Universal Language? Authors from the Apex Book of World SF Discuss the Global Reach of Speculative Fiction

By Nicholas Seeley

There is a particular problem that often accompanies the reading of "foreign" literature. It is (to risk stating the obvious) the question of "foreign-ness" itself. Most SF fans must surely remember the day when, after a diet of Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov, they first picked up something by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and thought: "I've never seen anything like this before." Ardent fantasy fans may have had similar feelings about their first encounter with Jorge Luis Borges or Mikhail Bulgakov, mystery readers about Natsuo Kirino, and so on.

In high school we are taught "French literature" and "Russian literature" as if they are monoliths, each featuring distinct national characteristics. In college we are then gently corrected, and informed that "national identity" is a construct lacking an underlying reality—like fairies, or the market economy: it only exists if you believe in it.

Clearly, neither of these can be entirely true. We intuitively recognize something different about authors who are outside the standard run of our local print-mill. We know Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch novels feel different than the urban fantasy that's currently coming out of America, or that Natsuo Kirino's thrillers are miles away (literally) from Elmore Leonard.

On the other hand, can we really define people's worldviews with a criterion as broad as nationality? Worse, in an increasingly globalized world, can we really expect "world" fiction to produce something truly alien, not subject to many of the same influences as our local stuff? There is probably some considerable value in questioning whether the feeling that Lem or Lukyanenko sees the world in a fundamentally different light is tainted by an elaborate prejudice, a psychological shell game in which we see "difference" because we are predisposed to believe it exists.

Some authors of speculative fiction see their work as explicitly national, reflecting fears, concerns and dreams that are specific to their society. Others see literature of the imagination as something that is universal, that transcends national and cultural boundaries by creating entirely new worlds that reflect our shared dreams and nightmares. Both have a point.

In the new Apex Book of World SF, which hit bookshelves on November 1, editor Lavie Tidhar brings together 16 stories by established writers from France and the Netherlands; Croatia and Serbia; Israel and Palestine; India, China, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia. Topping out at 287 pages, it's a far cry from the table-crushing behemoths that often grace the genre anthology market, but it's still big enough to demonstrate many of the different ways that speculative fiction can be influenced by different cultures—as well as the ways it can transcend them.

The stories in this book not only show the diversity of modern speculative fiction, but can be seen as a commentary on that diversity itself. Taken as a group, they're not just "global," but globalized; not just foreign, but actually about foreign-ness. (Or at least, if you're at loose ends on a rainy afternoon, you can read them that way.)

In the book, we see a Martian scientist vacationing in a futuristic but still-ancient Tibet, a VR gamer tripping through a multitude of created worlds, a New York detective exiled in a Chinese territory, a refugee from a foreign war in a foreign land, an old man lost in the future, and a traveler aboard a train with no stated destination. In one story, a man returns to his childhood home in a country from which he was displaced; in another a woman discovers that the entire world she knew was a laboratory; in a third, a young girl leaves home for a shopping trip that ends up spanning the globe and lasting a lifetime.

The stories cross genre—some are fantasy, some SF, a few are horror, and one seems more a crime thriller than anything else. One element that one could argue unites almost all the tales in this anthology, and indeed, gives it its own particular flavor, is the explicit connection that's drawn between speculative fiction and displacement. These are stories from many cultures and countries, but they are, in the vast majority, stories about people without countries, or between cultures.

So is it really important where they were written? Well, yes—both because of the discourse each tale offers on culture, and because each tale is, in a way, a different answer to the question of why we value "world fiction" to begin with.

Between Cultures

Aliette de Bodard, now 26, grew up in France, with a French father and a Vietnamese mother, but her interest in speculative fiction has always been rooted in English. When she was 16, her family traveled to England, where she discovered many of the classics of Western SF: Asimov, Heinlein and, in particular, Orson Scott Card. So English, for her, became the language of fantasy. After reading Card's book on how to write fantasy and science fiction, she decided to try her hand at working as a writer.

Speculative fiction drew her to the craft, and held her interest because of the vast quantity of subject matter it embraced.

