Recentering Science Fiction and the Fantastic: What would a non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy look like?

By Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

Contents

  1. Recentering
  2. Describing the Planet
  3. Horizons
  4. Core and Periphery
  5. The Future

1. Recentering [contents]

"Non-Anglocentric," "science fiction and fantasy," and "recentering": these terms describe spaces and concepts that are continuously evaluated and challenged by readers and writers. How must one use these terms?

First of all: Anglocentric and non-Anglocentric. While I will argue that looking beyond the Anglo-American tradition of science fiction and fantasy is important, I am hesitant to use 'Anglocentric' because the term refers to the English language in addition to the culture behind it. Much of the science fiction and fantasy I have read in my life has come to me through English translation. Think Jules Verne to a non-French speaker; Jorge Luis Borges to a non-Spanish speaker; Stanisław Lem to a non-Polish speaker; Arkady and Boris Strugatski to a non-Russian speaker; Kobo Abe to a non-Japanese speaker; Zoran Živković to a non-Serbian speaker; or any of the other translated short stories collected in the pages of science fiction and fantasy magazines, fanzines, and anthologies. Equally, think how impoverished the language of science fiction and fantasy criticism would be if so many critics, thinkers, philosophers, and analysts did not write in English, or did not have their works translated into English.

The problem of Anglocentrism we will discuss here, then, is ostensibly not a problem of Anglophonism, which requires a different set of analytical tools. The problem of Anglocentrism is the problem of looking only at certain literatures and not others, utilising only certain works and not others, constructing canons with certain texts and not others, and not supporting a more vigorous translation industry.1 As the science fiction critic John Rieder shows at length in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008)—a work that has greatly influenced mine—looking has a history and a politics.2 The look and the gaze—male, colonial, or critical—is always about a certain politics. We cannot set Anglophonism aside entirely, however, because words are not words alone: they can be tools of cultural imperialism, as the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o famously argues in Decolonising the Mind (1981).

Colonialism and the Emergence of SciFi

The next terms, “science fiction” and “fantasy,” are tools with which we navigate the literary landscape. They allow us to talk about the way narrative conventions develop and transform. They also betray their own genealogies, because they are rooted in a certain critical discourse and epistemology. And yet, to have engagement on this subject, we must use them as terms to find generic equivalences and patterns. We must use them to erase, but also to absorb, difference.3

This leads us to recentering. What is it? Does it mean that there is a center which must be moved elsewhere? Or does it mean that current Anglo-centrism must be replaced with some other equally dubious centrism? As a researcher on Bangla science fiction, should I suggest Bangla-centrism? Or should some other critic suggest Russo-centrism? Sino-centrism? Must we dispense with centers and peripheries altogether? If we do, won't we risk false universality where none exists, or a lack of taxonomic systems allowing us to make sense of our reading experiences? Taken to extremes, we risk losing the critical tools of our engagement, and the invaluable academic discipline of literary analysis and philosophy along with it.

So what exactly must our aim be, as critics and fans of science fiction and fantasy? How can we answer this essay's question?

2.Describing the Planet [contents]

Bearing the above in mind, we can start to outline the network of assumptions around which the problem is based. These assumptions are of two kinds: historical—which refers to geospatial fixity of genre in origin, destination, and dissemination—and categorical. A proposition that can highlight both is John Clute's adoption of the term "fantastika"4 Clute uses this word to refer to the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural horror, instead of arguing for a separation of the genres:

1750 is not only the year in which fantastika began to be written as a weapon against the owners; it also marks the point when Western Civilization begins to understand that we do not inhabit a world but a planet. It is from this point that science—astronomy, physics, geology, biology—begins to shape our understanding that we are a species clinging to a ball that may one day spin us off,5 that the past is deeper than we can conceive, and that the future is going to rip us apart. (Science fiction does not begin in the discovery of Space, but in the discovery of Time: terroristic meditations on the conjoining of Ruins and Futurity dominate the first decades of the genre.) So science takes the ground from underneath our feet; and fantastika, with its heated and cartoon immediacy of response to instability and threat, responds instantly to the vertigo of this new knowledge. Fantastika vibrates to the planet. It is the planetary form of story.6

