De-Centring Narrative Monopolies: Western Commercial Pressures in SF and Religion Alike

De-Centring Narrative Monopolies: Western Commercial Pressures in SF and Religion Alike September 19, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. I’ve been veering into literary matters quite a bit late–which happens when you’re juggling different forms of writing in your wee slices of free time–and yet, I’m often reminded, too, that the very idea of a “divide” between different forms of storytelling is all social contrivance. Most recently, I was reminded of this last Saturday, when I attended Medellín’s Fiesta del libro, a sweeping display of book culture that for a week and a half permeated the Botanical Gardens and nearby planetarium grounds at the heart of this vibrant city.

As my last couple posts have plainly highlighted, I’m a published speculative/SF writer thoroughly immersed in the discourses around SF&F in the English-speaking world. But wandering through Medellín’s book fair was a thrill for me on two other accords:

  1. I was learning, as I went, how different the publishing world is in South America (and for Spanish in general)–and thus, how I’m going to have to start from scratch as I prepare to submit stories written originally in my second language; and
  2. I was reminded, with every passing tent–featuring everything from local bookstores to indie presses to university presses to Random House pop-ups and other international sellers–that science-fiction, the genre in which I publish and delight… isn’t a prominent commercial category here.

M L Clark, Sept 2019

Now, this second point doesn’t mean people don’t write or publish SF&F–of course they do–but it’s not branded the same way. (Ditto with YA lit, a major breakout industry in my lifetime, but something that my own neighbourhood library didn’t have a section for when I was wee.) Sure, you’ll get a whole display for popular genre authors: huge displays for George R. R. Martin and Stephen King! Thrillers and angel/miracle stories also often have robust categorization, and there are huge poetry, short-story, and graphic-novel/comic-book showings on the shelves.

But here, SF&F tales are as likely as not going to blend in with all the rest, as stories organized by three considerations above all else: author, region, and publisher “library” (a little like the nyrb or Penguin Book series). Even covers are really not a big deal, with a more understated and uniform formatting style used by most publishers. And this, in turn, changes how books are seen by readers, as well as how such stories inform and springboard from one another. Simply put, a story is a story is a story, this book culture asserts: Whether it’s novella-length or a giant tome, unless there’s an angel or a terror plot afoot, it’ll be slipped in with all the rest from Colombia, Latin America, Spain, the rest of the Hispanoamerican world, or books in translation from English.

Gee, and I wonder what the connection might be, when we think about other storytelling contexts that have long been treated as de facto centres in Western narrative…

De-Centring Religious Narrative in the Literary Marketplace

As a Canadian born into a freethinking Toronto household, I differ a great deal from many of my readers who live in parts of the U.S. just steeped in religious impositions upon the secular state. (And, oh, this shows in the comments here, for sure!) I now live in a culture that’s just as saturated by religiosity–if not more so, judging by how many Virgin Marys line the streets, and how church parades and megaphonic street-preaching are a matter of course for major Catholic holidays–but it all washes off me because I wasn’t born into it. I don’t have the dread resentment from having to cast it off and risk familial expulsion. Here I instead get to walk among it as a rather fascinated amateur cultural anthropologist, by and large.

More critically, though, being at a distance from the community of literature that did consume my life–the stacks of sci-fi magazines and red- or gold-edged space-operatic paperbacks, the mounds of Star Trek novelizations and annual best-of collections, the classics and the contemporary giants alike–has given me a clearer sense of what happens when one category of story is artificially isolated from all the rest.

There’s often quite a bit of chatter, for instance, about other cultural communities “finally” breaking into Western SF&F, as if it’s the be-all and end-all of where other cultures’ speculative stories should be. As if Nigerian or Chinese SF can only be considered a phenom once they’ve checked off all relevant recognition markers within British and North American SF communities. (A tension especially seen in Chinese SF, which still quite frequently measures itself, with ample in-text referencing, against SF from the likes of Asimov or Clarke, and not as frequently with North American contemporary writers. There is a specific spectre of 1940s-60s Western SF that seems to hang over commercial SF&F in many other markets.)

