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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Ever since SF/F came into existence as a (self-)conscious genre, it has prided itself on its imagination: far-out concepts, what-if premises, new worlds and cultures. But our experience is still, well, local. We all share the same planet, with its limiting intrinsics and dizzyingly rich but finite configurations, even among non-human species. And all humans share the same baseline brain configuration which does constrain certain aspects of our behavior. For example, we’re not true solitaries, even the attic- or cave-dwelling misanthropes and anchorites among us. So the genre’s new human(oid) worlds are inevitably mixes of ones that already exist – seamless fusions at best, staple-strewn frankenmonsters at worst. As media like the Internet give people a veneer of global knowledge, SF/F writers, willy-nilly, include in their works pieces of disciplines and cultures that are not their own, unless they are content to remain within the suffocating “write what you know” straitjacket. This, to put it mildly, has created a Gordian knot.

Language is a great bridge but an equally great barrier. At this point, SF/F is still heavily Anglophone and most of its practitioners are either Anglosaxons or live in an Anglosaxon country. As I discussed in several previous forays (relevant links are at the end of this article), this has resulted in the parochialism of unquestioned dominant-group assumptions: stories written by armchair tourists (Bacigalupi, MacDonald, Roberts) get accolades and awards while those by outsiders (whether “natives” or “immigrants”) are discounted as too alien. Many works that attempt to portray other cultures carry an unmistakable whiff of the colonial outlook with its propensity to casually exoticize/dehumanize/homogenize non-default Others: Chinese swords aren’t called katanas and Krishna’s primary weapon is a serrated disc, not a pointed missile.

At the same time, the discussions about what constitutes verisimilitude or authenticity in an SF/F work have been long and heated. One outcome, also parochial but along a different axis, is that purists of specific stripes exhaustively critique the domains that interest them while blithely ignoring the rest of the discrepancies: food descriptions must be correct but who cares about accurate depictions (or even the basics) of planetary orbits or reproduction!

Personally, I’m “between” in too many ways to avoid or count – between cultures, between languages, between gender roles, between mindsets as a practicing scientist who’s also a feminist; these attributes have made me a feral non-joiner who has no clearly defined “tribe” (a term used with great frequency and approval in SF/F workshops and conventions)… and, believe it or not, a “between” in questions of authenticity because of the ever-shifting vision that results from such an existence. Of course, I have flung plenty of books summarily into recycling bins when they cavalierly mangle contexts I know well. As is my custom, I’ll put my conclusion up first: writers walk a tightrope even when they write about their own culture. They must be explorers and scholars at the same time, use both telescopes and microscopes, build photon sails while consulting dictionaries.

If someone writes historical fiction, authenticity is easier to judge. To give but one example, stories in which wives in medieval western Europe run around with their hair floating in the breeze are simply ridiculous. On the other hand, stories of future- or alternate-X (X=India, Brazil, Hellas, Turkey, Russia, China, Thailand… plus hybrids thereof) are rooms in fiction’s mansion that bristle with potential for both achievement and disaster.

What makes a treatment “respectful” (a far better criterion would be simply beyond-surface knowledge plus quality of inspiration and execution, but we’ll let that go for now) is a combination of factors that are hard to optimize simultaneously: the author’s imagination and ability are certainly involved, but so is their willingness to absorb and apply new, often discomfiting knowledge; the distance of the new world from its original and the degree of hybridization also play significant roles. Most invented/extrapolated languages and cultures are as solid (and as attractive) as wet cement. Nevertheless, I’ve seen many that are interesting, even though all but the very best lack the complexity, arbitrariness and depth that comes from being ground and sifted over time by different peoples. And so it comes to pass that Alexander Jablokov’s Russian/Byzantine-tinged future Earth works for me and so does – with some reservations – Sherwood Smith’s Colend culture (a fusion of Renaissance Florence with Heian Kyoto), whereas nearly all steampunk alt-Europes and cyberpunk alt-Earths look like Diogenes’ plucked rooster to me.

