U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Science Fiction and (No) Fear of a Non-Western Planet

Science fiction has long been a part of the Western literary canon. Whether you trace it back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or even earlier, the last two hundred years of Western literary history are filled with science fiction and horror. The names Wells, Verne, Asimov, Clarke—and, in a more modern context, Le Guin, Gaiman, Delaney, and so many others have come to make up the science fiction canon. Science fiction today, however, has increasingly begun to deal more with the rest of the world, not just the West. This is in direct contrast to the place of science fiction in places like India, where the genre still struggles to catch on. With the latest season of blockbusters coming soon, I cannot help but think about what science fiction films, television shows, and books (especially books!) say about how we in the West view the rest of the world.

Recent works of science fiction about the rest of the world, along with those produced by the non-Western world, are asking intriguing questions about the future of the world and everyone’s place within it. I have often thought about this question as it relates to my favorite science fiction franchise—Star Trek. Each captain from the five series—Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer—have been from countries of the West. To be more specific, only Picard is not from the United States; he is from France, and speaks with a British accent.[1] The recent Trek reboot films have further driven this point home, with the Enterprise being built on Earth, in a shipyard based in Iowa. It would be difficult to get much more middle America than that.

Science fiction, however, is slowly reflecting a renewed attention to the rest of the world. The international makeup of the rest of the Enterprise crew in the Original Series has long been remembered as a key point of Star Trek’s optimistic future. Marvel’s superhero film franchises are also firmly set in a global, and not merely American, context, with future films planning on focusing on such characters as Black Panther, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Of course, as with most important trends in science fiction, much of this reflection on a global future can be seen in science fiction literature.

Manga and anime from Japan, of course, have shown how writers and artists from that nation see the future. But China is also beginning to produce its own science fiction canon, with Cixin Liu becoming the first author from Asia to win a Hugo Award for his 2014 novel The Three Body Problem. With the novel taking place partially during China’s Cultural Revolution, The Three Body Problem does more than just flip traditional science fiction tropes on their head. It places one of the traditional centers of human culture at the center of an epic science fiction drama.

Alastair Reynolds, a scientist and science fiction writer from Scotland, has placed Africa at the center of his newest works. Blue Remembered Earth (2012) centers around a future Africa that, as a continent, is now one of the world’s great political and economic blue remembered earthsuperpowers. Similarly, Kim Stanley Robinson (of The Mars Trilogy fame), placed China at the center of twenty-third century Earth politics in the novel 2312 (2012). Increasingly, among science fiction authors, there is a greater recognition that the future may not be controlled by the West. In fact, at the least humanity’s future will be one where East, West, North, and South won’t matter as much—or, to put it another way, no longer will global power dynamics be easy to understand through just references to directions on a compass.

Thinking about the future is often a reflection of the present. Science fiction authors and television and film producers alike are creating a more diverse future. Some of this is due to input from science fiction writers across the globe. No doubt this diversity is also being driven by the bottom line, a need for movie companies to make money in the international market. But much of it is also a reflection of the world we live in, where it is impossible to ignore the rest of the world no matter how hard anyone tries. Instead, science fiction allows us to embrace a future that, if one thinks about it, looks a lot like the distance past—where the West is but one part of a world where the dynamics of power and wealth are spread out across the world.

[1] For your sake, I shall stay away from fan theories about why a Frenchman speaks with a British accent. All I shall add is that it isn’t outside the realm of possibility for a French person to have such an accent centuries from now—but I digress.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Random thoughts: How much does this new science fiction deal with history, real or imagined? How much does history inform these futuristic worlds and scenarios? I ask in the interest of thinking about how to use newer sci-fi endeavors to teach, or think about, historical contingency. Also, is the new sci-fi about promoting new continents, pluralistic heroes, and cultures, or are systems (like capitalism) dealt with prominently? – TL

    • Great questions. I’ll try to deal with the history one first, because history is definitely at the backbone of Cixin Liu’s “The Three Body Problem.” With the first half of the story occurring during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it gives the characters in the story a different point of view than, say, if they were in the USA in the modern day. Ideology is always lurking in the background–especially the excesses of ideologically driven belief.

      Also, I think one essential element of this science fiction is its ability to showcase different cultures. With Reynolds’ “Blue Remembered Earth,” for example, you’re seeing science fiction story in the future from the perspective of individuals steeped in East African cultures. The resulting story is one where different cultures come together to form, essentially, new ones.

      After contemplating your question further, I think I might write a follow up post. I have long had the idea of writing something about historical memory and science fiction, and this might be the impetus I need to write that post. It will use some different examples from the ones I have above–but don’t worry, I shall also return to these in the near future. Thanks for the great questions as always!

  2. That book by Reynolds sounds interesting; I’ll have to look at it sometime.

    “Science fiction, however, is slowly reflecting a renewed attention to the rest of the world.”

    In recent films like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) and the late-‘90s release, Gattaca, there seems to be an implied “universal” message applicable to all groups and political entities regardless of their geographical location, simply by including elements from the microscopic world of genetics. It seems (to me) that these two movies in particular, although employing a mainly white, European-based cast, build their sci-fi narrative around topics that transcend (for lack of a better word) a West/East division (or even a nation-state/small community dichotomy).

    This might be my own peculiar reception of those films, but I’m curious if you see a new type of SF emerging in either literary or cinematic forms? When you say, “rest of the world,” do you mean a geographical shift that remains focused on planet earth, or were you thinking about the perceptual changes of people within the same area (the West, e.g.) that reveal a new way of viewing matter, energy, etc., and how they all interconnect?

    I also remember how the religious-based themes that played such a significant part in a few seasons of Deep Space Nine (I think, my favorite Trek show) ended up (for me) subsuming all of the differentiating marks of individual groups and characters found within Star Trek’s diegetic world. That is, the more abstract ideas of ontology, theology, and epistemology, because they have such a longer history—centuries before Western modernization—, are what initially drew me to the Trek universe.

    Do you find that the changing face of religious experience today has provided a doorway for SF writers to temporarily leave the traditional, SF topics (those you mentioned above)? My knowledge of literary SF after the 1960s is hazy at best. . .


    • Sorry for the tardy reply–but you’ve posed some great questions here.

      In terms of rest of the world–I mean both a focus by Western authors on the rest of the world in the future, and authors from other parts of the world writing about science fiction. Take Cixin Liu, for instance: no one from the continent of Asia had ever before won a Hugo award, one of the most prestigious awards in all of literary science fiction. The growth of Afrofuturism, which includes authors from Africa, is another example of this.

      As for religion and science fiction (another big DS9 fan here), authors such as China Mieville blur traditional science fiction literary lines–he sometimes comes close to a more magical realism bent. That doesn’t entirely answer your question, but I do want to say that writers today are beginning to experiment more with what science fiction can *say* beyond traditional tropes.

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