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World SF, Worth Reading BEFORE developing an opinion

by nickmamatas

The Twitterverse is aflame today over comments made by Norman Spinrad in his latest On Books column in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. I was sent the link by three different people who wanted my opinion on it. At first I was excited. Was it a very juicy column? Was it about meeeee? Sadly, no.

Instead, it’s a meandering display of fundamental ignorance about what we call “world science fiction.” The column was brought to my attention thanks to this line:

With the exception of the Japanese, I at least, am at a loss to point to any science fiction that I know of that has evolved independently in non-European languages or cultures disconnected therefrom.

Anyone who has read one of our lovely Haikasoru titles would stop there. Japanese SF certainly did not evolve independently of that well-loved European culture…the United States? (We’ll see soon that Spinrad includes most of the planet in “Europe” for some reason.) I spent a few hours some time ago digging up a copy of an obscure van Vogt story from 1944, “The Harmonizer”, as it is this story from which the titular character of our forthcoming The Stories of Ibis is named. Surely that doesn’t spoil a sixty-six-year-old story, right? Also, author Hiroshi Yamamoto named a chapter of his book The Universe on My Hands after the Fredric Brown short story collection Space on my Hands. Japanese SF authors will often proudly wear their influences on their sleeves, and those influences include American science fiction writers of the Golden Age and New Wave, as well as manga, the space race, philosophy both Western and Eastern, etc.

Spinrad’s claim is simply inaccurate, but what really upset people was this:

So, for now at least, and in the apparent absence of a significant body of science fiction written by born and bred Africans, this Caucasian American is probably the closest thing there is or has been to an African science fiction writer, with the exception of Octavia Butler. Who did write the same sort of thing, and did it well, and was Black to boot, but I use that politically incorrect word rather than “African American” because aside from her genetic heritage she was no more African than Mike Resnick.

Very silly. Forget the fact that the film District 9—directed by South African Neill Blomkamp—was recently nominated for an Academy award. (This is rather aside than one what thinks of the film or its depictions of Africans, specifically Nigerians.) There are African science fiction writers: Nnedi Okorafor comes immediately to mind. By definition, of course, any African SF writer would be better at being an African SF writer than non-African Mike Resnick, despite non-African Norman Spinrad crowning him as such.

The problem is that Spinrad is just making an appeal to ignorance. He’s not familiar with the many writers of world SF, so he assumes they do not exist. For whatever reason, though he could be familiar with Japanese SF as some of it has been translated into English, he decided to ignore actually existing Japanese SF. He also utterly ignores Chinese SF, which has been a going concern since 1904 at least. China is also the home of Science Fiction World, the most widely read SF magazine on the planet.

Further, Spinrad isn’t necessarily a good judge of how writers tackle other cultures. He lauds Ian McDonald’s Brasyl which for the first 200 pages was indeed a very strong novel. It devolved utterly into a series of silly fights and battles though, and at least some of the silliness can be laid right at McDonald’s feet. He credits the Brazilian martial dance capoeira, for example, with a martial prowess it simply doesn’t have. That’s especially sad as there is a native Brazilian martial art which is one of the most formidable in the world: Brazilian jiu-jitsu. BJJ even has multicultural origins (based on Japanese Judo and Euro-American catch wrestling, perfected by a Scottish-Brazilian family: the famous Gracies), which is one of the themes of the book. Sounds like nitpicking, but much of Brasyl’s climax does hang on the efficacy of capoeira and anyone familiar with Brazil’s martial or street cultures knows that it just doesn’t work outside of its own set of highly stylized competitions. McDonald stumbled in my view—the last 100 pages of Brasyl just felt like action-packed “fan service”—and Spinrad didn’t notice the fall at all.

Of course, Spinrad has also managed to declare Latin America, thanks to Spanish and Portuguese, “not entirely culturally disconnected from the self-styled First World.” Indeed, but Japan isn’t so disconnected either. Indeed, nor are the science fiction writers of the Philippines and the Indian sub-continent, many of whom write in English as either their first language or as a close second. One cannot even appeal to the paucity of translations to defend ignorance of these SFnal traditions, as increasing amounts of SF in English from these countries has been becoming available thanks to the Internet and global publishing. Part of what makes the First World the First World is that it is nigh impossible to be culturally disconnected from it, after all.

