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In 2009, the Anglophone speculative fiction community saw a series of discussions—now known as RaceFail—addressing deep-rooted issues of racial privilege and oppression in the genre, including in textual representation and systemic marginalization in publishing. [1] In its wake, across the last decade, there have been important conversations and campaigns in the SF and wider publishing community to address the tremendous inequities and injustice facing marginalized authors. These initiatives include but are not limited to: the #ownvoices hashtag coined by Corinne Duyvis, [2] #DVPit by Beth Phelan, the Con or Bust fund for fans of colour, Clarion West offering online workshops and scholarships to accommodate those based internationally and/or who are financially in need, and the democratization of broadcast social media platforms as a space for authors, publishing professionals, critics, and readers to directly engage with one another on these issues. With varying degrees of success, the broad effect of these initiatives on the Anglophone publishing landscape greater awareness and advocacy for the importance—in both social justice and commercial terms—of representation in the texts and the industry.

There is still much to be done in addressing deep-rooted systemic inequalities, but in recent times it has also been gratifying to witness a slow increase in stories from racially marginalized authors, who have been provided a platform for their work as a result of ongoing efforts to diversify and decolonise the genre. In particular, I have enjoyed the growing number of books by racially marginalized authors who draw from their lived experience or from their heritage and histories in the creation of SF worlds. Writers such as Vida Cruz-Borja have also advocated for the persistent need to decolonise SF as a genre, to explore devices such as the inactive protagonist, and to examine our own beliefs and the values that underpin our assessment of what makes good literature. [3] This applies not only to those in the dominant culture, but to everyone more broadly, lest one kicks out the white male oppressor only to replace him with oneself. Streaming services such as Netflix, Viki, and Crunchyroll, allowing viewers access to a multitude of international films, television series, animated shows, and other media, also mean that narratives once confined to the fringes of Western mainstream media are now much easier to access, and correspondingly, translate to a greater audience awareness of story conventions and aesthetics beyond dominant Western structures. It is a refreshing and overdue shift away from Eurocentric modes of speculation towards more heterogeneous narratives within and beyond the Anglophone publishing market.

However, in practice, what does it mean to create worlds on the periphery, when one also exists on the periphery in the real world? Whose periphery are we positioned on? The core-periphery model is an established and contentious premise in world-systems analysis, wherein cores are perceived as sites of power, hegemony, and progress, and by contrast, peripheries are associated with stagnation, exploitation, and oppression. Understood in the colonial context as European (core) and Other (periphery), this has obviously been challenged by various postcolonial scholars, raising the question not only of shifting towards a “plurality of centres” but also of deconstructing the dichotomy itself, as neither core nor periphery are monolithic entities. [4] Consider Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih’s framework of “minor transnationalism” that moves beyond the binary model of cultural formation as majority versus minority. Lionnet and Shih argue that an exclusive focus on the vertical relationship of assimilation and opposition between minority culture and mainstream society means that “we forget to look sideways to lateral networks that are not readily apparent,” [5] missing out on crucial discourse at a horizontal level that allows space for expanding on and understanding more creolized identities and transnational connections. In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?

Among the racially marginalized authors who have published in the last decade, there is a growing trend of diasporic and transnational Asian authors who counter the hegemonic structures of Euroamerican modernity with alternative worlds rooted in various Asian heritages and histories. [6] It is not that the talent of writers has spiked in the last decade, but that the industry infrastructure of supporting and promoting these works has shifted. At last, there is a significant quantity to the extent that we may consider literary patterns that recur across publications, the work of multiple authors resulting in complementary and ever-expanding literary and linguistic techniques in the publishing landscape. While these are not patterns exclusive to Asia-inspired worldbuilding, I am interested in investigating the relationship between culture and worldbuilding as it manifests in this specific instance of diasporic and transnational heritage and history, as located in the Anglophone, Western SF publishing marketplace. Within this context, I believe that there are enough similarities and a shared sense of displacement, transition, and liminality to locate these narratives in conversation with each other, [7] and will discuss recent examples of published texts that qualify in the criteria. I see it formed thus as three broad approaches to worldbuilding, namely: reflection, reimagination, and reconstruction.

