A few weeks ago, Nicholas Seeley took a look at the recently published Apex Book of World SF, to discuss questions of "otherness" in literature, and how speculative fiction plays a role in societies around the world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the authors who contributed to that collection had very different views on whether "culture" plays a role in literature at all, and what that role might be. This week, Seeley asks the authors three simple questions about what the market for speculative fiction is like in their countries, and what role they think local culture, myth, and legend play in literature of the fantastic.
Below are their answers, in their own words.
1. What’s the market like for SF where you’re from?
Anil Menon (India):
Like Pip in Dickens' great work, the Indian market for speculative fiction also has great expectations. There's evidence the publishing industry is booming, partly due to the incredible expansion in real incomes in the last decade. Over the last four years, the Indian media has grown at a compound growth rate of around 10 percent, with a net current value of about 17 billion dollars. Publishing, which has been growing at the rate of about 5 percent over the last four years, accounts for about 40 percent of the market share.
My impression is that there's the usual long tail in most of the regional publishing markets; a handful of authors dominate the lists and most of the list items rarely persist beyond their first printing. On the other hand, we are talking about long tails in a billion-plus world. For example, The Times Of India's circulation is roughly equal to the combined circulations of the top three British newspapers and the top three US newspapers.
There are no regional magazines dedicated to speculative fiction, but speculative fiction anthologies have begun to make an appearance. Publishing houses don't have an attitude about speculative fiction, but the literary awards usually go to realist works of an, um, Russian persuasion. Amazingly, newspapers still publish fiction. For example, portions of my forthcoming novel are going to be serialized in the Calcutta Telegraph. Perhaps the most cheerful trend-indicator is that the Indian film industry has begun to make speculative fiction movies: the last few years have seen expensive SF & F productions like Drona, highbrow ones like Matrubhoomi, and best of all, out-and-out commercial ventures like Love Story 2050, E, Koi Mil Gaya, and Jaane Hoga Kya.
As for me, I work in English, so my access to outlets is mainly limited by editorial, um, intransigence.
Han Song (Chongqing, China):
In this market we can find books of almost all famous American SF writers, from Issac Asimov to Ursula K. LeGuin, from Robert A. Heinlein to Neal Stephenson. . . . and a lot of them, all translated in Chinese. There is a big contingent of SF fans in the country and it is expanding in number. And there is even a bigger fantasy story market in the country, with immense circulation of books. But fantasy publications have been greatly challenging the traditional SF market and making it shrink.
I mainly write for magazines and publishing houses. Sometimes I send my stories onto the Internet for online magazines if they were not allowed to be published because of political sensitivity. . . .
I want to write for adult readers. Most of the speculative readers in China are young and they usually can not fully enjoy the profound excitement of the genre. I want to break into a bigger market, attracting serious readers who read SF not just for fun but also wish to explore the dark side of human nature.
Kaaron Warren (Australia, living in Fiji):
One thing which really inspires me in Australia is the strength of our small press. Most of my fiction has been published in the small presses, and my short story collection The Grinding House as well. All of these publishers are worth checking out to see what Australian writers are doing. I’d love for more people to know their publications exist, because they are publishing some ground-breaking fiction. . . .
[In Fiji, where I live and work, there are] a very few [magazines and forums]. The University of the South Pacific in Suva has a creative writing strain, and they publish a collection called Dreadlocks. Emerging poets and writers are sometimes published overseas, but there is a small reading culture and a smaller writing culture.
That said, I worked with the students of the creative writing course and was hugely impressed with their stories. Using the local environment and their own experience, they read worldly, fascinating and original fiction. I’m hoping they will make this work available online. . . .
There is very little SF written in Fiji. It is mostly very locally based. Most Fijians have little access to international news. There are very few international newspapers available. Not everybody has internet access in the home. The public library is truly abysmal. This means that much of their influence before they reach university is very locally focused. . . .
Most writing here is realist with a strong running current of mythology and religion. I think speculative fiction is a way of explaining the world, just as mythology is. Mythology is speculative, imaginative. It says, “what if?” and “why?”