"It's the genre I most enjoy reading, and it's a genre of tremendous variety," she says, in a phone interview from her home in France. "If you want mystery fiction in a science fiction setting, you can find it. If you want weird, rococo fantasy, you can find it; if you want grand, sweeping space opera, you can find that as well. . . . So I never really get bored."

"The Lost Xuyan Bride," her story in the Apex collection, is a noir thriller set in an alternate modern-day North America that is divided into three parts: the west controlled by the Chinese, the east by European Americans, and the center by descendants of the Aztec empire. De Bodard's hero is a former New York detective who has fallen through the cracks between these societies. When readers meet him, he's scraping by in exile in the Chinese part of the continent, Xuya.

De Bodard's fiction is overwhelmingly concerned with exploring other cultures' narratives (for example, her short story Golden Lilies), particularly Chinese and Mesoamerican ones. Her work tends to have a strong mythic element, but "The Lost Xuyan Bride" is quite modern in tone, an explicit parable about displacement and otherness. That, de Bodard says, is really the theme uniting her cultural explorations.

"I think what I'm trying to do with those stories is basically get across what it's like to be part of a culture that you didn't grow up with, that you don't find yourself particularly attracted to—what it's like to be stuck between worlds," she says.

It's a narrative rooted at least a little bit in her own experience. She had what she calls "a classical French Catholic education" but one that was overseen by her non-Catholic, Vietnamese mother, which, she says, "tended to distort things a little."

"She tried to do the Catholic education, but a lot of it came from her," de Bodard explains. "There's a lot of stuff that I find in my brain that doesn't really belong to the Catholic or the French mindset. And it's the sort of stuff that you don't realize until it's actually staring you in the eye. . . . [My mother] was always talking about how things have to be balanced, and you have to find a middle ground, which is a very Confucian attitude. In China it's the rule of the Golden Mean. . . . That sort of thing."

Later in life, she says, moving between countries and languages was another profoundly disorienting experience—so it's perhaps not surprising that she sees an explicit cultural component in how fiction is created and read.

Jamil Nasir is another writer whose experience of displacement is personal. He was born in the United States, but in 1964 his Palestinian father decided to move the family back to Jerusalem. There, they were caught on the sharp end of the 1967 war between Israel and the Arab states, and were forced to move to Amman, Jordan. Three years later, during "Black September," the Jordanian civil war of 1970, Nasir and his brothers were sent back to Michigan.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (Russian Edition)

A Russian edition of Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Since then, he has lived in both Jordan and the United States, and he writes novels and short stories set in America and the Middle East (and, frequently, alternate universes). Nasir says his favorite writer is Philip K. Dick, though he cites diverse influences including the fiction of Stanislaw Lem, the mysticism of Carlos Castaneda, the detective stories of Dashiell Hammett, and an abiding interest in modern psychiatry, biology, and physics.

While Nasir's novels tend towards the metaphysical, drawing on myth, meditation, and Shamanism, his story in the Apex collection is straight-up horror. In "The Allah Stairs," the main character bears more than a passing resemblance to Nasir himself: a Palestinian who returns to Jerusalem looking for traces of his childhood. Given what he finds there, one hopes that's where the resemblance to reality ends.

Nasir has said before that he sees a clear connection between writing SF or speculative fiction and being bicultural.

"A lot of what science fiction does is overthrow assumptions that we have about the world, and it's much easier to do that if you've already had that experience. Being a participant in two societies, two cultures, which are so different, allows you to see that there are some things people think are cast in stone that are actually arbitrary."

In other words: our worldviews are more culturally constructed than we think; and it takes stepping out of them for a time to see that. For writers like Nasir and de Bodard, inhabiting a space between cultures has allowed them to see how different in outlook those cultures really are.

A Science Fictional World

Not all the authors in the Apex anthology have had the particularly multicultural experience that de Bodard or Nasir have had, of course. But in a world where Western cultural products are increasingly globalized, truly monocultural experiences are getting increasingly difficult to find. The influence of Western literature on world speculative fiction is another interesting thread to trace through the Apex collection.

Han Song grew up in Chongqing, China—a place he says is a science fiction story in itself.

