A Framework for Decolonizing Speculative Fiction: Beneath the Rising and Steel Crow Saga

Last week marked the publication of Premee Mohamed’s debut novel Beneath the Rising (Solaris), a hotly anticipated tale of cosmic horror and adventure. Equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching, Beneath the Rising deeply subverts the oppressive foundations of Lovecraft’s vision of cosmic horror. In doing so, Mohamed joins Paul Krueger, author of the standalone epic fantasy novel Steel Crow Saga (Del Rey, 2019), in uprooting some of the core assumptions we have about the speculative fiction genre’s traditions and conventions.

One of genre fiction’s current priorities is “diversity,” a term which often goes frustratingly undefined. What explanations can be found often hinge on vague ideas about including more people in publishing and in genre communities.  But if “diversity” is defined based on inclusion, the term becomes ill-equipped to answer the questions it raises. For example, is the experience of a Han Chinese person “diverse”? After all, even if we’re considered an ethnic minority when we’re in the United States, Han Chinese people form the largest ethnic group in the world.

But there is a bigger question that often remains unasked in these conversations: Is inclusion enough? When the foundations of an organization are broken, or when the institutions of a society keep people unequal, is it worth it to be included? 

The conversation around publishing thus far has largely been centered on the United States and the United Kingdom. Although the necessity of fighting racism and White  supremacy has entered the discourse, the legacy of colonialism often remains unexamined. Colonialism changed our world and put new systems of power in place. Large-scale infrastructure transformed our relationship with the environment, which became a resource to be used. People and money began to move around the world differently, redistributing wealth and poverty. The gender binary replaced indigenous gender systems around the world, altering gender roles and expectations about work. There is no topic you can discuss, including literature, without encountering colonialism’s legacy. 

Coloniality, the underlying logic that makes colonization possible, is the missing context in many of these conversations. “Diverse”… compared to what? “Included”… how, and in what? “Represented”… to which audience? Steel Crow Saga and Beneath the Rising both ask us to examine the assumptions on which we base our ideas of value and worth. Both novels provide roadmaps for futures that are decolonial and envision power differently than the systems of injustice we have now. Both novels also directly engage the authors’ backgrounds as descendants of colonized peoples who are now living in the West. Krueger describes himself as “Filipino-American.” Mohamed, who is Canadian, uses the terms “Indo-Guyanese” and “Indo-Caribbean” to describe her heritage.

In this essay, I will provide a brief framework for understanding decolonization using illustrations from Steel Crow Saga and Beneath the Rising. “Decolonization” has two uses. The first describes global events after World War II that led to the reversal of colonial power worldwide. The second refers to unlearning intellectual colonization, a process which involves describing and challenging the ideas that created “superiority” and “inferiority” in the first place. I will be using “decolonization” the second way throughout this essay.

Decolonizing has five parts: (1) contextualizing, (2) describing, (3) confronting, (4) reclaiming, and (5) remembering.

 

Contextualizing

Every story has a setting, or a place and a time. Like stories, each of us has a context. But not only are we individuals in spacetime, we all have a different social status based on who we are. No matter where we are physically, whether that’s a library in Los Angeles or a research base on Antarctica, we still relate to the world in a way that reflects our understanding of it. Our upbringings, attitudes, and beliefs shape the lenses through which we see the world and through which the world sees us.

Beneath the Rising takes place in an alternate timeline where the September 11 attacks failed. Even though the crisis was averted, the event changed North American politics and society forever. But that divergence is the smallest of the differences between Mohamed’s world and ours. Joanna “Johnny” Chambers, a child prodigy, has transformed the globe with innovative scientific and technological solutions to major medical, infrastructure, and public health problems—to name just a few of her contributions. But when her invention for generating limitless clean energy attracts the attention of evil, otherworldly beings, her best friend Nick gets dragged along with her on a journey to save the world.

Nick Prasad, the Indo-Guyanese Canadian protagonist of Beneath the Rising, can never escape from the fact that he’s brown in a post-9/11 world. His identity is not an incidental part of the narrative—it drives the narrative. Shortly after the evil eldritch beings make their intent to destroy human civilization known, Johnny and Nick find themselves whisked off to Morocco. Surrounded by people who look like him, Nick feels strangely out-of-place until he realizes that, in Canada, he’s used to White people being the majority. As they make their way through the city, Johnny, who is White, notes that people stare at her for not having a wedding ring as she travels around with Nick. Surprised, he cogently summarizes the differences in their experiences:

