Some notes on exoticizing real-world cultures in sf

I have some thoughts that I feel like are connected to each other, but they’re not quite cohering into an essay. So here are some not-quite-cohering thoughts.

(Content warning for descriptions of various forms of exoticizing/Othering.)

  • Mary Anne wrote an interesting post recently about (among other things) whether non–Sri Lankans are reading the Sri Lankan aspects of her work as exotic and alien and sfnal, pushing the same alien-sense-of-strangeness buttons for those readers as the sfnal aspects of her work do. My post here isn’t exactly a response to hers—and I’m not talking about her work in this post—but this post was mostly sparked by hers.
  • I think it was in the mid-’90s when I noticed that what seemed to me like a bunch of sf writers (most of them white Americans, iIrc) were suddenly setting stories in Southeast Asia. It seemed clear to me that they were exoticizing (though I don’t know whether I would’ve used that word at the time)—they seemed to me to be presenting Southeast Asian settings as alien, for presumed white-American readers. I don’t know whether the authors were doing that intentionally, but it felt like it to me; it felt like white American sf authors had discovered this new-to-them “alien” landscape that they could use to evoke sense-of-strangeness. (It’s quite possible, though, that I’m over-extrapolating from only a couple of instances, and/or that my memory is faulty.)
  • As Kip Manley wrote in 2005, in a different context: “Read enough SF and you come to expect those unheimlich touches, the ostranenie of another world. […] It’s what you opened the book for in the first place; that door damn well better be dilating by page three or you’re taking your custom elsewhere.” (See my blog post for more.) Sense-of-strangeness is part of what many sf readers are looking for. But it’s unfortunate when writers and readers address that expectation by exoticizing real-world people and cultures.
  • I recently read/skimmed Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy. It felt to me like he was, to some degree, using Japan the same way: as a mysterious alien Other place. In particular, it felt to me like for Gibson, Japan symbolizes both the high-tech future and mysterious alienation—there’s all this only-in-Japan stuff, but all from Westerners’ POVs. Oh how wacky (Gibson seems to me to be saying): in Japan, people use English phrases in wacky ways, they like creepy nanotech buildings, they read explicit bondage porn on the train, they have Kafka-themed nightclubs! How mysterious and inscrutable are the ways of these Orientals! Sigh. KTO points out that this kind of portrayal of Japan ties in with a tendency among white Americans to assume that any aspect of Japanese society that we hear about must be part of mainstream culture; whereas in fact some of the things that white Americans see as weird in Japanese culture are also seen as weird by most Japanese people.
  • I think that a lot of people read nonfiction travel writing in part to get to experience something that’s different from their own lives and culture. And I think that that desire to learn about the ways that people who are different from you live can be admirable. But some travel writing can do the same kind of exoticization that I’m talking about here. There can be a fine line between, on the one hand, exploration of the nuances of a culture other than the presumed reader’s, and on the other hand, painting a whole culture in broad simplistic exotic strokes.
  • And of course, the question of who the presumed reader is is also central to all this.
  • In the introduction to the 1996 LGBT sf anthology Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, the editors wrote: “If part of the excitement of fantasy lies in violating reality, or the norm, then doing so twice—extranormal characters in extrareality—is doubly exciting.” I suspect that the editors (at least one whom is queer) meant that to mean something like “It’s really exciting to finally see some queer characters centered in sf,” but the line read to me like they were saying that queer characters are so weird/alien/exotic as to be fantastical.
  • I’ve been encountering a lot more Jewishness in my fiction-reading lately than I’m used to, and I’m loving it. My thoughts on that subtopic are too long to fit in a bullet point, so I’ll continue in paragraphs:

    [I’m using the word “Jewishness” here instead of “Judaism,” but not for any good or well-thought-out reason; it just feels to me like the right word here.]

    I think the Jewish theme in my reading started about a year ago, with William Tenn’s hilarious 1974 Sholem-Aleichem-story-in-space “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!”; then I read Irwin Shaw’s excellent (non-sf) 1946 post-WWII-American-Jewish-soldier story “Act of Faith”; then Naomi Novik’s deeply Jewish-infused Spinning Silver; then Mary Robinette Kowal’s less-richly-Jewish-book-but-still-has-a-Jewish-protagonist The Calculating Stars; then various James Joyce pieces that kept surprising me by including Jewish characters; and now I’m two-thirds through Marge Piercy’s devastating-but-excellent WWII (non-sf) novel Gone to Soldiers, in which most of the main characters are Jewish.

    I am technically Jewish, in that my mother was Jewish. But I’m not very Jewish, even culturally. I never went to Hebrew School. I never had a bar mitzvah, nor even attended a bar or bat mitzvah until a few years ago. I’ve never gone out of my way to eat kosher, even for Passover. I’ve attended a few seders, but not many, and not in a long time. I’m not entirely clear on what all of the major holidays are about. (We vaguely celebrated Hanukkah when I was a kid, but also vaguely celebrated Christmas.) I’ve never been personally harmed by anti-Semitism. In short: I’ve been around Jewish people all my life, and I think of myself as Jewish, but I’ve rarely felt a deep sense of connection to Jewishness.

    But these stories and books that I’ve been reading this past year nonetheless speak to me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Even though most of them are coming from a perspective that’s much more connected to Jewishness than I am, they feel comforting to me—familiar, and not unheimlich. And I don’t think they’re presented in an exoticizing kind of way; I don’t think goyishe readers would read the Jewish aspects as providing sense-of-strangeness. But I could be wrong.

    I’ve also encountered works that do situate Jewishness in a more alien way. For example, I recently read Longfellow’s 1854 poem “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” which talks about how strange and foreign the Jewish names are, though it also talks about the persecution they must have suffered to bring them here. (But it ends with an implication that the “nation” of Jewish people is over and gone.) And more generally, Jewish people have, of course, long been treated as perpetual aliens in many places, no matter how many generations their families have lived there. (The same is true of several other real-world groups of people—which is connected to KTO’s term “alienization”—but I’m focusing on Jewish people here.)

    But I don’t think that I’ve seen Jewishness used to convey sense-of-strange in sf. And I suspect that part of the reason for that is that there have been prominent and beloved sf authors and editors of Jewish descent (whether they were religious or not) for many decades. Jewish characters and themes didn’t show up all that often in 20th century sf, but when they did, I feel like the authors didn’t generally stop to explain things to a presumed goyishe audience.

  • But I’m conflating a couple of things here; explaining to the audience is not the same as evoking sense-of-strange. Some explanations can be casual and brief and not Othering; some non-explained things can increase the sense of alienness instead of decreasing it. I think there’s an interesting and complex interplay here, between the author and the reader, and the reader who the author is expecting/focusing on, and the author’s attitude, and the reader’s attitude. I’m sure that different readers can come to different conclusions about whether a given work is exoticizing or not.

I have no particular conclusion to all this. But I think it’s interesting, and worth thinking about.

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