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Spec Fic and Eurocentrism

Burst your bubble.

I used to live in a Eurocentric bubble.

Not gonna lie. Still do, for the most part. But I’m working on it.

The U.S. market for speculative fiction is pretty insular. It’s downright opaque. The opaquest of opaque. I can’t say for certain, but I highly doubt the foreign markets are like this. Even so, the U.S. market is clearer now than it has been in decades past.

Why so? The main reason, IMHO, is that most native Staters are monolingual. I’m one of them, ain’t gonna lie about that, either. If an author from anywhere else doesn’t write in English, the chances of breaking into the U.S. market isn’t great. Sure, one can always hire a translator. But that’s an extra cost of production, which drives up the wholesale and retail price of the book.

I call us “Staters” because those who live in the U.S. aren’t the only Americans. All the people on this side of the world are Americans. On that score, the only distinctions I’ll allow are between North Americans, Central Americans, and South Americans. Beyond that, they can call themselves whatever they want.

If you live in the Americas, you’re an American.

Let’s talk about Eurocentrism.

Most world cultures are European at their core or have been influenced by European culture, some more, some less. In Europe, each culture has its quirks, its deviances, but almost all countries have a shared history, a history that goes back to the Roman Empire. Those that escaped Roman conquest were brought into the fold through trade, and they traded just as much in ideas as they did in goods. What we end up with is not a single worldview, but it’s close enough. Beginning with the Age of Exploration, European culture was exported elsewhere. In some cases, what was exported remained nearly intact because the settlers were European. Canada. Australia. The United States.

Russia’s an interesting case, though. Before Tsar Peter the Great, Russian culture was distinctly Asian. After his “incognito” European tour posing as a working man (everybody knew who he was because the dude was 6’8″) Peter returned to his court and forced everyone to adopt European culture wholesale. Even imposed a beard tax. Most European royalty at the time were beardless. For the bearded then, the longer your beard, the more tax you paid. Anyway, that’s how Russia became “European.” But Russia is a jumongous piece of real estate. While that part of Russia closest to Europe (a small chunk of the country) went European, the rest of it, all the way to the border with China, was left untouched. There’s a bit more to it, but this’ll do for now. So where did the Asian come from, you ask? Well, ya see, there was this guy, Genghis Khan…

It spread like a virus.

When the Europeans went a’colonizin’, they brought their culture with them (duh). The people they conquered didn’t do a full Peter the Great, but they adopted some European ways, and some of its ideas. Natives in the highest echelons of society tended to be the most Westernized. You had to answer to your European overlords, but the more like them you were, the more likely they’d allow you to keep what you already had and partake in their bounty, even though they despised you. But however much or little, the European influence was there to stay.

And that brings us to spec fic.

Whenever I read a work by an author whose culture isn’t Eurocentric, I’m blown away. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s like the familiar reference points aren’t there. Reference points that are buried deep in the background, points that reference a history other than European. The last author whose books I read that made me feel adrift were Cixin Liu’s because they’re Sinocentric. The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest. It’s like the West doesn’t exist. If you don’t know China’s history over the past eight decades or so, you won’t understand the historical references and how that history shaped the characters’ world. If you’ve never been exposed to Eastern philosophy, in particular Chinese thought, you won’t understand why the characters behave as they do. It’s decidedly “un-Western.”

Adrift in a sea of knowledge.

Me, I know a leeetle bit about it. The historical part, anyway. In The Three Body Problem, the main historical point of reference is Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Mao’s goal was to eradicate Western thought, which he believed had polluted Chinese culture. That included scientific principles, like in physics and chemistry, that had been discovered in the West and had been taught in Chinese universities. Scientists in these fields and other “Westernized” intellectuals were labeled reactionary and sent off to “re-education” camps. And, as you might guess, a whole helluva lot of them didn’t come back. If I recall, the estimate is something like six million people didn’t survive the Cultural Revolution. It’s surely more than that.

So, although I wasn’t totally lost, I did like that drift-y feeling. It told me there’s so much I don’t know, and so much more for me to learn.

I fervently hope that we will see more books like Liu’s on the U.S. market. It would go a long way toward bursting that Eurocentric bubble. And maybe, just maybe, Staters would learn the world does not revolve around us.

I know one thing that would help burst that Eurocentric bubble, though. Mine, anyway.

Get off my monolingual ass and step up my linguistic game.


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