Was this really the first time she’d seen shit like this? Maybe it was, now that I thought about it. It was like both our lives had been designed to be obstacle courses, by people bigger and older and meaner and smarter than us, and you had to jump through so much more shit to live—for me, being young, being dumb, being poor, being brown, not knowing languages, not knowing manners, not knowing anything; and then for Johnny, what? Basically, being a girl, being famous. Her obstacles were tiny and easy and had a net below them, so that she might bounce back up laughing, and she had money and looks and genius and a staff of people rushing around to ensure that whatever obstacles did come up, she might not even see them. It was like she’d gotten to build her own course, instead of having it handed down by family, prejudice, geography, history. (199)

His identity doesn’t just shape his internal narration; it also shapes how he reacts and makes decisions. Later, when the police catch up to them, Nick thinks, “Don’t give them an excuse to shoot us. Don’t give them an excuse to Rodney King us.” (159) Even though he’s in Morocco, Nick still understands himself in terms of North American racial power dynamics, as symbolized by Rodney King.

This is not a color-by-numbers approach to representing “diversity,” but one that is rooted in years of lived experience. Giving context to Nick’s status in the world is what provides the narrative with a sense of verisimilitude as we eavesdrop on Nick’s thoughts, and only with context is the ending so powerfully resonant. In contrast, when an organization like WNDB neglects to define its scope—for example, which publishing industry needs to be fixed?—the ensuing conversation often ends up being vague, with few actionable solutions. Only by taking into account our full contexts can we understand what change even needs to be made, then how we can make that change.

Secondary worlds have bigger hurdles to providing context, since their societies and cultures are invented. The hierarchies must be made apparent before a reader can understand how a character fits into the world. Steel Crow Saga achieves this well. Within the first thirty pages of part one, Krueger introduces us not only to the competing powers in the world, but also individuals who have a strong stake in each side.

Right after we meet convicted thief Lee Yeon-Ji, she distances herself from the kingdom of Shang, which “had never expected much from [Jeongsonese] women like Lee, and she’d never expected a whole lot from Shang, either.” (15) We learn that power has shifted from a Tomodanese occupation to Shang rule, and that the Jeongsonese have been pushed to the margins in that process. Along with having a poor quality of life, they have ethnic slurs hurled at them regularly. When Shang Xiulan steps in to save Lee from execution, claiming that Lee is actually an undercover Li-Quan detective working for Shang, Xiulan highlights Lee’s social status as well: “Who better to travel around Shang, conducting, ah, business for the throne, than someone the world will go out of its way to overlook?” (24)

After meeting Lee and Xiulan, we jump on board the Marlin, where Tala, a marine serving in the army of the newly liberated Republic of Sanbu, is tasked with keeping watch over important cargo. Immediately, we get a sense of the cultural differences in Krueger’s world: “Unlike the steel ships of Tomoda or the ironclads of Shang and Dahal, the Marlin was made in the traditional Sanbuna way: entirely of wood.” (32) But the construction of the ship also serves as a security precaution. The Marlin’s cargo turns out to be Iron Prince Jimuro, heir to the Mountain Throne of Tomoda. Once again, as soon as the two characters come into contact, we immediately see power differences between them. The major ideological differences between Tomoda and Sanbu become clear as Jimuro comments on the magical extension of Tala’s spirit known as a “shade.” When he calls her shade a slave, Tala breaks her silence to argue back that Tomoda’s ideals about freedom are hypocritical.

Despite the fact that Steel Crow Saga is inspired by Asia, the politics and nations in its world don’t align neatly to ours. Krueger has to establish the dynamics, and he does so masterfully in a clear way. Both pairs of characters come from extremes in the political axes of Krueger’s world, and their decisions, their perceptions of the world, and their ideals all stem from their backgrounds and privilege, or lack of it.

 

Describing

[Xiulan] felt a cold chain of logic running through [Ruomei’s words], and the moment she sensed herself understanding it, she recoiled. (Steel Crow Saga 402)

One of coloniality’s most powerful legacies is its redefinition what we consider to be “modern” and “natural.” In order to decolonize, we have to be able to describe the thought processes and ideologies that led to those redefinitions.

Even in the secondary world of Steel Crow Saga, Krueger critiques assumptions about the status quo, most notably through Lee:

Every so often on their short voyage, Xiulan would get into this kind of lofty talk about her family’s place in the natural order of things. It was tiresome, but Lee hadn’t gotten quite bold enough to call her on it just yet. Still, she knew herself well enough to know it was probably just a matter of time. (83)

Meanwhile, Johnny acts as a symbol for coloniality in Beneath the Rising. Nick, who is in a similar position as Lee, criticizes Johnny’s assumptions about the “natural order” of their world:

The way everyone ranked below [Johnny], in some great misshapen pyramid of humanity where she was the tiny point at the top and everyone was simply spread out below her. The way she saw our ties as trivial, easily broken for the sake of logic, or convenience, or boredom.” (113–114)

Both Lee and Nick are describing coloniality. The status quo is not the default state of the world, but a manufactured narrative about who deserves power and why.

