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I read JY Yang's excellent post on the recent Clarion thing and thought about the idea of membership in the "community" and so forth, and it seems to me that this feeling, this idea—first that there exists such a community, singular, based around SF publishing in English and that it's centred in the US and UK; and second, that those of us from elsewheres more else than Canada or Australia are outsiders to it—is what I've been calling postcolonial outsider syndrome (by way of analogy with the more familiar imposter syndrome). Imagine all of English-language fiction as a Dyson sphere. On its inside surface we find all the white-majority, mostly-English-speaking countries with their largely contiguous literary establishment based on pre-existing imperial relations, all warmed by that old, unruly, never-setting sun. And that's where science fiction lives too, if some distance widdershins of the Man Booker.

And then you get an outside surface, which is cold.

(This is how you get an event called "Worldcon" held seventy-three times, of which fully seventy were held in the same four countries I named earlier: this is what I mean by the inside surface. Note I'm not saying it should go to more countries—personally, I don't like going to things, so I'm quite happy for it to stay where it is, safely distant. What I'm pointing at is the use of language, the sheer range of completely distinct meanings that this word "world" is capable of, even in closely related contexts. In "Worldcon," the word for world is Forrest J Ackerman; in the World SF blog, it's something more akin to "world music." I look forward to the day these different senses diverge and they are considered etymologically separate lexemes sharing the same form, like the various meanings of "fluke.")

It's important to note, I think, that I'm not offering a counterpoint or rebuttal to what J's saying. This is another, parallel perspective, because there is no single story here—all SF writers who are from outside the US/UK (but nevertheless want to publish in the US/UK) do face similar pressures and disadvantages, but we experience them differently and respond to them differently, based on our histories, our circumstances, and our natures. And the way I want to talk about this (bear with me) is by comparing the book and TV versions of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

(Spoilers for both book and TV show follow, if you care about that sort of thing.)

Childhood's End was published five years after Indian independence and a couple of months after Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam. One of its viewpoint characters, Jan Rodricks, is black and was not whitewashed for TV but was renamed to Milo Rodricks for unfathomed reasons. The book goes to some pains to describe a society with a very peculiar version of, I suppose, "colourblindness": the n-word is "no longer taboo in polite society, but was used without embarrassment by everyone," with "no more emotional content than such labels as republican or methodist, conservative or liberal."

In the book, the alien Karellen only speaks to the UN Secretary General, Rikki Stormgren (who is Finnish and whose name I remembered as Strömgren, but no); in the 2015 TV miniseries, it's to a random American farmer, Ricky Stormgren. The former required no justification, since book!Stormgren is in a position of authority (UN Secretary General in a world that was moving toward world government even before the Overlord invasion) and it's his job to act as representative and liaison; TV!Stormgren, by way of contrast, is picked by the Overlords for Mysterious Plot Reasons that are never explained (it was down to him and a Korean woman, apparently, but Overlord diversity guidelines were pretty relaxed by human standards), and because of this mystery, he becomes a messianic figure and a celebrity.

This is an interesting, if unsurprising, set of changes to make. Some of it is clearly just the drift in public opinion since the 1950s on world governments, particularly in America, re: the United Nations. But mostly I think this is about wanting to give the American TV audience a "relatable," "everyman" character to identify with, i.e., a young white male farmer who shoots guns and drives tractors. There's a cute dog, too. The dog's name is Diesel. Unfortunately, Diesel does not get more airtime than Mike Vogel, and also I keep mistaking Mike Vogel for Adam Scott, and then being disappointed when he's not funny. As for Charles Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, I'm afraid this is unintentionally funny.

Where the adaptation strikes a particularly graceless note, or rather a whole ululating series of them, is when it spends (what feels like) most of its airtime exploring the love life and limited emotional range of TV!Stormgren—in brief, he's in a relationship with one woman but is still very much hung up on his ex, who died of cancer. He's a bit of a prick, but by grace of an overly forgiving script neither of these women will leave him, not even the dead one. And this goes on and on: I am forced to conclude that the entire subplot was inserted as filler (none of this is in the book) so that they could get three episodes instead of two. 

A more telling subplot introduced in the show is that, unlike his Finnish counterpart who just retires, TV!Stormgren gets space cancer (and dies, eventually: proximity to imperial power is toxic in the long run, one of the rare things that the show understands better than the book). Before he dies, the Overlords offer him something they claim is a panacea that could cure him, but warn him that it's rare and valuable. But then Karellen is shot, forcing Stormgren to give up the panacea to save Karellen's life at the cost of his own. This is a situation the Overlords have engineered for their own amusement. Earlier in the show, we see the Overlords casually resurrect the young Milo Rodricks from a fatal gunshot wound. But when Karellen himself is shot, no Overlord paramedics rush in with this same technology, and that's because this shooting is a passion play staged to manipulate the comprador Stormgren into willingly sacrificing himself yet again for the people that made him sick in the first place. For which there seems to be no other motive but sadism.

Compare how the TV!Overlords assassinate Peretta, the woman who shot Karellen, by driving her to suicide. This at least is consistent with book!Karellen, who remarks at one point, "How long do you think Hitler’s career as dictator of Germany would have lasted, if wherever he went a voice was talking quietly in his ear? Or if a steady musical note, loud enough to drown all other sounds and to prevent sleep, filled his brain night and day?" This easy resort to weaponized gaslighting is the perfect example of the sadism at the core of Overlord culture: TFW your technological superiority would let you always find nonviolent and humane solutions if you so choose but instead you deliberately choose subtle cruelties that lead your victims to destroy themselves.

At one point in the book, an Overlord explicitly compares the role of his people on Earth to the British occupation of India.

