THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS: THE VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE:
SCIENCE FICTION AND NON-WESTERN/NON-ANGLOPHONE COUNTRIES
Aliette De Bodard
Last spring, Norman Spinrad’s April/ May On Books column “Third World Worlds,” stirred up a good deal of controversy on internet blogs and twitter. Since Asimov’s is vast and contains a multitude of opinions, we asked Aliette de Bodard to address some of the arguments raised by the book review. Aliette is a half-French, half-Vietnamese author who lives in Paris in a flat with more computers than she really needs. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction. Her publications include stories in Realms of Fantasy and Interzone; and her Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld was released in 2010 by Angry Robot/HarperCollins. Aliette’s most recent story for Asimov’s, “The Jaguar House, in Shadow,” appeared in our July issue. She responds to Norman’s essay with a thought experiment that may contain some controversial opinions of its own.
A common criticism leveled at science fiction is that it is dominated by the Western world, leaving little space for other countries. How much of this is true? Is SF being written outside the Western world, and what do those markets look like? In this article, I will trace the links between science fiction and Western countries. I will show that though the field appears overwhelmingly Western Anglophone, science fiction is being produced in many countries over the world, with different traditions and idiosyncrasies.
As its name suggests, science fiction is inextricably tied with science; and likewise, the beginnings of the genre’s history can be found in the beginnings of the discipline of science, giving the genre itself a distinctly Western flavor.
It is generally agreed that science as a discipline began somewhere in the seventeenth century, when we moved from a purely empirical approach (do this, and this might result) to an analytical one (do this, and this will result every time, and for such and such reasons). Though many scientific discoveries were made elsewhere than in the West (gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press in China, to cite only three), the real blossoming of science started in Europe, and remained there for the next few centuries.
An important turning point in the history of science is the nineteenth century, when the scientist became an engineer: no longer a savant, but a man who applied science to solve the problems put to him. This was the Second Industrial Revolution, in which the mass manufacture of steel transformed the face of the world; it was also the time of the great colonial empires, where Europe and the US rose to dominate the world, leaving their mark on regions ranging from Latin America to Asia. It is worth noting that the nineteenth century marks a shift of paradigms: it is the century when the notion of “progress” becomes important, where people in general become aware of science as a tool to improve mankind all over the world.
Given all of this, it is not surprising that science fiction (in the way we usually mean it—I will come back to this later), a genre steeped in progress and what it would all mean for the future, is so deeply Western in its beginnings. Works of genre in this time period include H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (a tale of an Englishman going forward into the future) and Jules Verne’s novels (meant both as thrilling adventures and didactic books, where it is common to find an entire chapter of scientific infodumping).
Of all the countries that might have challenged the Western domination, the biggest ones—China and Russia—were mired in various political and economic difficulties that prevented them from ascending as world powers. There is, however, one notable exception to the Western domination of science.
Japan reached a crisis point in the second half of the nineteenth century. Beset by foreigners and in danger of being swallowed politically, the country found itself a new leader in the person of the Meiji Emperor, and a new government that believed that the key to the Japanese future lay in the understanding of Western science and methods. To that end, the Iwakura Mission toured Europe and the US for two years, studying the Western system. In the wake of this, commissions were set up to decide which parts of the Western modernization were in keeping with the Japanese spirit, and which needed to be modified.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Japan has a history of science fiction almost as old as that of the West. The scientific romances of Wells and Verne find their counterparts in those of Shun¯o
Oshikawa and other writers of the era.1,2
Thus, from the outset, science fiction was linked to scientific nations and since scientific nations are also the most wealthy ones, SF has remained the preserve of the developed countries.
But things are changing.
The domination of the Western world might have seemed incontestable at the end of WWII, but the second half of the twentieth century saw the erosion of that. The former colonial empires crumbled, as the countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia asserted their independence from their Western masters. Many of those newborn nations regrouped under the heading of “Third World,” unaligned with either the US or the USSR and refusing to play a part in the Cold War. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, some of those developing nations set about filling the gap between them and the developed world, and some did so with tremendous amounts of success (for instance, the Asian Tigers: Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and the former territory of Hong Kong).
And with the technological leaps came science fiction. In countries all over the world, SF markets have emerged. The point of this article not being to systematically catalogue every country in the world, I will focus here on a few significant examples. (should you want more information, I will point you instead to The World SF Blog3 and Concatenations4, among other fine resources.)
