Jun 4 2013 5:00pm

The Unexpected Exotic: Settings in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Koekohe Beach New Zealand

Books are often characterised according to their settings in ways that are ready-to-hand. For example, a story is perceived as edgy and gritty because it’s set in a city. While it’s true that ideas and art usually come from cities, from concentrations of people working and talking together, it doesn’t necessarily follow that fiction set in cities are any more socially engaged than books set elsewhere.

In some urban fantasies the city isn’t much more than a backdrop, beautifully described, but peopled only by astonished, baffled, or oblivious citizens whom the story just pours past. In such stories, the characters are insiders and what happens to them has to stay secret, or perhaps someone comes along and cleans up after them, like the Men in Black with their “flashy-things.”

I quite like those books. They’re what I think of as being in the Doctor Who or Buffy the Vampire Slayer tradition. (That said, how I loved those moments in Buffy where the Principal of Sunnydale High and the Sheriff’s department have a quick nervous exchange to get their story straight, or when the lead singer of a group playing at the Bronze says to another band member, “I hate playing these vampire towns.”)

But a kind of fiction I’m more interested in is the parallel world story, where the fantasy or science fiction twist makes the rules different for everyone. Holly Black’s Curseworkers trilogy is a favourite example. Those are books that really explore what it would mean for people and communities if

I know there are readers who, for quite sound reasons, object to books with special people and special groups and chosen ones. Stories where everyone else is a muggle. But I’ve always thought that, with those books, the important thing is the scale of the insiders’ inside. Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic are huge —they are insides that are bigger on the inside. And other books —like Holly Black’s Curseworkers —really deal with what it means to be part of an elite (in that instance an elite people are terrified of).

The Dreamhunter Duet is one of these stories. The dreamhunters are an elite with a spectrum from struggling to famous, and are part of the social, economic, and cultural life of their country. They are not a secret society, but rather a profession with secrets.

Another kind of fiction I find interesting is one where the magic is hiding off to one side. The magic has a house in the rainy woods. It is a family, or a family within a tribe (like Twilight). In those books someone with real-world expectations and maybe a city life comes along, walks into the wild, and finds mind-blowing stuff.

There are models of this throughout classic literature. The sophisticated outsider enters a strange, passionate, closed world; the outsider thinks he or she is tired of life, and society, and shallow convention, and towns, and rubbing elbows with strangers, and so choose to go off to live a life of the body, or a life at one with nature, and, they hope, among simpler people. You could do a quick cartoon of this:

Ishmael is leaning on the mantelpiece of a full drawing room looking disgusted. Ishmael is in the doorway of a church social turning back from the crowd and not letting someone take his hat. Ishmael is standing on the docks looking longingly at the whalers anchored out in the stream. The Pequod heads out of the harbour followed by its own thundercloud, black-winged seabirds, and sharks.

So there’s Ishmael in Moby Dick, running away from people and complications, and coming into an isolated society with a vast interior.

Mortal Fire is a book about a city girl going into the country and finding something bigger than her city life. Canny isn’t running away from people like Ishmael. And she owes her existence as much to those four young people in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, sent away from a bombarded city and entertaining themselves in an isolated country house with an elderly owner. If the Dreamhunter Duet is a “magic in society” series, Mortal Fire is a “magic and family” book —like all of Margaret Mahy’s young adult novels, which I deeply love. And it is set in 1959. And it couldn’t possibly make claims to any kind of edginess or grittiness.

If you say to someone “Pastoral fantasy” they might think of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. They’d think of the English countryside and seaside. But Southland has a big label on it saying “Fantasy, but not England.” And a smaller label saying “not quite New Zealand either” for New Zealander readers. (I mean, why would I do New Zealand and not actually do New Zealand? New Zealand critics want to know that too.)

But, consider, if I’d started with dreamhunters and their magic territory in New Zealand—twenty years after the discovery of the magic territory—it couldn’t have been New Zealand anyway. And I'd be stuck trying to imagine what King Dick and Kate Shepherd would have to say about the dreamhunting industry, and having to cross every geographical t and dot every and historical i in order to satisfy the kind of local readers who like to correct writers who use the wrong term for the bends in tree roots! Also my editor at Faber was already concerned about the book’s amount of new information for young British readers; New Zealand history would have been more new information.

