What Cultures Are Neglected in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

The latest SF Signal Mindmeld asked the following question: What Cultures Are Neglected in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

A number of SFF authors were asked to answer the question, and their responses make for interesting reading. I particularly liked Guy Gavriel Kay's reply:

I'm never contrarian (!) but it does feel a bit wrong to imagine writers cynically prowling in search of underexploited real estate in fantasy. (Maori! Toltec!). The key, surely, is to work from within, let research be guided by what engages, animates; for authors to be steered not by claim-staking but by passion. I am happier reading, say, another Renaissance-inspired work if it is genuinely inspired, rather follow a writer who has done routine due diligence on some apparently under-used time and place purely because there was no one else exploiting it. If a writer's intense engagement steers them to new settings, that's wonderful - for all of us. But intense engagement + talent will give us something wonderful, even in areas covered before.

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17 commentaires:

SQT said...

There seems to be a trend lately to be concerned that certain groups are getting "fair" representation in scifi/fantasy. Whether it be the author's gender and now the cultures represented in the story.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like the PC police are looking for new territory. While it could be argued that certain things could be more fair, where does this end?

Fran Terminiello said...

I tend to agree with Kay here, although having said that I think Fantasy (can't really speak for scifi) tends to ignore immigration and resettlement. Races seem to stick to their lands (except for the errant heroes of the tales of course), foreigners are remarkably strange. But human beings (or humanoids perhaps) do migrate, a lot.

Medieval/Rennaissance seems to be the order of the day. Nothing wrong with the time period but how about taking the focus off Europe, what about Asia, Africa, pre-colonial America? That would be interesting.

Brett said...

Several authors mentioned Latin America, but I think that specifically pre-Columbian civilization in America tends to get neglected in fantasy. Where are the stories that use a quasi-Mayan or -Aztec setting? Or one of the earlier civilizations, of which there were several we've discovered through agriculture?

It's rather sad when you consider that archaeology and research has revealed a great deal about ancient civilization in the pre-Columbian Americas in the past several decades. I'd love to see a novel series based on some of the conflicts in the Mayan civilization, in the way that Bakker's books borrow from the Crusades.

Anonymous said...

GGK is the best!

Jan said...

On one hand, I agree it should not be forced by some quota.

On the other hand - reading R.Scott Bakker's "Prince of Nothing", I was SO pleased to see cultures I did not recognize as this and that from our world, but which had very nice ancient Asian feel to them. (ok, I've read he's based on of them on the Scythians, which I loved)

And then BAM, it all turns into the Crusades and we even get a Jesus-wannabe.

Don't get me wrong, it's still a very enjoyable read, but part of me was shouting "Come on, R.Scott Bakker! Stop it. Just stop it. Write more about these wonderful peoples I have not seen thousand times before."

Casey said...

I wish I wasn't so surprised by this, seemingly, mass call for some form of literary affirmative action. It is absolutely ridiculous to me and I don't see why it is given so much press attention. Writing is an internal process, even when you just look at it as putting words to paper. I guarantee that if someone did write a wonderful book and managed to put all of the diversity that the PC-Police required, they would still find ground to bitch.

You want more diversity in fantasy? Easy. Quit harassing authors who are simply writing what they want to write, and write it yourself. Apologies for the lack of eloquence here, but this stuff makes my blood boil.

Jens said...

@ Brett:

Aliette de Bodard, a young French-Vietnamese writer, is writing two series using an Aztec-based setting:
- the 'Obsidian and Blood' novels are Aztec mystery-fantasies;
- the Xuya stories are set in an alternate universe where "China discovered the Americas before the West, and that the exploration of this new continent prevented China from sinking inwards"

The former series is going to be a trilogy of novels (I think) whereas the latter thus far consists of various short stories but more is to come.

Although I have them on my radar I haven't read any of the stories yet, so I don't know whether they're any good. de Bodard has been nominated for several awards (Hugo, Nebula, and others) and also won the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction among others so I guess it can't be too bad! ;-)

If you're interested, have a look at her website: http://aliettedebodard.com/

Jim Martin said...


Heads up Pat...you are being blame for things on Stanek's FB page.

Daniel Abraham said...

I don't think anyone would rush to reward us writerly types for grabbing some "under-used" culture and writing our stuff there either. That's when we get into the cultural appropriation conversation.

I don't see any harm, though, in pointing out where the genre's blinders are. Nobody's going to get punished for writing traditional semi-medieval quasi-Europe, and it would be fun to see a fantasy set in a middle-earthed version of India under British rule. Reminding folks that there are options is a long way from setting quotas.

Anders said...

It does not surprise me that the fantasy written in western countries draw upon the cultural heritage of the west. In the same way a chinese author generally uses China as his setting. Why? Because these are the cultures that the authors know and that their primary readers share.
It would to a western author be more difficult to set a story in China since he would have problems knowing how to picture a natives behavior in this unknown culture. Furthermore a lot of research would be necessary to produce something of quality.
And in the end all this work might be detrimental to the book since the setting (in my opinion) is not critical to the quality of the novel.

What I would like to see is translations of more fantasy[esque] litterature written by foreign authors who are better suited in portaiting their own culture.

paran said...