Three Gorges Dam

Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2008, is the largest dam in the world. Image source: Xinhua News Agency

"In my home town there is the largest science fiction magazine in China, with the best single-issue circulation reaching 400,000 copies a month," he explains, in an e-mail. Moreover, Chongqing is home to the Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam in the world, which Han describes as both a technological marvel and a humanitarian disaster (a common enough SF trope).

"In addition, the province is also the home to the largest launch center of Chinese-made rockets and spacecrafts," Han adds. "So to me it's a place full of imagination."

Today Han, 44, works as a journalist for the Xinhua News Agency, and is well known in China for both his short fiction and his novels. He's a four-time winner of the Galaxy Award for short fiction, and he also keeps a popular blog. But among his literary influences he cites Western writers of fiction and science fiction including Raymond Carver and George Orwell. All the classic American SF writers are available in Chinese translation, he adds—from Isaac Asimov to Neal Stephenson. But Han's story in the Apex anthology, "The Wheel of Samsara," is particularly reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke.

More than any other American author, it was Clarke who defined the border between science fiction and fantasy—by suggesting that at a certain point they became indistinguishable. Many of his stories played out in that gray space that surrounds Clarke's Third Law, where mysticism and technology can no longer clearly be separated.

"The Wheel of Samsara" concerns a scientist from Mars (presumably human) who travels to Earth out of an obsessive desire to uncover the secret of an ancient prayer wheel in a Tibetan monastery, which appears to have magical powers. The setup screams ghost story, but investigation suggests that rather than a spirit, what the wheel contains may be an entire parallel universe—perhaps one very much like our own. The story pulls its mystical and technological elements together in what seems a very Clarke-ian ending.

What's important to remember here is that "The Wheel" is a story that was written in Chinese, for a flourishing Chinese market in speculative fiction.

In 2007, Han described science fiction to Lavie Tidhar as something that "was imported from the West early in this century by some Chinese elites who believed that the genre could help people become 'intelligent' and enable the country [to] get modernized." Tidhar used Han's comments in the development of his own theory, that the rise of speculative fiction parallels the rise of industrialization (which, interestingly, also parallels the second great wave of globalization: steam power).

So as the world we live in becomes more like science fiction, science fiction becomes more popular. What's interesting is that if this theory holds, one expects we should soon be on the verge of a new SF renaissance, as rapid industrialization and globalizing communication technologies break through the walls of the world's remaining traditional societies.

But people in those societies will be faced with the same dilemma as Han Song: is the fiction they're writing their own, or is it Western?

Han clearly acknowledges the influence of the West—he calls SF an imported genre, after all—but despite that, he says that today's Chinese speculative fiction is loaded with unique national characteristics, and a perspective that makes it very different from much of what is being written in the West.

"It reflects a national identity or national preoccupations by centering on a country's unreal or parallel history," he writes.

And that is also a clue as to how a story like "The Wheel" expresses the state of being caught between cultures. Though much of its symbolism may be impenetrable to the average Western reader, Han says that in part the story concerns the cultural, economic, and political collision of Beijing and Shanghai, one of China's great internal divisions. (Though, knowing that, perhaps some Americans could read onto in it an echo of their own major politico-cultural division, red states vs. blue states. "Republicans are from Mars, Democrats are from Earth"?)

Yang Ping's story "Wizard World" likewise focuses on particularly Chinese concerns. Internet addiction is something only now being given legitimacy in the West, but it has been a bogeyman in China for rather longer. It's been heavily discussed in Chinese media and blogs, and there are clinics dedicated to helping people recover from it. NPR reported recently that the Chinese Health Ministry actually recognized internet addiction as a diagnosis last November.

"Wizard World" takes the popular fear that World of Warcraft might be taking over our lives and runs it into a fun, stylish adventure story. Yet here, too, as in "The Wheel of Samsara," there are echoes of classic American SF—in this case early cyberpunk. Has Yang read "True Names" and "Crystal Express" and localized them, or is his story an example of parallel evolution? Hard to say. But the pervasive influence that Western styles have had upon world fiction is hard to ignore.