These planetary imaginings are set at the dawn of European colonialism. Is it such a coincidence? Note that Clute’s insistence on the Western view systematically evades any narrative history which may highlight the role of colonial imagination in the origins of the fantastic, in spite of the fact that science fiction and fantasy critics have, before him, often noticed the close ways in which the representations of the colonized Other informs and influences the development of science fiction themes and tropes—that science fiction is a genre of systematic Othering in the Anglo-American world. There is no mention of the role of colonialism or the many stories hidden within Clute’s emergence story: for instance, the translation of the Arabian Nights into French half a century (1704) before Clute’s fantastika originates (1750), the ever increasing ambit of colonial institutional orientalism, translation of texts and stories from Sanskrit and other languages (including William Jones’s Sacontala from 1789), and so on.

This, then, is my first proposition:

A generalisation such as “planetary” must not be used in the same breath as “western civilization” when exploring the emergence of genres. A non-Anglocentric understanding of genre must revise the historicity of genres, which means abandoning the search for origins, abandoning the story that genres emerge from a series of sui-generis works. A non-Anglocentric understanding of genre must instead embrace a story of works which connect to each other, must reconstruct the historical matrix that gives rise to conventions and understanding their transformation. A non-Anglocentric perspective would look like a conscious increase in historical depth. The use and meaning of terms such as science, fantasy, or fiction must only be from the perspective of the literature being examined, or must re-examine these terms in case of comparative analysis between multiple traditions.

In 2008, John Rieder addressed this singular methodological blindness. Rieder proposed reading the emergence story of science fiction by means of the colonial gaze, although science fiction as he applied it referred to several genres, including fantasy and adventure fiction. Rieder linked the idea of lost races, construction of racial anthropological Others, artificial humans, and catastrophe literature in his exploration. However, he did not follow these through to the other perspective: namely, that the story of emergence involved the study of literary production outside the Anglo-American (and European) world.

A number of studies since Rieder have begun this work. My thesis is one such; two other examples would be Rachel Haywood Ferreira's The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (2011), and Anindita Banerjee's exploration of the connections between science fiction and the making of Russian modernity in We Modern People (2012). Similar explorations need to be undertaken to understand the processes from a planetary perspective, to show how genres can be seen as mutable mobiles, instead of geospatially fixed. Their emergences are linked to the ways in which conventions are both created and rendered meaningful in any context. A sensitive understanding of science fiction and fantasy will attempt to see each such production and literary tradition both in its own context and in the ways and means by which one context relates to another. As part of this understanding, alternative genre terms must be understood for what they are: attempts to render into another language what may be incommunicable and uniquely tied to the conditions of a production.

3. Horizons [contents]

Let us explore Anglo-centrism further. John Clute wrote a small entry on Satyajit Ray in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2013). Clute is unarguably one of the finest critics of science fiction and fantasy, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the field, having written almost 5000 entries on science fiction in this encyclopaedia alone. He is therefore eminently suitable for writing such an entry. This is what it says:

Professor Shonku

Ray, Satyajit (1921-1992). Indian film-maker and author, best known in the former capacity; beginning with Pather Panchali (1955), he made about thirty feature films, and is generally recognized as the finest Indian director to date. His fiction, much less well known outside India, was generally restricted to series of tales...

