World SF: Our Possible Future

by on Apr 3, 2012 in Nonfiction | 4 comments

By Charles Tan

For some, the fact that you are reading this on a screen is amazing. For me, however, what’s impressive is that you could be from any part of the world: London, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, Perth, Cape Town, etc, and you’re reading this now, not several months—or years—later. Welcome to publishing in the 21st century where, theoretically, everyone in the world has access to what you write.

This sounds like the premise of a science fictional—or fantastical—story. So why aren’t we living in a publishing utopia? As ideal as the scenario might sound, there are still borders that aren’t limited to geography. Take myself for example: I’m Filipino-Chinese, and writing to you in English is both an advantage and a disadvantage. A lot of cultural nuances are lost, and, perhaps, in an ideal world, I would not necessarily have chosen English as my primary language. But, as far as practicality is concerned, English is prominent in a lot of countries—thus reaching a wider audience—and I’ll most likely get paid more for writing in English.

Which brings me to World SF. This might sound strange coming from someone who’s been promoting World SF, but the term is problematic. Whenever I talk about the subject, I need disclaimers. And that’s one example of the borders I’m talking about, at how language is sometimes inadequate to convey everything that I want to say.

Why World SF is Problematic
The first constraint is to define what World SF is. I won’t even touch the “SF” part—arguments for and against genre borders have been a never-ending debate, whether the discussion took place two decades ago or takes place half a century from now. And in many ways, that’s the brilliance of editor Lavie Tidhar, who chose the title The Apex Book of World SF for his initial anthology: he didn’t have to define what SF stood for, whether it’s science fiction, speculative fiction, or something else. Nor, I think, should an anthology (or magazine, in this case) featuring fiction from all over the world be limited by such constraints. Terms like magic realism, speculative fiction or even fantasy can offend, especially when we act like tourists of another nation’s culture. And while we might easily shrug off the difference between fantasy, fantastique, and the fantastika, the nuances between those terms can be as wide and dangerous as the journey from the Shire to Mordor.

No, let’s talk about the first part of the term: world.  What does it mean to be part of the world? Strictly speaking, isn’t every SF story part of World SF? How can one not be part of the world? By writing your story in space?

What we mean by World SF is something closer to International SF—beyond your nation, beyond your borders. But that in itself is problematic, because that implies a reference point. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that reference point is the US.

It shouldn’t surprise you that the US is not the only source of SF in the world. There’s Russia, China, Japan, Croatia, Romania, France, India, Africa, etc. But a lot of SF that we read is either set in the West, based on Western cosmology and belief, or written by Western authors (to say nothing of the inherent patriarchy, colonialism, and racism of such narratives). In the case of my childhood, despite having a rich—albeit seemingly invisible—tradition of SF in the Philippines, most of the SF I’ve read is from the US, and the bookshelves of local bookstores reflect this. Ask any Filipino SF fan: they can name you a lot of Western SF authors but will be hard-pressed to name a local SF author, a phenomenon not limited to the Philippines. If we’re just talking about the zeitgeist, a lot of cultures are Western-centric (for good or for ill) when that doesn’t have to be the case, especially when there’s a rich—and different—tradition of SF  radically different from what Western readers are used to.

It’s not that people haven’t tried. But if you look at the SF works from other countries that have been translated into English, compared to SF works in English that have been translated into other languages, there’s a large disproportion in favor of the latter. Which can get quite ridiculous considering the US is just one country.

So there’s clearly a need to drift away from US SF—no offense to US writers (and I still read your books!)—and to highlight fiction from the rest of the world. Yet at the same time, because US readers hold a significant influence; we need to win them over as well. Right now, a lot of us are literate in English. This issue is being published by an American company. A lot of the books being sold in our bookstores are imports from the US.

And then there’s the gray area of Canada, the UK, and Australia. On one hand, they have more exporting capability compared to a country like Singapore or the Philippines, even when English is mutually their first language. But on the other hand, awareness and accessiblity to their literature isn’t automatically assured, and their fiction can be obscure. It’s an unfair generalization to group them as part of the US, but they clearly have a better advantage than most third-world countries.

