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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why Science Fiction is Important to the Third World (Part One)

A little over a month ago, one of my professors asked me a question that, at the time, I was unable to answer.  That question has haunted me since, largely because I really should have had a good answer at the time.  The question was:
Why do you think science fiction and other "fantastic" literary forms are important in the third world?
A simple enough question, don't you think?  Or is it?

Questions like this are rarely applied to other forms of literature, specifically those works which are published as "general" or "literary" fiction.  Only fantastic forms of literature seem to have to defend themselves in an academic context.  I doubt my professor meant it as an attack,
but it's something that genre readers and writers have had to deal with in attack form before, which means that asking the question, regardless of the intentions, always stings a bit of the past.  The question equally applies to literature as a whole, though, since literature has had to defend itself from the anti-library crowd, the anti-English-department crowd, and so on (all of which are the embodiment of evil, if you ask me).  But the point of this post, and the posts that will follow it, is to address the question thrown at science fiction.

One reason that I think science fiction is an important literary genre, particularly in the third world, is that it is a safe genre.  It is the only genre that allows us to see the darkness of our past in way that also allows us to disengage from it.  Science fiction deals with both the present and the past without actually being there, which means that we, as readers, can choose to remove ourselves from the present (as influenced by the past) and "escape" into an unknown future.  Yes, science fiction is often allegorical, but it doesn't have to be read as such; there's no requirement to put the pieces of the past together.  With general literature, there is, since it is often planted immediately in the moment, whether that be in the present, or the past.  Reading general literature is like reading about ourselves as we are now; it's reading about people that weren't in situations that were.  Science fiction is the antithesis to this because it allows readers to get away.

From a critical perspective, this means that readers are able to see the light and dark of the human soul, but from the perspective of a place that does not necessarily conjure feelings of regret or shame.  Since it is not about something that has actually happened--in the sense that the events in a science fiction story, outside of allegory, are entirely fictional--readers have no reason to face "reality."  It becomes a safe zone in which to experience our weakness and faults and to experience the conditions that make all of us different and the same at the same time (different cultures of human beings).  That's not to say that it has to be this way, or that it always is.  People read science fiction in very different ways.  To pretend that there is a set reading practice for SF is ridiculous at best.  But what is different, in my opinion, between SF and general literature is that SF doesn't demand that you read it in a certain way.  It doesn't make it a requirement for you to feel the regret or shame of the past.  When people call SF an "escapist" genre, we should be quite pleased with that, since it is one of the few genres that is both an "escape" and a "reflection"--fantasy, in contrast, is usually only the first ("escape"), since it is rarely about the past or present (though New Weird might have changed that somewhat).

That's what, to me, is one of the most important aspects of science fiction in a third world context.  Third world writers can use the furniture of science fiction to tell stories about their present and past without actually writing about either.  The genre represents a gateway for third world writers to expose readers of SF to the themes, problems, and issues that plague third world nations without forcing people to deal with the immediacy of the moment.  Perhaps it is naive of me to say, but I think this makes it possible for us to avoid repeating our past mistakes.  Whether we'll actually pay attention well enough to make that happen is the real issue (history, sadly, suggests that we won't).

Science fiction's "safe" status isn't a perfect one, though.  Yes, there are texts that inject science fiction elements into the present (or the very near future), and the alternate history genre, which many consider to be science fiction, even though I do not, is littered with examples that contradict the safeness of the genre.  But, generally speaking, I think I'm right here.  Science fiction is disconnected from the past and present in a direct sense; it is the ultimate form of cognitive estrangement--the ultimate novum.

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  1. I agree that the storyworlds of science fiction are able to provide a "safe" place in which the drama of the narrative can unfold, and thus allow some rather horrific ideas to be played out. I'm thinking particularly of dystopias, like Brave New World or 1984 or Brazil or even District 9 (though that film of course invites readers to make allegorical connections to the present and past).

