subset of the form that involves creative (often brilliant) ‘play’ with the original works. I’m thinking of Pound and Lowell, of course, as Russell was. But this is really rare for prose and is not the only way to approach translation. The book to read, it is really very good, is Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. Bellos effectively subverts a lot of what we think we know about translation (including ‘translation is treachery’ and ‘poetry is what is lost in translation’).

I don‘t think anyone would say Stephen Mitchell is as good a writer as Rilke, or that Gregory Rabassa is Marquez’s equal. But their work for those authors is exceptional.

Russell Letson

Don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier: For “SF,” substitute “jazz.” Or “standup comedy.” Or “string quartet.”

Guy Gavriel Kay

If you insist.

Herbert’s Dune is quite possibly the finest string quartet of its decade. As stand-up comedy, however…


Russell Letson

Yah–Herbert’s setups were terrific, but he kept muffing the punchline.

He really knew how to write for the viola, though I think his musette waltzes are his best work.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Not to sustain the digression, but this is also probably one of the reasons why early translations of Verne (hardly a non-Western writer) were subpar. Verne was so popular in his day that at a certain point English translations of his work were appearing virtually simultaneously with French language editions. Expedience, rather than accuracy, was crucial for that to happen–and you can bet they didn’t farm out serial installments of his novels for translation to gifted writers with an ear for mellifluous prose.

Rich Horton

Likewise today, I am informed by Swedish readers, the English translations of Stieg Larsson’s books, all but universally regarded as awful (the translations, that is, not the books) do not in any sense do justice to Larsson’s prose. And the reason is commercial expedience — these are phenomenally popular books, and the publishers wanted quick results, not quality, so as to get them in the marketplace as quickly as possible.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Not sure that is true – about the timing/speed thing. The books were translated, as I understand it, fairly early. I know Penguin Canada bought them inexpensively (in English, obviously) and it was seen later as a major coup for them. The point offered may be true for other languages, though. And (I confess) I have heard the opposite about Larsson’s prose in Swedish. He, too, was apparently used to working fast.

Rich Horton

I can’t swear to the truth of any of this — all second hand reports. One story I heard was that the English translation began as a movie treatment and was rushed to the market when it became clear the book might be a big hit. Can’t swear to that — it may well be just a good story someone told that garbled the truth somewhat.

As for Larsson’s Swedish prose, I have heard it described both ways — as pretty slapdash, and as pretty good. I’m clearly not competent to judge — all the Swedish I know comes from ignoring the subtitles in Bergman films or watching the Swedish chef. But I’ve heard from one Swedish person I trust, who knew Larsson personally (which to be sure might affect his evaluation), who states that Larsson was a fine writer of prose, and that the Swedish originals are far better than the English translations.

But as I say, none of this is first hand, so take it with a salt lick.

Karen Joy Fowler

To add yet another digression, I have wondered about the particular issues posed by humor. How well does it translate? Within my own community, there is already a wide variety of opinions about what is funny. Do those lines widen as you go into other cultures or are those the lines the lines — ie will there always be people in other cultures who think the same things are funny that I do, and always people who don’t. Someone on this list probably knows the answers to these questions.

Siobhan Carroll

I seem to recall The Simpsons having a hard time in overseas markets in early years because a lot of the humor didn’t translate. I think Seinfeld ran into similar problems. On the literary front, I’ve been told by several Russian readers that the humor of Dostoyevsky ‘s novels has been lost in their English translations. But maybe that’s a dark Russian joke my poor Anglophone brain just doesn’t get.

Karen Joy Fowler

If that’s a joke, it’s a really funny one!

Stefan Dziemianowicz

It would make sense that films and programs based around verbal humor don’t always translate well outside of western markets. Whereas action films do perform well overseas. John Carter of Mars did much better box office internationally than it did in the United States–in fact, it broke records in Russia.

Marie Brennan

Yes, it came up a lot in my folklore and anthropology classes that humour doesn’t translate very well. There are certain basic patterns in what people find funny, but the way those patterns play out tends to be very culture-bound, depending on a million and one contextual elements that the foreigner may not get. (Which is true of lots of other things, too — but humour, more than most, tends to lose its punch if you have to stop and think about it.)

Paul Witcover

In Russian, they are uproarious farces, especially The Karamazov Brothers. On the other hand, Gogol in Russian is somber, humorless, pedantic, mundane. Go figure.

Guy Gavriel Kay

The laugh a minute Karamazovs, with the famous stateroom scene! Alas, they were all Zeppo.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Didn’t Woody Allen channel the antic spirit of Dostoevsky for Love and Death? (Uh-oh, I see the needle on the digressionometer inclining toward the red.)

Guy Gavriel Kay

Stefan, never accept being called jejune! You are the junest man in all Locus!

Stefan Dziemianowicz

None dare call me junior.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Comment from Regina de Búrca
Time 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.

Comment from Rachel Swirsky
Time 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.

Comment from Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Time 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.

Comment from Siobhan Carroll
Time 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.

Comment from silviamg
Time 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.

Comment from Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Time 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.

Comment from Karen Burnham
Time 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.

Comment from Regina de Búrca
Time 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?

Comment from Siobhan Carroll
Time 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 from SF Tidbits for 5/2/12 – SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog
Time May 2, 2012 at 6:06 am

[…] Locus Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF. […]

Pingback from May Day Links with Bonus Cover | Cora Buhlert
Time May 2, 2012 at 6:15 am

[…] Locus has an interesting but faintly frustrating roundtable discussion about “non-western scie…. Why is the discussion faintly frustrating? Because there still seems to be a conflation of western SF (and fantasy for that matter) with Anglophone SF and fantasy, which completely ignores those of us who are from western Europe, but not from English speaking countries. Not that we aren’t used to it by now. Meanwhile, English speakers from beyond the US/UK/Australia and immigrants to those countries have a hard time fitting in as well, as Karen Lord points out. The bloke who thinks that SF requires a “western mindset” and that such a thing as “non-western SF” is an oxymoron and for whom even East European SF was “too strange and foreign” is just groan-worthy. The same goes for the guy who thinks that just the mere acts of writing in English automatically makes that author part of the anglophone SF scene, since they have to share the same values. But then, several other participants call him on it. […]

Comment from Russell Letson
Time May 4, 2012 at 8:08 pm

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

Comment from Djibril
Time May 6, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Another roundtable on a different but related topic, that of “Diversity in speculative fiction”, has just been posted to We’d be very interested in discussion and engagement from any of the participants or commenters here.

Pingback from Monday Original Content: Non-Western SF Roundtable (Part 1) « The World SF Blog
Time May 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm

[…] 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 […]

Pingback from Looking for the Colonized/Decolonized in Speculative Fiction | There's A Story In Everything
Time May 20, 2012 at 4:58 pm

[…] long (but admittedly dominated by white, Western, writers) Locus SF roundtable on the contributions of non-Western writers is worth reading to know what some of the problems in […]

Pingback from 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
Time May 23, 2012 at 7:43 pm

[…] A Locus Roundtable dedicated to non-western SF, inspired by this project […]

Comment from Meagan
Time 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

Comment from Cicely
Time 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.

Write a comment

© 2010 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved. Powered by WordPress, modified from a theme design by Lorem Ipsum