A quick-n-easy way to fake authenticity is to drop crumbs of the relevant language/jargon. I think it’s fine to use culture-specific concepts that are hard to translate eloquently or briefly – from mono no aware to palikári (plural palikária, not palikáris, dammit!). However, subjecting readers to an eye-poking parade of tourist guide words (yes, no, and their ilk – hello, Winds of Khalakovo!) indicates near-lethal laziness on a writer’s part. In that respect travelogues are far worse, leaving aside their usual breathlessness.

While I’m on the subject, there’s no intrinsic taint to apostrophes and accents, contrary to HackWriting 101 injunctions. My own language uses/ed both for concrete functions: apostrophes were soft consonants (dhaseía represented the H in Helen, just as the French circumflex represents a silenced S: hôpital, forêt), while accents show where stress falls within a word. Default stress differs across languages (French always stresses the last syllable, English defaults to the penultimate), so I often find it necessary to use accents when I want to convey this information. It’s Athiná, not Athína, and that “th” represents a theta, not a tau, phoneme.

At the same time, the engineers are right when they say that the perfect is the enemy of the good. True, I still have to fight my instinctive reactions when I see foreigners use my culture and language in their fiction, although I will read – even like – a work if the writer has absorbed enough for the story’s purpose. However, if I were to demand that a writer should never use any Hellenic words or myths whatsoever in their alt-Alexander fantasy unless they also reproduce all the historic/cultural background that made the words and events in their story possible I’d essentially be arguing that only minutely researched historical fiction is legitimate – and, more distally, that no context-specific fiction is really legitimate at all. This does not even take into account the precipitous linguistic poverty such a stricture would impose: the endpoint of this logic is that only grunts would be acceptable and legitimate in extrapolated or imagined settings.

Although a “native” reader can instantly tell if a setting borrowed/adapted from her culture, discipline, etc is generic and can legitimately criticize the work if that’s the case, standards of absolute purity are impossible to uphold even in real life (as demonstrated by the internal language wars across cultures and eras; the demotic versus puristic and polytonic versus monotonic fires in my corner or the world have been smoldering for at least four centuries). A purity policy would erase most of the SF/F landscape, including Paul Preuss’ beautifully crafted Secret Passages and Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books that present a fascinating alternative Renaissance earth (the first trilogy, at least – I haven’t read the rest; I lost interest when Phèdre nó Delaunay became monogamous with a crashing bore and both she and Melisande Shahrizai were sidelined in favor of their shared son). Which brings me to the “native” writer’s plight.

This may come as a surprise, but all nations/cultures are heterogeneous and when people write they do so as individuals, not representatives-at-large of their “kind”. So even when “natives” write about their own culture, whether history or fantasy, they transmute it through their personal experiences and filters. How I deal with customs, relationships, historical events in my fiction will not be necessarily palatable to fellow Hellenes, just as Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death raised hackles among Nigerians. Some have read my stories Dry Rivers and Planetfall, which are part of a larger universe. My Minoans, Kushites, Sarmatians and Celts are as non-canonical as Carey’s, though in a different direction. More importantly, so are my contemporary Cretans. If I succeed in what I set out to do, non-native readers won’t be able to discern the seams between history and invention – and for those who do see them (and Hellenes definitely will, trust me) my hope is that they will like the story enough on other grounds that they’re willing to go with it.

The balance between authenticity and imagination is an intrinsic dilemma for writers. All who write walk that rope, but in contemporary SF/F it’s strung across a potentially killing gorge. If we walk that rope, we must do so fully prepared, in full knowledge of the abyss below us, and fully aware that we’ll invariably fall. That’s the risk explorers take.

Images: 1st, Scott Rolfe, Boxes of Shipwreck; 2nd, Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker; 3rd, unknown artist, SF version of Plato’s cave.

Related articles:
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture
Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon
As Weak as Women’s Magic

21 Responses to “Caesars and Caesar Salads”

  1. Christopher Phoenix says:

    ….while accents show where stress falls within a word. Default stress differs across languages (French always stresses the last syllable, English defaults to the penultimate), so I often find it necessary to use accents when I want to convey this information. It’s Athiná, not Athína, and that “th” represents a theta, not a tau, phoneme.

    *Head Explodes* XD

    I think I should avoid writing anything that involves characters using your language- calculating time dilation for relativistic objects is far easier than this!!