Of sf interest is the Professor Shonku sequence, beginning with Professor Shonku, which contains stories from as early as 1961; and ending with Selam Professor Shonku ["Hats Off, Professor Shonku"]. Many stories in the series were translated into English, in collections beginning with Bravo! Professor Shonku and ending with The Exploits of Professor Shonku: The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories; it is assumed that all stories were published earlier in Bengali, but no attempt here has been made to establish specific links...7

Note the words “of sf interest” opening the second paragraph. As any reader of science fiction and fantasy in Bangla knows, while Shonku might be the most famous series written by Satyajit Ray, it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the output of Ray, both in written literature—science fiction stories such as “Septopuser Khide” ("The Hungry Septopus,” 1962) or “Bankubabur Bondhu” (“Bankubabu’s Friend,” 1962) are quite famous—and in film, as in adaptations of Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne stories by Upendrokishore Roychoudhury, with the later adventures completed by Ray himself. Imagine how such an entry would look, had it been written by someone familiar with the body of Ray’s work, instead of just the small number of translations available in the Anglophone, and consequently Anglocentric, world?8

This leads to the second proposition:

A non-Anglocentric critical discourse of science fiction and fantasy must be open to other traditions. It should actively seek out, instead of sidelining, the intervention of non-Anglocentric literary traditions and their knowledges. Instead of working with a singular narrative, enabled by translations alone, it should seek the untranslated in other traditions. The burden of this task lies on multilingual critics and historians, but the opening of the critical discourse would in turn lead to a greater demand for, and increase in the amount of, translated literature available. New technologies—crowdsourcing, for instance—can be used to sustain a translation industry.

There are signs of hope for a different critical discourse, less Anglocentric though retaining its Anglophone nature. One was The World SF Blog, published and run by Lavie Tidhar and others from 2009 until earlier this year.9 There are also collections of stories such as So Long Been Dreaming (2004), edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan. Recent literary criticism includes Postnational Fantasy (2011), edited by Masood Ashraf Raza et al., and Science Fiction, Imperialism, and the Third World (2010), edited by Ericka Hoagland and Rima Sarwal.

It was to counter Anglocentrism that a conference and writers discussion was organized in 2011 by the transdisciplinary and transnational programme KULTRANS at the University of Oslo and Litteraturhuset. The invited authors were all from non-Anglo American background or ethnicity, including Andreas Eschbach, Jon Bing, Claude Lalumière, and Anil Menon. The pièce de résistance of the event was Zoran Živković’s speech, “What happens to a work of science fiction when it is not written in English.”10 Živković highlighted the perfect mergence of Anglocentrism and Anglophonism in a bumper sticker spotted in the United States: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me!” In other words, at least a part of Anglocentrism is premised on Anglophonism; more specifically, it is shaped by what Lawrence Venuti terms the translator’s “invisibility” within the translation industry prevalent in Anglo-American culture:

“A translated text, whether prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, is judged acceptable by most publishers, reviewers, and readers when it reads fluently, when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities makes it seem transparent, giving the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer’s personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text—the appearance, in other words, that the translation is not in fact a translation, but the ‘original.’ The illusion of transparency is an effect of fluent discourse, of the translator’s effort to insure easy readability by adhering to current usage, maintaining continuous syntax, fixing a precise meaning. What is so remarkable here is that this illusory effect conceals the numerous conditions under which the translation is made, starting with the translator’s crucial intervention in the foreign text. The more fluent the translation, the more invisible the translator, and, presumably, the more visible the writer or meaning of the foreign text.”11

The best translation is meant to render foreignness inert by making it exotic. 

Part of the problem of dealing with Anglocentrism is equivalences. For instance, when writers whose language of production is other than English seek to explain the work they do in English (or, in fact, any language), they often define their production in terms of the most approximate equivalent. Kalpabigyan, the topic of my doctoral work, is one such term, referring to a literary phenomenon in Bengal. The process of finding equivalences is also a process of transformation, as meanings that might otherwise not be applicable are often taken over, while meanings that might have been in the original are taken away. The problem is rooted in the genre terms, as identifying a specific linguistic formation, which entails a process of historical delineation, always means that the genre has influences that go beyond the formation.

