The Undiscovered Country

The novel I’m currently revising revolves around a culture I based on the ancient Aztec.  So, when I heard about Aliette de Bodard’s “Servants of the Underworld,” a sort of fantasy detective story that takes place in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, I had to read it.

One thing Bodard really gets right is the different cultural outlook and worldview of this non-Western culture.  At first it was almost jarring, as the characters weren’t thinking or acting in a way that made sense in my personal worldview.  This, of course, got me thinking about how perilous writing other cultural perspectives can be — how hard it is to do well, how great it is when done right, and how infrequently one even sees it attempted.

There’s a well-established (and justified) stereotype about fantasy novels being set in the mythic “lands of the west” (firmly based on western cultural traditions).  And, while this stereotype exists for a reason, in just five or ten minutes I was able to think up a pretty long list of novels eschewing the trope in whole or in part, including:

  • earlier works, like Roger Zelazny’s “Lords of Light,” with it’s Indian influences
  • “Across the Nightingale Floor” (and the other books in Tales of the Otori) by Lian Hern, which are set in feudal Japan
  • “The Secret History of Moscow” by Ekaterina Sedia
  • “Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor, set in a post-apocalyptic South Africa
  • most of Nalo Hopkinson’s books, with their Caribbean roots
  • Ian McDonald’s “Dervish House” set in Istanbul
  • Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Windup Girl,” set in a post-global warming Thailand.

And that’s, no doubt, leaving out a lot of other great examples (in fact, please share your favorites in the comments below).  I wonder, then, if it’s  fair to start declaring the death of the stereotype?

But…not so fast.  As I started the post out by saying, it’s rare to find a novel that really captures the outlook of a non-western culture.  There are plenty of books set in less oft-explored times and places, but how many of them have protagonists with distinctly non-western viewpoints?  Bacigalupi’s book, for example, provides non-Western perspectives from several characters but centers on the narrative of a westerner.

Maybe one reason protagonists (or, even entire casts of characters) aren’t often “cultural others” is because authors may fear:

  • the inability to represent another cultural viewpoint authentically
  • presenting  a hurdle to prospective readers who crack novels open with (rightly or wrongly) preset notions of the cultural rules that will govern the characters’ and actions.

The former concern seems more justifiable to me than the latter, and still (I think) can be overcome through immersive research.  But, in the end, effectively deviating from reader expectations about culture can be a great challenge for the author.

What do you think?  Is this issue something we should be concerned about as writers?  Is there a need for more speculative fiction told from the perspective of non-western cultures?  And what are you favorite examples of this type of writing?

Book Report: Three worth a look

Today I wanted to share some book recommendations.  Between the time I spend on the subway (thank you, MTA, for my 2 hour commute) and at the gym, I generally plow through a book every week or so.  Some are mind candy, fluff enjoyed and forgotten.  Some are interesting, if not entirely successful.  Some prove a slog and lie abandoned on my bedside table.  Some are awesome.

Here are three that I found interesting or awesome enough to want to share:

Acacia by David Anthony Durham. Genre: fantasy. 753 pages (and the first in a series).

It should be said upfront that I’m a fan of epic fantasy, especially the kind that dwells in rich, believable worlds where “good” and “evil” are relative, complex concepts and elves and dwarves have little place.  Acacia hits all these marks, and then some.  Following the struggles of four royal children scattered and in hiding after their father’s kingdom is conquered, Acacia is (in my view) about the relationship between compromise and power.  The characters are all sketched with deft lines and are both sympathetic and unsympathetic, strong and weak.  The “villains” are frequently humanized and the “heroes” sometimes make cruel or foolish choices.  Best of all, Durham’s background as an historian grounds the epic sweep of this tale in details that feel real.  You almost believe the kingdom of Acacia existed and the wars waged over it truly happened.  More please.

Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane. Genre: Urban Fantasy. 346 pages (and the first in a series)

I haven’t read much Urban Fantasy until lately.  Frankly, I thought it was all werewolf or vampire porn.  But, it seems I was wrongly conflating Urban Fantasy with Paranormal Romance, and the ghost-infested world of Downside in Stacia’s Kane’s books has made me a convert.  Unholy Ghosts (and the follow-up novels) are urgent, gritty, ugly, and addictive.  There was some controversy about the book when it first came out, largely because Kane’s protagonist, Chess, is a drug addict.  Here’s a good summary of the controversy.  As others have pointed out, the flawed protagonist is one of the novel’s great strengths.  Chess’s addiction isn’t a side feature of her character, but (as it would in real life) steers her choices (usually bad ones) as she tries to balance her job debunking haunting claims for the Church of Real Truth with her life in the gangland underbelly of Downside.  Awesome characters abound and Chess herself is as often frustrating as she is heroic.

Finch by Jeff Vandermeer. Genre: Steampunk? Urban Fantasy? Fantasy thriller? I really have no idea.  334 pages, (and a stand alone novel).

