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?