Describing coloniality also means pinpointing the exact ideas about difference that form the foundation of colonialism’s hierarchies. Lee once again has sharp insights: “She’d listened time and time again on the radio as [the Tomodanese] chalked up everything they did to ending the barbarism of shadepacting. Never mind that most of their victims couldn’t even pact, whether by ability or by Shang law.” (90) Jimuro aligns with that view of shadepacting, evidenced by the way he reacts to Tala’s shade. But Tomodanese ideologies about shadepacting are not merely political—they ultimately stem from Tomoda’s spiritual understanding of the world. Because everything has a soul, a relationship where you are permanently able to impose your wishes on another spirit is tantamount to slavery.

Tomoda, however, sees no room for coexisting ideologies and wants to eliminate shadepacting. But their crusade isn’t driven purely by ethics and morality. Ultimately, their philosophical ideals allow them to conquer other nations and exploit them for resources, namely steel. Xiulan comments on how ideology still underlies what appears to be just a question of supply and demand: “[Steel] is quite scarce on Tomoda. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to learn that its scarcity was why it became sacred to them in the first place.” (110) The narrative later elaborates on how Tomoda was able to build its empire through their exploitation of resources:

It had been Jimuro’s grandfather, Steel Lord Kenjiro, who had introduced railroads to the people of Tomoda. Building railroads had always been theoretically possible, but the scarcity of metal on the home island had rendered it impractical. The conquest of the Sanbu Islands had changed that. The rich ore mined there had been used to mass-produce automobiles, to improve the weapons in Tomoda’s national armory… and to finally realize the dream of a Tomoda tattooed with latticeworks of steel. (237)

Meanwhile, ideologies about science, modernity, and progress are the main focus of critique in Beneath the Rising. Mohamed quickly calls out capitalism’s view of science, which, in Nick’s opinion, is not about research for knowledge’s sake: “[T]he purpose of science, after all, was to make more money to buy more science.” (11) Later, he directly confronts Johnny about her savior mentality, and indirectly alludes to colonialism’s dissatisfaction with merely existing in the world when he says, “You would still have changed the world. […] But you wanted to save it.” (96) That savior mentality is what leads Johnny to make decisions without truly considering the value of a human life.

 

Confronting

Describing ideology, however, is not enough. The next step is to confront it. Nick is blunt with Johnny when he challenges her concept of ethics: “You can’t just throw people under the bus to run off and do what you want. […] If you have to fuck people up to follow a dream, then it’s a bad dream and you shouldn’t follow it[.]” (31–32) After the Ancient Ones attack and destroy Nick’s home, Johnny offers monetary compensation to repair the damage Furious, Nick confronts Johnny’s attitudes about the dispensability of human life:

Look at this house! Look what They did to it! Or what you did to it! You know, you can write a cheque as big as the moon, it’ll never make up for this, for having this taken from us when we finally had something to take […] This is a life you’re trying to buy, Johnny, and a life isn’t stuff, the way you—you joke about buying researchers, the way you laughed about buying Rutger when you paid for his replacement. (110)

Confrontation comes with its own set of consequences, and many who speak up are silenced. But in Steel Crow Saga, Krueger illustrates how confronting one’s own ideas of privilege and power can lead to growth and political change. Xiulan initially tries to distinguish herself as “not like the others” (115) in Shang who believe in the inferiority of the Jeongsonese. Lee, however, is quick to fire back that sympathy is not enough and only serves to make oppressors feel less guilty about their role in perpetuating injustice. Although Xiulan feels uncomfortable being called out, she chooses to listen to Lee’s experiences and not whitewash them. When Lee gives Jimuro the same treatment, he, too, chooses to listen to her. At the end of the novel, both Xiulan and Jimuro’s deepened understandings of their positions in power inform how they choose to wield that power to influence future policy.

 

Reclaiming

Once we confront coloniality, narratives of the “natural” distribution of resources and knowledge begin to fall apart. Subjects once considered unquestionable and purely objective, like science, are exposed as tools to further colonialism and create inequality. Restricting access to knowledge is another common tactic used to disempower people: “[D]espite [Tala’s] conviction, the path to [shadepacting] eluded her. She couldn’t go to a library to learn about it; the Tomodanese had removed as much information about shadepacting as they could from the public’s reach.” (335) But Tala’s inability to find information on shadepacting isn’t the only evidence of Tomoda exercising its control over knowledge. One of the first things the Tomodanese do upon occupying an area is establish compulsory imperial schooling, implying indoctrination in Tomodanese ideology and a Tomodanese narrative of history.