Aleksandar Žiljak (Zagreb, Croatia):
What’s important to know is that socialist Yugoslavia, that included Croatia as one of its six republics, was not a member of the Warsaw Pact. Very quickly after World War II, President Tito, although a Communist, began balancing between West and East, and that means that we have been exposed to cultural influences from both sides of the Iron Curtain. . . . Croatian SF readers had access both to Western and Eastern writers. Translated SF novels begun appearing on a larger scale in Yugoslavia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and American, European (both East and West) and Soviet authors were represented. Imported books were available in major bookstores, too. My late father was reading SF in English, German and Russian. . . .
However, after break-up of Yugoslavia in early 1990s and Croatian independence, we suffered a thorough process of cultural Anglicization, not to say Americanization: it’s now quite difficult to find SF books in any other language but English and by any other writers but American and British. Translated SF novels are also almost exclusively those by American or British authors. We have very little, if any, idea of what’s happening in the Russian SF today. Or French. Or Italian. Or German (well, there was a story collection of German SF stories five years ago). Or Scandinavian. Or Spanish and/or Latin American. . . .
Recently, Japanese speculative fiction is gaining popularity through anime and manga (mostly imported US editions and pirated anime—legally released anime is extremely few). And there are, of course, mainstream writers who write speculative fiction, like Murakami or Hullebecque: they are available in Croatian translations.
So, if you are an SF fan or author, the influences depend on when you joined the gang. If you started reading/writing SF in 1970s or early 1980s, chances are that you soaked up inputs from all over the Europe, as well as USA. If you’re a new kid in town, you’ll probably wonder who the hell Strugatzky brothers are!
. . .
Croatia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and that year is something of a watershed. Many authors who were active in previous decades went silent for one reason or another, although some of them returned in the last several years. On the other hand, a new generation of writers arose in the early 1990s (I myself belong to those), and some interesting comparisons can be made.
Most importantly, the 1990s writers firmly put their stories into Croatian settings and/or introduced Croatian characters. Older writers were very reluctant to do this. They mostly (not all and not always, but mostly) chose westernized or nationally neutral settings and/or characters. Why was this so, I cannot tell. Were they afraid of ridicule? Did they feel that we were forever destined to be on the margins of technological progress and development? Were Croatia that backward, we wouldn’t have any SF in the first place.
Whatever it was, since the early 1990s, the future started happening in Croatia and to Croatians. Why this change? It could be the result of editorial influence. It could be the result of a national awakening within a new, independent state. Or simply the awareness of a new generation of younger people (born in the mid- and late 1960s) that we, too, are part of the world and that changes will affect us, too, and that we are to take part in those changes. . . .
[But] speculative fiction in Croatia is in a somewhat uneasy position.
On one hand, there is an SF/F/H audience, both for literature and movies, gaming, etc. This audience is still often reluctant to embrace Croatian writers, though, favoring foreign ones. But, the Croatian SF now has more than three decades of continuous growth and maturing. It has a steady stream of followers, and Croatia has several annual SF conventions: SFeraKon in Zagreb has 800-1000 visitors, while Istrakon in Pazin and Rikon in Rijeka each have about 500 visitors—others are much smaller. And there are probably numerous SF-lovers who fly below fandom radars, enjoying the genre in one form or another, but never joining clubs or visiting conventions or forums or anything like that.
On the other hand, so-called academic or mainstream literary critics consistently avoid and ignore, or even deride, Croatian SF. There has been several anthologies of Croatian fantastic prose in the past 30 years or so, all of them explicitly distancing themselves from the SF, considering the genre at best fit only for juvenile readers. This attitude is still present today and it’s frustrating, particularly if you’re a writer or an editor, creating stuff that is then largely ignored. Presence of Croatian SF in the mainstream media is only occasional, mainly when it comes to conventions, which are now being seen as cultural and entertainment events: masked Trekkies or cosplayers or LARP-ers in medieval costumes always look good on TV.
We’re in some sort of a ghetto. And from purely business point of view, the problem is that the ghetto is small. How we got there is something probably deserving analysis. But, what’s more important right now, we are kicking at the walls and it seems that bricks are starting to fall.