    But I think what's even more useful in uncovering the inhumanity of humans towards each other (this is what I take the 'third world' part of the question to be inherently addressed toward) is the way in which the present of a futuristic sf storyworld is predicated on a past that is our actual present, as Jameson argues. That is, the reader is invited to imagine how our world would need to change in order to get to the storyworld of the sf text.

    Even alternate histories, which are not set in the future, hinge on this identification by the reader of the moment where the story's historical timeline diverged from the one that we identify with the 'real' past.

    In both cases, the difference between what we see when we look up from the page, and the world we see created on the page, often point to inequalities, injustices, and other socially-relevant events or activities that lend themselves to action (in the extratextual world) that would seek to prevent and/or redress those errors that the fiction makes evident to us.

    As you suggest, this is far from escapist, and some of the best science fiction out there is so because it leads us to look back at our own moment. However, I would argue that all good fiction invites us to reflect on our own condition, comparing it to what we read on the page. Sometimes we congratulate ourselves that we aren't as horrible as the characters there and sometimes we find role models to follow. The difference is that sf invites us to look beyond our immediate and individual surroundings to identify with communities or groups, rather than with individuals. And it is at the level of the group that sf shines in showing us how "we" get from here to the there of the narrative, leading us to think of ways to encourage closing the gap between fact and fiction, or opening it up.

  2. First of all, I would question the question itself; was the professor saying that scifi is *more* important in the Third World than anyone else? I don't know that it is. If so, then obviously issues of escapism and fantasy would @come into play, and I think Michele did a good job explaining that.

  3. To what degree does "the Third World" exist anymore? After all, there is that subtext behind "Third World" that indicates manipulation by either the major Western (and Japanese/Korean/Taiwanese) capitalist powers or the defunct Communist regimes of the lesser economic powers that weren't aligned with either megagroup during the Cold War era. I wonder if it's an outdated term now, especially in emerging powers like Brazil or India.

    Have you thought of asking SF writers from those regions about that question? I know some Brazilian writers who might take an interest in your professor's question and your response, if you'd like me to link this post for them to read.

  4. Michele: You're referring to Jameson's argument that all third world text are necessarily allegorical, yes? The problem with Jameson is that his argument doesn't hold for every text. A lot of third world stories are allegorical, but a lot of them aren't. That's part of why I said that you can read science fiction as allegorical if you want, but it's not required (I think most science fiction texts are allegorical, though, whether intentionally or otherwise).

    I have no objection to your final paragraph :).

    Monkey: No, the professor was simply asking why we should bother reading fantastic texts, or why it would be valuable for third world people to use the fantastic in their writing. The class was on third world literature (specifically, the Caribbean).

    Larry: Feel free to send them this way, if you like. The class, as I just mentioned, was on the Caribbean, which, I think it's fair to say, is not all puppies and flowers, particularly since Haiti, pre-quake, was one of the poorest countries in the world. I think parts of the world, such as in the Caribbean, parts of Africa, and elsewhere, are still very much in "the Third World," largely defined by abject poverty by many of my professors, though in the case of the Caribbean and parts of Africa, that poverty is often implied to be the result of colonialism.

  5. OK, posted the link on Twitter. As for the Caribbean, I'm somewhat familiar with Cuban fiction, some of it of a speculative nature, like Cabrera and a couple of others whose names escape me at the moment. Much of it does relate to post-colonial concerns, but that would seem to be more of an African issue than Latin America, which would have a more complex imperialist issue with the US than a mere colony/mother country divide.

  6. Larry: That depends entirely on which Caribbean nation we're talking about. Some will have more clear post-imperialist conditions, while others will be more clearly postcolonial. That's not to say the U.S. hasn't had some influence on most of them, though, just that some Caribbean nations have more dark past in the form of European colonialism than they do with American imperialism. Depending on whether you consider French Guiana to be a part of the Caribbean, you could look at that as a prime example of what I'm saying (since it remains, to this day, a colony of France...though I suspect they don't call it that anymore for PC reasons).