4. Core and Periphery [contents]

Africa as a Living Laboratory

Consider now the center/periphery model. It is most often used in sociology to speak about dependencies and power asymmetries between developed/industrialized nations and developing/underdeveloped nations, but it can also be applied to the sciences. For instance, George Basalla's polemical diffusion theory suggests a metropolitan colonial center for science, and a process of diffusion by which this science spread to the rest of the colonized nations.12 According to the Basalla model, science is a creation of the modern West. In response, historians of science, such as Roy MacLeod, have suggested the concept of a “moving metropolis,” arguing that metropolitan science is not specific to a geographical location: “not the science of a London or a Paris or an Edinburgh, but also the science of a Kolkata or a Cairo.” That is, metropolitan science is a “way of doing science” in which different geographical locations tied through colonialism participated, and which was born out of these colonial processes through the constant negotiation between imperial exigencies, absorption, and transformation of local knowledge in new vocabularies, by means of evolving technologies, and through recreation of institutional frameworks oriented towards the needs of colonial governance.13 In Africa As a Living Laboratory (2011), Helen Tilley has studied this process in the context of Africa; there are numerous studies in the context of India; and similar studies exist for almost every location transformed in the age of European colonialism.14

The “moving metropolis” model as developed by MacLeod is particularly significant in understanding generic patterns in the case of a genre like science fiction, for what links texts in diverse locations is more complex than mere influence and direction of influence, and certainly not an idea of origin—a term which we must banish. We must study the ways in which conventions are identified, collated, and become a genre, thereafter assuming the status of hegemonic discursive structures: how vocabularies and questions of origin, emergence, and influence become politicized. If there is anglocentrism, then it may not be a question of “science fiction” or “fantasy,” as words, but the ways in which these words circulate and become critical lenses used to erase or subordinate difference.

This is the third proposition:

A non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy must recognise the historicity of the conditions of production, including colonial, postcolonial, and neocolonial contexts, in addition to the ways in which alternate terms for such genres in a non-Anglophone context may or may not relate to the Anglophone or other contexts. A non-Anglocentric understanding must be alert to the shades of difference in the meanings of words and terms in different contexts, for it is through these shades of difference that one may reconstruct the matrix of influences—political, economic, and technological—that shape science fiction and fantasy. 

One common strategy for countering the center/periphery problem is to propose further terms. Let us look at two recent terms used to describe Indian science fiction. In 2009, Anil Menon, author of The Beast with Nine Billion Feet (2009), coined the term “desi spec-fic” to refer to science fiction and fantasy production in India:

“I usually think of it as south-Asian (“desi”) fiction rather than Indian fiction... there simply aren’t enough desi spec-fic writers. Indian writers find it hard to participate in the marketplace. As in the first-world, it’s tough to make a living at writing, but third-world economies have much less surplus-value, so career-choices have a life-or-death quality. Western magazines can only tolerate a certain dosage of ethnicity, and there are few native magazines that will publish speculative fiction. There are hardly any local workshops to train new writers. There’s only a rudimentary Critical-Industrial complex; that is, there’s no real tradition of conventions, prizes, funding grants, retreats, POD presses, spec-fic conferences or fanzines. There are few desi editors and reviewers who understand the genre. So on and so forth. The situation is not unique to India, of course.”15 

My quibble is not with the substance of Menon's argument, with which I am in complete agreement. Menon is a good friend, someone whose presence has enriched the appreciation of science fiction in India and popularised science fiction by Indian authors in the international space. The term “desi,” however, has manifold connotations. Des, meaning country in many Indian languages, is generally opposed to Vides, or anything outside the country. It is a use common in the Northern belt in India, which does not as such have any unique term for the phenomenon of science fiction, despite early works such as Ambika Datta Vyas’ Ascharya Vrittant (1884).

