Very quick post to let you know that I’ve guest-posted over at Khaalidah’s blog on worldbuilding and its attendant issues: the post is here (thanks very much to Khaalidah for the invitation and her ongoing patience with my missing her deadlines…) It’s less an admonition that a series of questions I’ve been asking myself–and to which I freely admit not having answers to. Any thoughts/discussions much welcome!
-Tricia Sullivan on “Some Thoughts on SFF and Reality Checks”. As Tricia says: what if authors, through shiny worldbuilding, erase someone else’s reality? What if the Vietnam War becomes replaced by a stream of good American soldiers fighting the evil communists? (or the reverse. Not really saying one is better than the other)
-On the same subject, Marie Brennan has a series of posts on Information Density and whether it is possible to educate the reader away from what they know while keeping a narrative going at full clip: here and here
I guess that, for me, it all boils down to: worldbuilding doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You have obligations not only to produce something cool and shiny to keep your reader entertained–but since your narration will affect other people who read it and shape their idea of the world/the history, you also have an obligation not to distort what you take from, as much as is humanely possible (and “not distorting” can get tricky).
Current mood: thoughtful.
ETA: have edited the post following some hard thinking
“Immersion”, like many stories, grew out of conversations–specifically with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and several other Asian bloggers/writers.
I wanted to write a story about cultural domination; about how the cultural norms from the dominant culture also infect the non-dominant ones; about how globalisation and its products don’t necessarily make the world smaller and communications between cultures easier, but tend to foster a harmful atmosphere in which one culture or subset of cultures (US/Europe, to be specific) takes over the existing ones and remakes everything in its image. That the takeover is subtle, not done by guns but rather through commerce and the diffusion of media, doesn’t make it less visible or excusable: not all wars are waged with weapons and violence; and the more subtle and insidious version of cultural colonisation that’s currently going on in the world is a phenomenon with obvious and damaging impact (and also includes Western tourism in developing countries, which is often intensely problematic and fraught with coloniser attitudes).
The story is also very obviously based on our trip in Vietnam and my rants at the guidebooks which distill a culture in an outsider, monolithic (and many times wildly inaccurate) version: the immersers from Galactic to Rong are guidebooks V2.0. I also imagined their counterpart from Rong to Galactic, something that would make it clear that unbalanced cultural exchanges could lead to severe cultural distortion, as well as rejection of one’s home culture–a phenomenon that’s not always harmful, but is taken to its extreme in Agnes. I also tried to tackle how damaging the imposition of languages and standards of beauty could become, though through lack of space I had to go for a fairly caricatural version of it.
(mild spoilers, plus somewhat long rambles)
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-Chimadanda Adchie on “The Danger of a Single Story”. I’d been linked to this before, but never actually read it. It’s ultra-interesting, fascinatingly argued; and touches on subjects like the vulnerability of people (esp. children) to the stories they consume, and the skewed balance of power in the depiction of cultures.
-Charles Stross on “DRM and ebooks”. Lots of stuff to chew on.
-Michael Moorcock’s “Starship Stormtroopers” on Reactionary SF. I don’t agree with everything, and I, uh, admit to never reading Heinlein, but it’s still food for thought. Somewhat depressing that it dates back from the late 70ies, though… (among things I am ambivalent on: the simplistic equation of being for or against the Vietnam War with being for or against US imperialism. US imperialism in Vietnam dates *way* back before the war, and the question of their involvement was a freaking tangle by the time it all blew up. Then again, I suspect a lot of people in the US at the time had no idea what was going on or why).
-The always wonderful Rochita Loenen-Ruiz has an essay on “Decolonizing as an SF Writer” over at Kate Elliott’s blog (and also at The Future Fire):
During the American occupation, the passing on of the oral tradition was suppressed as the native priests and their rituals were demonized not only by the white colonizer but also by the white missionaries who followed in their wake. This meant that the true traditions and the original culture were slowly overlaid with the glaze of white culture and white belief.
Add all this up and it is no wonder that the psyche and the culture of the Filipino is so scarred and wounded to the point where we see the white and the west as being superior to us in all things.
Reading the history of conquest and colonization is a traumatic experience for the colonized. The Philippines went through not one, but two colonizers. I wonder how many colonizers other countries had to endure.
From reading these histories, it becomes clear to me that the erasure and subjugation of existing indigenous narratives were prioritized as these were viewed as being rival to the colonizing power.
Well worth reading, discussing and sharing.
I was going to do a coherent blog post on this, but I just could never find a structure that would work. So I decided to follow twitter advice (thanks to Dave Bretton!), and take a baseball bat to my argumentation.