We can ask similar questions of many of the anthology's other stories. Filipino writer Kristin Mandigma takes a monster out of local folklore and transforms it in her "Letter from a Social-Realist Aswang." The idea of modernizing a fairy-tale monster is perhaps a too-common one for American writers (who isn't getting sick of all the hip young vampires?) but Mandigma's monster—and her modernism—are rather different from what Twilight fans will be used to.

Tunku Halim's "Biggest Baddest Bomoh" is a classic "be careful what you wish for" tale, with a Malay flavor. This is particularly interesting, since the archetypal such tale in the Western canon, "The Monkey's Paw," has its roots in much older folk stories. So is Halim's story a variation on a theme or a return to the story's roots?

Perhaps that speculative fiction renaissance is already beginning, as a Western genre finds its feet globally. Is SF catching on in developing nations where it was previously unknown? It's hard to support such a thesis with any certainty—there are too many variables. Looking at China, one might be inclined to say yes; looking at the Middle East would lead one to think no. On the other hand, a quick look at Tidhar's World SF blog shows that, at the very least, there's a lot more out there than many of us thought.

Strange Attitudes

Sometimes a sense of foreign-ness can be created by something as simple as a beautifully rendered setting, like the Fijian slum in Kaaron Warren's story "Ghost Jail," which the author says is based on a real place.

The Rewa Flats were a development-turned-slum, located on a popular road on one of Fiji's largest islands. "The[y] were condemned 10 or so years ago, and nothing had been done to them since," Warren writes, in an e-mail. "They stood rotting, leaning, collapsing. Each room was the size of a hotel bathroom and often slept a family. The grass was overgrown and filled with discarded tires. The mood whenever I drove past seemed happy, though. Kids devised games to play with the tires, men drank kava, women did the washing and cooked over outside fires."

The flats were pulled down in 2008, and Warren says she doesn't know what happened to the people there—but her story imagines one disturbing and unearthly possibility.

Three Gorges Dam

Bangkok in the 1950s. Photo by Dimitri Kessel of Life magazine

Then there's S. P. Somtow's seriously creepy crime thriller, "The Bird Catcher," with its lush, humid, frantic description of 1950s Thailand, still overwhelmed by refugees from the Pacific war.

One of the many themes that emerges in the Apex collection is the richness that comes simply from reading stories set in less-traveled locations than the typical Western cities (and castles and space stations).

But when it comes to questions about cultural attitudes, and whether a story can represent a collectively different national outlook, the discussion becomes more challenging. It's easy to start imposing "cultural attitudes" on anything that feels "foreign."

Israeli writer Guy Hasson contributes a story to the anthology that exemplifies some of these challenges. Other than its title, "The Levantine Experiments" has no "local color" whatsoever in its setting. It takes place in an indistinct, possibly futuristic, vaguely Western kind of nowhere. The nature of the story means that there are almost no locations to describe, and the nature and development of the society remains opaque.

Still, it's hard not to wonder if the story's gruesome plot reflects particularly national concerns. It's a nightmare of illicit medical experimentation and its consequences; its major themes include violently contrasting perceptions of sanctuary and insecurity, and a particular return to the question of walls and borders—visible and invisible, physical and psychological. Put these themes together, and it's hard to imagine this tale coming from anyone other than an Israeli writer.

Hasson, however, doesn't necessarily buy this interpretation.

"Having lived my childhood half in Israel and half in the US, I feel I belong to both places and yet that I belong to neither," he writes, in an e-mail. "I think that's reflected in all my stories. . . . This particular story, in my opinion, doesn't go back to the Holocaust or to the political situation here. It isn't even about the horrible medical experiment. It's about the process the character goes through, the way an idea leads to an idea, newness leads to variations of newness, and to the nature of freedom in our minds."

But while it may not have been his intention to reflect national preoccupations, it's not unthinkable that those preoccupations could have influenced the factors he used to put his main character through her emotional journey. (There's another story from Israel in the collection—it's also ostensibly about identity and self-discovery, but the central plot element of the narrative is a series of acts of truly senseless terrorism. Hmm.)