Which brings me to this. Having chosen an atypical or non-archetypical setting for a young adult book I realise I may have produced a challenge for non-New Zealand readers. Southland has several Polynesian settler cultures, and their histories (and a big mystery attached to one of them). Polynesian cultures in a South Pacific country are the expected exotic. But Southland is also an English-speaking culture. Yet it is not a British nor an American one, and that makes it the unexpected exotic. The book isn’t only full of invention, but of real things, many of its readers couldn’t be expected to know (and I’m not just referring to the polite questions from copy-editors saying “How can it be summer if it’s Christmas?”).

Now for me I guess the question I have to answer is whether books in the science fiction and fantasy genre should be allowed to have new and novel information over and above what they invent? Should there only be the made-up stuff and no other novelty? No textured factual novelty? Or only a ration. And, if the answer to that question is “yes” then doesn’t that make speculative fiction kind of hermetic and self-referential realm?

Britain and particularly the United States are the great homelands of science fiction and fantasy. (And they’re both arguably the great homelands of English.) But does that mean that the rest of us native English-speakers—Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans—have to, imaginatively, come and live entirely in those homelands and speak only in familiar accents? Obviously I think not, and obviously I accept that I’m going to disadvantage myself somewhat by being faithful to my real world within my invented one. But the necessary difficulties produced by the differences aren’t a failure in the art, only a challenge to the reader.

Elizabeth Knox has been a full time writer since 1997. She has published ten novels and three autobiographical novellas and a collection of essays. Her best known books are The Vintner’s Luck, and The Dreamhunter Duet. (Dreamhunter and Dreamquake).

1. Raskos
But does that mean that the rest of us native English-speakers—Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans...

And perhaps the odd Canadian or Jamaican, or maybe even a Guyanan.

A good point, though - why make any concessions to someone else's parochiality? Both science fiction and fantasy are supposed to stretch boundaries, but I get the impression from reading the comments on some sf blogs that the future only happens in the US, and when it doesn't, that's both disturbing and perhaps indicates that the story in question isn't really very interesting at the same time. One of the reasons that I like Tobias Buckell's work so much is that he depicts people from societies which are marginalized today but which have significant futures in his novels. And one of the real charms of that Harry Turtledove/Richard Dreyfuss collaboration, The Two Georges, was that it depicted a parallel US which was a lot like contemporary Canada. Dealing with that sort of dissonance shouldn't be something that the author has to make excuses for - anyone reading sf or fantasy should be willing to come to grips with it.
James Nicoll
2. JamesDavisNicoll
In terms of total number of English-speaking people, the UK comes in after India, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Philippines.
3. Petar Belic
Personally, I get very disappointed in a writer when I begin to read a novel, and it's purportedly set in an 'exotic' location or culture, and then I find this has been lifted wholesale from some non-English speaking country outside the US. There is a thin veneer of renaming, but rituals, societal relationships, customs etc, all belong to very recognisable modern or otherwise culture. I have found this 'trick' occuring more times than I care to remember, and to me it just smacks of lazy writing and is a little insulting to readers. I understand it has its place in allegory and satire, but if I just want a decent fantasy or science fiction story, this disappoints me every time I see it.
Brian R
7. Mayhem
To be fair a lot of it is somewhat lazy worldbuilding, but on the other hand it acts as a convenient shortcut for the reader to get to grips with the world quickly.
These guys are the Tribal Desert People, nomadic, prickly with foreigners and culturally ingrained to worry about water rights
Those guys are the quirky relaxed Island People, small communities, generally fisherfolk or gatherers, with a laid back sunny lifestyle
This group is the Horse Plains People, maybe somewhat Amerind, maybe Mongol. Etc etc.

Archetypes and tropes are not necessarily bad, the key is to put a twist on them. Transpose a modern sensibility to a historical group, stir in some magic, and then extrapolate a century of cultural changes on top of that and suddenly your archetype is very different. The Desert People, deeply theistic from spending too much time looking at the desert stars, who are a federation of matrilineal tribes led by a group of women who trace their descent back to The Girl Who Discovered Magic and who control access to water. Bang, suddenly its not Arabia as we think we know it.