. . . To delve into details: Croatian SF books (and there are about 10 annually, even less, including juveniles) are printed in several hundred copies. Even these are difficult to sell. But it seems they are being borrowed and read in libraries.
Monthly magazines: The above-mentioned Sirius folded in late 1989. A new magazine, Futura, was started in 1992, and it was important during 1990s, but it is now de facto defunct.
If you want to write SF/F/H in Croatia today, you can try with novels, but it’s difficult. Seven or eight years ago, Ivan Gavran went to more than 20 publishers before he managed to publish his The Sabre (Sablja), one of the best Croatian SF novels ever.
As for stories, the situation is much better. There are several annual anthologies. SFera club in Zagreb publishes one, and two are being published in Pazin, Istra, but they are devoted to short prose. And there’s Ubiq, a magazine for Croatian SF literature, edited by Tomislav Šakić and me. Two issues are published annually: issue #5 is due November 2009. Of course, there are fanzines, the most important being SFera’s Parsek and Eridan from Rijeka, and there’s Grifon, a biannual magazine devoted to fantasy and medieval culture, that publishes fantasy stories.
Basically, there are venues to write for, but no, or very, very little money in it. It’s impossible to turn SF writing in Croatia into a profession, or even a paying, much less lucrative, hobby. And it sometimes shows. . . . Ubiq is sponsored by Croatian Ministry of culture and the City of Zagreb. Book publishers are also dependent on government subsidy.
2. Do you think speculative fiction reflects a national identity or national preoccupations?
Han Song (Chongqing, China):
[Speculative fiction] reflects a national identity or national preoccupations by centering on a country's unreal or parallel history. It depicts the remote future of a nation and makes people reexamine their current life, so as to increase or decrease their confidence. Sometimes it lights the fire of nationalism. It spreads a country's unique philosophy, shared only by its people. In China this genre is often used by the government to create a platform for cultivating the youngsters who are expected to make contributions to the country. Publishers are reluctant to print books depicting a collapsed China in the future.
Zoran Živković (Belgrade, Serbia):
As far as I know, the term "speculative fiction" is used only in the English language countries. And even in English it is not a literary theory term, but just an invention of the publishing industry. The same is with another publishing industry label: "fantasy." There is no equivalent for it in other languages either. In this part of the world we use the generic term "fantastika." It has a very long and fruitful tradition in Europe. . . .
The simplest definition of fantastika is that it is non-realistic, non-mimetic fiction. There are many forms of fantastika. Epic fantastika, mythic fantastika, folklore fantastika, oniric fantastika, fairy tale fantastika and so on—all the way to its twentieth century incarnations: science fantastika (or, as you know it, science fiction) and speculative fantastika (speculative fiction). (The publishing industry label "fantasy" is actually a low-level hybrid of epic fantastika and fairy tale fantastika.)
Among the bards of fantastika from Central and Eastern Europe are certainly E. T. A. Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, Mikhail Bulgakov, Stanislaw Lem—to name just a few.
It is nearly as old as the literacy itself. The Epic of Gilgamesh is among the earliest works of literature and it is full of fantastical elements. It is estimated that almost 75 percent of everything that has been written in the last 5,000 years is one or other form of fantastika. Realistic fiction is of a relatively recent origin and, in a certain sense, its mimetic nature betrays the very essence of the art of prose: inventing something that doesn't exist. Our ability to imagine, to fantasize, is probably our most fundamental trait that makes us truly unique.
As for my "fantastika," it doesn't reflect anything "national." It is a highly individual discipline . . . The global position of my country or its recent history has absolutely nothing to do with my work. I would have written the same books even if I had lived in Switzerland or among Eskimos.