In Bengal, on the other hand, after struggles to find equivalent terms like the “bigyanbhittik galpa” (or science-based story) and “bigyannirbhar galpa” (science-dependent story), “kalpabigyan” has more or less attained recognition as an umbrella term for science fiction and science fantasy. The important difference is that kalpabigyan is a generic term, in Bangla, which could refer to production in any language, whereas desi deliberately opposes itself to something that is non-desi

In the case of immigrant writers like Menon, “desi” can be seen as a nostalgic yet keenly political appropriation of origin. On the one hand it is a signal of difference about the uniqueness of science fiction and fantasy production in India; on the other hand, the use of the term “spec-fic” betrays its genealogy in precisely the systems of borrowing and dissemination to which I have earlier referred. While “desi spec-fic” or “desi sf” (a term Menon also uses) do signify difference, the difference is one that marginalizes the science fiction and fantasy production in India and Hindi by only referring to it in relation to the dominant narrative of an Anglo-American tradition. In that sense, the term does not successfully re-center our understanding of science fiction or fantasy: instead, it reproduces a marginality implied by the addition of the term “desi” to “spec fic” or “sf.”

Reading New India

My second example is a term coined by Emma Dawson Varughese, in a work which has just hit the shelves, Reading New India.16 She uses "Bharati Fantasy" to refer to recent science fiction and fantasy literature, including Ashwin Sanghi’s Chanakya’s Chant (2010) and Bali and the Ocean of Milk (2010) by Nilanjan Chaudhury).17 Varughese’s term is similar to Anil Menon’s in that both refer to things in opposition to science fiction and fantasy, and while Varughese’s term is broader—for in her fantasy she covers both science fiction and new fantasy-mythology fiction—in the end, it does not achieve anything much more significant. To a large extent, this is because her focus is exclusively on production in English.

Varughese recognizes the problem of classification. Speaking of the growing body of literary production from Indian writers—that often use themes from Indian Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as Puranic literature—and drawing upon Farah Mendlesohn’s classification “immersive fantasy” to refer to these works, she writes: 

“The authors of this new body of fiction write within a recognizable Western construct of the fantasy genre, and yet these novels are discernibly Indian, in the sense that they draw on Hindu epic narrative as well as myths and folktales of various Indian cultures and traditions. Many of the authors of this body of new fiction create a sense of otherworldliness in their narratives, but the extent to which the otherworldliness might be perceived as being such is dependent on the reader’s own knowledge of Hindu epics and history. A reader with little or no knowledge of the history, religion, and people of Bharat will most likely read these new novels as significantly otherworldly. Less so, might a readership where Hindu mythology, history, religion and Sanskrit terms will be more readily part of their cultural heritage...the characters, plot, and narrative style is always fantastical in the sense that it is ‘not real,’ but describing this new body of writing as ‘fantasy’ holds its own issues of definition and taxonomy, given that for some readerships (read: within India) the narratives of these novels are real.”18

There are two important things to highlight in Varughese’s statement. First, there is the argument that what is or is not fantasy is dependent on the reader’s orientation and understanding of the world of the text. Second, there is the equal pull in the other direction in her reading that these novels function within “a recognizable Western construct of the fantasy genre.” In a reading of fantasy otherwise so wonderfully nuanced, how problematic this latter claim, given the former! Clearly, this classification of fantasy depends on (and derives from) the Anglophone reader of fantasy, whose awareness of a fantasy megatext is implicit in the argument. It is only in the Anglophone reader’s understanding of fantasy that the book can consequently develop, because the package of fantasy literature for the Indian reader is discounted as fantasy altogether, and made “real,” as if the Indian reader is not developed enough to distinguish the “real” from the “fantastic”! In Varughese’s classification, one group of readers reads fantasy as historical fiction, while another group will read these as fantasy, or more specifically, “Bharati fantasy.” To repeat the last line with my emphasis: “the characters, plot, and narrative style is always fantastical in the sense that it is ‘not real,’ but describing this new body of writing as ‘fantasy’ holds its own issues of definition and taxonomy, given that for some readerships (read: within India) the narratives of these novels are real.” The readership for these works in India and elsewhere—that is, the minority in India with the level of English education required to be able to read these works (which are in English)—would hardly make the mistake of reading these as works as 'true': if anything, they are likely to question it from both secular and fundamentalist sides. One could also talk about how a term such as “Bharati,” meaning “Indian,” but which has its own genealogy that is now normatively tied to Hindu nationalism, marginalizes the fantasy production of authors in India who belong to other religions, or are atheists, and whose use of such narratives may be far more contentious and precisely meant to challenge any belief in the “reality” of their stories.

