The OF Blog: Further thoughts on "International SF"

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Further thoughts on "International SF"

The responses to my article "'International SF' and Problems of Identity" last week were encouraging.  It was nice to see positive, thoughtful responses from those involved in the Bulgarian and Brazilian SF scenes and Luís Filipe Silva provided a link to a very interesting article that he had written back in July.  I was struck by the similarities between his arguments then and what I was contemplating when I wrote my piece for the Nebula Awards site last week.  I want to cite a brief portion of it, followed by a quick summation in English of the essential points here (any errors/distortions are likely due to my mastery of Portuguese being less than mine of Spanish):
Terá contribuído também, sem dúvida, a visão do pragmatismo individualista do homem competente numa mágica terra de oportunidades, na qual não existiam ditadores, opressão política, repressão policial, uma terra de fronteira de controlo reduzido pelas forças da autoridade onde uma pessoa valia pelas suas capacidades. Esta terra prometida, mais relacionada com a imagem que a América fazia de si mesma do que a América que efectivamente era (e que se viu incapaz de continuar a ignorar os problemas internos aquando dos movimentos sociais dos anos 60), cairia como maná dos céus sobre os outros povos do planeta - em particular, sobre países que eram forçados a existir debaixo do jugo de botas políticas e onde se ia desculpando a existência a literatura fantástica como uma forma inócua de descompressão das massas. Não se admire, portanto, que este sonho de fugir dos problemas mesquinhos do planeta, esta necessidade premente de se abandonar o lar problemático e encontrar uma nova história de vida num lugar do universo em que tal seja efectivamente possível, tivesse um forte apelo. Tal é a necessidade da juventude, tal é a necessidade do oprimido, tal é a necessidade de quem, na meia-idade, se debate com a angústia de ter comprometido os sonhos ao ter tomado as escolhas mais razoáveis para a sua vida.
Silva is here discussing differences between American perceptions (and how they shape SF) and those of several other countries.  There exists in the United States the vision of the pragmatic, competent individual living in the magical land of opportunities, where dictators, oppressive politics, political repression do not exist.  It is a frontier land where the people are freer and are more able to work to their capacities with a reduced control by authoritarian forces.  It is related to an imagined America, idealized rather than strictly based on that land's real political and social histories.  This exists in opposition to the sometimes-harsh realities of what so many other countries have experienced, several of them for thousands of years. 

This point Silva raises in passing (before moving on to examine the futility of claiming a truly "international" SF) is a key one.  What conditions give rise to what might be accepted as being "SF?"  Is it arising from a successful resistance to authoritarian control, or is it something else?  Indubitably, there is a libertarian strain of SF, particularly that produced in North America but occurring with less frequency elsewhere, that plays up the conflict between Freedom and Authority.  But do elements such as this occur frequently outside the Anglophone publishing world, or is this a more universal issue?

Without taking a side on this (lest I show a profound ignorance that would be borne of my inability to read stories in dozens of languages), a larger issue might be emerging from such a question.  If there are "universal" themes to SF writing across the globe, then do such themes arise due to pan-cultural concerns revolving around that nebulous "human identity," or is this an issue that is much more shallow and which might be associated with perceptions of a need to adopt the language and narrative modes of the perceived dominant culture?

Furthermore, if one were to argue that SF narrative modes are not necessarily "universal," but which might be more of a response to a dominant source, then would the perceived recent rise of international SF (with its relatively limited number of themes, ways of telling a story, plot developments, etc.) be little more than faint xeroxed copies of models that originated in an idealized "American" world-view?  Or is there still more to this than what has been talked about before?

I am uncertain where I stand on this.  I know there are several great authors writing in various parts of the world.  Some I have read in their native Spanish, Portuguese, French, and (with assistance of dictionaries and translated editions) Serbian.  Several of those authors have told their stories in ways that are truer to their native cultures than to any perceived Anglo-American "SF model."  Others seem to have mimicked the forms of Anglo-American stories in order to warp them slightly.  Still others have written stories that are hard to differentiate from stories originally published in Anglo-American markets.  I don't know if there is a single "correct" answer to any of those questions.  Perhaps it is simply a sign of the immaturity of "international SF" that there aren't any dominant forms that differ from those of Anglo-American or local cultural regions.  Perhaps the forest is being missed for all the trees.  Perhaps...I should just leave this dangling, letting the readers decide for themselves if they want to delve into this matter.


Harry Markov said...

It's a rather vast topic with quite a few variables that play role in this discussion. I myself lack the necessary reading background and diversity to formulate an opinion that can really bring something to the table.

Perhaps this is an issue for a professional research and a few non-fiction books to be pinpointed and begun to be understood. I think it will take some time until the whole concepts matures or at least develops, so that we can subject it to further analysis.

Chad Hull said...

I think there are universal themes in all writing, regardless of genre and perhaps the same could be said for, 'art.' While some themes may be constant, expression of the artist and interpretation by the audience are going to be as vast and 'nebulous' as perceived universal 'human identity.'

I don't read a lot of sci-fi and I'm not familiar with Mr. Silva's work, but it is interesting to think on an American artist's work as viewed by an American versus the perception of someone else from somewhere else. However, I would offer to Mr. Silva that if there is such a concise and cookie-cutter, homogeneous nature to American sci-fi, then it seems to me Mr. Silva, and all other writers working in the genre that don't live in the US, have a unique opportunity to capitalize on something truly different that American writers can't.

If foreign writers perception of SF is as strongly shaped by their country and their country's history is even remotely different than America's, they could be the cliched breath of fresh air in the stagnant trade winds of American SF.

As a reader, I would welcome such change--assuming it's done well, of course--it would be different and something new. If work by such non-American writers were truly different I'm not sure publishers would be excited as it would be untested at retail and readers (American or otherwise)as a whole may have no interest.

Apologies if this comes across as jingoistic, it's not meant to.

Can you guess what country I'm from?

E. L. Fay said...

"There exists in the United States the vision of the pragmatic, competent individual living in the magical land of opportunities, where dictators, oppressive politics, political repression do not exist. It is a frontier land where the people are freer and are more able to work to their capacities with a reduced control by authoritarian forces."

Hmmm. For all its socialist/anti-capitalist overtones, it looks like Star Trek is actually highly American. Interesting that the Federation has such high-minded ideals, yet is very expansion-oriented (semi-imperialist). Plus, they claim cultural tolerance but are often arrogant about the superiority of their own values.

I know very little about other American sci-fi, let alone other cultures'. But my experience with translated fiction has taught me that publishers are definitely more interested in strictly "literary" works. (I mean "literary as opposed to genre fiction, which can be quite literary in its own right.) Which probably takes us back to the "literary ghettoization" of speculative fiction.

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