  7. True. I'm somewhat aware of Dominican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican fiction (little of it FC, though, to use the Spanish acronym for what is not always labeled as SF here), and each varies considerably. I just can't think of "Third World" as being a good term, since it minimalizes some very key cultural, social, and literary differences between countries and regions.

  8. Larry: In what way does the term "third world" minimalize cultural/social/literary differences between countries and regions? I'll be honest in saying that I'm not familiar with the politics of the term, which might explain why you and some others on Twitter have taken issue with my use of it. It's a term that gets tossed around without much thought in graduate school, either because nobody wants to deal with the complicated issue of definition or politics, or because it's outside of the academic interests of those in the postco program here.

    Do you have a link to something that might help me understand what the issue is? I wasn't aware it was something that might offend or irritate people...I might have used a different term, or been more specific to the Caribbean (the subject of the course).

  9. First off, "Third World" is antiquated; it refers to the non-aligned (and at the time, mostly impoverished) countries during the Cold War era. Now there was a history of post-colonial or post-imperialist interference in parts of this diverse grouping until recently, but some of the nations placed in this weird category (Brazil, Chile, Argentina especially in the Americas and India in particular for Asia) are now economic powers. Mercosur/Mercosul for South America will be nearly as powerful as the EU in terms of economic influence within the next decade; it already is a major player, with Brazil as a top 10 economic power and Argentina in the top 25-30, with Chile and the other Mercosur/l nations not far behind. It'll rival NAFTA and CAFTA-DR very shortly.

    Now imagine having people in those emerging powers compared to those in Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Haiti. The situations don't fit, not to mention that the concerns, economic, social, and cultural alike, differ wildly from each country. For those in the developed Mercosur/l region, "Third World" is seen as a backhanded reference to the bad days of the juntas, of the US support to Pinochet and for Argentina's "Dirty War" of the 1970s. It is grandpa days, not anywhere near to the realities of those countries' citizens today in 2010.

    You may be interested in the Caribbean countries, but Cuba's situation is much, much different from Haiti's, for example. The Cuban literacy rate is about the same as that of the US and the percentages of those with college degrees is close as well. Cuba's problems stem from a combination of the regime in power and the decades of the embargo, while Haiti's are much more complex and deal as much with environmental degradation due to internal demographic pressures as it does with external influences from hegemonic economic powers like the US. It's just almost incomprehensible for people living in these disparate countries to imagine that they have much of anything in common.

    There really isn't a link that comes to mind, as I'm speaking more from anecdotal evidence gleaned from a lot of conversations with natives of those countries and from the literature I've read. But I imagine something would come up in a search for "problems with using Third World" or something like that.

  10. Well, Larry is right, there is not a "Third World", but "Third Worlds", each one with their own features.

    I'm Brazilian. My country has a rather unique situation, because Brazil is very large and heterogeneous. We have people almost as poor as the poorest Africans and people as rich as the richest Europeans.

    The SF consumers belong mainly to the middle-class, which is prosperous, but not necessarily rich.

    I think that escapism and good alegories of present or past are two of the main reasons why EVERYONE reads SF/F, not only the "Third World" (no matter what this expression could mean).

    Okay, let me open my steel umbrella. Now, you can throw the rocks. x)

  11. Hey, Shaun!

    Larry having explained the whole "third world" issue, I'd like to add that the terms used today are "underdeveloped", "developing" and "developed" countries. Brazil is a developing country, though it's the world's 8th largest economy. Same with China the second largest economy. Greece, despite being bankrupt, is developed. Haiti is underdeveloped, etc.

    Now, to the fail question, the answer is: it's important because it's literature. It's art. It's culture. Period. And it's important in the once-called third world as much as it's important in the once-called first world. For the same reasons.

    I think your teacher could have asked why in the non-anglophone and non-european countries the fantastic is so present in mainstream fiction, OR what's the role of fantastic fiction for the developing countries' identity?