A big part of postcolonial outsider syndrome is, I think, the shear between mediated and real-world relationships. When so much of US/UK SF culture is based around IRL activity, and when those of us on the outside of it can only interact with the online parts, these very different senses of "community" grind painfully against each other. There's a wobble, an instability in this relationship that is only exacerbated every time that this grinding churns out the kind of wilful solipsisms that insist that there is no outside; or that the outside is all the same; or that the outside doesn't matter except insofar as it will conform to and mirror the inside; or that the outsider must acculturate, must assimilate. And by that I don't mean that being asked to feel like an outsider makes me doubt myself as a writer: rather, it makes me doubt the credibility of the systems and institutions that operate to evoke and enforce that feeling. It's a reminder of the illegitimacy of the urge to assimilate.

So I didn't go to Clarion, but I also don't want to go to Clarion, or to conventions, or to participate in either lit culture or nerd culture. It's entirely possible that I might never actually meet any of the people in US/UK SF that I know online, and I'm okay with that. Partly for the same reasons that I don't generally go to similar things in Colombo either (i.e., mostly that I don't like going to things), but also because I've been very lucky. I'm a second-generation writer, born to the trade—I was editing copy in two languages for my father's novels before I reached my teens, and I learned how to set type in a composing stick for old-school letterpress printing before I learned to type on a typewriter. A fluke, the whole thing, just a total Paralichthys dentatus. Which is why I don't mean any of this to come across as complaining about being on the outside of things. The opposite is true: I'm painfully aware of just how lucky I am. But not everybody in my position is going to be lucky enough to make this tradeoff. Most other new writers from South Asia aren't going to have this kind of background or the advantage of the confidence it brings. That's why it's important to look closely at the systems in place and point out as many ways to deal with them as we can.

One of those ways, obviously, is what J is talking about. Break on through to the other side. Join in. Do the thing. Another way is mine: be unreasonably lucky and stay mostly in your head.

What I'd actually like to see more of in the world, though, what I think would be best, is a third way, which is that those of us on its outside should abandon the Dyson sphere: not just the metaphor, I mean, but the politics and the affect that it evokes. Perhaps it's possible to disengage a little more from the imperial hub and its ultimately parochial preoccupations. The purpose of imperial hubs in culture is also distraction. Instead, perhaps we could help create a new mangrove SF, a mongrel SF with many roots, a rhizome to live in. Look at Omenana as an example, or Truancy, or Juggernaut's SF department under Indra Das. There is an English-language SF, in short fiction no less, fully contemporary, aimed at an international readership, whose roots are firmly in what used be the outside. This is important. This is good, for everyone.

If the Overlords are to Earth as the British were to India, then who are the uplifted children? I suppose this is us, actually: the "westernized," Anglophone, postcolonial generations of Asia, and of the world. The violent uplift destroys the old world, and the newly mined untermind leaves the ruins to become part of this advaita cosmopolitanism—all is one in the Overmind of late capitalism, though at this point you can't tell Empire from Zerg. It's aggressive hegemonizing swarms all the way down.

In the book, Karellen talks about what might have happened if Earth's children had developed their gifts without Overlord oversight. "You might have become a telepathic cancer," Karellen says, "a malignant mentality which in its inevitable dissolution would have poisoned other and greater minds." This is why the Overlords were sent, to interrupt, to prevent this Othermind from ever becoming real.

(The imperial comparisons have been dropped from the TV show. In their place we have the love triangle, and this is a pity not only because the love triangle is badly done but because the imperial comparisons are central to the reading of Childhood's End. Without them, as in the TV show, we drift further away from a clear reading of the science fictional notion of uplift. We risk losing sight of the important point, that uplift is just the white man's burden but with spaceships. Far too much of science fiction is made of copypasta imperial propaganda from previous centuries, and that's not an accident. It's because the Dyson sphere has a warm inside and a cold outside, that it evokes and enforces itself.

From the outside, get some distance and it just looks like a Death Star—blow it up, already, that's what they're for.)

In (para)literatures and in publishing as in everything else, long-held assumptions can pass for foundations and infrastructure. Breaking them takes anger, and anger derives from pain. Postcolonial outsider syndrome is a pain signal, and you don't ignore pain signals: this anxiety is your body telling you something is wrong, that the acculturation is awry, that there is a malignant mentality we were meant to be, an Othermind full of fury and despite. It's a question that can't be answered in words, only in lives lived. 

Vajra Chandrasekera is a writer from Colombo, Sri Lanka. His fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Black Static, among others. For more, see his website or follow @_vajra on Twitter.
Current Issue
22 Apr 2024

We’d been on holiday at the Shoon Sea only three days when the incident occurred. Dr. Gar had been staying there a few months for medical research and had urged me and my friend Shooshooey to visit.
For a long time now you’ve put on the shirt of the walls,/just as others might put on a shroud.
Tu enfiles longuement la chemise des murs,/ tout comme d’autres le font avec la chemise de la mort.
The little monster was not born like a human child, yelling with cold and terror as he left his mother’s womb. He had come to life little by little, on the high, three-legged bench. When his eyes had opened, they met the eyes of the broad-shouldered sculptor, watching them tenderly.
Le petit monstre n’était pas né comme un enfant des hommes, criant de froid et de terreur au sortir du ventre maternel. Il avait pris vie peu à peu, sur la haute selle à trois pieds, et quand ses yeux s’étaient ouverts, ils avaient rencontré ceux du sculpteur aux larges épaules, qui le regardaient tendrement.
We're delighted to welcome Nat Paterson to the blog, to tell us more about his translation of Léopold Chauveau's story 'The Little Monster'/ 'Le Petit Monstre', which appears in our April 2024 issue.
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