I must emphasise that these are not strict classifications and are not meant as reductive categories. It would be more useful to perceive each approach as branches of the same tree; narratives may adhere to a singular approach or be located somewhere between the three, on a spectrum. Given that diasporic and transnational contexts often unsettle, complicate, and deconstruct dichotomies and borders, why shouldn’t the boundaries between worlds be flexible and blurred? This fluidity in storytelling only serves to complement the cultural practices of communities that are historically situated in “in-between” spaces, opening up a greater space of imaginative possibility and potential. As Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay argues with reference to non-Anglocentric SF, this should be “a liberating rather than a marginalising discourse,” rooted in a sensitivity to local contexts that governs our broader planetary imaginings. [8]

The first approach to worldbuilding is that of reflection: following the aesthetics of an existent history or culture, with a language of established rules, tropes, and plot structures (that may already have been explored in media forms outside of the written word), within which the narrative operates. A clear example would be Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a genderbent retelling of the rise of the first Ming dynasty emperor. A nameless girl steals the fate of greatness bestowed upon her dead brother and remakes it as her own; a eunuch general plots vengeance against the Mongol masters who murdered his family, in defiance of the fate that Heaven has decreed for him. The narrative is set in the historical time and place of the late Yuan dynasty, and faithfully follows the sweeping arc of a Chinese historical epic, beat by terrible, tragic beat–paying homage to the literary and cinematic tradition from which it partially emerges.

Parker-Chan prioritizes the bilingual or bicultural reader, who will grasp by association the numerous literary and cultural references woven throughout the text, a majority of which are written as though in foreignized translation, without an Anglocentric equivalent. They trust/demand that the reader outside of this heritage will do the work of that research, should they wish to understand the text in its total richness. As 墨客hunxi argues in their review for Tor.com:

Through their command of linguistic elements and deft incorporation of cultural references, Parker-Chan demonstrates their deep knowledge and understanding of the Chinese literary tradition—in English. In a remarkable feat of linguistic legerdemain, Parker-Chan mixes and matches language and phrasing to create a work nearly bilingual in nature despite its monolingual status. But more than simply reproduce Chinese language, history, or culture, Parker-Chan innovates upon it, refusing to play by the rules of history or settle for mere mimicry. [9]

It is the reflection of that historical worldbuilding, of that adherence to real-world detail, and the subsequent subversion via Parker-Chan’s main characters, which allows the narrative to wield such subversive power, to queer not only the Anglophone language that is its mode of transmission, but also the Chinese literary traditions that are its backbone.

Similarly, the reflective approach applies to more urban and contemporary SF, such as Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. Set in modern-day Penang, a young, queer woman returns to her family, to whom she isn’t yet out, and confronts the ghost of her grandmother and a god’s displeasure using her burgeoning abilities as a medium. Cho presents the trance practices of spirit mediums and contemporary Chinese folk religion with her usual touch of sensible humour, reflecting the inherent and matter-of-fact speculative elements in Malaysian spiritual practices and folklore rather than taking a fictionalized fantastical approach. The setting is also resonant with Penang dialogue and culture, bringing the island town vividly to life and underlining the disparity between rich and poor that form an integral part of the wider conflict in the narrative. The grounded nature of Cho’s worldbuilding allows the narrative to probe deeper at the social and familial contradictions that inform the underlying tensions between characters, exploring possible routes towards reconciliation.

The second approach in worldbuilding is that of reimagination: still following a known aesthetic drawn from an existent historical or cultural source, but actively interrogating and complicating it; alternatively, marrying it to a contrasting premise or aesthetic within the same narrative. C. B. Lee’s A Clash of Steel is a chief example—leaping from the prompt of a Treasure Island remix to the setting of nineteenth-century southern China, following the fictional daughter of fearsome historical pirate Cheng I Sao as she uncovers her mother’s bloody legacy. [10] Popular depictions of “Chinese-inspired” worldbuilding (such as Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty) tend to look inward at various strands of Chinese tradition and culture, echoing a long tradition of SF worlds where empires take centre stage. However, Lee introduces a Vietnamese love interest and sets the narrative in the bustling port city of Canton instead of the imperial seat of power at Beijing, where linguistic and cultural exchange occur at the nexus of the South China Sea maritime trade. The author also attempts to render language use according to the main character’s Cantonese perspective—a contrast to many Chinese-inspired texts that follow Mandarin and pinyin romanization rules—though its execution is somewhat inconsistent. Nevertheless, the focus is on inter-Asian dynamics rather than the false dichotomy of East versus West, reorienting the aesthetic of the story-world on the Indian Ocean marketplace [11] and away from the simultaneous temporal location of European colonialism.