    Also, I don't want to sound rude, but I don't get the whole safe genre thing, the allegory thing. Every work of fiction is allegorical in some way. And mimetic fiction can be as safe and escapist as speculative fiction. Just get the whole "I'm a depressed little writer and I want to kill myself because I can't get laid" kind of novel. That shit is escapist and safe. Even a novel about the Holocaust is escapist and safe. You're concentrated on the problems the jewish people had in the 30s and 40s. Not your own problems. You're escaping from your problems through other people's problems. Get my point?

    As a last thing, I'd like to ask your teacher a counter-question: why do you think realism and other kinds of mimetic literary forms are important in a world flooded with reality shows, live cams and news channels? A world in which information is one click away?

    Hope I've added something to the discussion.


  12. The term Third World is unquestionably dated, if for no other reason than it reflects the Cold War, "east vs west", "free world vs communist" mind set. "Developing nation" is an inadequate replacement if for no other reason than that some places appear to be static or even regressing. Third World will remain in use despite it's shortcomings until a replacement is widely accepted.

  13. You can go crazy dissecting literature, but the allegorical nature of speculative fiction lends itself so well to the discussion of the human condition! That inherent flexibility of the genre is what drives it, and, frankly, I'm really stymied as to why critics keep presuming, over and over, that spec fic is for children.

    Like Terry Pratchett said, “I’ve always liked the idea of a special Hugo to be awarded (by force, perhaps) to literary authors who write books dripping with themes filleted from mainstream SF and then deny that it’s science fiction ‘because it’s not about robots and spaceships’.”

  14. I'm going to try to respond to everyone, but because some comments will be longer than others, I need to break them up so Blogger doesn't have a fit. Hopefully that won't be a problem. Also, I'm going to *try* to keep the ideas organized, but you should expect that I will fail miserably at that.

    Larry: Now this is making more sense to me. I don't think that in my graduate program, or even my undergrad program, we ever used "third world" in the Cold War context. That's not to say that the term is correctly used, just that my impression of how academics in my field are using the term is to refer to conditions at "home" in the "third world." The "third world," thus, isn't defined by the old Cold War era definition, which is, obviously, an absolutely absurd usage when you look at the countries we've already mentioned here (especially India and China, which are not at all the "third world"; I don't know much about Brazil, but I'm guessing if Brazilian people are defining their country outside of "third world," then it's not part of the "third world").

    I've never used it in that context either, to be honest. I've also never phrased it in terms of "GDP," because I don't think that is a relevant gauge of the wealth or quality of a nation; smaller nations might have significantly less GDP than the U.S., but they might also have the same or nearly the same social/economic conditions for the people who live there (simple numbers, I think, since a nation of fewer people needs fewer monetary resources to maintain a standard of living).

    But I think the others who have commented here are right: even if we're using the term "third world" in the context I've given above (based on the conditions on the ground, which would define Haiti as "third world," but India as "second world," I think, or at least not "third world), it still conjures up the original use of the term, which is an antiquated separation of nations based on conditions that don't even exist anymore. The Cold War, after all, is over, many nations that were once the "third world" in that context are now no longer "neutral," and so on. I also agree with you that because the "third world" is not an entity with clearly defined borders, as it once was, it's hard to use the term without inadvertently chucking nations into categories that don't apply to them, which creates the comparisons you mention in your post.

    Hopefully that makes sense. I'll probably extend this somewhat in another comment, since someone else brought something up that I think is very relevant here.

    And thanks for the comment and taking time to give me detailed information. I appreciate it.

  15. Adriana: I agree. I think my post is somewhat mis-titled, and some have been confused as to whether my professor was implying that SF is *more* important to the "third world," than to the second or first. I don't think it is more important, just that in the context of the course (a class on Caribbean fiction, largely from countries that would probably be defined as "third world" today), it's a question that probably was inevitable, since I was dealing with science fiction and fantastic literary forms on my own. I also think there is a lot of lingering literary vs. genre nonsense tied into this, which requires, as I mentioned in my post, genre fiction to define its value, while giving general fiction a free bite.

    But, you're right. It's not really a question or answer that applies just to SF in the "third world." (I'm still using the term for the moment.)