Accordingly and for your reading pleasure, a series of disjointed observations on the use of aliens and supernatural creatures in SFF:
-When you portray a group of funky-looking people with odd customs who either live on different planets, or try to integrate in a modern human society–whether you consciously want it or not, you’re bringing to mind real-life parallels. Namely, respectively non-Western countries (during the colonial era or during the globalisation era, depending on your portrayal), and immigrant communities.
If you don’t believe me, put side-by-side the following: someone travels to a foreign planet and describes the sights; and someone else (of the somewhat clueless variety) travels to, say, Vietnam or China, and describes what they’ve seen, and what odd customs those people follow, or what odd things they eat. Or try this one: a group living on the margins of society (or within society but still not integrated), hiding their extent of their difference from a fearful and prejudiced mainstream; and say, the situation of Muslisms in modern-day US. See how broadly similar they are?
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And now for something completely different: two friends of mine, Djibril al-Ayad and Fabio Fernandes, are having a peerbackers project to raise the money for We See a Different Frontier, an anthology of SF focused on the developing world. I’ve agreed to ask them a few questions to help them promote their project:
1. Can you introduce yourselves?
*Djibril al-Ayad*: Sure. I’m Djibril, and I edit The Future Fire, a magazine of social-political speculative fiction that has been publishing free online issues for about seven years now. We’ve focused in the past on feminist and queer issues, as well as environmental and colonial concerns. I have a soft spot for cyberpunk and dystopian settings, which are ripe for deep political storylines, but also like to experiment with surreal, magical realist and slipstream work.
*Fábio Fernandes:* I’m a science fiction author living in Brazil. I’m a professor of Creative Writing for Games and of Digital Culture scholar and translator for an university in São Paulo, and in my spare time I work as a translator (I did the Brazilian Portuguese versions of Neuromancer, Boneshaker and The Steampunk Bible, among many others). I’m edited a bilingual journal in Brazil a few years ago, and won two Argos Awards for Best Fiction (Brazil). I’m still doing some writing and editing in Portuguese, but since 2009 I’ve been doing most of my work in English.
2. Can you talk a bit about the project and its inception?
This project arises indirectly from the fact that TFF took a one-year hiatus last year, in part due to editor fatigue, and when we came back we felt we needed a bit of fresh blood to bring us back to form. Fábio was one of several people who responded to our call for proposals for themed and co-edited special issues, and his suggestion caught our eye right away: an anthology of colonialism-themed stories celebrating the viewpoints of people from developing countries or backgrounds. (We selected only two of the many proposals, the other being the Outlaw Bodies, currently reading submissions.)
We plan for the We See a Different Frontier anthology to be a professional rate-paying venue, which is why we’re asking people to help fund this through the Peerbackers venture. If we reach our target of $3000 we’ll probably be able to offer at least $0.05 per word and have a good spread of stories. (Obviously we hope we’ll exceed that and be able to pay an even more realistic “professional” rate for these stories.)
This anthology will publish colonialism-themed stories in any of the subgenres of speculative fiction: scif, fantasy, horror, surreal, weird, slipstream etc. We’re looking for stories from perspectives outside of the usual white, anglophone, Western, middle-class, straight/cis/male literature than dominates the genres. Although we’re not planning to place any restriction on who can submit stories, we are determined to avoid stories that contain cultural appropriation, orientalism and the like, so make sure your voices are authentic and come from a place of knowledge rather than wishful thinking.
3. The anthology is strongly focused on the experience of people from developing countries–a perspective that I find fascinating because it’s one that we don’t much see in the field (which has a plethora of stories written from what I’d call an “outsider” point of view, from people in developed countries writing about developing countries). What do you think are the main differences between this perspective and SF from developed countries?
*Fabio*: The outsider has always been the “industry standard”, so to speak. This, in itself, is not necessarily a problem – science fiction is a genre that serves pretty well to self-examination and criticism, hence the New Wave and the Cyberpunk Movement, for example. But whenever I want to see what’s lurking around the corner, it’s easier to find stories that take place in the other side of the galaxy than in a country of the Third World written by a citizen of said country. Take the case of Brazil: when I was growing up, all I could read in terms of SF was Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein (later, Frank Herbert, William Gibson) and a handful of Brazilian authors published by small presses. I became a member of an SF club which exchanged information with other countries (Argentina, China, Japan, UK, USA), but we mostly relied on Locus Magazine and Ansible for information; they served as information hubs mostly. We got more info from them than from Argentina; that still remains the case, sadly – but we must stress out that Brazil is the only Portuguese language country in the subcontinent, entirely surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries (11 only in South America – I’m not counting Central America or Mexico).
