In The Big Book of Science Fiction, editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer offer a definition of the genre that is as elegant as it is inclusive:
The simplicity of the VanderMeers’ definition literally opens up an entire world of possibility: the stories in this collection cover the entire 20th century (plus a few years on each end), and represent authors from more than 25 countries. We discover, if we’re willing to look, that the literary tradition of speculative futures spans continents and cultures and is perhaps as universal to the human experience as language and storytelling.
Not surprisingly, The Big Book of Science Fiction is big—105 stories and almost 1200 pages. In order to do justice to the scale and scope of the VanderMeers’ ambitious undertaking, Fiction Unbound is devoting two weeks to its review. Today in Part 1, Lisa Mahoney and Jon Horwitz-White venture abroad to explore tales of human perspective and cultural appropriation authored by a diverse group of Latin America writers and China’s incomparable Cixin Liu. (You can find Part 2 here.)
Latin American Writers & Human Perspective in Science Fiction — Lisa Mahoney
In their introduction, the VanderMeers note the diversity of speculative fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before science fiction came to be seen as a narrow genre of stories about “dashing men in dashing machines having dashing adventures,” as it was in the US and UK during the heyday of the sci-fi pulp magazines. Fortunately, in Latin America, writers continued broader traditions which led to the development of the magical realism of later writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These Latin American writers came to science fiction with a certain freedom of thought, perhaps because they often had a broad background in many arts, were politically active, and, refreshingly, did not obsess over the technical details of the SF elements in their stories.
This artistic diversity is well represented in the Latin American writers included in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo (“The Waves”), for example, was also a poet and playwright who studied painting and translated many important works into Spanish. She was married to Adolfo Bioy Casares (represented in the Big Book by “The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink”), an author best known for surrealism, fantasy and detective fiction, according to the VanderMeers. Both Ocampo and Bioy Casares were friends of Jorge Luis Borges, whose story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is included here. When Bioy Casares faced persecution under the Perón regime in Argentina, he and Borges wrote “savage satires” of Perónists under a pen name. In Brazil, André Carneiro (“Darkness”) was “a giant in the creative arts who gained national and international fame in many fields, including photography, film, painting, clinical hypnosis, advertising, and poetry.”
The Latin American stories collected here are speculative in a broad sense and tend to focus upon the human ramifications of their science fiction elements rather than upon the exact science behind them. There is often a mistrust of technology. In Miguel Unamuno’s “Mechanopolis,” we hear a story retold about a man who somehow gets lost in the desert, boards a train which inexplicably whisks him into a future ruled by machines which seem to evince the human emotion of sympathy. The visitor’s admiration turns quickly to loneliness, and then to dread. He is then returned to his own time just as mysteriously, and he vows to live as far removed from machines as possible. In Ocampo’s “The Waves,” a camel-hair coat reveals the secret nature of human attraction by allowing human waves to be read. In this future world, the government and hospitals (the Establishment) have begun enforcing social divisions by wavelength. These waves explain the mystery of why relationships endure or not. The narrator, who doesn’t believe this theory and longs for earlier days, is a woman addressing an unwanted missive to her former lover who works on the moon.
Carniero’s novella “Darkness,” a highly-regarded SF classic, imagines the effect of total darkness enveloping the world for eighteen days. Neither Carniero nor his hero can explain why the sun and firelight disappear, but that’s not the point. The story is about one man’s stages of fear and how helping others helps him persevere ... until the darkness ends and things go back to normal. The government reasserts itself, rolling tanks with loudspeakers through the city. (Derision for the Establishment, again.) The key point is how fast one man, and all of human civilization, fall apart when conditions change, and how fast things reset, with few people having developed empathy for others even after life-changing challenges.
Finally, the Latin American stories in the collection display a freedom of artistic form, like Ocampo’s direct address in “The Waves”, or Borges’ typically intricate “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which the narrator uncovers, in a suspect encyclopedia, an alternate world and civilization which may have existed but been covered up by a vast conspiracy or may have been developed as a part of an elaborate, interdisciplinary hoax. “Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola is written in the form of an extended advertisement for an exoskeleton which is mounted on kids to collect their excess energy into a battery which families can use for free electricity.
The story structure that most entertained me was used by Bioy Casares in “The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink.” The tale is told by a small-town teacher who notices that a sprinkler has been moved from the town Don’s carefully-tended garden and that the Don is borrowing too many books. The teacher and his intellectual bar buddies send a mentally-challenged student to spy on the Don and gather information. The boy reveals that the Don is housing an alien who needs a moist atmosphere and that the alien plans to save the planet from nuclear annihilation. Too afraid to investigate themselves after the sprinkler is returned to its regular place in the Don’s garden, the town deduces that the alien—which is never seen in the story—has been left to desiccate and die. The story focuses not upon how the alien gets to Earth, or upon how it reads and learns so fast, but upon the interactions between the various classes in the town, the teacher’s relationship with his challenged student, and the Don’s decision not to allow an alien to save the world lest it upset his own privileged position.