In the end, it just feels as though Spinrad isn’t making a cultural argument, but a racialist one. Japan was occupied by the US and the origins of modern Japanese SF are most often located by historians to that occupation and subsequent cultural exchange. (Even the pre-war Japanese SF, of which there was some, was heavily influenced by translations of Western SF and mystery stories.) Why insist that Latin America is essentially connected to the “First World”, but that African and Asian countries—which include many Francophones and Anglophones thanks partially to colonialism—somehow are not. (And thus have no SF!) In Spinrad’s essay, there appears to be an unexamined assumption that Africans and Asians are fundamentally different than Europeans—and “Europe” for mysterious reasons includes the peoples of the Americas. This is not even due to a dependence on the old framework of First/Second/Third World, as Spinrad acknowledges how problematic these terms are. Ultimately, Spinrad doesn’t know much about world SF, and feels entitled to project his own vision on terra incognita, thus his insistence that white American midwesterner Mike Resnick is as close as the world has come to an “African science fiction writer.”

As world SF becomes more popular, such attitudes will surely be corrected one way or another, but right now it is quite disappointing to see such a wrongheaded essay in the country’s leading science fiction magazine.

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42 Responses to “World SF, Worth Reading BEFORE developing an opinion”

  1. Julia S. says:

    I choose to believe instead that Spinrad is engaging in some kind of abstruse wordplay in which “Mike Resnick is an African SF writer” is revealed to be a pun or a palindrome or something, rather than something that he thought would be a useful addition to the discussion.

  2. […] World SF, Worth Reading BEFORE developing an opinion « Haikasoru … […]

  3. Mris says:

    Thanks, Nick. Your knowledge is a great deal more interesting than Spinrad’s ignorance.

  4. Julia S. says:

    Also, let me draw Spinrad’s attention to the futuristic marvel that is The Search Engine. By using one of these amazing computer interfaces, he could have remedied his ignorance and discovered, for instance, that the largest-circulation SF publication in the world is China’s Science Fiction World; each issue’s print run is in the hundreds of thousands of copies, and it’s apparently a pass-along magazine so up to a million people may read it each month.

    That makes Asimov’s look pretty penny-ante by comparison.

  5. luagha says:

    To pick nits; there are tai chi practitioners who can really fight with tai chi as their base art, and there are tai chi practitioners who dance slowly in the park for their health. Similarly, there are capoiera practitioners who can really fight with capoiera as their base art and there are capoiera practitioners who dance around in make-up competitions.

    When you see a tai chi fighter really fight with tai chi, it doesn’t look like dancing in the park. It looks a lot like boxing with different, really solid footwork. When you see a capoeira practitioner really fight with capoiera, it looks a lot like evasive, high-movement kickboxing.

    Not having read the book, I can see how if you had 200 pages of gritty realistic hard SF and then changed gears to the cinematic style of capoeira with all the marginal emergency high-flying maneuvers that you only use when your wrists and ankles are manacled; you’d be jarred.

  6. nickmamatas says:

    I’m familiar with the fighting prowess of taiji—I study Chen taiji myself and concentrate on its martial aspects. (Incidentally, fighting taiji doesn’t look all that much like Western boxing; more like standing grappling with dirty strikes thrown in.)

    The efficacy of capoiera in Brasyl beggars the imagination. It includes people facing down opponents with “quantum blades” that can cut through anything and routinely winning without much of a scratch, and using every high-flying low-percentage technique in the art to do so. In fact, it got to the point where whenever anyone pulled out a Q-blade* I as a reader knew they were about to lose the fight.

    *This is all rather aside the fact that there’s no reason for trained interdimensional assassins to run around displaying their quantum blades and cutting through the air with blue streaks. In proper blade use, one’s opponent shouldn’t even realize that he or she is even in a knife fight until he or she has been stabbed.

  7. […] of the week, Nick Mamatas’ is the most reasoned, informative, and calm. Read his column on Haikasoru, “World SF, Worth Reading BEFORE developing an opinion”: The problem is that Spinrad […]

  8. silviamg says:

    I’ve been living a lie! I read the World SF blog every week!

  9. Charlie Jane Anders says:

    Wow, this is a great, thoughtful response to an incredibly stupid essay. I do like Julia’s suggestion that maybe the whole “Mike Resnick, African SF author” thing was just a Palindrome or some kind of obscure word puzzle. Unscramble those letters, and you get “A Saccharine Surfer Motif Kink.”

  10. nickmamatas says:

    If you like it that much, Charlie, io9 it 🙂

  11. Shweta Narayan says:

    You’d think he could at least look up “World SF blog” before writing an article like that, at last to find out how badly he was showing the community his underpants…

  12. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by NMamatas: World SF, Worth Reading BEFORE developing an opinion. Me vs Spinrad at Haikasoru. http://shar.es/mbppe Me vs Spinrad #haikasoru…

  13. Petréa Mitchell says:

    You’d think he would also know that sf’s only recent Nobel Prize winner grew up in Africa.