In Mohamed’s novel, however, Nick vividly illustrates that simply trying to be equal with those who approach you in bad faith isn’t enough: “They just wanted to negotiate, beg, try to ‘appeal’ to the humanity of the people who had locked us in that closet. And that’s the way it always goes. It’s up to us to do something else.” (250) We can take back control of knowledge and the arts, decolonizing them to make room for more voices. We can change the narratives around us to unlink ourselves from colonialism. Indeed, the ending of Beneath the Rising hinges on Nick radically reframing his relationship with Johnny and subsequently his position within the power structures of Mohamed’s world.

Krueger uses Jimuro to show Sanbunas engaged in the process of reclaiming narratives about themselves. Newspapers from Lisan City are factually accurate, but Jimuro objects to “the level of jingoism and libel endemic in the Sanbuna press.” (186) Yet the “libel” appears to be little more than a political reframing of the Steel Cicadas, a guerrilla group, from a Sanbuna point of view, rather than the privileged Tomodanese one: “[The Steel Cicadas] were patriots (his translation for the Sanbuna term terrorist) fighting small battles all over the island of Tomoda to strike back against the occupying foreign powers. The Star dismissed them as neo-monarchists and thugs. But witnessing them in action now, Jimuro saw only heroes.” (186)

Later, Lee challenges the notion that the Shang have to have a reason for hating the Jeongsonese. She reclaims the narrative of her history, commenting:

Far as I know, [the Jeongsonese] were just living on land [the Shang] wanted. Or maybe they thought our language was stupid. Or one of us tried to tell them our whole idea of what happens when you die, and they said, ‘You’re wrong, see for yourself.’ […] Whichever one it actually was, it doesn’t really matter. If it hadn’t been that reason, they would’ve just picked one of the others.” (370)

This framing of Shang–Jeongsonese politics places Jeongson in the center, rejecting the idea that Jeongson is simply inferior and arguing that the fault lies with Shang for creating Jeongson’s plight.

 

Remembering

Finally, decolonization involves challenging how we remember and retell stories. Coloniality presents only one timeline of global history, where heathens were introduced to modern civilization on an endless journey toward progress. Nick humorously illustrates the way coloniality rewrites world history: “Eventually it would get all garbled and the history books would say [Johnny] had invented electricity and screws and the horseless carriage and the letter E.” (137) The reality, though, is that the world has always consisted of multiple civilizations and histories that intertwine with one another, not the single story of power imbalance presented by coloniality. Colonizers are not selfless, but selfish, like how Nick describes Johnny: “Not a hero selflessly saving the world from a random disaster, but someone frantically trying to clean up her own mess.” (175)

Krueger also subtly calls out coloniality’s zero sum game when he addresses the history of shadepacting, a type of magic that the Shang and Sanbunas both practice. The coloniality of Steel Crow Saga’s world is pervasive, as reflected in Xiulan’s beliefs: “Scholars disagreed as to which of the two nations had been its true creator [of shadepacting] (though among reputable scholars, Xiulan noted, the consensus was solidly in Shang’s favor).” (137) Xiulan doesn’t pause to consider the third option—that shadepacting emerged simultaneously and independently among the two civilizations.

Likewise, in our world, “genre” does not only exist within the confines of the anglophone world. Beyond an already narrow Western literary canon, cultures all over the world have their own understandings of the speculative and the unreal. Some, like China, have terms for “science fiction”—a Western import—but none for “fantasy,” since fantasy is embodied in the very storytelling tradition of the culture. We cannot hope to make “genre” more diverse without acknowledging that genre has been independently created again and again all over the globe. The reality is that genre has always been diverse. Its diversity just goes unrecognized by those in power.

 

Decolonizing the future

“I couldn’t hate your people forever. I still have to share the world with you, after all.” (Steel Crow Saga 507)

What would my life have looked like if it had truly belonged to me? I could have had friends, even girlfriends… I could have made my own decisions, gone my own way. […] What could the world have been? (Beneath the Rising 341–344)

Decolonizing is nothing more and nothing less than taking democracy seriously instead of using it to advance imperial designs or personal interests. […] If used, it will belong to all of us[.] (The Darker Side of Western Modernity 92)

The decolonial model I present here is only a brief overview. Decolonization is too big a topic to fit into any one essay or book—everyone decolonizes differently depending on where they are and how colonialism impacts their history. Ultimately, decolonization is an endless process of building different visions of the future where people can coexist outside the constrains of coloniality. Speculative fiction has so often provided roadmaps to the future for us, and only through decolonizing those roadmaps can we hope to approach a world that embodies every person’s right to self-determination.

S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Their fiction and poetry have appeared in Asimov’sF&SF, and Strange Horizons, and their translations have appeared in Clarkesworld. They edit the flash fiction and poetry magazine Arsenika. You can find out more about S. at their website or on Twitter and Instagram @sqiouyilu.

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