Aleksandar Žiljak's story, "An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, with Lydia on My Mind," is similarly fraught. A gently noir-ish tale of Zagreb in the not-so-far future (with a few echoes of Naked Lunch), it appears to reflect a preoccupation with globalization, with trade and the massive transformation of cultures, and with the shadowy, mafia-like networks of organized crime that spring up to exploit those new trade flows. Does this make it a story rooted in the realities of post-Yugoslav Croatia, where Žiljak has lived his whole life, and where hope and economic growth form a delicate balance with crime and corruption? Or is it just fantasy with a local setting?

Žiljak isn't sure. He talks about the degradation of Croatian society in the 1990s, and the rise of corruption and criminal organizations there. But that's not really the stuff his story is based on, he says. And while the story is influenced by Western cyberpunk—a style Žiljak believes is dying in fiction because it's coming too close to reality—technological globalization is just a part of the the backdrop.

"I infused [my world of the future] with a large dosage of welfare-state and optimism, at least on one level," he writes. "That might be my resistance to what was (and still is) going on in Croatia's economy and society, but it's also the way I feel that human society will eventually end up looking, if it wants to avoid total disaster: entrepreneurship moderated by a welfare-state and social responsibility. . . . It's a bright new world of nanotechnological globalization, rainforests are being reconstructed, cultures are mixing . . . and you have major information network nodes in places like Ndjamena or Kabul or Ulaanbaatar. It is, for all practical purposes, a communism, a world where as Marx would say, everybody contributes according to his/her abilities and everybody receives according to his/her needs. . . . But there's a catch, of course, visible in consumer society even today: boredom, and lack of meaning and interest in anything but quick satisfaction."

For Žiljak, "Lydia" has two major themes, both of which are universal—or, as he puts it, "universal subjects through local glasses." It's a story about consumerist alienation and the erosion of privacy—hence the success of the rather sleazy anti-hero, whose precise profession is best left to readers to discover.

Perhaps in the case of "Lydia," at least, the story's foreign-ness is really in the eye of the beholder.

These are questions that could apply to many of the pieces in the collection. Is the Beijing-Shanghai divide really a transformational element in Han Song's "The Wheel of Samsara?" Could the dark utopia that Anil Menon creates in "Into the Night" represent the great conflict in India over the benefits and costs of the technological revolution? Does "The Bird Catcher" say something about Thailand's ceaseless historical struggle against colonization?

The question of how much an author's "local glasses" really shape his or her work is not one that lends itself to easy resolution.

New Myths

"Local" may be hard to define, but one way in which local culture can almost certainly influence speculative fiction is through the genre's connection to local traditions of folktale and mythology. Australian writer Kaaron Warren describes speculative fiction as "a way of explaining the world, just as mythology is. Mythology is speculative, imaginative. It says 'what if?' and 'why?'"

Hasson agrees with this assessment and furthers it, making speculative fiction into a universal category under which local storytelling traditions are subsumed. "Is SF only a Western thing? Seeing as all human societies tell stories, and seeing as all human societies have religions (which begin with tales that try to explain the universe, tales about things no one has seen and that are fantastic) it's only natural to assume that all societies tell SF stories and fantasy stories of one kind of another, even if they don't call it that."

Žiljak, de Bodard and Nasir have all described the influence of local myth-sets on their work, and even Anil Menon, who doesn't generally subscribe to the idea that native culture has much effect on one's fiction writing, says there is something exceptional about the role of religious stories in Indian Hindu culture. They actually lend themselves to a very different worldview than Western/Christian ones, he writes.

"I should point out that for many Hindus these 'stories' continue to have the same truthiness as Bible stories have for literal-minded Christians. True or not, in these stories there's the constant reinforcement of the idea that words can create worlds. The South Asian worldview was/is distinctly postmodern—taxonomic, relativistic, language-centric, context-sensitive—and the old stories reflect and reinforce that worldview. This might explain why so many Indian writers find mythic realism so appealing; it's . . . familiar."

It's a fascinating idea, that not only suggests that religious storytelling can create a substantive difference in how people see the world, but implies that those worldviews then change how we interact with modernity. Perhaps the postmodern reflexivity of modern Western speculative fiction is as much shaped by the West's encounters with other cultures as it is shaping them. (And here we are, back at globalization again. Hang on to your conceptual frameworks, folks, they won't be around for long.)