The Chinese market is possibly the biggest in the world (helped, of course, by the fact that the Chinese population is also the largest in the world) and science fiction is a genre very much encouraged by the government to introduce science to readers. Science Fiction World, the major SF magazine, has a circulation of 130,000 (and a peak one of 300,000), impressive when compared to the 30,000 or so of the bestselling American magazine. Unlike in the West where SF fandom is graying, the majority of SF readers are teenagers: this gives the genre dynamism, but also means that the SF-reading crowd has low purchasing power. (the situation is a bit different for fantasy, which is more popular). Famous SF authors include Ye Yonglie, credited with writing the first SF novel after the Cultural Revolution, Little Smart Traveling in the Future (1978), and Liu Cixin, who won China’s Galaxy Award eight times (as of 2007.)5,6
Brazil has been producing science fiction since the sixties. The production is small compared to US standards: around forty books a year, plus the stories and related articles appearing in the fanzines. Nevertheless, there is a strong tradition of genre, which has started taking a look at Brazilian issues like dictatorship and Brazilian identity. Authors such as Ana Cristina Rodrigues, Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro (known for his alternate histories such as the recent Xochiquetzal) and Jorge Luis Calife (who writes hard science fiction), are promoting a broader range of outlooks on science fiction. The first Brazilian steampunk anthology, Steampunk, included stories by writers such as Flávio Medeiros, Fábio Fernandes, and Jacques Barcia (the latter two being also published in English-language venues such as Jetse de Vries’ Shine anthology).7
Similarly, in the wake of the end of apartheid, South Africa is playing host to a burgeoning science fiction market. Magazines such as Something Wicked (sadly defunct at the time of writing, though there are plans to bring it back in a digital edition) and zines like Probe (published by the Science Fiction Club of South Africa) have showcased short stories of note. Meanwhile, some South African writers (mostly white and English-speaking so far) are being published internationally: examples include Dave Freer (who has written solo as well as collaborating with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey) and Lauren Beukes (whose novel Moxyland, set in the future of the country, was first published in South Africa and subsequently reprinted by HarperCollins imprint Angry Robot).8,9,10
As we look at those other markets, we have to be aware, though, that in many countries books remain a luxury. Aside from a basic literacy problem (many countries in Asia or Africa have a literacy rate under 70 percent, unlike the 97 percent or more of the Western countries), there is the question of novel prices and novel availability. For instance, in India, the price of a paperback is one hundred to three hundred rupees (two to seven dollars, roughly), which can be the daily earnings of a farmer in a village. Pirated and cheap second-hand copies can be found easily, but mainly for successful English-language novels. For the other languages of India and more obscure works, this is not the case. Compare this situation with the US, where a mass market paperback costs as little as 7 or 8 dollars with a median salary of around 170 dollars a day for a full-time active worker, and it is clear that the audience in a position to read books will not be the same in both countries. In one, everyone would have access to books, though not everyone will wish to buy them; in the other, buying books will have to take the place of a necessity, and thus literature will remain the province of a certain elite. In Brazil in the late eighties, though most people were literate, only about 20 percent of the population consumed books on a regular basis. (Brazil is not helped in this regard by the lack of mass-market paperbacks.)
A side effect is that the literary market will often be small, and that the notion of genre itself might well be a luxury. The classification of books can only work when you have enough books to slot into categories. So there might not be a science fiction genre per se, but that does not mean elements of science fiction are altogether absent from the literary scene.
So far, so good—but, if all those countries have science fiction, why do we know so little about it? We might argue that they are small markets for an elite, and that this small scale prevents them from exporting their SF abroad. And this might seem the case—except that more developed countries such as France or Japan do not really seem to have much success exporting their SF, either. Most English SF readers would be hard-pressed to name the luminaries of the French field; most French, Japanese, or Chinese SF readers will know who Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke or even Robert J. Sawyer are, and what they have written.
Starting from this observation, it is easy to draw conclusions that might not be the right ones. Over the internet, there have been several blog posts debating why it was that English might be the language of science fiction, somehow more suited to it than French or Chinese or Japanese. Explanations range from genre history—today’s SF descends from the US Golden Age—to linguistic ones—just as English is somehow the natural language for science, so it is the natural language for writing SF.
In the light of what I have expounded above, this natural affinity does not appear to be the case. There are thriving SF communities in places where English is nowhere near an official language; and those who claim scientific words are somehow more suited to English forget that those words mostly come from Latin and Greek, and can be translated into most Western tongues—and adapted into any of the eminently flexible and creative Asian languages.
The problem is not one of available materials—the problem is one of visibility.
If an Anglophone Westerner were to walk into the speculative fiction section of any French bookshop, they would see many familiar names, all of them English-speakers. And yet France is slightly less inclined to translate than other countries: only 14.6 percent of our literature is translated. About 60 percent of these works are translated from English11. Worldwide, the situation is even more accentuated: 50 percent of the books translated in the world are from English into various languages—but only 3 percent of translated books are translated into English, and of those 3 percent, very few make it into the US. The rate of translations to published books in the US is usually around 0.2 percent12. This is abysmal by any standard.
The problem, thus, is asymmetric: there is plenty of SF being translated from English into other languages, but little of it that makes its way into Western Anglophone countries. (the UK genre is marginally better than the US in that regard, with the recent efforts of Gollancz to bring French and Russian speculative fiction into the fold.)
