Escaping The West: A New Age of Speculative Fiction

Does ‘fantasy’ as a genre immediately remind you of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire? Does it conjure up swords and soldiers on horseback, sorcerers with wands and staffs, names with long and complicated titles that make no sense? Rolling hills, castles and forests, a decidedly medieval European atmosphere?

Yeah, winter is coming, it’s just not in Europe.

Image of a still from Orange is the New Black depicting Tasha and Cindy sitting in a prison canteen with caption "winter is coming, bitches"

While modern science fiction and fantasy literature, and anything related to speculative fiction (SFF for short) tend to be traced back to European influence – whether that’s Tolkien’s medieval European imagination, or H. G. Wells’ projection of a futuristic Victorian England – there has been a movement building over the last few decades. An increasing wave of science fiction and fantasy literature inspired by locations, cultures, histories, and peoples outside of Europe and the USA.

This is by no means a new movement, but it has gained substantial traction in the last few years as demand became more vocal, as agents and publishing houses start to respond to it. It is easier to be heard when mass numbers shout through online channels like Twitter and Goodreads. It has even spilled over into other mediums, as seen with Black Panther smashing the box office and Coco sweeping the Oscars.

Traditional SFF has the tired impression of being crammed with white, straight, male authors. There is nothing wrong with this fact, but it does make for repetitive storytelling when 90% of the sources these authors use for inspiration are the same. Who hasn’t been influenced by C. S. Lewis, T. H. White, and H. P. Lovecraft? (For that matter, why do all these authors initialize their first and second names?)

World literature, as translated into English, used to be mainly in the genre of historical fiction, recounting major events such as the Holocaust and colonial-era journeys. Now, magic and technology are coming into play.

SFF that is written in English but based on and/or written by authors not from a white male background, quickly gained the description and hashtag #ownvoices. It is incredibly different from traditional SFF, mainly in that it resists the clichéd, overused tropes of Western SFF. In fact, it often seeks to challenge the very basis of Western SFF.

From Emile Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed The Pessoptimist (oppressive Israeli state policy meets Slaughterhouse Five science fiction) to Alyssa Wong’s The Fisher Queen (fishermen who hunt mermaids in the Mekong River), SFF written by and for marginalized people has a distinctly fresh and daring approach.

Notable recent works include:

  1. The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang – a dark fantasy epic that draws heavily from the Sino-Japanese War
  2. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi – a story about dark magic with West African influences
  3. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor – a post-apocalyptic future of Sudan

What is important to note is that all these emerging works were written by authors who come from these cultures. They draw from lived experiences, and their stories are richer for it. They are here to show off the limits of their imagination to those who understand it; they are not here to educate you about the historical intricacies of their culture.

So, does that mean only marginalized people are allowed to write these stories? Of course not.

But as the wives in Mad Max: Fury Road say: “We are not things.” I would caution you to be very, very careful when borrowing from other cultures. Here are some tips:

  1. Research is a MUST: Read widely on the culture you wish to borrow, and read SFF works in that culture. Online magazines such as Uncanny and Tor.com have many freely available stories for you to peruse.
  2. Just because your one POC friend says it is okay, does not mean it is: The fact that your one black friend says it is not cultural appropriation does not mean it will not be taken as such. That person does not speak for the community.
  3. Consider what you are doing with the culture: Is your main character based on Latin American mythological heroes, or just the comedic sidekick? Are the ‘good’ characters all blue-eyed and blonde while the ‘evil’ characters are brown and have dark hair? Are they incidental to the plot? Are they just tools to inflict a lesson on the Conventional Main Hero?
Image of a fake book cover with a picture of a galaxy entitled: There are apparently no POC in space but my aliens are super 'realistic' by Marty Stu

SFF of this kind is important as a pushback against common Western-based dystopia and medieval European fantasy, which have erased the forgotten and the voiceless. Even more, it is an offer of alternative viewpoints, of worldviews that may not materialise if drawn from an Old French or English source. It challenges everyone to imagine wider, to dream higher.

Zhui Ning Chang

Zhui Ning Chang

Zhui Ning Chang is a writer, director, and all-around storyteller working in comparative literary studies and theatre. She was born in Malaysia, raised in Singapore, and currently calls London home. She knows a ridiculous amount of Harry Potter trivia and can be found watching musicals and cute animal videos in her spare time. Zhui Ning can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and WordPress as @witchywonderer
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