While earlier we have traced Anglocentrism as the erasure of difference, notice the language in affirmation of difference, in which it still marginalises certain literatures, and through marginalisation homogenises and constructs an alternative rationality for the readers of certain literatures. Alternative labelling thus stands the risk of denying other science fiction and fantasy a status equal to English-language science fiction and fantasy production, while rendering the content of these other literatures uniquely exotic for the Anglophone reader, reiterating the colonial Othering that, as noted by Rieder, is so characteristic of the emergence of these genres.19

This, then, is the fourth proposition:

A non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy must open up the genre towards the dialectic of local and universal, rather than be aligned towards the one or the other. It must therefore not be rendered through the filter of invisibility, nor through the filter of the exotic, but rather through the misfortune of what Johannes Fabian (Time and the Other, 1983) terms “alterity.” More than for Anglophone literature, where the author participates in creating this dialectic, “the task of the translator” is, as Walter Benjamin claimed almost a century ago (1923), to find the “intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original,” that is, to try to find the effect it has in the original context and convey this to the reader in another context.20

But translation must be more than echo: it must be a means to challenge our perceptions of the world by making us see through different eyes. Translation of works of science fiction and fantasy, works which already deal with complex worldbuilding, must not present the world of a translated work as an exotic locale alone, but try to convey the takeoff points for this different worldbuilding: in other words, translation, or a critical reading of the translation, must seek to show that what is unfamiliar is not necessarily fantastic.

5. The Future [contents]

If the non-Anglocentric is not non-Anglophone, what happens when authors known predominantly as producers of what might be called Anglo-American science fiction incorporate contexts and ideas from non-Anglophone contexts—say, Barrington Bayley’s Sinners, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl or River of Gods? What happens when a critic like Brian Aldiss uses terms like “Kaliyuga” in his essays? Or, to take the question further, what kind of readership, literary environment, and critical discourse must one encourage that will work as much for non-Anglophone science fiction and fantasy as much as for works in English set in South Africas or Indias or Thailands, and as much for works of translated literature? Should we thus distinguish them, and call them science fiction or fantasy, or do we keep finding terms for them that may or may not fit the bill? Should we put everything in the big box of “global science fiction and fantasy,” which includes science fiction and fantasy produced anywhere in the world? 

Death of a Discipline

In 2011, I had the good fortune to attend a seminar series by Professor Takayuki Tatsumi at the University of Oslo. He opened up the discussion on Japanese science fiction and cross-cultural inflections by utilizing Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s term, “planetarity.”21 Spivak coined the term planetarity in her 2003 book, Death of a Discipline, in which she analysed the death of postcolonial studies. According to Spivak, planetarity is the awareness of ourselves as inhabitants of a planet given to us on loan, rather than agents, which suggests at once autonomy and participation in the “gridwork of electronic capital.” She challenges: 

“The globe is on our computers. No one lives there. It allows us to think that we can aim to control it. The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, on loan. It is not really amenable to a neat contrast with the globe....If we imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us; it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away. And thus to think of it is already to transgress, for, in spite of our forays into what we metaphorize, differently, as outer and inner space, what is above and beyond our own reach is not continuous with us as it is not, indeed, specifically discontinuous. We must persistently educate ourselves into this peculiar mindset.”22

The alterity is “underived from us.” Tatsumi used this concept of Spivak’s to speak of a new understanding of science fiction and fantasy literature (he also included works of writers, such as Edogawa Rampo, which might also be classified as horror and detective literature). This new concept would involve distantiation, which is the effect of distancing the reader through form as well as content by challenging ideological assumptions. Planetarity, according to Spivak and Tatsumi, is an exploration of the aesthetics of the collective—the production of humanity as much as the production of the individual—rather than the aesthetic of Otherness, which reframes power asymmetries through critical discourses, be it through the aggressive posture of origins or the aggressive posture of dominant and marginal traditions. Such an understanding, then, would not only be non-Anglocentric, but would function on the slippage between an orientation towards geospatial fixity and the tendency toward universalization.

