The OF Blog: Just How Universal is Speculative Fiction?

Monday, October 04, 2004

Just How Universal is Speculative Fiction?

For almost as long as I have been a reader, I've enjoyed stories that speculated about what was around the corner or lurking within the innermost recesses of our shared imaginations/nightmares. One of the first books I remember reading was Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and from then on I was hooked. As a young boy growing up, I read graphic novel adaptations of classics such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Three Muskateers, and many other stories of the adventurous and/or fantastic from all corners of the globe.

It wasn't until I was twelve, however, that I was introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, but strangely enough, while I enjoyed his story greatly, I was not inclined to read similar-styled books for another ten years. Instead, I wanted to read imaginative works that explored the human condition and psyche in various ways. I became enamoured with stories such as Stendhal's The Red and the Black and Zola's Germinal and Nana. Even within these psychological/naturalist stories, I sensed a glimpse of the speculative, of the queries for something more than what was at hand.

When I finally did start to read genre fantasy/science fiction late during my grad school days, I read these works as just one more way of addressing human longings rather than as merely escapist pulp fiction or as imitators of a prior masterpiece. However, I couldn't help but notice one other thing lately as I've browsed the various online fantasy/SF communities: the lack of transcultural fantastic literature being discussed.

As some know, I'm drawn to the ways in which various cultures have interacted and repulsed each other over the centuries. It seems strange to me, having read great works of imagination from cultural groups on each of the six permanently inhabited continents that when discussing works of Fantasy or Sci-Fi, almost all of the dialogue concentrates on a very small handful of nations. While I understand that the United States is the publishing capital of the world and that American cultural mores tend to sway global tastes (much to the chagrin of many), it does seem strange that there is very little talk of speculative fiction from places outside North America, Great Britain, and to a lesser extent Scandinavia, Poland, and Russia.

I've had to do quite some digging to find available works from other traditions. One such work, available in English translation, is the collection entitled Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain. Reading these stories, which span a period at least as long as the genesis and heyday of Anglo-American SF, gave a different perspective on the interaction of people with tekne. For fantasy, I read in the original Spanish the works of the Argentine greats, Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and sometime Buenos Aires resident Horacio Quiroga. There's something amazing in these stories, something that makes their relative obscurity in North America all the more saddening, considering American willingness to read and enjoy works by Dumas, Hugo, and Cervantes, just to name a few.

I guess after this rather rambling essay that I better address the readers with a question of my own: What works of literature do you read or know about that aren't from the Anglo-American heritage that you believe would make for excellent additions to a master list of great speculative work? Listed below are some of my recommendations:

Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad/One Hundred Years of Solitude
Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciónes
Adolfo Bioy Casares, la invención de morel/The Invention of Morel
Alejo Carpentier, los pasos perdidos/The Lost Steps
Horacio Quiroga, Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte/The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories
Oliverio Girondo, The Scarecrow and Other Anomalies (bilingual edition)
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince/The Little Prince
Shlomo DuNour, Adiel
Italo Calvino, If on winter's night a traveller
Alberto Fuguet, Mala onda/Bad Vibes

Hopefully, there will be some reader comments suggesting more, as any recognition given to deserving works is a very good thing.


JP said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JP said...

I think the net swallowed my previous comment - anyway, to sum up, there's an interesting book of short stories called 'Fair Tree of the Void' by Indian writer Vilas Sarang I'd like to introduce you to, given the other works I've seen you mention here and elsewhere. Magic realism, influenced by the likes of Kafka, Borges and Becket but driven by a very original vision. Drop me a mail at jayaprakash at gmail dot com, we can sort something out...the book is OOP and hard to find even in India, but perhaps I could send you a photocopy or a's really worth checking out.

My previous comment explained this a little better, but that plane has flown.

Holly said...

Yay! You finally read Los pasos perdidos! I must have missed it when you mentioned it on OF - I have not been as much as a regular there lately. Did you read it in Spanish or English? I would love to hear your thoughts on the book, your time allowing. It has actually been awhile since I read it myself; I keep giving my copies away, but I did buy a shiny new one mostly for the purpose of re-reading it again and being able to discuss it with you or whomever.

To answer your question and add to your list, I have another by Alejo Carpentier - Concierto Barroco. I would further contribute works by Carlos Fuentes - off the top of my head the short story Aura comes to mind, but his novels would fit as well. After stealing a quick look at my bookshelf, I would also have to add the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder - Sophie's World is his most well known, but actually I find The Solitaire Mystery even more imaginative (though the two are quite similar). If you haven't read anything by Gaarder, you might wish to check him out. Heavy-handed at times, and if you read too many of his books they are all a bit too similar, but I was blown away the first time I read him, and it definitely fits into the realm of the fantastic.

That's all for now, time for dinner. Take care, Larry - I'm thinking of you and wishing you well.

Lsrry said...

Thanks, both of you, for replying. JP, I don't know if I have the time right now to read what I'm sure is an excellent book and it's very difficult for me to read much online at the present time (about to take on a third job to help pay for my return to college next year), but if I can manage it, I'll send you an email in the near future.

Holly, right now, it's slightly fuzzy, because I read it almost 4 months ago in Spanish and my brain is currently finding it hard to think in English right now! What I do recall is that I loved the juxtapositioning between the artificial world of NYC and the more realness of the jungle. Also caught the musical tonalities that you mentioned. Need to re-read it again in the near future to form more firm opinions, but my initial read was a very favorable one. I'll certainly keep your recommendation in mind as well, although again I'm not going to have that much free time for a while still. And thanks for your concern about my health and well-being. Doing as well as can be expected after that scare last month. I should know on the 26th the results of all my tests on my lungs and heart. I'll probably post that in my wotmania Journal or maybe on wotmania's Com MB if it's serious, but I'm feeling much better now though, so it's likely just a minor thing.

And now this Freebird needs some sleep - I'm tired!

banzai cat said...

Well, I found this local writer out who managed to bag a slot with Datlow, Link and Grant's "Year's Best" anthology this year. See his story at Strange Horizon:

He's not a grandmaster like you're looking for but he's young and promising, methinks.

JP said...

Well, Larry, be sure to drop me a mail when you have more time to read. It's a slim book and I like it well enough to seriously want others to read it. Take care.

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