Jamil Nasir (Palestine, Jordan, and the United States):
The only writer I’ve done any real thinking about on this point is Stanislaw Lem, the great Polish SF writer, and I would say that in his case there certainly is a strong cultural/national influence. While Anglophone SF is generally optimistic about science, human nature and the future, Lem skulks around exploring all the ways in which human reason can fail, in which human nature is flawed, in which the future is just repetition of the past. Reading him is a revelation of how narrow the world of Anglophone SF is—what we thought was a vast sally of imagination is actually circumscribed by invisible cultural predispositions and assumptions to a small part of the possibility-space. I attribute the differences to the fact that Anglophone SF writers matured in societies where Enlightenment ideals continue to have resonance, whereas Lem grew up in a society that actually tried to put these ideals into practice, with disastrous results and a consequent disillusionment. [Jamil Nasir has an essay about the fiction of Stanislaw Lem forthcoming later in 2009.]
I don't think nationality explains much at all. It certainly can't explain why we read what we read. For example, the cross-cultural appeal of Harry Potter or the Manga aisles in American bookstores crowded with kids who're anything but Japanese. If nationality can't explain why we read what we read, then why should it explain why we write what we write? Writers may draw upon local place and local history, but they often create these very things too.
I think it is broader than [just nationality,] but our cultural background will affect what we see as possible futures. In Australia we often see the future as somewhere very dry, because that is what we are faced with every day. To people who live with limited food resources, a starving world is a realistic as well as an inevitable future.
Aliette de Bodard (France):
Its a question that I also find very fascinating, I have to admit. I was reading Andrzej Sapkowski’s [The Witcher series] and it also struck me how different it was from rank and file [US] fantasy. Part of it is definitely the idiosyncrasy of the author, but there is also a huge slab of your perception, of your assumptions, even the kind of stories you’re drawn to, that are going to be determined by—I wouldn’t exactly say “national identities,” I think it’s more a question of the culture that you grew up in, which would not necessarily be the same thing as the country you grew up in. And I think different cultures have different things they’re attracted to.
For instance, what I’m always struck by when I watch Chinese movies is how little focus there is on romance, and how a lot of that romance tends to end badly. And when you look at Chinese literature throughout history, it tends to be that that they’re thinking: that love is a bad thing, I mean, it’s a destructive feeling and it shouldn’t really have a place in a marriage. And you still can see echoes of that trailing through modern-day China (which is still a very different place, obviously, than Ancient China). You’re not drawn to the same subjects, you’re not drawn to the same characters, you’re not drawn to the same themes, depending on what you grew up with, what you liked . . . it plays a big part in the kind of fiction you liked, in the kind of fiction you enjoy reading, in the kind of fiction that people in that country are going to be enjoying as readers.
I think [speculative fiction] does [reflect national concerns]. Or at least, it should. I mean, each nation, each country, each society has its own history, traditions and problems. And if a speculative fiction, inevitably created within nation/country/society frames, wants to be relevant, it has to reflect these histories, traditions and problems.
But, on the other hand, writing within these frames still means that we should be addressing problems that every human being on this planet has: freedom (or lack of it), social changes, ecological issues, energy crisis, famine, wars, you name it. In other words, suffering. Struggling. Making it through. Or not. Love. These issues are universal: those who think they’re somebody else’s problems just haven’t experienced them. Yet.
I feel that relevant SF has to address universal problems we all have, but seen through, very crudely put, local, not to say national, glasses. Even when we place our stories in distant space and the far future, we still write about things that bug us here and now.
National tradition and identity probably plays even greater role in fantasy, which is ultimately based on mythology and folk tale. Why should I, being a Croat, write fantasy using North European mythology? If I’m very lucky and very good, I’d probably end up being nothing more than a Tolkien imitation. But I can do a similar thing to what Tolkien did and go to my own, shall we say, roots, and use Croatian folk tale and mythology. . . . I know, I tried. And it works.
3. Do you think speculative fiction is the product of one cultural mindset, or is it universal? And what role does it have in communicating across cultures?
Universal, I think. At the very least we'd have to include mythology as part of speculative fiction, which would automatically qualify any culture that's ever sat around a fire. I also don't see science fiction as culture-specific. A few years back, in a small bookstore on Press Club road in Ernakulam, Kerala, I asked for a SF novel by a local author and was briskly handed a Malayalam-translation of Asimov's Caves Of Steel. If the Brooklyn-raised biophysicist son of Russian immigrant Jews can be embraced as an honorary Malayalee, then maybe it says that cultures are local but mindsets are universal.