Which brings me to the second problem: if World SF excludes the US, then how do we define who writes World SF? The term is malleable, open to interpretation, and will mean different things to different people. For example, let’s determine that for a work to be considered World SF, it needs to be written by an author that’s not American. Does that mean by nationality? Ethnicity? Do we do percentages of heredity? What happens if an American author moves to another country? Or the children of foreigners who migrate to the US? Do we strive for a more inclusive policy, or an exclusive one?

It’s not a question that can easily be answered. Nor should it be. It ignores plurality. Take myself for example: I’m Filipino-Chinese, a Filipino citizen born to pure-blooded Chinese parents. Don’t make me choose between being Filipino or being Chinese. I’m a product of both worlds and if I were to simply pick one over the other, I’d feel completely alien. You can’t isolate and excise the parts of me that are Filipino from the parts that are Chinese.  If I hypothetically migrate to another country, that creates a new dynamic. My children will similarly have an entirely different paradigm compared to mine.

The third problem is that no one is an expert on World SF. It’s hard enough to keep track of all things SF in the Philippines (and I’m not necessarily succeeding). Or the US. Or—insert country here. How much harder would it be to keep track of the whole world, which implies hundreds of countries? And then we go back to plurality: no culture or race is a monolithic entity. There will be opinions, debates, even schisms within a particular community: just because I find a particular story to be very Filipino doesn’t necessarily mean another Filipino will find the same value in it, for example.

Although no one can be an expert in World SF, we shouldn’t stop trying.  Perhaps, after reading this issue, or a copy of the The Apex Book of World SF, you think that you’ve fulfilled your quota of SF beyond the US. But no. Neither this magazine nor Tidhar’s anthologies are a comprehensive (or even holistic) summary of the World SF scene. If you gave us half a million words to work with, it still wouldn’t be enough. Heck, it’s not even enough to comprehensively tackle the literature of a single nation. Instead, they are biased snapshots, which will hopefully pique your curiosity. This should be the beginning of discovering what World SF truly means, rather than the final word on it. So don’t be surprised if I’m wrong when it comes to a lot of things.

There’s a certain comfort when you’re asked about SF from other countries. If you mention Serbia, I can name Zoran Živković. South Africa, Lauren Beukes. France, Aliette de Bodard. Finland, Johanna Sinisalo. But that’s actually false relief. For example, what else do I know about Serbian SF aside from Živković? It’s easy to jump to conclusions based on the works of a few writers, but just as no single author encapsulates all of American SF, there’s no single author—or even a set of writers—that fully encapsulates the SF field of any country.

Awards and Recognition
There’s no perfect system to gauge or determine acceptance—except perhaps being an actual best-seller, selling in the hundreds of thousands—but awards give the impression of recognition, by the voting jury at least. So awards are important.

It would be remiss of me not to mention what is perhaps the most important award when it comes to World SF: the relatively new Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards. One of the most difficult processes in propagating World SF, whether financially or logistically, is translation. For such an award to exist is a great boon, and their agenda similarly reminds me of one of our shortcomings: recognizing translators. Just approach your typical SF fan and they’d (and by they, I include myself) be hard-pressed to name a translator who works in the genre specifically, unless the translator is a prominent author to begin with, such as Ursula K. Le Guin or Ken Liu.

In 2011, the Translation Awards winners for long form and short form were A Life on Paper: Stories, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin, and Elegy for a Young Elk, Hannu Rajaniemi, translated by Hannu Rajaniemi, respectively. Honourable mentions went to The Golden Age, Michal Ajvaz, translated by Andrew Oakland, and Wagtail, Marketta Niemelä, translated by Liisa Rantalaiho. The special award went to Brian Stableford.