Still about Brazil, or should I say “Brasyl”? Ian McDonald’s novel about my country is pretty good and very well-written (one couldn’t expect less from McDonald), but I couldn’t shrug off the impression that he somehow failed to capture the essence of Brazil, the cultural and subcultural undercurrents that permeate our daily life. For instance, in a scene early in the novel, he describes a capoeira fight between a blonde woman and an African Brazilian man, and he describes all the racial tension between them – but he does it with an Anglo’s eyes! To a Brazilian, the tension is spread thinner and subtler than it was described there. It was something many of my Brazilian friends who read the novel didn’t even care about, but I’m sure that a Brazilian writer would have done it differently. This sort of thing, however, is apparently unsolvable: McDonald did his very best and the novel is good. I wrote a couple of stories about India and I think they were well researched, but I’m sure I will never write them as an Indian author. So, it is just a difference in perspective. It’s not necessarily good or bad, just different. And I want to see more of this different perspectives.
4. One of the things that I find fascinating about SF is its strong roots in a colonial paradigm (it’s not for nothing that we talk about space colonisation, or that stories about the settlement of other planets bear strong parallels to the Conquest of the West). Obviously this is a subject that you mean to tackle in this anthology! However, if I may take it further… How do you think those original tropes affect SF today–and how do you think we should go about producing genre that doesn’t unthinkingly perpetuate those problematic tropes?
*Fabio:* I had a paper to present in this year’s ICFA, and sadly I could not attend it – but it was just about that: how Firefly dealt with the conquest of space drawing a simple parallel with the Conquest of the USA Wild West. This paper wasn’t accepted for a book on Joss Whedon’s works, and I wonder why – I am a fan of Firefly, but I happen to disagree with a few things I wanted to see and I didn’t. I just thought there wasn’t enough diversity in Firefly! Is that evil? Not at all, it’s just a tiresome thing – and I believe it is one of the reasons why the show unfortunately didn’t last.
I loved Tobias Buckell’s Xenowealth series, and I think he shifted slowly the colonial paradigm by changing the ethnicity of the colonists in the first place. This is a nice first step, and Buckell’s Caribbean upbringing helped him a lot to see things differently from the original SFnal tropes. Your own Obsidian and Blood trilogy deal with a culture that shifts from the old fantasy stories about pre-columbian peoples and treat the Aztecs as an extremely intelligent people, that is, as every people on the world should be treated historically, socially, and narratively. I think the best we can do is not underestimate the Other.
*Djibril:* I think the best and maybe only way for a writer to avoid unthinkingly perpetuating problematic tropes is to think–think hard about everything you say and write. That sounds like a platitute, but I seriously believe that we can learn a lot by being self-conscious. We can learn from analysing our own mistakes (and yes, being criticised for them, for all it can hurt). Of course the best way to avoid Western colonial attitudes in science fiction is to read and publish SF written by someone with a different perspective, with a different attitude, but even then there’s the danger that we internalize prejudice and the Western tropes have permeated pretty much the whole world, so thinking about what you’re writing and why helps even there.
But the most important thing, and what we’re trying to achieve with this anthology (and what collections like So Long Been Dreaming, Dark Matter, World SF, Walking the Clouds etc. have done before us) is actively to pay attention to speculative fiction being written from outside the dominant paradigm, to “give voice to the voiceless” as Salman Rushdie puts it (although I don’t want to suggest that such writers are voiceless, certainly not on this blog!). There’s a lot of great spec-fic out there, and as Fábio said in his response to our call, only reading the stuff by western white anglo straight cis male authors just isn’t good enough.
Thank you, Djibril and Fabio, for dropping by! And, if you feel like donating money to make this possible, go over to the Peerbackers website over here. I’m very much looking forward to this anthology.
(with thanks to Brian Dolton, for sparking this one off)
The above is something that I’ve often heard quoted when speaking of “writing the Other” . And I’ve been struggling with it ever since I heard it; because it rings fishy to me. And yet there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it; and indeed, much that is right. Of course we’re all human beings. We’re born and we live and we age and we die. We love and we care and we hate and we fear. We have parents and grandparents and some sort of family; and a non-insignificant bunch of us will have friends and children and partners. There’s a whole spectrum of experiences and emotions that we share on what, for want of a better word, I think of as the human continuum. And, given that a few centuries ago people of a different colour or gender or creed were thought of as no better than beasts, I’m certainly not going to complain at the impulse to declare us all part of the same species.