As for speculative fiction's role in cross-cultural communication, I believe we should not weigh it down with any such responsibility. A story finds its readers. Best not to eavesdrop.
I think it is more Western, possibly because we use less religion to explain things. I think it works well to communicate ideas and settings.
Guy Hasson (Israel and the United States):
Is SF only a Western thing? Seeing as all human societies tell stories, and seeing as all human societies have religions (which begin with tales that try to explain the universe, tales about things no one has seen and that are fantastic), it is only natural to assume that all societies tell SF stories and fantasy stories of one kind of another, even if they do not call it that.
I think it’s universal. If we consider the folk tale as part of speculative fiction, we’ll see that it’s present everywhere. Is there any ethnic group or people in the world without their folk tales and/or mythology?
Now, modern SF probably advanced as parts of the world became industrialized. The accelerated rise of interest in SF in Croatia (and Yugoslavia) in the late 1950s/early 1960s was probably sparked by rapid industrialization taking place at about that time. With industrialization came urbanization and better education. This process can probably be witnessed worldwide, including, during the late 19th and early 20th century, USA or Great Britain. Lavie Tidhar speculates that something similar happened in PR China in the past few decades. Apparently, where there is industry and cities and education, SF will live long and prosper. And fantasy probably takes up SF-space vacated by post-industrial people disappointed in science and technology, and yet unable to live without them.
As I said, truly relevant SF deals in universal problems that we all have or are likely to have soon. This, I believe, helps it to cross cultural barriers. And, of course, we have a process of globalization today, which means that cultural products of every nation are, in theory at least, available anywhere else. The process is currently going mostly from the West (especially from the U.S. in the mass culture) towards East and South, but also in the opposite direction. Witness the increasing global popularity of manga and anime, or Chinese martial arts fantasy movies, or “world music.” I feel that The Apex Book of World SF can be interpreted as part of that reverse globalization. If globalization is to truly succeed and become anything more than post-colonial exploitation, then it must go both ways.
I suspect much less [is universal] than we think. As I said above, one of the fascinating things about reading Lem is that a lot of what I thought was just bedrock universal about Anglophone SF is actually quite arbitrary. Given that human thinking evolved to support fairly simple physical tasks, our minds are probably only poorly adapted to figuring out the likely underlying nature of the universe—and thus its likely contents. So the margin for improvement in our thinking about these things (which is the ultimate goal of serious SF) is probably so huge that every culture covers only a very small part of the map of possibilities.
The "fantastika" is maybe our most fundamental intercultural art.
When we write realistic fiction, we are almost always limited to a local area. The non-mimetic nature of fantastika is similar to a sort of lingua franca, Esperanto. No matter what our native language is, we easily understand fantastika although it might be a far stranger land than a realistic locality different from ours. . . .
As I said, by being not local, fantastika is universal. Take [my story] "Compartments" [in the Apex anthology] as an example. No matter where a reader comes from, provided that the concept of a train is within his experience, he doesn't have to know anything about Serbia to be able to understand—and, hopefully, enjoy—my work.
There are certain natural limitations that are implicit to realistic fiction. Fantastika gives an author the freedom to handle love and death themes unrestrained by realistic human conditions. It opens the gates of a much larger universe. There is again a good example in my opus. Extraordinary situations various characters of my "Impossible Stories" books have to face are simply not possible within a realistic work of fiction. And only in these non-realistic situations was it possible to say something fundamentally new about love and death.
Yes, [speculative fiction] has distinct cultural characteristics. In the Chinese perspective, the universe is different from that imagined or created by Robert Heinlein. Think that we are discussing building a Communist Party Committee on the space station . . . and usually we do not pray for God when someday the solar system is coming to collapse.
But it is also universal. We are excited when seeing the futuristic pictures Westerners draw in their novels and blockbusters. This genre has an international language indeed. Through it we can find out how people think about the same world by creating numerous different worlds.
It is time for these worlds to collide, and see what will happen.