Kudos to you for your Long Price Quartet - I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed into the far east culture and gaining an understanding for how they lived, etc. GGK's "Under Heaven" also gave me that too.

While I don't feel it's imperative, I think that the medieval europe has been done and offer very little that hasn't been done before. I think it's up to publishers and editors to try and add variety to the market, and I don't think it would hurt authors to explore these areas. It may not sell exceptionally, but I think it does get notice in the industry if purely from an acknowledgment of imagination and skill.

Anonymous said...

Yep...robert 'motherFUCKING loser\stalker\rapist\creep' stanek is at it again on facebook.

Casey said...

Daniel, very true - however, in my experience, that is where the conversation usually goes. Be it on message boards or even at Con panels. Last year at Comic Con, specifically, I was witness to a Q&A session that turned from talking about under-explored areas of genre and it devolved into demands for such quotas as you mentioned. I'm not usually one to talk about "slipper slopes" or "gateway X's"...but in my own experiences, that's where people usually chose to take the topic. Thankfully, talk is just talk, but it can still be frustrating to someone who still thinks there is room to explore in the traditional settings.

Kauldron26 said...

@ Casey and SQT,

I would like to understand why these discussions and ideas upset you. I am African American, and I have been reading scifi and fantasy for most of my life. As much as I enjoy and love it, sometimes it feels like my favorite genre never considers people that look like me or factor in the possibilities of non-white cultures or settings. I love ASOIAF however, there are next to no non-whites in that entire series, and more often that not they are given insignificant roles, some might argue negative ones. The main black person in that novel is a prostitute that gets whipped to near-death? Why is that? Why couldnt a major house be of a different color? My question revolves around the fact that the series is FANTASY not historical fiction. Westeros is a CONTINENT. How and why has there been no immigration? Are you telling me that in the 4000 of ASOIAF history (where science never evolves, people not travel and resettle?) why neglect so the possibility of characters that are different? You can't say its because of the authors geography. GRRM lives in the US, the ultimate melting pot. Then you have authors like Kate Elliot. I know her Crown of Stars Series is not perfect, but damnit that series showed a world that was not limited by geography, race or history. I get frustrated when some individuals get angry so quickly that those of us FANS someday want to see a character we can actually relate to or one that represents us. Now if it was an author from Bangladesh writing about Bangladesh culture, that's a different issue. I can't expect the author to have Brazilian main characters. But if you're from the UK or US and you're writing series and literature that intentionally do not reflect your on world and all the folks that live in it, it kind of really sucks for some fans. You cant possibly understand how conflicting it is to love an author's work to death and even recommend it to legion of folks and yet say "damn I wish there was someone like me in this book" It sucks. Yes and you can go ahead and say, why don't you write your own books, authors can do whatever the hell they want. The point is we love the world the author has created. Is it so terrible to want to be a part of it?

Esther said...

I do get a little weary of medieaval fantasy sawing away at the crusader/knight-errant on quest theme.
It's rare to see any but minor characters sharing anything similar to my own cultural background.
However I am against quotas and PC sentiments in general.

It this discussion (and I mean on the internet in general not this particular forum) can steer away from hysteria it can be useful to encourage interest in neglected cultures.
If receive most of my book reviews from blogs and online forums not from mass market media reviews or promotions.
Once such interest has been piqued sales will improve for the few existing books and publishers will be encouraged to print/translate more. and in turn authors will be encouraged to explore those cultures.
Unfortunately in the 'real world' there are no magic solutions and unless someone can get Oprah to address the problem the change in attitudes will take time.

Aarti said...

I am with Kauldron here. I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to see other cultures represented in fantasy or sci fi. It's not "forcing" anything. It's not as though authors are really that familiar with Medieval Europe, so I feel like that argument is pretty weak. Lots of research and creativity goes into coming up with a fantastical world- why not turn that research in a different direction and explore other cultures? Or why not just show people of different races interacting with each other in the same place, rather than always on different sides of a conflict?

Using the term "PC Police" is condescending and ignores the very real issue that exists. Just because I want to see diversity in fantasy, that doesn't mean I should have to write it myself. Why do *I* have to write fantasy to see a character that resembles me in a book when *you* do not have to, Casey? Maybe you don't realize the inherent privilege present there, that you just get to pick up any fantasy book you want and see a familiar culture represented there. But it *is* a privilege, and many of us don't have it.

I bet there are people of different backgrounds out there writing fantasy that takes place in different settings. But just because they're writing, that doesn't mean they're getting published. Overwhelmingly, we publish and read and reward books from a White heritage (as seen here: http://www.yalsa.ala.org/jrlya/2011/06/are-all-lists-created-equal-diversity-in-award-winning-and-bestselling-young-adult-fiction/). It's upsetting to many people as the demographics of the world (and fantasy readers) change.

Anonymous said...

When writing a novel I have the idea in the back of my mind that whoever picks it up, wherever they are in the world, ought to be able to recognise/identify with the characters - rather than seeing them as some other race or majority that they do not identify with.

For this reason I am not always explicit in descriptions of hair and skin colour. I want to allow the reader to fill in the gaps and people the landscape with faces that they would recognise or would seem relevant to them.