At the same time… I think the main problem I have with the above sentences is that they’re too reductive: they go straight to what they see as “the essential”, and forget that our lives are often made up of many large and small details, of a mosaic of beliefs and cultural mores which comes from the environment we’ve been raised in, the society we’ve moving in, the subcultures we’re members of, the people we frequent… Yeah, we’re all the same deep down, but, broadly speaking, life in Hồ Chí Minh City follows very different rhythms from life in Paris; and the social structure and attitudes can also be very different . Similarly, of course French politics are like US politics, but for a matter of degree; but that doesn’t get across the way that those two are fundamentally un-alike, and the myriad differences that make French politics characteristics of France.
Of course there’s nothing like “French-ness”, or “Black-ness”, or “Asian-ness”–and of course you don’t want characters who are walking stereotypes (personally, if I see one more Eastern mystical master, or one more Asian family obsessed with school grades and arranged marriages, I’ll hit someone). But the reverse approach, the one that advocates that “we’re all the same deep down”, is a bit like globalisation to me: instead of being a vibrant celebration of what makes us different, globalisation tends to smooth everything into an over-arching culture (which is a mix of European/US cultural mores, to oversimplify). Or like “universal stories”, which so often tend to be the Hollywood variety (rather than, say, the Bollywood or Nollywood one, to take just two examples).
This approach assumes that everyone in every country wants the same things: which might the case if you go deep enough, but is intensely problematic if you stop, say, at tastes in food, or beauty standards, or cultural values. And, like globalisation, the “we’re all the same” approach tends to lead to characters who might feel powerfully individual, but who basically remain 21st-Century US/European people in costume with a few “exotic”  words thrown in: it makes a mockery of all that makes us different.
In other words, saying “everyone is the same deep down” carries the risk of being boiled down to “everyone is like me”, and that in turn can lead to thinking everyone has the same beliefs and culture as you do, aka imposing your own thought processes on others at the expense of their own.
So, yeah. We’re all the same deep down. Except for a matter of degree. But degree is a huge thing.
This isn’t my most articulate post. I’m fully aware that I’m struggling to pinpoint why I disagree with the above assumptions; and I’m not entirely sure I succeeded in putting my thoughts down on, er, blog electrons. I guess it broadly boils to a matter of balance between two ends of the same problem: characters as walking stereotypes, and characters as entirely similar to the writer or the assumed majority audience (both stemming from an incomprehension of difference, and to some extent for me, a tolerance fail). Am I making sense to you? What do you think?
I also have issues with this expression, but I’m going to stick to one problematic assertion per blog post…
They can also be eerily similar in some respects; and yes, they’re going to hugely depend on who you are and where you live in both cities. But my point is that they don’t coincide 100%, or even 90%. There’s overlap, but no equivalence (yes, I’m a maths geek 🙂 )
”exotic” is another of those words that makes me want to hit something, just in case you have a doubt. Especially when it’s applied to food I happen to have eaten and enjoyed since childhood.
(picture credits: nanarmitvn on stock.xchng)
-A rather lovely review of Servant of the Underworld by Keith Harvey, discussing its relation to the cozy mystery (anything that compares Brother Cadfael with Acatl is awesome, check it out!)
–China Miéville on racism and the Belgian decision to publish Tintin in Congo without acknowledging its racist clichés. For the record, Tintin was also a part of my childhood. I have very fond memories of some of the BDs in the series (mainly the later ones), but I don’t think they’re books I could enjoy today, and I’m not really sure they’re books I’d hand to my children. Every single nationality around the globe basically got skewered in a racist fashion (including but not limited to Africans, Arabs, Asians, Gypsies–you name it, he skewered it), and it’s very much boys’ adventures–wimmen need not apply. There are other BDs from my childhood that are far, far better than those.
Also, this quote?
there is a distinction between having the legal right to say something & having the moral right not to be held accountable for what you say
Smartest quote about freedom of speech, ever.
–The New York Times on Explaining Londoners. Definitely worth a laugh. I would like to point out that although the French do greet each other by kissing cheeks, we only do the one-on-each-cheek in Paris (every area of France basically has its own idea of how many kisses you should give)
-Fellow VDer Stephen Gaskell has started a new blog, Creepy Treehouse, aimed at educating the young-ish crowd better than dry school lectures. He’s running a series of posts on how to survive the apocalypse that are rather fab.