Take that idea, and as you get further into the story you can add depth slowly, making the world a much more interesting place than the classic D&D based popcorn novels make out.
Look at the Wheel of Time ... each nation starts off as a blatant steal from a particular time and place in our world, blended together. He then managed to make the world relatively unique by later books by inventing distinctive cultural traits and reasons *why* each nation would turn out thusly.

That, and lets face it - in Fantasy if you make the culture too exotic, people will probably think you're writing SF or Literature instead...
8. Amaryllis

And perhaps the odd Canadian or Jamaican, or maybe even a Guyanan

Or perhaps the occasional Caribbean Canadians-- thinking of Nalo Hopkinson's "Brown Girl in the Ring." With English not quite as she is spoke in these here United States, but a lovely and interesting use of language. It adds a whole new level of interest to a fairly standard urban-dystopia setting.

I think of that kind of work as what Tom Shippey calls "Calquing," a kind of translation process. When well done, it allows, as Mayhem says, a convenient point of acccess and an enriched point of view. When badly done, it comes off as lazy stereotyping or even a kind of cultural appropriation.
9. a1ay
In terms of total number of English-speaking people, the UK comes in after India, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Philippines.

Yes, but the article refers to native English speakers. India, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Philippines have very few native English speakers; most of them have a different first language.

Here you go - have a look at the second table:

US, UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa are the top ones, as you'd expect.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
10. spinfuzz
As I learnt from a Junot Díaz interview recently (not having read Moby-Dick myself), The Pequod is also home to a plethora of languages/voices, in addition to its name referencing/remembering the Native American people who were killed in the early American imperialist project. So Moby-Dick is a very, very good example of what you're talking about.
11. ElizabethK
This is from a (very nice) review in Locus of my story A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill.

'There’s also an unspecificity about the setting, which seems at times to be postwar Britain, but may well be some imaginary country. This creates a foggy atmosphere suited to the unpleasant events of the story.'

The 'imaginary country' is, of course, very like post war New Zealand. Unusual, mistaken for unspecific.

some support for my argument?
12. Marie Hodgkinson
@ElizabethK, this reminds me of how strange it felt to read A Visit To the House on Terminal Hill here on Tor.com.

I'm having difficulty describing it - the odd disconnect of knowing you are reading something by a New Zealand author, about a world that is, if not NZ, then close enough, but which has been published overseas with editorial decisions that reflect that, and is thus no longer really directed at you.

Some of the word usage in the story pinged me as American - college rather than uni, cornbread rather than ... whatever it is that cornbread is, if we have an equivalent - and I wondered whether that was the result of editorial decisions made by the publisher here, or were part of your own worldbuilding. Like reading Jane Campion's novelisation of The Piano and seeing all of the Maori words italicised. It bumped me out of the story more than I thought it would.
Joann Buchanan
13. JoannHBuchanan
"Now for me I guess the question I have to answer is whether books in thescience fiction and fantasy genre should be allowed to have new and novel information over and above what they invent?"

I say let your imagination soar so long as it's true to the story and believable. One of the reasons these books are so amazing is that the writers didn't put limits on what they could do in the worlds they created, they expanded every realm of possibility.

Magic within a world, what if it just is...and that's the way people lived? Vampires in a town, what if that was your neighbor? The whole idea is not to limit yourself. What if trees could talk, but only when adult humans weren't around? What if they could talk to children? The point here is take your what if worlds and bring them to life. Who cares if they are in New Zealand. The readers will understand Christmas in the summer if you have already breathed life into the whole of the story. Don't get bogged down in the whole idea of limitations, that will only take away from what you are trying to accomplish. The one beautiful and true thing about writing is that you can go anywhere, be anything, love and hate and fight in battles, ride on a dragon, seek a treasure...and the list goes on. The possibilities are only endless if you allow them to be.
14. ElizabethK
Hi Marie
The use of the word 'college' rather than 'University' is editorial. Cornbread on the other hand is because the only grain the trapped Ghislain Zarene would be able to grow in his terraced garden is corn. It's always of the first importance to use what is true to the situation of the story - especially in non-realist fiction, where the rules of the story have to stand in for the gravity and dignity of facts.

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