  14. luagha says:

    Standing grappling with dirty strikes thrown in = “the clinch.”

    And speaking as an instructor of filipino martial arts, I agree about blade use.

    “In a knife fight, one goes to the hospital, the other goes to the morgue.” It’s very difficult to stop someone with a knife without being touched, and even a touch will leave a wound, if not necessarily a deadly one, because knives require so little commitment to injure with. Magical quantum cut-anything blades even more so.

  15. O_3 says:

    Wow, that was a rambling post! (Spinrad’s, I mean). I ended up skimming it toward the end, I was glazing over. Rather than dwell on his anecdotal lack of exposure to world SF, I was most disturbed by the following passage: “The main protagonist of The Last Theorem is the Sri Lankan mathematician Ranjit Subramanian. Subramanian wins the Nobel Prize for creating the totally rigorous proof of Fermat’s “Last Theorem”—the theorem being real enough, but the proof being fictional and unspecified, since, after all, if Clarke and/or Pohl actually produced it, the Nobel would be theirs”. You mean to tell me Clark and Pohl pulled this boner together, and Spinrad totally missed his chance to pwn them for it? Since when do mathematicians win Nobels? What next, Sri Lanka bisected by equator?

    Mike Resnick, African SF author = author of SF set in Africa, != African author of SF. I don’t see what the confusion’s about.

  16. Jason Sanford says:

    Nick: Well put. Much more reasoned and insightful than my rant.

  17. […] praise for Mr. McDonald’s works is contested by Nick Mantas: “He lauds Ian McDonald’s Brasyl which for the first 200 pages was indeed a very strong […]

  18. King Rat says:

    Why did Sheila Williams approve publishing this rambling, poorly grammarized, ignorant screed? There’s lots of ignorant scribblings like this on the internet, and lots of ignorant S.F. authors (see Card, Orson Scott). I think it’s more appropriate to call to task the editor rather than the author.

  19. Amy Sterling Casil says:

    Like, some way to spend my birthday. Coolio. Not.

  20. Amy Sterling Casil says:

    This book edited by Jim Gunn is from the early to mid-90’s and covers a pretty broad range older diverse, international SF/F – http://bit.ly/bFaQYk I own it, and have read it several times.

    He is putting these back in print with Scarecrow Press, it looks like. One issue I have with crap like this, other than putting a slight sour taste to an otherwise cool birthday, is that older authors like Norman might give the impression that every author of older generations is some cavedwelling troglodyte who can’t even dredge up Chip Delany, if trying to struggle valiantly for some writer of color from previous years. This is not the case and Prof. Gunn is just one of many authors and scholars eager to read work of diverse writers from diverse countries.

    I can’t say how much cool SF/F is out there from so many other countries. Just because the US adult SF/F market is hard for others writing in other languages to “break into,” esp. for short fiction doesn’t mean that those others do not exist, and aren’t doing awesome work.

  21. Amy Sterling Casil says:

    You know, Ian McDonald, whom I like extremely well and whose work I do not feel should be used as any “example” except that of a good author doing his own good work – was in the unenviable position on a Worldcon panel in Denver of representing “diversity” in SF/F. I am so serious, that is the best they did there, and the moderator was Elizabeth Bear. So here I was looking around the audience with my eyes popping out, and poor Alan running for the corner, so ashamed his butt had been stuck up there and unwilling to “speak on anyone’s behalf.”

  22. Arachne Jericho says:

    Nick, wonderful post.

    King R., regardless of whether Sheila Williams should/should not have approved this (in fact, we don’t know what happened there, only they know, hopefully), Spinrad still owns his words. That they happen to be scrawled across Asmiov’s instead of a random blog is beside the point.

  23. […] this is not a very compelling recommendation from someone who has clearly done none of his own. Over at the Haikasoru blog, Nick Mamatas shreds the “evolved independently” line while providing links to several […]

  24. […] have been several more responses to Spinrad’s screed, in addition to Nick Mamatas’ at Haikasoru and Jason Sanford’s initial […]

  25. […] Why Nick Mamatas Rocks.) Particularly because of his rebuttal on behalf of the civilised world against Spinrad’s cack-handed approach to discussing World […]

  26. […] Nick Mamatas when it comes to Japan: Japanese SF authors will often proudly wear their influences on their sleeves, and those […]

  27. StarShipSofa says:

    People might like to hear this interview I did with Norman Spinrad. It was recorded in 2008 at a French SF Convention and has never been played before – it seems a good time to put it out now.