Elsewhere, Tatsumi borrowed from Paul Giles’ use of Deleuze and Guattari’s “deterritorialization” to speak of fractures between the local and the global—fractures that ensure genres remain in constant transformation and growth. Such an analysis dispenses with origins. David M. Higgins, in a recent essay, suggests “cosmopolitanism” as a possible pathway for science fiction imagination. For Higgins,

“...imperialism occurs when one body uses its resources to exploit the other; cosmopolitanism, in contrast, entails restraint on the part of the advantaged party (either on its own initiative or as part of a multilateral coalition) in the name of a nonexploitative equitability between both entities... The usefulness of science fiction for developing a cosmopolitan ethics and politics lies in the genre’s own sensitivity to imperial discourses and practices. Because of its emergence from and entanglement with imperial fantasy, science fiction can serve as a generative site of cosmopolitan alternatives to imperial norms: if the genre performs the dream-work of empire, it also produces rich imaginative possibilities for empire’s antithesis.”23

But “cosmopolitanism,” even where understood in the sense suggested by Higgins, must be applicable to more than just the text. It must also be applicable to its analysis.

The fifth and final proposition:

A non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy would look like a study of science fiction and fantasy, but it would be the result of a different consciousness and have different purposes—the purposes I have highlighted here. It would be a more sensitive reading of literary production in its situatedness, working towards the ways in which local actors and humanity as a whole participate in games of anticipation and expectation. It should be a liberating rather than a marginalising discourse, in which the sensitivity to local context determines, rather than undermines, the concreteness of our planetary imaginings—not in the exclusionary sense presented by some of the critics I have mentioned, but in the future-oriented sense of planetarity offered by Spivak.

 


Footnotes

[1.] Many non-Anglophone authors have only one or two volumes from a large body of work translated. For example, the contemporary German writer Andreas Eschbach, a multiple winner of the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis, has only one translated work: Die Haarteppichknüpfer (The Carpet Makers), translated by Doryl Jensen.

[2.] Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

[3.] Chattopadhyay, Bodhisattva. Bangla Kalpabigyan: Science Fiction in a Transcultural Context (2013). University of Oslo. Ph.D. dissertation. Print. In my dissertation, I use the term “orienting components" to signify the points of rupture, where a convention may both be a signal of the genre and, by being tied to a certain mode of understanding the world, reveal the assumption inherent in the world of the text that is the most significant trace of the historicity of that convention.

[4.] Clute, John. Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm. Essex: Beccon Publications, 2011. Clute’s original 2007 talk, which has different wording for the same paragraph, may be read here. Not incidentally, fantastika is a Slavic term, and has been used by Czech, other Eastern European and Russian critics for many years.

[5.] This is the burden of Lord Byron’s poem, “Darkness” (1816), which may be the first Scientific Romance.

[6.] Clute. Pardon This Intrusion. 2010, 23-24.

[7.] This text was cut for brevity. The full text can be found at http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/ray_satyajit. The article is dated 4 February 2013; I retrieved it 23 May 2013.

[8.] Another interesting detail on Ray is the allegation from Ray, Arthur C. Clarke, and others that Steven Spielberg plagiarised Ray’s movie script “Alien” for the films E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For details, see Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, New York: I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd. 2004, 287-295. 

[9.] Between the time this piece was delivered as a lecture and its publication, The World SF Blog has suffered a sudden and premature extinction, a gap which needs to be filled.

[10.] Živković, Zoran. “What happens to a work of science fiction when it is not written in English.” Public Lecture and film screening. Worldbuilding: The Logic of Science, Fiction and Fantasy. University of Oslo and Liiteraturhuset. Litteraturhuset. Olso. 10 June 2011.

[11.] Venuti, Laurence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. London and New York: Routledge, 1995, 1-2.

