How SFF Is Changing

I have always maintained that diverse writers must be included in the main discourse of subject matters, rather than seconded into special interest groups, thus making them feel like oddities, rather than fully part of the community. It was with this in mind that I was so pleased to be invited to FanfiAddict’s author livestream on How SFF is Changing, which put me on a panel with a wonderful selection of authors from very different backgrounds, all writing about and working in different styles, content and traditions. There were a few points in the discussion I did not get to address at the time, or may not have been concise on, and thought I would take the opportunity to expand on them here. 

We discussed our inroad into SFF, and I talked about my experiences with science fiction, and how odd it was to me. I was then assured that my experiences were quite ‘normal’, and whilst I am sure this was well-intentioned, as a person of colour and an immigrant writer, I think they have been anything but. 

Being born in China and nurtured there during childhood, the time when mythology takes its strongest hold, I have been used to a very different mythos to the Western one. I have, for many years, found myself unable to enjoy, or even sit through a lot of high Western fantasy, such as Lord of the Rings. Instead of orcs and wizards, I had grown up with demons that lurked in caves and morphed into curling clouds, celestials who ride around on cranes. The dragons I knew were not malevolent fire breathers, but powerful water gods, benevolent to those that come to their aid, bringing good luck and splendid pearls. Without counting Transformers and She-Ra, which I saw in Cantonese and Mandarin, my first introduction to SF was not English, but translated Russian SF that I found lying around the flat, which was written for a much older reader, but offered me some variation to supplement the children’s science encyclopaedias, and educational works for ‘betterment’ I was given to read. 

Of course, there were some universal points in my experiences. My adolescence in Britain spent reading Anglophone classics from the literary canon had as much to do with the literary /genre fiction divide common across different nations, as Chinese immigrant familial expectations. So I leaned into my urban sensibilities and penchant for social and cultural commentary in fiction and eventually brought out my own translated and curated anthology of kehuan (Chinese for sci-fi). It was not until the repeated urging of people around me, that I watched Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, and began to develop a taste for Western fantasy. The catalyst in this journey was the beautifully filmed series Three Worlds, Three Lives: The Pillow Book (Eternal Love of Dream), from web novelist Tang Qi’s novel, which had rekindled my engagement with mythological and fantasy fiction. I am incredibly lucky to be able to read books like The Trail of Lightning and We Hunt the Flame, which I absolutely revelled in and found fascinating. Although they are evidently separate from Chinese mythology and fantasy, I somehow feel closer to these non-European traditions. 

Apart from the forms, styles and trappings, there are fundamental differences between the East and West mythos. Good and Evil are distinct and opposing forces in Western fantasy whereas in the Chinese fantasy realm, darkness morphs into light, and vice versa, there is not so much absolute Good or Bad.  Then shén and xiān (gods and deities), fánrén (mortals) and (“demons” for want of a better term) are beings that tread different paths that are not meant to cross. Concepts and feelings which had lain dormant in my psyche since childhood were awakened by Three Lives, and knowing you can dive anytime into quality fantasy fiction you feel at ease with, makes you more inclined to venture into completely strange realms. 

We also discussed what SFF is popular at the moment, a highly unusual time that is (hopefully) unlikely to repeat itself for generations to come. Generally comforting fantasy with positive vibes were thought to be particularly welcome. I pointed out that alongside this, readers also seem to be reaching for the ultra gritty, dystopian and horror fiction that put them on edge. It was commented on that these too had a feel good factor, because as much as you experience the world of a good book,  there is a certain comfort in knowing the situations are unreal. This seems to suggest the moot point, that the narratives I brought up are read, because they are fiction. Why do people need stories? We are all writers and translators of fiction and we would be out of a job if people did not. More specific to the current times, darker fantasy fiction provides an imaginary space in which our fears and worries are enacted, where we can, if not overcome the challenges fears and hardships, then at least process the feelings which we may not otherwise be able to do, and know that we can come through it OK at the other end. 

One of the controversial and topical themes we discussed, is the use of A.I. programs such as GPT Chat in creative projects. We all agreed that this was a dire development. Despite the warnings of past fiction, in which over-reliance on artificial intelligence leads to their domination of the world, or the demise of humanity, the interminable pursuit of consumerist capitalism for higher productivity seems to be driving us right into this potential danger at full speed. It was pointed out that one thing you could do is to ask an AI to provide you with, say, a couple of constructs from the Arab world, when you are world building. I was so stunned this was even suggested, I could not bring myself to express my natural response at the time, which would be:

Why not just ask an Arab person? If someone Western were writing an Asian fantasy and have no first hand experience of whichever country they are engaging with, nor extensive knowledge of its culture, I would immediately suggest that they speak with a Korean, or Burmese or Vietnamese individual, research their field, and involve the services of a cultural consultant. I do not know if it is better or worse, asking an AI to make up some elements from another culture you are exploiting for your own story, or to employ a cultural stereotype/common misperception without being aware of it. It strikes me as lazy authorship, to draw from a different civilisation, the least you can do is to learn about it yourself. Added to this that not only do ChatGPT, and its ilk have a nasty habit of just inventing facts in order to appear useful, but the very narrow group of people creating these systems in the first place means that ingrained cultural viewpoints can be picked up by the learning algorithms, in the same way a child can learn homophobic views watching their parents’ behaviour.

All in all, the very fact we were all included in a panel like this (apart from the AI) means there IS a future for SFF, and it is inclusive, and it is diverse, though it may take a generational shift for the establishment to appreciate what non-European, non-heteronormative experiences bring to the genres.


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