But some writers resist the idea that local culture plays any role in their fiction at all. Zoran Živković is one author who takes a quite different view of the relation of myth to fiction.

2010 by Arthur C. Clarke (German Edition)

A German edition of 2010 by Arthur C. Clarke

Živković is 61 years old, and has spent almost his entire life in his home town of Belgrade, Serbia, but he's known around the world as writer of fantastic fiction, a scholar of Arthur C. Clarke, and a publisher of science fiction. In the 1980s he started Polaris Press, which was for years a major publisher of both Serbian science fiction and translations of foreign stories. He's also written a massive encyclopedia of science fiction. But as much as he admires Clarke and the bright lights of early Western SF, Živković wants fiction to play by different rules.

He goes so far as to reduce narrative genres to two: realist and "fantastika," a term he uses to cover all works of imagination which are non-realistic or non-mimetic, from The Epic of Gilgamesh on up. He is profoundly uninterested in modern genre categories like fantasy and SF, which he says are by and large an invention of the publishing industry.

For Živković, literature is something universal, rooted in the human experience and the inevitable struggle of eros and thanatos, love and death. As such, he says, fantastic fiction should remain untethered to genre, or to limiting local considerations like nationality.

In his story, "Compartments," the final entry in the Apex anthology, a traveler boards a train which becomes the setting for a series of strange encounters. It's not clear where the train is headed, or what the traveler plans to do there. Each compartment is a world unto itself, and the passengers in each have had their curiously ordered lives disrupted by the passing of a mysterious woman. It's a dreamy, surreal story, reminiscent of Italo Calvino, or a less paranoid Kafka.

Živković writes that his work is meant to be totally universal: "The global position of my country or its recent history has absolutely nothing to do with my work. I would have written the same books even if I had lived in Switzerland or among Eskimos." But all the same, "Compartments" is one of those stories that may lead many first-time readers to say: "I've never seen anything like this before." It may not be local in respect to content or setting, but it certainly feels foreign to the Anglo SF tradition.

For almost all the authors interviewed, the issue of what is universal versus what is local in fiction remains fraught. Particularly when it comes to literature of the imagination, every writer aspires to the idea that his or her work will tap into universal human values, or shared dreams—that imagination can bring people together in spite of their "local glasses."

"Humans have always been imaginative, but it's only recently that masses of people everywhere have been allowed to imagine, allowed to desire, allowed, that is, to hope," writes Menon. "For far too many of our fellow human beings, geography remains destiny. Speculative fiction is good at imagining alternate worlds, or alter-spaces, as I like to call them. We're also good at inspiring the young. Some of our alter-spaces may even get built—perhaps on existing archipelagos, perhaps on artificial islands, alternate corporations, alternate organizations—and then we will have a genuine market in places. Speculative fiction is usually referred to as the literature of the imagination. It is also, and perhaps even the same thing as, the literature of freedom."

But that desire for universality remains precariously balanced with the idea that there are truly different world views out there, and that they need to be given a space to find expression in literature.

"Truly relevant SF deals in universal problems that we all have or are likely to have soon. This, I believe, helps it to cross cultural barriers," Žiljak writes. "Of course, we have a process of globalization today, which means that the cultural products of every nation are, in theory at least, available anywhere else. The process is currently going mostly from the West (especially from the US in the mass culture) towards East and South, but also in the opposite direction. Witness the increasing global popularity of manga and anime, or Chinese martial arts fantasy movies, or 'world music.' I feel that The Apex Book of World Speculative Fiction can be interpreted as part of that reverse globalization. If globalization is to truly succeed and become anything more than post-colonial exploitation, then it must go both ways."

More from Nicholas Seeley's interviews with these authors will appear in the 14 December 2009 issue of Strange Horizons.


Nicholas Seeley is the chief editor of JO, an English-language magazine in Amman, Jordan. He moved to the Middle East in 2004, after studying theater and journalism in the United States. In his spare time, he writes science fiction. To contact him, send him email at nsreporter@yahoo.com. Nicholas's writing also appears in the book Encounters with the Middle East: True Stories of People and Culture That Help You Understand the Region.