Fiction Theory (fiction_theory) wrote,
Fiction Theory
fiction_theory

The fail, it burns.

I am completely unsure of where to start with the bad as far as this article "Third World Worlds" by Norman Spinrad is concerned. Because there is a lot of fail jam packed into it. I actually read the entire thing, and yeah. Failtastic.

I think Jason Sanford gets at the basics of the wrongness in this post and Nick Mamatmas does an even better job with his post "World SF, Worth Reading BEFORE developing an opinion"

The part of the text most people have pointed to as being the pinnacle of fail is this passage:

So, for now at least, and in the apparent absence of a significant body of science fiction written by born and bred Africans, this Caucasian American is probably the closest thing there is or has been to an African science fiction writer, with the exception of Octavia Butler. Who did write the same sort of thing, and did it well, and was Black to boot, but I use that politically incorrect word rather than “African American” because aside from her genetic heritage she was no more African than Mike Resnick.




First, I kind of want to cringe at the invocation of Octavia Butler - who was a damn gifted writer and deserves to be thought of as one of the greatest authors in American literature of ANY genre. I get really tired of Ignorant White People in the SF/F field deciding that they can point to her to prove whatever completely ridiculous thing they're looking to prove, usually "ah-ah, I'm not racist. See! See! Octavia Butler book. That means I can't be racist!" I'm tired of Octavia Butler Syndrome in which black, female-identifying SF/F authors get compared to her whether or not their works, lives, or general selves are anything like hers. Butler had her very own distinctive style of storytelling and subject matter. I have not seen it replicated closely by anyone of ANY race.

So yeah. Leave Octavia out of this, people. She was fucking awesome, I love her books dearly and she doesn't deserve to be fodder for your ignorance.

ETA 2: I add this because it's been sticking in my craw quite a lot and what's a blog for if not to vent your views on the internet?

I find it doubly insulting that the white Mr. Spinrad who is a member and beneficiary of white dominance and privilege sees fit to neatly deny Octavia Butler any African heritage because she shares common cultural traits with him (ie, being an American citizen, English speaking) without realizing that perhaps the reason for this is because America, as a nation and culture, has spent the last four hundred years impressing and acculturating whiteness on everything and everyone in sight.

I think it's the height of pantlessness to say "you're not really African at all" to/about a person who's ancestors were enslaved their native languages, heritage, history, and communities violently and physically ripped away from them. It is obscene in it's way to strip the validity of heritage from people because they were FORCED speak the language, worship the gods, eat the food, wear the clothing, and behave in the ways of their masters. Especially when you are a member of that race which has made such collective profit and prosperity from these atrocities.

I say this as a white person. The heritages of other people are not ours to judge. We are not the arbiters of cultural validity. Dominance and privilege may have convinced us that we are, but we aren't. How "African" Octavia Butler or any other person is or isn't is not for you, or anyone else but that person, to fucking speculate on, Mr. Spinrad. Heritage and self-identity belong to those who share them, not to outsiders.

So, yeah. The next time you get the urge to declare who is and isn't "African" or "Asian" or any of the other vague and misguided labels you hand out? Don't. Just don't.

Second, in this same article, Mr. Spinrad admits readily:

Now I must confess that I do not read Mandarin Chinese, any African language, Arabic—indeed any Asian language at all—and I must also confess for we Anglophones, that, with the exception of Japanese, hardly any, maybe no, science fiction written in these languages has been translated into English, or for that matter other European languages, and it would seem that such science fiction may hardly exist at all.


I want to ask what survey he took, what data points he used to come to his conclusions in this article if he does not read anything that is not in English. Or does he expect that to be counted as part of the "signficant body of science fiction" one must either write in English or have one's works translated, as to accomodate "us Anglophones".

I admit that I only speak English (and am trying to remedy this, but alas, it is a slow process because I am not very smart to begin with), but at least I have the sense not to assume that the only books that count are in/translated to English. Nor do I, for a minute, believe that what makes it to American shelves, even here in New York City, is a fair representation of what is being published (much less written and not published) around the world.

American media is very odd about what we do and do not let into our sphere of awareness. Many great books, movies, TV shows, plays, and other forms of literature and entertainment that are popular around the world never make it to our screens and shelves. The flow of culture seems to be one way with us. American works pour out into foreign markets, and precious little (save the odd British or French flick or maybe a book by an author in the U.K.) flows back. This is a problem and is a symptom of much larger ills when it comes to the United States' interaction with the world culturally and economically. That, however, is a whole other post.

Third, since when did Norman Spinrad get elected to be the one who decided what counts as a "significant body of science fiction written by born and bred Africans"? Seriously? He gets to decide that an entire continent is bereft of a "significant body" of SF literature? I reject the very notion that someone who admits he isn't even trying to speak or explore the world of SF (and the many things that could come under the umbrella of speculative fiction as a whole) outside of the English-speaking sphere has any business making such assertions in the first place.