(broken down in several posts as this grew too long)
1. Food: oh my God, the food. I might be a tourist and more than a little lost in Vietnam, but the food is always like coming home (and it’s no coincidence that the one place I’m never lost in is restaurants). Plus, you always eat well at Grandma’s house (thanks to the combined efforts of Grandma, my maternal aunt, and my cousin). We also tested and patented the food crawl as we were travelling: this is a technique by which you get up at 6:00, have a cup of tea, eat a breakfast soup at 9:00, have lunch at 11:00, then have a boat ride on the Mekong and have a copious snack at 15:00, and proceed to dinner at 17:00 (all the while being pointed to food in various peremptory ways, and being told to eat in either French or Vietnamese). That’s discounting special events where you are well and properly stuffed, banquet-style (our stay intersected my great-grandmother’s death anniversary, and a two-year death anniversary for my great-uncle, which is basically when the period of mourning ends for the descendants); and it explains why we came back from Vietnam sated, but determined to undergo a diet of salads. 
2. Orientation: Grandma very sensibly wrote the address of the house on a bit of paper (well, OK. First she told me to repeat it out loud, then she grimaced and said she was going to give me a bit of paper… Remember what I said about my pronunciation sucking?), and that was what we gave taxis as we zoomed around Saigon. It puzzled them no end that two very obvious tourists (one White guy, and one vaguely Vietnamese-looking gal who obviously couldn’t speak very well) would ask to be dropped in what seemed to them the back end of nowhere. Mostly it was fine, but we did have one taxi driver who kept circling the house, looking for a hotel where we could be staying… (when this was explained to Grandma, she laughed very hard and said she was the cheap variety of hotel). In the end, I gave up the pronunciation game–it’s just too frustrating to argue with a cab while the meter is running–and copied down street names on a bit of paper. (I think the only two places that I said out loud that didn’t suffer from a pronunciation problem were the Bến Thành market, which is a touristy destination, and the word “crossroads”, but it was accompanied by a list of two street names, and a rather graphic gesture of a cross made with my hands).
3. Tourists vs. locals: the H and I spent a most profitable afternoon in Hội An  observing an ever-increasing flow of local tourists vs Westerners, and we’ve come to the conclusion that the one difference between the “locals” and the Westerners is–guess who’s wearing the T-shirts and shorts and getting sunburnt? (getting dark skin is considered a bad thing in Vietnam, so a lot of people dress with long-sleeved shirts, trousers, and sometimes even gloves and facemasks. And I shudder for the poor kids decked out in thick winter clothes, because it’s colder in the Centre, but most certainly not *that* cold).
 I didn’t escape the ritual bout of food poisoning in Hội An–two days out, and I basically couldn’t keep anything down. Thankfully it didn’t last long, because it was a bit stressful to be rushing about in a temple complex trying to explain with gestures that I was going to be sick and needed to get away from the sanctuaries before it got messy. Also, explaining in a restaurant that I was sick and needed cháo (rice porridge) was worth a laugh or two (I mangled the pronunciation completely, but enough of it got across that I basically got a custom dish made up for me).
 Incidentally, if anyone knows of a festival that happens to fall on Feb 8th/the 17th day of the First Lunar Month, we’d be interested. We were mildly curious at the queue of pilgrims outside the Quan Vũ/Guan Yu temple in Hội An, and we couldn’t figure out why they’d be there (I know Guan Yu’s death anniversary is on the 13th day of the First Lunar month or something, but the date doesn’t coincide).
I was reading this fascinating article by Jason Sanford over at SF signal, on military SF. Not that I’m much fascinated by military SF, I admit, but the article is fascinating for another thing: it’s the use of the word “political” to refer to something that, for me, has nothing to do with politics (in this case, whether or not to approve of war). I’ve seen it before, to refer to diverse other things, such as people’s positions on QUILTBAG relationships, abortion, women’s rights… The thing is, for me, those are not political problems. My position on war and abortion isn’t politics: it’s a matter of pure ethics, of how I put things in the context of my personal morals, rather than where my chosen political party stands on the issue (in fact, if anything, it would be a matter of where my religion stands on the issue).
Thing is… in France, parties don’t define themselves by this kind of position. Our left wing is slightly more pro-abortion and pro gay rights, for instance, but it’s far from their main campaign argument–so far that I don’t particularly associate a particular party with a particular moral stance .
This would seem to be a purely US use, and I’m curious–if you’re a USian and reading this blog, mind explaining to me why “political” for this kind of subject? Is “ethics” banned from public discourse, and I somehow missed the memo?
ETA: I stand corrected. Patrick Samphire and K.S. Augustin pointed out to me that this was also a UK and Aus usage. I’d not seen it in UK/Aus blog posts, and I leapt to conclusions regarding its use a tad too fast.
 Amusingly, I tend to define the French left wing and the right wing in terms of where they stand with relation to wealth: the left wing wants to tax the rich to death, the right wing wants to over-favour them. (and yes, this tells you everything you need to know about my politics vs my cynicism)