[12.] Basalla, George. “The Spread of Western Science.” Science 5 (May 1967), 611-622.

[13.] MacLeod, Roy. “On Visiting the ‘Moving Metropolis’: Reflections on the Architecture of Imperial Science.” Scientific Colonialism: A Cross-Cultural Comparison. Eds. Nathan Reingold and Marc Rothenberg. Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987, 217-249.

[14.] See, for instance: Prakash, Gyan. Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.

[15.] Menon, Anil, interviewed by Charles Tan. “Exclusive Interview: Anil Menon.” SF Signal. Tuesday, November 10th, 2009. The term “desi” was also invoked in the first science fiction writers workshop for Indian writers of science fiction in India in June 2009, held at IIT-Kanpur.

[16.] Varughese, Emma Dawson. Reading New India: Post-Millennial Indian Fiction in English. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 

[17.] I thank Varughese for discussing her use of “Bharati fantasy” and sharing related material with me over email (esp. personal correspondence, 13/Jan/2013). While I do critique this term here, it must be remembered that while fantasy criticism is a bit older, science fiction criticism is an underdeveloped field. There is no final word just as there is no origin, so all attempts to map the nature of these genres must be recognized as advances, including those with the use of terms such as “fantastika” and “desi spec-fic.”

[18.] Varughese, Reading New India, 124-125. Emphasis is in the original.

[19.] Consider a fantasy work such as Vimanarama, or Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series, when read by an Indian reader. It is highly doubtful that most Indian readers would take this world to be real or think of these stories and the intervention of mythological figures in everyday life as anything other than fantasy. But could it not equally be said that for the Indian (or any) reader, these narratives are not real, but what is real is so much closer to fantasy? This would also complicate the assertion that authors write within a “recognizable Western construct of the fantasy genre.”

[20.] Walter Benjamin. “The Task of the Translator.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969, 76.

[21.] Tatsumi, Takayuki. Lecture Series and Seminar in Contemporary Japanese Popular Culture, March 15-29, 2011, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo.

[22.] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, 72-73.

[23.] Higgins, David M. “Toward a Cosmopolitan Science Fiction.” American Literature, Volume 83, Number 2 (2011), 331-354.


This article has been published as part of our 2013 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.


Bodhi is a researcher and science fiction fan. He is Kultrans fellow at the University of Oslo, where he and his cactus Albert work in the areas of science fiction, science studies, and postcolonial studies. His email is bodhisattvac@yahoo.com. This article was originally a public lecture with the same title, delivered at the University of Oslo on 6 June 2013. Thanks goes to Farah Mendlesohn, Abhijit Gupta for suggesting the topic, Helge Jordheim and Rana Issa for their comments on the original piece, and Niall Harrison for his editorial comments on this version. 

Comments

To cavil: "Many non-Anglophone authors have only one or two volumes from a large body of work translated." Into English. Fascinating how a plea for a non-Anglocentric approach somehow manages to take Anglocentrism for granted. Several of Eschbach's novels have been translated into French, for instance. Und so weiter.

The propositions are worthwhile. The second one seems so utopian, however, that it casts into doubt the entire enterprise. A truly non-Anglocentric view of science fiction (let alone science fiction, AND fantasy, AND the fantastic) is probably impossible to hold except as the sum of many individual studies, in many languages, that no single scholar or reader will ever be able to grasp as a whole, except perhaps through the questionable prism of a series of translations. Into English.

Or at least until we get translation AIs able to supply translations between any two languages with limitless ease and amazing sensitivity to the two sets of languages, cultures, and contexts involved...

I disagree with the above comment. It seems to me that the article deals with anglocentrism in anglophonism. English is the official language of more countries in the world than any other, and so many science fiction writers from all parts of the globe write in English a case could be made I suppose that dealing with anglocentrism in anglophonism is a more pressing issue than in the case of some other languages.

I do agree that the propositions are somewhat utopian. The whole planetarity cause is very utopian. But then, all good ideas are.

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