Why is that? An explanation can be offered by taking historical parallels. At the time of the Tang dynasty (seventh to tenth century AD), China exported its culture across to Japan and Korea: aside from the obvious impact of Buddhism, Chinese influence can clearly be seen in the Japanese art of the period, which emulated China—and, of course, in the Japanese kanji, which are Chinese ideograms. Back in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, China similarly exported its ideology and administrative system to Vietnam, centering the state around Confucian ideology and mandarins. But China itself took precious little in, either from Japan or Vietnam.
And, back in the eighteenth century, French was the diplomatic language in most European courts, and French-style meals the epitome of refinement.
The common point between those situations is that the countries exporting their cultures were all economically or politically strong at the time. Associated with this is an aura subtler than a military invasion: that of cultural influence. Not only is the dominant culture exported, but people in the non-dominant countries will strive to imitate it with various degrees of success, sometimes denigrating their own culture in the process. For most of the twentieth century (which coincides with most of the history of speculative fiction), the US has been the dominant world power, and therefore US—and by extension Western Anglophone—speculative fiction is the one that determines the market; the one that is talked about, the one that is emulated, the one that is translated and exported.
A frequent side effect of cultural domination is isolationism, especially after the period of growth is over: the paradigm is not voiced in so many words, but the implication is that if a culture can be so widely adopted, it is because it is somehow superior. Therefore, the dominant culture tends to make far fewer efforts to import anything from abroad (late Imperial China is pretty much a textbook example of this).
To a large extent, this means that what we consider international SF today, what we think of as good stories, as unforgettable narratives, are in fact shaped by Western Anglophone culture—and above all by US culture, just as our movie-making is permeated by Hollywood, and our television is strongly influenced by American programs.
Does this make SF in other countries derivative? We might argue at first sight that it does. Many of the tropes of science fiction are Western or even American: the biggest one, arguably, is the scientific approach itself, which as we have seen originates from the West, and has often been imported wholesale (countries such as Japan are an amazing exception). But there are others, like the exploration of space and stories of first contact, which in classic SF are a thinly-disguised retread of either the colonization process or the American conquest of the West.
But the effect is more pernicious yet: the grammar of storytelling itself, the SF novel, whether it be adventure or literary stories, is very much a product of its time and place. The novel, and especially the commercial novel as we understand it today, is a Western construct. To take only one example, even late Chinese prose literature is radically different from what was developing in the Western world in the same time period. The great novels of the Ming and Qing dynasty (fourteenth century to twentieth century) are not plot or character-centered, and do not have a neat, tidy resolution or a climax. Rather, they aim to present a variety of images, themes, and personalities, what sinologist Richard J. Smith13 calls “infinite overlapping and alternation,” a feeling of endlessness that is not rooted in some underlying meaning of the world. This is a very different aesthetic from Western novels, where a crescendo of plot has to climax and lead into an emotionally charged denouement.
Therefore, to ask of other countries that they write SF novels might seem like a retread of colonialist ethos, forcing alien values onto them.
And yet . . . and yet, all literature is a dialogue. A dialogue in the sense that the writers are listening to those who have come before; that no SF writer exists in a vacuum, but rather draws inspiration from their predecessors. But it is also a dialogue because any writer will speak in their own voice—a voice that is influenced by their upbringing, the society they live in, the values they hold dear. Even if those other countries had read no other SF but that imported from America—which, as I have shown above, is not true—they would still create a form of science fiction that would be uniquely their own. Japanese SF, as Nick Mamatas points out on the Haikasoru blog14, harkens back to Van Vogt and Fredric Brown just as much as it draws from other Japanese writers, religious concepts, manga, science. . . .
Because just as if one gives two writers the same plot and ask them to write, one will end up with two very different stories, no two people will read the same book in the same way, and no two people will craft an answer to the same book or author in the same voice. That is even more true when there is a great distance between those two writers. What I, as a Frenchwoman living in France, get out of reading Charles Stross is no doubt very different from what a black Kenyan woman would get out of it. And what I will write is different from what an Asian or an African writer will write.
To take just one example: there is a greater emphasis on the community in Asian countries than there is in the West. As a result, many Asians coming-of-age stories are about learning to fit in and be accepted, rather than forging one’s independence. A story in which a character walks away from his community and his family would be seen as a tragedy, rather than the triumph of turning over a brand new leaf and making a life for oneself—as it might be in the West. Likewise, Asians tend to have a more elastic concept of reality than Westerners. (the idea that science can explain everything is a typically Western one.) pieces such as Liu Cixin’s “From Ball Lightning”15 or Han Song’s “The Wheel of Samsara”16 have a peculiar, very fluid concept of reality and memory.
SF, then, is shaped by influences and dialogue, and the voice of SF in different countries is necessarily going to be different. When you throw into the mix the writers of those countries—the Brazilian writers of Brazil, the Chinese writers of China—then you will have voices that are very different from those that come from America or indeed from the western world, and markets that will continue to develop and thrive, and make their own ways with their own voices. m
With thanks to Lauren Beukes, Keyan Bowes, Dario Ciriello, Fábio Fernandes, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Rick Novy, and Juliette Wade.
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"Thought Experiments" by
Aliette De Bodardcopyright © 2010 with permission of the author.