Saturday, September 14, 2019

What’s foreign about SF from another culture? Is SF inherently cosmopolitan? [Media Notes 11]

I’m an American so by another culture I mean, well... I wouldn’t consider Adam Roberts foreign, though he’s British. I know there are some (relatively minor) cultural differences despite the fact that we speak and write pretty much the same language. Would I think of Jules Verne as foreign? Probably not. Perhaps for me foreign means non-Western.

I’ve got two recent examples in mind: Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem (2006), Tade Thompson, Rosewater (2016). If you changed obvious non-English and non-Western elements, such as names of people and places, would I have recognized either of these books as coming from a non-Western author? I don’t know. It’s not in the least obvious to me that I would. Oh, if pressed I might be able to make up something that makes one book Nigerian and the other Chinese, but I’d have no confidence in that. They’re both science fiction, and very different kinds of science fiction at that – Three-Body centers on computers and ranges over vast reaches of space and time while Rosewater is set in a two decade span later in this century and reads like a detective story – but it's the SF dominates my sense of either.

Does participation in the culture(s) of science fiction over-ride ethnocentric thematics and resonance? Not necessarily universal, not at all, but cosmopolitan perhaps? Is science fiction an inherently cosmopolitan literary form? Or is it becoming, has become, so?

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And, yes, Thompson is an interesting case. He is a Yoruba who was born in London and his family moved to Nigeria while he was young. He is a native speaker of English. But then Nigeria is like that. Nigerian English is the official language in a country where some 250 peoples live.

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Addendum, October 13, 2019: See this piece, Reading China in a Sci-Fi Novel, published by Robert Fay in 3 Quarks Daily. It discusses The Three-Body Problem. Here's a passage:
Ye Wenjei is an astrophysicist who is exiled to rural China during the madness of the 1960s Cultural Revolution. She witnesses state-sponsored destruction of the forests and in a moment of despair is given a clandestine copy of Silent Spring (1962), the seminal environmental book by Rachel Carson on the consequence of pesticides. Ye is amazed that a book with such a frank indictment of an institutionalized practice can exist.

Fast forward to the “near future,” and we meet a group of environmentalists who belong to a movement known as “Pastoral China.” The group advocates a policy of de-urbanization: dismantling cities, and returning to an older Chinese model of villages and towns. They are essentially neo-Luddites and their founder believes: “The explosive development of technology was analogous to the growth of cancer cells, and the results would be identical: the exhaustion of all sources of nourishment, the destruction of organs, and the final death of the host body.”

War and political chaos has always been features of human society, but climate change and environmental destruction are true existential threats, and they call for collective effort and sacrifice.

Yet what if the western, liberal order—with its focus on materialism, consumption, individual rights and the pursuit of happiness—is an obstacle to addressing climate change? What if the individual must now, more than ever, begin to wave its rights in favor of collective survival? What if the Chinese model is the one best suited to the climatic, demographic and resource challenges of the 21st Century?

Yet as the protests in Hong Kong demonstrate, even people who possess deep cultural and linguistic ties with China, have deep reservations about living under the Chinese political system.


  1. Politics makes an enormous difference. Three-Body Problem begins with that heartbreaking account of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I dimly remember something in Rosewater about colonialism and local corruption.

    Religion, too. As in none for post-revolutionary China, and a different mix in Africa.

    1. I'd forgotten about the Cultural Revolution stuff. As for the rest, those are things that happen in some places, not others. But don't seem particularly non-Western. OTOH, the Japanese treatment of robots and the net DOES strike me as different. And that is no doubt in part because I'm thoroughly familiar with Ghost in the Shell and what become of the web when it entered The Matrix.

    2. The Maoist context really kicked things off for me in the book. And the political situation of China since framed my understanding of both that and the second one (I'm saving up #3).

      I can see Western analogs, such as theocrats or various Marxist and fascist states, but few came close to that particular formation.

      Agreed on Japan and robots. Bacigalupi hits on this in Wind-Up Girl.