[EDIT: Work like Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” and Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide also exists–don’t get me wrong on that accord! But as Liu Cixin’s own words attest to, upon winning a major SF award, it’s older Western SF that first reached and gripped the hearts of this current, expanding surge of SF writers in China.]
Other worlds? This is an “Amazonian” re-enactment inside the history-of-exploration exhibit at the Medellín book fair. Just like the real Amazon, it’s replete with neon lights and gently textured multicoloured ropes.

Similarly, Western standards for “good storytelling” can destructively sideline the richness of other cultural routines for written and oral narrative. Two recent examples (more from the fantasy side of things, but probably better known than my SF equivalents) are Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf being widely pitched as an African Game of Thrones, which it most certainly is not; and Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, which would have frustrated far fewer readers if it hadn’t been advertised more as Liu’s singular invention of “silkpunk” than as what it is: namely, a series retelling the story of the Qin dynasty’s fall, the Han dynasty’s rise, and ensuing conflicts, with some fantastical rejiggering of the characters and tech involved. Still impressive! But considering its source material, of course there are going to be differences in narrative approach–many of which have proven difficult for North American readers used to fantasy being presented in a certain way.

And this has to be incredibly frustrating for the writers themselves, because if they’re living and working within these monopolizing contexts–if this is the thriving commercial sector for SF&F–are they supposed to choose between sustained marketplace success and the ability to convey the stories truest to their experiences and contexts? Obviously not.

But here’s where Western SF and the Western religious sphere fascinatingly align: both marketplaces still suggest that any reform must come from within, from the assimilation of outsiders rather than a de-centring of market saturation entirely.

Consequently, just as we atheists are often trapped “playing the game” by parameters established in the religious sphere–just as we are often consigned to reactive roles, that is: relentlessly churning out counterpoints to the spiritual stories advanced by dominant faiths in the English-speaking world–so too are many aspiring writers given to believe that Western SF is the only measure of speculative storytelling excellence worth a damn. There is therefore a great deal of pressure to “show up” and “represent” within commercial categories that predominantly centred white SF narratives for a very long time–and not much in the way of questions about whether Western SF publishing should or even can speak to everyone’s way of telling stories.

What Would the Alternative Look Like?

What religion has been very good at for a long time, as I mentioned in a recent essay on innovation, is maintaining commercial relevance through niche marketing based on the exploitation of new technology. It strives to dominate new media sectors the moment each emerges.

The history of SF is quite similar. I’ve got an upcoming review essay on this topic, for another publication, but suffice it to say that Hugo Gernsback, the “father” of magazine SF back in the 1920s, created a commercial category for the genre. That doesn’t mean, however, that he created speculative/SF stories: those existed, and were widely distributed among other forms of storytelling in British and U.S. literary markets, for many decades prior. And before mainstream mass production entirely? Dystopic, utopic, and cosmic flight stories can be found all through the annals of recorded literary history, right back to Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century A.D.–or perhaps even farther, if you’re willing to grant the Psalmist of early Jewish texts some fantastical purchase when he speculated on the distant “worlds” he saw when he looked up at the night sky.

Likewise, Western religiosity has suffused so much of the literary landscape for so long that it’s easy to forget how artificial a phenomenon it’s always been–and also that there can be a world in which it no longer has centrality in the marketplace.

Even better, that this other storytelling world is closer than it might sometimes appear.

M L Clark, Sept 2019
A whole slew of other writers whose names and works I never knew. A whole canon outside the ones that, in Western lit, I’d for years taken for granted as sufficiently comprehensive.