I am extremely uncomfortable with his use of Africa/African and Asia/Asian (minus, of course, Japan) as an absolute, as though it is all the same. As though Nigeria is the same as South Africa is the same as Rwanda is the same as Zimbabwe is the same as, I don't know, Cote D'Ivoire and Sudan and Malawi. And since when did China and Vietnam and Malaysia and Turkey and Kazakhstan and Taiwan and all the other places that make up the enormous, wide ranging continent of Asia become equivalents and exact duplicates of each other that you can judge them all at a glance.

I'd like to ask Mr. Spinrad if he thinks that France = England = Italy = Germany = Russia = America. I'd like to ask why it is that he seems to believe that the many diverse peoples, races, nations, tribes, groups, and organizations of people on the continents of Africa and Asia and South America are so completely fungible as though they are merely the parts in a machine rather than HUMAN BEINGS.

For that matter, I'd like to ask what his definition of "significant" is. Is a country required to produce as much or more SF literature and in the same fashion as the U.S. in order to have a "signficant" amount? Is it required to be in a format that he recognizes? Does it only count if their speculative literature comes in the form of commercial book sales and magazine subscriptions?

And where is he drawing the line between SF and non-SF? Must it be in a form that meets the Western/American ideas about what science fiction constitutes, a form that includes spaceships and space colonies and ray guns - or even elves and magic swords and vampires and werewolves.

Every single word in the phrase "a significant body of science fiction" is not only subjective, but highly subject to being skewed by the privilege of the person making that assessment.

Fourth, I'm absolutely disgusted by and rolling my eyes because all of his examples (good and bad) of how to write the Third World Other are exclusively written by white, English-speaking men. He gives no examples or comparisons of novels written either by those who are natives to various cultures that would fit inside his definition of "third World" or even novels written by non-English speakers. He does not posit how holding up these privileged parties as examples of How To Write About Those Brown People Over There might be problematic, especially given that many times, the advantages and privileges that the "First World" enjoys come directly at the expense of other nations and peoples. He does not seem to envision that such praise may actually be a slap in the face to so many authors from the nations and places he mentions.

I especially think that this is as insulting as anything else in the article:

A blurb from an Indian newspaper review of River of Gods admitted that it was pretty good for a foreigner, which brings up the question of whether or not any Indian science fiction writer has done anything nearly as good with the same cultural material


So, basically, he's not only giving instructions to privileged First World writers on how to get it right by immersing themselves in the cultures of other peoples, but questions whether or not these Third World people even have the ability to write about their own cultures in a way he considers on par with the way First Worlders do it.

He seems to believe that it is enough to research something very thoroughly and immerse yourself in another people's pop culture to create a wonderful work about "Other Third World culture" (his words, not mine). As though it is a simple matter of watching enough soap operas and soda commercials and Bollywood movies and there you go, you can create a completely credible, wonderful work about India that is better than any Indian could hope to write! Never mind that the foreign newspaper only said the book was "pretty good for a foreigner".

Never does he seem (in this article at least) to consider that this could be a tremendous problem or that the phrase "nearly as good" is not only subjective, but highly subject to being skewed by prejudice - by a privileged white person favoring another white person's views of a foreign culture than that culture's insider views.

I have the taste of rank, acrid fail in my mouth. It's very unpleasant, and it's neither original nor new. All of this looks, to my eyes, to be shades of Racefail all over again. The same tritely clueless things are coming up, the same things that were wrong when Elizabeth Bear said them in 2009 and are wrong a year and change later.

It is the same issue of people with privilege carrying on with their beliefs that, basically, things don't exist and are not valid unless they see them and validate them, that the world is centered around them and that what is significant, what is science-fictional, what is even real depends upon their authoritative declarations.

It's the issue of these misjudgments and ignorances having consequences for the people they are laid upon.

It's when a major author like Lois McMaster Bujold declares that fans of color didn't exist until, apparently, the internet age, without realizing that such statements and beliefs are part and parcel of the reason that fans, writers, and creators of color haven't been recognized in this field or have been aversively turned away from it.

It's the same issue that Deepa D. addresses in "I Didn't Dream of Dragons" (link goes to Dreamwidth), which I consider to be a seminal work on the subject of appropriation and race and should be required reading in so many instances.

When a white, American person starts talking about the lack of this or the lack of that where it concerns non-white folks and non-American areas, the problem these days seems to be (by and large) that they aren't looking, don't want to look, and prefer a landscape where their assumptions that only white English-speakers are writing, reading, and participating is true.

Writers of speculative fiction of all kinds are out there in all parts of the world. In Nigeria, in South Korea, in Turkey, in Brazil, in all the many, many places where people tell stories. Maybe they don't come in forms that readily present themselves to Americans as speculative fiction. They exist, and you'll find them if you ever bother to take off the privilege goggles and look.

ETA: Paragraph got cut off. Fixed that.
Tags: links, race
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