    Click and listen or download the mp3 link: http://bit.ly/bEywMC

  28. Amy Sterling Casil says:

    “Journalists can write an article about . . . whatever . . . (Asimovs book reviews count as ‘journalism’) . . . I don’t want to write about elves . . . There’s a lot of fiction that doesn’t get there . . . I think there’s a Renaissance . . . not just British . . . not just Australian . . . he can remember Peter Watts and Ian McDonald . . . fairies of New York . . . Martin . . . (Martin Millar). He does not read Neil Gaiman (Neil Gaiman wrote intro to Fairies of New York).

    Bad Panel Syndrome.

  29. […] blog -Cheryl Morgan about translation markets and the isolationist nature of the US book market -Nick Mamatas on the stuff Spinrad gets woefully wrong -The awesome Charles A. Tan nails a lot of what I thought […]

  30. Clint Harris says:

    Spinrad’s assumptions about SF in non-US/European countries are just as racist and ridiculous as Spivak’s argument that non-Indians cannot understand Magical Realism.

    Plus, what kind of petri dish world does he live in where cultures develop entirely independent of each other? Should we add world history to his ever-growing list of things he doesn’t know a lot about?

  31. TK Turner says:

    Oh my goodness! I want to smack him! I honestly could smack the man! Thank you Nick for your post! Honestly, Spinrad and the rednecks like him need to OPEN THEIR EYES and do the RESEARCH before they make these ridiculous assumptions about an entire culture/nation of people!!!!

    Ugh! I’m so mad I really could just smack him, lol!

  32. nickmamatas says:

    Now now, no smacking!

  33. Starshadow says:

    I’m afraid I quit liking Spinrad when I saw him berate a hapless server for the kitchen at an sf con banquet getting his order delayed or wrong, treating her like dirt and acting generally like a boor. His ignorance does not surprise me. It seems over the decades he has chosen to get less informed and more insular.

    Spinrad seems to have never grown past WWII. Pity, that, but I’m not surprised.

  34. […] Nick Mamatas on World SF, Worth Reading BEFORE developing an opinion. […]

  35. […] the guy basically says that there’s no such thing as an African Science Fiction  writer. Which at this very moment is being disputed by many wanting to set this guy […]

  36. […] it does bring up lots of examples of science fiction from other countries – see Jason Sanford, Nick Mamatas, Fábio Fernandes and a link compilation.  Read the comments for specific examples.  All […]

  37. nickmamatas says:

    Starshadow, people with “good” politics can sometimes be boorish to servers. As someone fro a long line of waitstaff and caterers I always look askance at people who treat servers poorly, but I don’t think the issues of the column were necessarily reflected in whatever Spinrad said to that server that day. (Who knows what was going on, after all?) That said, if the best example of Africa in SF one can think of is the work of Mike Resnick, one hasn’t read very widely in years. There does seem to be some truth to the claim that every SFnal generation in the end just reads itself, and few people from younger waves of writers.

  38. Mike Brotherton says:

    One of my Brazilian friends, who has studied capoeira, showed me a totally scary video of an ultimate fighting event. In that event, the capoeira practitioner finished off his opponent in a few seconds with a lightning fast roundhouse kick to the head that made Mike Tyson look slow. I’ve been working on a novel involving Brazil and like you would pick BJJ myself rather than capoeira, but I would not dismiss it the way you have here. Perhaps you’ve fallen prey to “Spinrad disease?” 😉

  39. Dario says:

    Good article, Nick. I happened to be at your WFC panel where the new award was announced and delighted that the US might–might–just finally be waking up to world SF. That Spinrad column was off to the point of bizarre IMO. It wasn’t remotely about world SF, and it’s hard not to think that the term Third World wasn’t intended to provoke some reaction (Mr. Spinrad has never shrunk from controversy LOL).

    I was frustrated most of all by the fact that he had a bully pulpit in Asimov’s from which he could have done LOT to raise awareness of world SF, and he totally wasted it.

  40. nickmamatas says:

    Mike, that 20-second knockout video is amazing, mostly because it is so novel (and was done at a low level of competition). I can think of another capoeria victory in mixed martial arts as well; two competitors rolled out of the ring thanks to bad reffing, and the kempo player happened to land on the floor with the capoeria player on top of him. But in actual practice, outside of utter flukes and events that have nothing to do with the art, capoeria isn’t useful for fighting, and certainly not useful against Knives That Can Cut Through Anything.

  41. […] week or two ago there was this rant on Haikasoru’s website about World SF, and uh, I’m not sure if I have a response to it. It probably make little […]

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