The Oppressor’s Journey: Cixin Liu’s “The Poetry Cloud” Transmutes Cultural Appropriation Into Authentic Cultural Exchange — Jon Horwitz-White
How is it possible that the life of a 14-year-old American boy can be changed after an encounter with Chinese poetry written in the 4th century BCE? And who could have imagined that the encounter would lead to a failed attempt to teach himself Chinese from a book checked out from the library, a decision to major in East Asian Studies in college, time abroad in Beijing, employment at a San Francisco sewing factory owned by and filled with amazing women of Chinese heritage? Something ignited in me when I was a boy, and I continue to be warmed by it. Just last month, I was moved to tears by the beauty and poignancy of verse written by an 8th century government official named Wei Ying-wu:
Yiyi, the human protagonist in Cixin Liu's “The Poetry Cloud,” says in regard to poetry, "This is the essence of the inner world of the human soul, and is unsurpassable!" Throughout the story, Liu continually suggests that art can transcend huge cultural, time, and space barriers to impress upon others its beauty and significance. “The Poetry Cloud” is ostensibly a meditation on the value of art and its explorations of the inner, emotional landscapes of sentient beings in a universe where technological prowess and achievement are prioritized. The subtext of the story, however, deals with imperialism and cultural appropriation, both of which haunt me as I recall the ridiculous image of me walking around Beijing, American thrift store chic with wooden Geta sandals on my feet.
Much of the story is devoted to an animated conversation that frames all of the philosophical questions the rest of the story addresses. Yiyi is plucked from the feedlot where he teaches classical literature to humans who are raised as food for a conquering dinosaur race, the Devourers, and is conveyed by a Devourer ambassador named Big Tooth to meet with a member of the incorporeal, deified master race. Presented as a gift, Yiyi is deemed repulsive, and the god orders him incinerated. But when scraps of paper containing poetry catch the god's attention, Yiyi is saved, and their conversation shifts from the worthlessness of humanity to whether human poetry is an art form without parallel in the universe.
The characters in this lengthy episode in “The Poetry Cloud” are very distinct: Yiyi, a lowly, disempowered poet who takes on powerful forces which seek to blot him out of existence, by fire or devouring; Big Tooth, a sycophantic, uninspired bureaucrat primarily interested in ascending to higher races; and the god, a being from the master race who collects art from across the universe without any regard for those that produced it. The latter is exposed as the chief Oppressor, though he is not without merits: the god has a profound appreciation for cultural artifacts.
Speculative fiction not only imagines new realities, alternate trajectories and far off times; it is also grounded in and comments upon our current reality and its historical context. Past and present tensions between nations are immediately recognizable in this story's characters. Their debate is redolent of 19th century European colonialism, the pilfering of the innovations of early 20th century black-American musicians by a white-dominated music industry, retailers' appropriation of non-Western designs and motifs for consumer goods manufactured in unspeakable conditions for absurdly low wages by non-Western people. “The Poetry Cloud” evokes all of these examples of cultural appropriation, and Cixin Liu shows us how to replace it with authentic cultural exchange.
The god's journey in this story is epic. He declares that he can write poetry that would surpass the work of revered human masters of the form. Abandoning the abstraction of geometrical forms, he incarnates in the body of a human clone (think white man gone native as in Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, or Avatar). Thus embodied, he immerses himself in human life, emulating the experiences of renowned poets, and upon meeting his limitations in his adopted craft, he embarks upon an ambitious and foolhardy scheme to use his race's master technology to write every possible poem that can be written with Chinese characters. But in the process, the beauty of poetry and its relationship with the transience of human experience works on him, transforms him.
Exchange, mimicry, and reinvention are naturally occurring human phenomena. It's evident in our history as a species and also our development from infancy through childhood, adolescence into adulthood. These phenomena are corrupted, however, by systems of domination that bell hooks, a renowned American intellectual and cultural critic, calls "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy." Cultural exchange becomes a ruse for colonial occupation, resource extraction, disempowerment and marginalization, if not outright genocide. The privileged and powerful god in Liu's story, however, ultimately undermines the systems of domination in the world of “The Poetry Cloud.” In their place, he uses his power to realize liberation, restoration and empowerment.
In contemplating the dynamics within this story, I realize the problem isn't necessarily that the Impressionists appropriated compositional elements from Japanese woodcuts, or Yves St. Laurent was inspired by the world's cultures in crafting some of his collections in the late 70's, or that Madonna brought vogueing into the mainstream. As Liu reminds us, art is transcendent; it speaks to the soul regardless of real or perceived barriers. The problem, therefore, is the power structures that allow these artists to profit from their creations in ways the artists who inspired them would never achieve. The problem is the hubris of artists who foreground themselves and their work without acknowledging and paying respect to their sources. The problem is the pervasive lack of consciousness of privileged consumers who reinforce disparity and injustice by blindly consuming cultural artifacts without any regard for the people from whom such artifacts are born.
Unlike the World Wide Web's self-righteous culture police, Cixin Liu is not bashing offenders over the head. Instead, he provides a pathway to redemption for those who have committed acts of cultural appropriation. “The Poetry Cloud” charts the journey from oppressor to appreciator, from domination to participation, from hubris to deference. In inhabiting a human body, experiencing pain, defeat, folly, the god is brought low, while Yiyi is raised up and empowered by his steadfast defiance. The god says to Yiyi near the end of the story:
Yiyi consoles him, and the story closes with the human, the dinosaur, and the incorporeal being incarnate as a human poet regarding the Poetry Cloud from a yacht, as equals.