Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Non-Fiction for SF Fans

Here are some of the titles that the panel (Niall Harrison, Vince Docherty, James Cambias, Geoff Ryman, Kari Sperring) suggested as they were talking:
They did agree that for a writer reading about a place is no substitute for going there, and that reading biographies is a great way to get a sense for writing about people very different from yourself. One tossed off quote from Geoff Ryman on that panel probably deserves a blog post of its own:
If we don't write about those countries [3rd world, Asian, etc.] we can't be SF writers anymore, because the future is not in the West.

Which I think rather neatly sums up one of the agendas I put forth last year.


JDsg said...

I enjoyed the quotation at the end of the post, if only because I've been arguing this latter point (the future is not in the West) for some years now. Not that the West is going to disappear or lose all its influence any time soon.

I wouldn't say that one can't be a SF writer if one doesn't write about characters who live in developing economies or Asian countries. But I do think that to improve upon a character's verisimilitude, especially that of "the Other," one really does need to understand an "exotic" culture far from one's own. Too many "martians" seem like an American dressed up in a rubber suit. In that respect, your first two points on the other blog post reinforce each other. The problem with reading non-Western/non-English fiction is that, while it may give a glimpse as to "profoundly different mental universes other than our own," that glimpse is, at best, on a par with a week's vacation overseas. I moved to Asia eight years ago where I married a Malay woman here in Singapore. It wasn't until after four years of marriage (five years as an expat) that my wife declared that I finally think like a Malay, a point I'm not sure I completely agree with. What I'm trying to say is that it takes a considerable amount of time to really begin to understand the finer nuances of other cultures; reading novels, anthropological studies or National Geographic are only nominally helpful in comparison to knowing the culture and the landscape in person. After all, if you're going to write a story, say, based in Asia, we're going to know just how well you understand the region or if you're just winging it based upon a couple of magazine articles.

Oh, and lose the American/Western exceptionalism attitude. (Classic example: Americans are the ones who learn how to destroy the alien ships in the movie "Independence Day".) You're pissing off your foreign readership every time you write like that.

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks for your comments! I agree with you about the need to spend longer times immersed in other cultures--however, even a week-long vacation is better than life-long insularity. Have you seen the International Mind Meld that I edited over at SFSignal? I hope things like that will at least help get the word out.

I do hope that in your last paragraph you mean the generic 'you,' right? I hope I personally haven't committed much American exceptionalism recently, especially since I don't write fiction? If I have in my blog posts, please let me know!

Niall said...

The other book I mentioned that I really think a lot of sf fans would love was The Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford.

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