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I started to include this with the previous entry, but decided that it needed to be on its own.

Hmm. Not really sure where to start with this. I guess the short version is that there's this shiny new YA fantasy novel by Patricia Wrede called "The Thirteenth Child", in which the basic premise -- okay, quoting from the glowing review at Tor.com:

The elevator pitch for Thirteenth Child would be “Little House on the Prairie with mammoths and magic.” ... This is an alternate version of our world which is full of magic, and where America (“Columbia”) was discovered empty of people but full of dangerous animals, many of them magical. In this world the frontier is perilous and settlements need magicians to protect them, but the railroads are creeping across the continent and covered wagons are crossing the Great Barrier that runs along the Mississippi.

In the comments at the Tor thread, the point is immediately made, and then discussed, that this sounds an awful lot like a lite-fantasy version of the very worst aspects of 19th century ideal of Manifest Destiny. All the fun of colonial expansion + mammoths without the pesky natives getting in the way! No guilt over claiming the land because nobody was using it anyway -- for real this time!

Wrede's own comments from her brainstorming sessions on rec.arts.sf.composition do not help matters.

There's a link list at [info] - dreamwidth.orgnaraht's blog archived under this tag; oldest links at bottom.

I already discussed this a little bit at Leigh Dragoon's post on it. It's partly a moral issue, partly a world-building issue, I guess; the problem, really, is that Wrede appears completely oblivious to the idea that she'd be pushing some really sensitive buttons with this, and therefore didn't devote much effort at all to seriously exploring the ramifications of it. The less problematic your basic premise is, the more slack people are going to cut you for not working through the details. I really enjoy Naomi Novik's Temeraire books, for example, even though the basic idea (Napoleonic Wars + dragons) is completely unworkable if you start thinking about it -- the history of a world with actual dragons would almost certainly have more and greater points of divergence from our own. But it's a fun idea and nobody's getting hurt in the making of it. (Well, for the most part; Novik's books aren't entirely devoid of problems either, but she seems to try hard and to be genuinely committed to improvement.)

But when it comes to something like this -- the real-world history of this continent is so terrible and so fraught with pain and death, and is basically the story of a semi-successful effort to wipe out tens of millions of people and erase their memory in reality; to basically use it as a side plot point in a cheerful YA fantasy about a white girl and mammoths skeeves me horribly. I certainly don't think it would be impossible to seriously address the idea of an uninhabited America and its influence on world history -- but f'r pete's sake, you've got to understand what you're writing about and how it works in a broader historical context (both in terms of your created world, and in terms of the real world and the real readers with real feelings who are going to be reading your book). If all you want is a happy magical fantasy with mammoths, and there are dozens of other, less emotionally loaded and potentially offensive ways that you can do it, why not do that instead?

I struggle with these issues in my own writing, because I'm very much a magpie when it comes to ideas, and a lot of this magpie-ism is directed towards other cultures and various periods in history. I used to believe that there wasn't an idea that I wouldn't try to tackle; however, the epic mess that is "Raven's Children" taught me some humility and my reading on cultural appropriation over the last few years has taught me a lot more, and I'm still learning. I don't believe that being a writer absolves a person of the need to be a responsible and considerate human being also; those of us who work with words for a living have no real excuse if we carelessly use those words to hurt people.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 17th, 2009 01:18 pm (UTC)
Yes, you're right, it's wrong to let this go without a mention. As Diderot once said: Il faut encourager la vertu et décourager le vice.

My first reaction was that people were getting excited for nothing. After all, US science fiction had been doing this to any and every non-US culture for more than sixty years, by describing futures (bright and shiny, or dark and dystopian) where all other languages save English have been wiped out. In other words, my language, French, has been wiped out, and my culture, the essence of what I am, my society, all totally French-based have been erased by these writers. And then, there's the matter of this branch called alternate history which has been doing it also, but pre-emptively.

I've been reading this kind of thing for several decades, so I've become a bit jaded. But that's no reason to stop noting that it's wrong. Even the completely jaded and utterly cynical (I haven't reached that stage yet) should make some effort to point out that one should really not be beastly with the Amerindians. They are still struggling with cultural survival and heaping this kind of literary erasure on top of them is absolutely not helping. Authors who do this should be given a polite reminder of their goof up. One must after all encourage virtue and discourage vice, like Denis Diderot said.
May. 21st, 2009 03:03 am (UTC)
Sorry it's taken me a few days to get back to the discussion.

I think it's worth not letting go. Actually, I think it's worth bringing up the linguistic thing, too -- my own comparison for connecting to these issues is the misrepresentation and absence of the Arctic and Alaska and the rural working class in the media. Those are the things that I notice and chafe at, because they relate to me. And while they are not by any means on the same scale as the erasure of a people or a culture, it's one small part of the problem -- that the so-called "speculative" worlds of SFF are overwhelmingly white and culturally hegemonous and Anglophone. And there a lot of really fantastic books, a lot of books I've loved, that are very much that way. But I am very glad that there's getting to be more widespread recognition that there are other stories worth telling, as well.

I think the new Kismet novel reflects a little more of the futuristic diversity that I envision in my head, even though it's still limited by the SFF space opera tropes that it draws upon.
May. 17th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
Y'know, while I appreciate how problematic Novik's books are -- and the grace with which she has handled having this pointed out -- the big difference between her and Wrede is that she has sat down and thought about the ways in which the world is different.

And while I've always wondered where Laurence gets his attitude of White Male English superiority, given that England is not a colonial power, I understand that it's part and parcel the "age of sail" genre, and I like how she's exploring how bass-ackwards his attitude is.

But I also like the extent to which she's thought out the ways in which the power balence in the world is different *because* of the dragons and that the fact that nations have "air forces" changes things immensely and that England's not going to become a major empire and that the Americas will not be colonized.
May. 17th, 2009 03:54 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the Temeraire books but... (drive-by-suggestion for fannish handwaving)....

I've always wondered where Laurence gets his attitude of White Male English superiority, given that England is not a colonial power

Protestantism? The whole "God is a Yorkshireman English" was strong even apart from colonialism, although that probably strengthened it further.

/speculative handwaving
May. 17th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
Protestantism? The whole "God is a Yorkshireman English" was strong even apart from colonialism, although that probably strengthened it further.

Aha! That really makes sense now that I think about it. Thanks!
May. 21st, 2009 03:12 am (UTC)
... would you believe that, despite having read the novels relatively recently, I somehow managed to miss the lack of a British empire? Or at least I don't remember it. *blinks* (In my own defense, I read the books very fast and frequently in airports.)

I do think that Novik's books are focused much more heavily on the squee! shiny! factor than on serious world-building. And honestly, I don't think Wrede's world-building would have come in for such heavy scrutiny if she hadn't started off with such a problematic premise. Not that I'm saying it's a bad thing in any way that she's getting that scrutiny -- actually I've found the discussions on the history of the Americas far more fascinating than Wrede's book sounds (and I've learned a lot). But I think people are a lot more willing to give you a pass for lazy or inadequate world-building if you aren't using it to prop up a premise that sets off immediate warning bells.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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