One of Lavie Tidhar’s frequent complaints is that the World Fantasy Awards is a misnomer, for while there’s the occasional nominee or two that’s not from the US, it’s mostly a very Western-centric award. However, last year’s nominees, at least for the novel category, were impressive: Nnedi Okorafor, Lauren Beukes, N.K. Jemisin, Graham Joyce, Guy Gabriel Kay, and Karen Lord were the nominees, with Okorafor winning the award for Who Fears Death. Angélica Gorodischer was the lifetime achievement winner, while Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press won the special award in the non-professional category. I hope to see this trend continue.

There’s also the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which Dubravka Ugresic won in 2010 for Baba Yaga Laid an Egg.

The Future of World SF
I honestly don’t know where World SF is headed, or if our efforts to spread awareness will succeed. But I’m cautiously optimistic about the field. Half a decade ago, for example, who would have thought there would be a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards, an imprint dedicated to translating Japanese fiction into English, or a second—much less a first—anthology dedicated to featuring SF from around the world? While there have been a few such anthologies in the past, there have been none this century and, previously, such efforts were by American or British editors who did not themselves represent World SF as we have attempted to define it.

Who would have thought readers would be interested to hear what I have to say? I’m not from America. I’m not white. I’m not famous.

That’s not to say all is well. The status quo is still against a global SF field. But change is coming and, hopefully, it swings in our favour. There’re a lot of voices that haven’t been heard; it’s not because authors aren’t writing.


More from Charles Tan:

Charles TanCharles Tan’s fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi). He has contributed nonfiction to websites such as The Shirley Jackson AwardsFantasy Magazine, The World SF Blog, and SF Signal. In 2009, he won the Last Drink Bird Head Award for International Activism. He is also a 2011 World Fantasy nominee for the Special Award, Non-Professional category. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker.

4 Comments

  1. This is an excellent essay, which makes a lot of good points. Sometimes people imply that I’m an expert on QUILTBAG SF, but I feel like the more I become immersed in the genre, the more I discover I don’t know about it. We don’t need one expert to carry all the knowledge for everyone. No one can do that. There’s too much. We need lots of people to carry little pieces, and to trade, and to remind us that there is value in the places we haven’t looked. I’m always going to be woefully under-read, but with people like you out there sharing information about their familiar corners of SF, I think my reading stands a chance of being more varied than it would otherwise. So, thank you, Charles. And thanks also to to Apex for helping spread the visibility a little more.

  2. Don’t worry overly about the definition of world. If each country had a SF literature that needed to be translated and edited had an enthusiast like Nick Mamatas is for the Haikasoru line of translated Japanese SF novels for Viz Media we would a very enjoyable time reading SF movels and stories from all the countries of the world.

  3. Excellent essay. I live in the US, but when I travel abroad, I try to find at least one work of SF by a local author, if I can read the language at least somewhat, but it’s always been much easier for me to find American and British SF authors in translation than local authors. :-/ I do like Locus Magazine’s ongoing series of articles on SF in various countries. That helps me discover new writers and learn at least something about local scenes.

    Your discussion of the term “World SF” reminded me of an anecdote from a anthropology class I took, because music has a similar nomenclature problem. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld once asked one of the Aboriginal members of the Australian band Yothu Yindi what he thought of the term “world beat.” The musician quipped, “Well, it beats ‘third world beat.'” So, problematic as the terms we use can be, one can always imagine a more problematic term. 😀

  4. “But a lot of SF that we read is either set in the West, based on Western cosmology and belief, or written by Western authors (to say nothing of the inherent patriarchy, colonialism, and racism of such narratives).”

    I consider that to be supremacist and racist. Did Arab, Mughal, Aztec, Mameluke and Ottoman colonialism just disappear in a puff of smoke?

    Is “patriarchy” some non-event in the non-West? Did I make up “purdah” out of my head, where a non-family doctor in 1800 Hyderabad had to diagnose his veiled woman patient through a wooden screen? When did the West corner the market on “racism”?

    Please just stop with this one-sided nonsense, and stop giving such people a voice. It has no place in SFF yet it is pervasive.

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