Another text that takes this worldbuilding approach is Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow, uprooting a historical figure from their contemporary Tang dynasty setting and relocating them in the mecha anime framework of giant fighter robots. Zhao meshes the two aesthetics with devices such as robots modelled after Chinese mythological creatures and a main character inspired by and named after the complex historical figure of Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor. The narrative directly confronts the misogynistic, monogamous, and patriarchal presumptions that underpin much of Confucian philosophy, building divergent structures such as a polyamorous relationship—a queer dynamic rarely depicted in either Chinese or Anglophone literature. It uses Wu Zetian’s quest for vengeance and sheer unadulterated ambition to blow open alternate futures, and asks readers to consider the psychological and physical costs of such radical action within hierarchies delineated by gender and class. Lee and Zhao not only build worlds that are resonant with specific historical aesthetics, but also intervene directly in those histories to complicate, interrogate, and reimagine narratives in service of a current readership.

The third and final worldbuilding approach is that of reconstruction: drawing from aesthetics of an existent history or culture, but reworking it at a fundamental level to integrate with original ideas and to create a syncretic world that suits the purposes of the narrative. Two works that come to mind are Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga (consisting of Jade City, Jade War, and Jade Legacy) and Tasha Suri’s The Burning Kingdoms trilogy (The Jasmine Throne, The Oleander Sword, and a final book yet to be published as of this writing). Lee’s narrative follows a mafia family struggling to hold on to their control of a quasi-postcolonial island society called Kekon, in a world where jade is the currency of magic and the avenue through which Lee poses complex and nuanced questions about extractivism, reclamation, and legacy. Kekon draws clear influences from mid- to late-twentieth century Hong Kong gangster shows, as well as geographic traces of Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, and Tokyo, without ever bearing a direct comparison to any one of those sources. It is a fictional secondary world that is internally consistent and entirely unique and real in its own right, one that is informed by but not allegorical to its inspirations.

Similarly, Suri’s trilogy takes the reader on a journey through a secondary world reconstructed from a vast array of South Asian historical and cultural inspirations. A captive princess and a maidservant with magical abilities come together amid the shadow of imperial control over the city-state Ahiranya, ruled by Parijatdvipa masters. The cultural inspirations are again clear and distinct, with the etymology of names drawn from Hindi and Sanskrit, and the detailed attention paid to material culture including clothes, food, architecture, and more. The world’s relationship with magic is one built on competing faiths, all of which demand sacrifice. Parallel to simultaneous faiths and localised beliefs across South Asian societies, the people of Suri’s novel recognise fire, flowers, and even a separate branch based on prophesied names as true faiths, even as characters resist the incursion of one or the other on their own lives. As with the Green Bone Saga, the worldbuilding is familiar to those raised on the traditions and mythologies; it is enmeshed and internally consistent, such that it no longer acts as direct comparison to a real-world culture but rather has been remade as a vehicle for the author to contextualize broader questions on gender, religion, colonialism, and empire. [12]

The three worldbuilding approaches of reflection, reimagination, and reconstruction in relation to specific historical and cultural contexts each refract alterity and alternate systems in their social, economic, and political representation. Each offers the opportunity for readers to consider our own world, wherever we may be, the systems that have been built around us, and the cost of sustaining those systems. As interventions in the Anglophone SF publishing market, where racialized narratives are still vastly underrepresented, each case study remains valuable and is a step in the direction of diversifying and decolonising the genre. [13]

I would ask us to consider too, in the rise of Asia-inspired speculative fiction by Asian heritage authors, the uneven distribution of worlds across heritage and history. Diasporic Chinese and Indian authors “dominate” to an extent, whereas localities of fewer media adaptations and attention in the Anglosphere—such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka—are less seen and rarely understood. Fluid cultural practices, in which differing religions, social structures, and histories are enmeshed in complex relationships, thus far have not yet translated well to an Anglophone audience. The subject of “Chinese” and “Indian” authorship itself also takes many forms, with overseas communities relating in different degrees to privilege and discrimination, according to their locally specific context. Nevertheless, it is prudent to continue questioning: How do dynamics of hierarchy and power in the narrative reflect real-world injustices? Who are we writing for, and why are we writing it here in this space? Who is dis/advantaged in a transnational framework in terms of translation, audience, and perceived marketability—and who defines this criteria? How can we offer allyship and solidarity to one another, such that more stories of a dizzying difference and divergence flood all of time and space in speculative worldbuilding?