A friend of mine recently baffled me by telling me he’d never encountered “atheist” fiction before the self-published work of a friend: a piece involving–from the sounds of it–direct negotiations with specific religious ideas and figures. I mentioned a half-dozen books and series that surely he’d heard of, if not read–Carl Sagan’s Contact, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, the pointedly anti-creationist banter in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series, the treatment of organized religion in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials–but it struck me, after the conversation had passed, that a major reason none of these had initially registered as “atheist” was that none of them centres religion in its discourse. Not even the Pullman! There are, for each of these texts, whole worlds more exciting and worth exploration outside the parameters of direct and relentless conversation with religious communities.

And that’s where I’d love to see both communities land in time: a world where religious stories are not venerated at such taxing cost to non-religious creators, and where different cultures’ approaches to speculative and fantasy lit are not relentlessly measured against the spectre of Western SF’s highly commercialized past.

This might seem easier said than done, of course, considering how much “playing the game” is tied into aspirations of financial stability. But the game is changing. Even if much Chinese SF still references much older modes of Western SF, and even if atheist communities still find themselves reacting to tedious old evangelical arguments from time to time… the centre is shifting in both these spheres of storytelling influence.

So if we can bear to step just a touch outside what can sometimes seem like an all-consuming religious/atheistic debate in Western discourse, we might just find that other narrative models and storytelling truths have all the while existed alongside the supposed monopoly of our own. We can wrestle with the demons of Western Christianity as long as we like… or refuse to let them centre our experiences even in the most saturated of cultural marketplaces. To walk away, that is, from playing the game their way, and learn instead what richer metropolises of human thought lie beyond the narrative desert they need to believe would exist without them there.

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  • Jim Jones

    It’s a pity, but a lot of SF books wind up being given away.

    I guess there are too many ideas for such works, not enough buyers.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    There’s a great deal of discussion about the future of the industry, but I’ve read books set in the mid-19th-century lamenting that newspapers were dying, book culture was on the decline, reading was becoming a lost art etc. etc. So I tend to be suspicious of grim forecasting such as that. Also, I just came from Ad Astra (highly recommended, even if anti-theists might be surprised by the overt religious references in the first half: stick with it; it pays off)–so I know that the storytelling forms change more than disappear. Where there are humans, there will always be humans who look wonderingly up into the night sky… and the rest follows from there. 🙂 Have a great weekend, Jim Jones!

  • guerillasurgeon

    Most of the science-fiction I read until recently assumed religion, even if it didn’t necessarily approve of it. There’s Frank Herbert’s Orange Catholic Bible, the Riverworld Series assumes some sort of afterlife, and there is the one that an English teacher friend of mine reckoned was the best science-fiction book ever written – the name escapes me at the moment but then I’m old – about an apocalypse, the gradual re-emergence of civilisation due to the Catholic Church, and another apocalypse. I never thought much of it to be honest, possibly another reason why I can’t remember what it was called.
    But you’ve got a whole tradition of Catholic science-fiction I discovered years ago which is sort of weird. And that’s aside from CS Lewis. But they often considered the relationship between aliens and their religion. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across specifically atheist science-fiction except perhaps for Pullman but I haven’t read any of his, just gave them to my son years ago.
    This is mildly interesting.

  • Major Major

    The thing is, the West, such as it is, has borrowed many aspects/archetypes of different cultures and sort of subsumed them into their own storytelling. Many of the stories in the Hebrew Bible were based on earlier Mesopotamian mythology, which removed the pantheon of gods and replaced it with Yahweh/Elohim. It also reminds me a bit of the movie Arrival, and how we try to understand those who don’t think in anyway like us, and we have to decide how to respond.

    Another thing to consider is how many scientific advances were “discovered” or “necessary” for us in “the West” by those outside of that world. I mean, take China for example. They had all of the things like bureaucracy, gunpowder, printing presses, sailing capabilities. Why wasn’t it that the world became Chinese centric vs. Euro-centric. What would have happened if there was nothing of value in the “New World” so that there was no large jump start for capitalism to be had?

    I think that as time marches on though, there will be further blending of genres, and it will be harder to say that this is or is not science fiction/fantasy. I mean, do the hard borders still exist, or is it less distinct than it was 50 or 60 years ago.