Widening Path into the Future – Cultural diversity in Science Fiction
My collection of sci-fi novels is 260 books strong and is spanning from Adams to Zelazny (I’m missing I, Q, U and X, though. So, if somebody can suggest good reading material from an author last name starting with one of these letters, please let me know.) But when one has a look at the origin of these books, they come from America, England, or some other European country (I’m German, so I also have some German science fiction novels.) It is really rare, to get ones hand on a science fiction novel that is not from an author rooted in western culture.
I haven’t thoroughly gone through my collection but that’s about it, at least nothing else comes to mind. All other books come from the same cultural background more or less and even the Metro novels and Battle Royal don’t feel culturally distinctly different.
“It’s simple: Overspecialize, and you breed in weakness.” – Ghost in the Shell (1995)
I think it is a problem, when we as a world want to create a future together and one culture is dominating the discourse of the future, when only the voice from one culture is heard, when one culture has the monopoly on the way we think about the future.
For me science fiction is not only a nice pastime that is entertaining, but it is a tool to convey scientific concepts to a wider audience. It asks what are the consequences of scientific discovery and imagines new worlds with new social norms and ways of living.
Science fiction novels therefor shape the way we think about technology and the future.
(That’s why I always hate it when science fiction is lumped together with Fantasy. It makes me furies. Science fiction has the potential to become real – not all of it, of cause – I’m looking at you space operas – but some of it, the good ones. Fantasy, however, will never ever be more than just that, fantasy. Even the best of the fantasy novels do not inform society or have an impact on science, legislature and the way of live. It is not that I don’t enjoy a good fantasy novel. I like Harry Potter and Lord of the Ring as the next guy, but to say that fantasy and science fiction are the same is like saying evolution is just a theory. Okay, I’m stretching this one and saying that about evolution is way worse than putting science fiction and fantasy in the same category but I hope I made my point.)
If only one culture is dominating the way we think about the future, other cultures and there way of understanding and seeing the future is suppressed.
This will limit the paths into the future for all of us. The more people contribute to the way we think about the future, the more diverse the background of science fiction authors and their viewpoints are, the wider are the paths into the future.
Good science fiction can therefore also be a voice, a vehicle to transport the way a culture thinks about the future into other cultures and spawn a discussion between the different worldviews and help therefore reduce conflict between these cultures and help to consolidate these visions of the future.
Therefore I was very happy that I found two new books in my local bookstore one from China and the other from an author with Nigerian roots now living in America, “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu and “Lagoon” by Nnedi Okorafor.
What makes these two books culturally distinct from western culture?
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
The Three-Body Problem starts with the Cultural Revolution in China. A part of Chinese history we westerners usually know very little about. It is interesting to read about such a cultural phenomenon and to think how it is portrayed in pop culture in China right now. Especially as a science fiction novel it is interesting how within the Cultural Revolution that was against elitism and anti-science a big science project was established. How the fear to be perceived as an elitist stifled scientific progress. Everybody tried to play down his or her abilities; knowledge was seen as something bad that had to be avoided at all cost. Responsibilities were divided into meaninglessly small parts that hindered cooperation. It shows how culture influences scientific progress and impacts life in general.
The book however does not have a cultural distinct outlook into the future, because the future is not really part of the book. It is more about an alternate reality. It is also the first book of a three book series, which may mean that peak into the future is jet to come. I’m looking forward to the other two books. One should also mention that The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo-Award and the Galaxy-Award, which means that it is a book that will find a wide audience.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Lagoon is set in Nigeria. It is a first encounter with a new alien race. Somehow the country is ill equipped to deal with the aliens because everybody is hung up on their personal problems, believes, perceptions and superstitions. The country falls into chaos even more so than usual. For me it was the first contact with literature from the African continent. This mixture of the daily struggle of survival, oppression from authority figures (military, clerical, political etc.) was fascinating. Also this mixture of science fiction on one hand and the introduction of magic on the other and combining them with in one story was never this vibrant.
In “The Humanoids” by Jack Williamson there is something similar where magic and science collide, however in Lagoon it feels cut from the same flesh. Magic and alien science is like one and the same. This cultural viewpoint is something totally foreign to western science fiction. Here the focus is usually on pure science. Everything has a scientific explanation. In Lagoon, however, science is there to verify the alien life forms but doesn’t possess the power to do anything against them. Magic however is portrayed as an equally strong force as the alien technology and their influence.
This brings the quote from Arthur C. Clarke to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Here however it is really indistinguishable.
I would like to extend an invitation to publishers of science fiction novels to seek out cultural diverse books by authors from around the world to make the future a better place because our future depends on it.
See you out there.