My hope is that we may engage more deeply with the interventions of current SF that resist, reclaim, or rewrite hegemonic structures as narratives from and on the margins continue to emerge; to consider via a critical lens the aesthetic and worldbuilding choices deployed; to view each intervention not only in relation to the established dominant structures of Western Anglophone narratives, but also to the weight of its own history and tradition outside of its relationship with the West, and horizontally alongside other peripheral narratives seeking to redress the genre. In spite of the labour that is still to be done, the performance of these articulations, the process by which racialized writers find and invent and relocate culture and worldbuilding in Anglophone SF, is as meaningful as the specific content of those narratives. The work exists beyond the text and the individual—it is part of the wider SF landscape, where the narrative may be received and reconsidered, adapted and transformed by readers, fans, critics, and peers alike—ultimately, that is where we are reframing the narrative, everywhere and all at once.

 

Notes

[1] Jaymee Goh, http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/trials-by-whiteness-definitions-of-whiteness-and-eurocentrism-and-their-relevance-post-racefail/ [return]

[2] Note that the hashtag was subsequently co-opted and diluted as a marketing tool, and that many marginalized writers consider it a reductive description now; nevertheless, in its initial conception, it addressed a specific gap that had not previously been named. [return]

[3] Vida Cruz-Borja, “Ways to Decolonise Your Fiction Writing” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1gTOPgAO-w) and “We Are the Mountains: A Look at the Inactive Protagonist” (https://www.fantasy-magazine.com/fm/non-fiction/we-are-the-mountain-a-look-at-the-inactive-protagonist/) [return]

[4] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993). [return]

[5] Minor Transnationalism, ed. by Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005). [return]

[6] The phrase “diasporic and transnational” is employed here and throughout this essay as a broad, fluid conception of identity and identification, an experience or heritage shaped by dispersal, displacement, removal, and/or migration from one place to another, or between multiple sites across time. [return]

[7] Noting, of course, that each lived experience has its own specific challenges and comes with its privileges and discriminations. A Japanese expatriate is not the same as a Filipino political exile, regardless of any overlaps or solidarities in their transnational mobilities. Moreover, while this essay focuses on diasporic and transnational writing, with authors who have multifaceted and multiple definitions of home, I acknowledge that local writers across Asia are also producing a breathtaking array of SF work which fall within and beyond these boundaries. These include authors such as Joyce Ch’ng, Ng Yi-Sheng, K. S. Villoso, to say nothing of those working in languages other than English. [return]

[8] Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/recentering-science-fiction-and-the-fantastic-what-would-a-non-anglocentric-understanding-of-science-fiction-and-fantasy-look-like/ [return]

[9] 墨客hunxi, https://www.tor.com/2021/08/04/destiny-and-diaspora-in-shelley-parker-chans-she-who-became-the-sun [return]

[10] Otherwise known as Sek Yeong, or more popularly in the West, Ching Shih. Her legend has led to adaptations on screen, on stage, and in prose, especially in the diasporic imagination. [return]

[11] Studies on Indian Ocean exchanges are usually confined to South Asian and Southeast Asian area studies, though in recent years there has been growing interest in maritime networks in relation to climate studies. [return]

[12] As my editor Aishwarya Subramanian rightly pointed out, many reconstructed SF narratives are marketed and received in the West as “authentic” cultural depictions, parallel to real-world referents and thus implicitly charged with a degree of accuracy and educational value, even though they remain speculative worlds. It is beyond the scope of this essay to expand fully on this, but it is worth reflecting on why publishers choose to deploy such language, and how it shapes our expectations and responses to the text as readers. [return]

[13] The case studies discussed here are all novels. Worldbuilding approaches are further complicated in other written forms, such as the short story and the novella, where authors like Aliette de Bodard and Victor Fernando R. Ocampo have done excellent, intertextual storytelling that incorporates Vietnamese and Filipino/Southeast Asian worldbuilding, respectively. [return]


Editors: Reviews Department

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department



Zhui Ning Chang is a Malaysian editor, writer, and theatre maker. She has written for multiple mediums including stage, audio, nonfiction, and fiction. Their work often engages with ideas of decoloniality, queer hopepunk action, and solidarity through storytelling. You can find them at zhuiningchang.com and on Twitter @witchywonderer.
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