This is probably one of the weirdest, most compelling books I’ve read in a long time.  I’m not sure how to describe it, or if I even liked it.  But the world Vandermeer created is unforgettable.  The story takes place in the ruins of the city of Ambergris after it has slowly been consumed by the invasion of a fungal species.  These “gray caps” have taken control, colonizing not only the streets and buildings with new fungal structures, but also the city’s human inhabitants.  Revolution smolders, despair blankets everything.  Our hero is John Finch, a Detective grudgingly working for the gray caps.  As he tries to solve a murder, he is drawn further into the conspiracies and mysteries surrounding the city’s past and future, as well as his own.  The complex threads of the plot didn’t ultimately cohere for me, but the world and characters were so fantastic that it really didn’t matter.

Okay, that’s three from me.  How about you?  What books have you read lately and loved?  Share!

Yes, but is it realistic?

Lately, I’ve been pondering the role of grit and realism in the fantasy genre.  How little is too little?  Is there such a thing as too much?  And what does “realism” mean when it comes to fantasy, anyway?

It’s Joe Abercrombie’s “Best Served Cold” that got me thinking about this in the first place.  For those who haven’t read it, or who aren’t familiar with his excellent First Law series, Abercrombie populates his tales with characters real enough to make you despair for the fate of humanity.  Whether they’re obsessed, driven, or shiftless, his characters are pretty much all self-centered, deeply flawed, and prone to violence.  Their adventures make for good, if sometimes bleak, reading, but his books have also made me wonder if there’s such a thing as too much realism.

If Tolkein’s misty elves and noble kings-in-exile are at one end of the “realism” spectrum, then Abercrombie’s characters fall at the far, far distant extreme.  You may get pulled along by his stories, immersed in his highly believable worlds, and even come to root for certain of the characters, but there’s little chance you’d actually want to spend time with any of them.  They are, by and large, not nice people.

This very fact, of course, is what makes Abercrombie’s characters so human – they’re jealous and petty and do spiteful things.  They act against their own interests because they just can help it.  They almost never change themselves for the better and almost always resolve their problems by running away, stabbing someone in the back, or just stabbing someone, period.  We read about them and we recognize the baser, less lovable parts of ourselves.

This kind of writing, let’s be honest, is rare in the fantasy genre.  I mean, most of the stuff out there falls into the “brave band of heroes” camp, without reflecting much on who the heroes are slaughtering (after all, they’re the good guys, so it must be justified).  So, there’s an important place for Abercrombie’s kind of fiction.  But sometimes I wonder if he’s left out the most human elements of all from his characters.  Sure, his books have a smattering of forgiveness and loyalty, the occasional shred of redemption, and even a rare hint that people are capable of loving someone other than themselves.  But such aspects of human nature are few and far between.

Is that realism?  I don’t know, but I really hope not.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Abercrombie’s books and I will continue to devour them when they’re released.  But I don’t think they’re realistic.

I guess some people might find it odd to pair the ideas of “realism” and “fantasy” at all.  By definition, fantasy is the unreal, is that which we imagine.  But the best fantasy strives to make its imaginary worlds feel like they could be real places and its characters act in the complex and often contradictory ways that real humans do.

Consider George R.R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire.  Here are characters that (to me) feel realistic.  The conniving and murderous are still capable of love, even if that love is twisted.  The honorable and brave can be stubborn and blind, their nobility dooming both themselves and others to death.  Jealousy can lead to kindness, love to betrayal.  Nor are these characters free of the mundane realities of being living animals.  They eat and vomit and shit and suffer and screw–and Martin’s descriptions of these acts leave nothing to the imagination.  You believe his characters are experiencing what they do not because he tells you, but because he shows you with unrelentingly realistic prose.  Martin, of course, is not alone in writing this kind of fiction.  Of the things I’ve read recently, both Steven Erikson’s Malazan series and David Anthony Durham’s “Acacia” both come to mind.

Personally, I’m of two minds about how to incorporate realism into my writing.  On the one hand, I have a generally low opinion of humanity as a whole.  Our history reflects poorly on us, unless war and violence against the weak is what we’re striving for.  And yet, we’re obviously capable of creating beautiful things, too.  Plus, on an individual level, people may be cruel one minute and commit breathtaking acts of self-sacrifice, kindness, and love the next.  We engage in both groan-inducing predictability and devilish unpredictability.

It’s possible that we err in focusing only on characters here.  This may be as much about world-building as character-building.  Perhaps our worlds should better reflect the rapaciousness of humankind and our characters better embody the contradictory and stutter-stop urges towards a more noble ideal.

What do you think?  Are Martin and others like him hitting the right notes of realism for you, or do you prefer Abercrombie’s grittier fare?  Can our characters have some good sprinkled in with their bad and still feel real?  Do we need to be careful of over-emphasizing nuanced “realer than real” characters at the expense of building honest-feeling worlds?