Prolific science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died this week, at the age of 91. I read my first Bradbury book in middle school–The Illustrated Man— and it *blew my mind.* It wasn’t my first speculative fiction book by any means. I’d long torn through Middle Earth, traveled Narnia, tesseracted across space and time with Meg and Charles Wallace and tried my hand at inventing with Danny Dunn. (Yeah, let those memories sink in). But the stories in The Illustrated Man were on another level–it was like everything I loved about the old Rod Serling hostedTwilight Zone episodes my mother got me into, but on paper…and with words! From the creepy virtual reality nursery story “The Veldt” to the hauntingly sad “The Exiles” (we made Santa cry!) to every-kid’s-revenge story “Zero Hour,” I knew I’d never look at sci-fi the same way again. Most startling of all was a story by Bradbury called “The Other Foot”–startling to my young PoC eyes, because the main characters were something I’d hardly seen before. They were black.
Recently, the World SF Blog held a roundtable on the issues of non-Western narratives in speculative fiction. Touched upon in the talk, were problems of inclusion, the lacking (or often-ignored) presence of non-Western writers in the genre and the entire post-colonial project when it comes to writing and the non-Western world. It was an insightful discussion that can be read in its two-part entirety starting here. What received the most discussion by the panelists however, was the topic of how Western writers depict non-Western settings, including issues of exoticism and the sometimes futile search for “authenticity.” This left me with my own set of questions. What about the “other” that exists within the non-Western world? What about those people within the larger dominant society, who are marginalized from its center similar to the ways in which a colonized geographical space is distanced from the metropole?
The clamor for diversity in speculative fiction has long been heard–and answered. In fantasy, this has come about partly in the form of writers of African descent creating their own realms of spears and sorcery. Termed “Sword and Soul” by some, this sub-genre of fantasy uses an often fictionalized Africa as a backdrop, creating heroes, stories, lands and adventures outside of the Eurocentric norm. Yet a cursory glance shows that most of these writers (self included) are several generations removed from the Africa of our imaginings. So what happens when the Westernized-other seeks to depict the non-Western world–one which remains both prominent and elusive in his/her imagination?
As with most things, there’s a history . . .