    And why would I throw rights? You're not being rude :P.

  16. Sounds more and more, based on your latest responses, that "Caribbean" should be used here, as it would touch upon more strongly-connected groups who have many cultural experiences in common.

    I presume you have read Cosmos Latinos, which is translated SF from Latin America?

  17. Jacques: Having read Larry's comment and the Twitter stuff, those terms (underdeveloped, developing, and developed) do make more sense, although I think it's possible they aren't entirely accurate in all situations. After all, there are some nations one might label as "developing," but in which the lower classes are still living in abject poverty, are manipulated, abused, and so on by the upper classes, etc. But that seems to point to the failure of labels to be exact in all cases.

    As for your answer to the question: I agree. Not much more to say about that. I just wanted to have a better answer than "it's art and literature, and it's important to everyone." In academia, they like to ask "why" a lot, and it's not easy to come up with answers for a "why" in every situation...

    And as for your questions the teacher could have asked: Yes, I think those are valid questions, and I don't know if I'm versed enough in Caribbean or Latin fiction to say for certain. I suspect that the development of nations has something to do with the rise of science fiction, though, which is something you see in countries like China and India, where their rapid economic and social advancement have been followed closely by a surge of science fiction work (fiction and film).

    Now to your issue with the "safe" thing: You're not being rude at all. There's nothing rude with disagreeing with people, at least not for reasonable people...

    I think what I was trying to get at with my answer was that science fiction is about things that might happen, but haven't yet, or might not happen at all. They're not about things that are necessarily real. Yes, they are often allegorical, which means they are often about things that are real, but science fiction doesn't require you to read it as allegory. You can read the story about robot slaves in 3400 without having to make connections to specific events hundreds of years ago. That's a choice one can make.

    Mimetic fiction (or general fiction, or whatever the term) is almost always about things that are real, that have happened, probably did happen, and so on. Even in a fictional context, the situations are based on possible situations. I imagine there are exceptions, but I can't read a Holocaust novel and not be faced with the fact that it is about something that actually happened. I can't escape that. There's no way for me, as a reader, to be safe from reality, unless I don't believe the Holocaust happened or I don't know it happened, and so on. I don't know if that makes more sense, or if you agree, but that's what I was trying to get at. I see science fiction is living vicariously through things that don't exist yet.

    "Why do you think realism and other kinds of mimetic literary forms are important in a world flooded with reality shows, live cams and news channels? A world in which information is one click away?"

    That's a good question. My answer would be severely biased, but that's because I don't actually read realistic fiction very often. I can't stand the stuff most of the time. I don't find reality compelling enough...which might also explain why I find most reality shows somewhat pointless. Or maybe it doesn't. I don't know.

    Thanks so much for your comment. :) Hopefully you'll be back to rip on me some more.

  18. Will: Having read everything said so far on this issue, I agree. I think Jacques' terms are good replacements for the time being, actually.

    writtenwyrdd: I think the reason critics still think SF is for kids is because they either confuse literature with film or they are aware, as I am, of the good chunk fandom that doesn't necessarily read SF for its allegories and deeper messages. To be fair, that's true of almost every genre of literature, whether general or otherwise. Some people just read books to be entertained. There's absolutely *nothing* wrong with that. Anyone who says there is should be hit over the head with a Big Bertha dictionary, like the one I have at home.

    And Pratchett might be onto something there :).

    Larry: Yes, you're probably right. If I continue with a second post, I will probably focus it specifically on the Caribbean. That's my fault for framing the question as "third world." I don't think my professor meant it to mean "every third world," but I'm guessing.

    And I haven't read Cosmos Latinos yet. I've been thinking of trying to practice my awful Spanish on some Latin SF, though, which is completely irrelevant to that antho, since it's translated SF. That book is on my list, though. Thanks for bringing it up :)

  19. Actually, you should read Cosmos Latinos first because it's translated fictions that give the era and locale of the writers. You can then source surf from there into the Spanish-only works of those authors and others cited that are related to them.