    For me, I’ve always found that SF writers projecting their own cultural preconceptions (or, worse still, expectations) onto supposedly “far-future” or “alien” cultures is the real killer. This includes aliens who seem to have no purpose in life other than invading so the heroes can fight them, far-future societies who still have the same cultural expectations concerning gender roles, etc.

    I find the word “accuracy” as applied to SF to be something of a bear trap. One finds the purists who will only look at their chosen field, of course, but also those who simply regurgitate whatever so-called “science knowledge” they pulled out of the cereal box. I also find the people whose idea of accuracy is simply telling you, “You can’t do that.” I can usually shred most of these dissertations in a few minutes (and have done so before…)

    People bring what they have learned to their fiction, and maybe it is best to learn everything you can that relates to a SF setting (basic physics, biology, etc.) for the sake of knowing it, and then allow your imagination loose to build on that. You can’t make bricks without clay, and uninformed speculation is the surest way to fail.

  2. s johnson says:

    In “exoticize/dehumanize/homogenize,” is the slash more of an “or” or an “=” ?

    Also , why “native” instead of native or some other word that means “born to, of or from birth?”

  3. Athena says:

    Linguistics are not inherently more complex than Lorentz equations, Christopher! I’m with you on SF accuracy, it’s really a smokescreen for extrapolations whose strength and validity depends on the author’s detailed context.

  4. Athena says:

    I put a quote around the term because it’s slippery and fraught. We are really not native to any place if you go back far enough. Ionian and Pontian Hellenes lived in Asia Minor and the Black Sea coast for a longer period than the current occupants. Are they “natives” of that land or not? Some would say yes; others would say no. But their culture is certainly formed by those roots — and their violent sundering.

  5. Christopher Phoenix says:

    True, and I really should not be intimidated since I have always made a hobby of expanding my vocabulary. Quite a few words in English have their roots- or were “borrowed”- from other languages. I was very excited to study Lorentz transforms when I came across them in my textbooks, because of all those interstellar rocket ships. I’m the navigator and the rest of the crew can’t find their way out of a space dock without me. :)

    It’s Athiná, not Athína, and that “th” represents a theta, not a tau, phoneme.

    Wait a minute- does this mean that the way I pronounce Athena is wrong? The stress is on the “a”, not the “e”?

    I find it disconcerting when someone argues that, say, one pilot space fighters “make no sense militarily, politically, or economically”, makes a bunch of context- related arguments, and then later claims that anyone putting any sort of space fighter in their story is “violating physics!!” Then everyone concludes that guy has EXACTLY figured out how future space combat (or whatever) will work, so all arguments from there on are appeals to authority. I won’t name names, but you probably know who I am talking about.

    I know that “space fighters” bring to mind Star Wars, but I actually don’t like X-wings and such much- I like the ungainly Lancer IIs from Robotech and other craft that actually behave like spacecraft. I have no particular attachment to pseudo-aircraft diving toward Death Stars…

  6. Athena says:

    Indeed, the correct stress for my name is on the final a.

    By all means name names. @ho are you talking about in connection with fighter pilots? Most of those scenes in movies are choreographed like aerial dogfights — with shrieking sound effects, yet!

  7. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Ah!! So the apostrophe really does help. I have to say, Athina’

    Okay, the relevant names are Whinchell D. Chung jr., creator of the Atomic Rockets web site and Rick Robinson, founder of the Rocketpunk Manifesto blog. For the record, I like the Atomic Rockets site overall- especially for all the retro art- but I do not agree with all the arguments contained therein. Mr. Robinson’s blog I find considerably less entertaining. The relevant web links concerning space fighters are here and here.

    Several individuals have argued that space fighters make no sense because a) since space fighters and space cruisers are both spaceships, space fighters shouldn’t have any advantage in maneuverability over larger ships and/or b) we should just pull out the fighter cockpit and add some electronics to turn the fighter into a missile bus. Argument a) is just wrong- a smaller ship requires much less thrust to accelerate or make a turn (F=MA!!), and can rotate its smaller mass far more rapidly than a large cruiser, making for a much more agile craft. The cube/square law shows that the low-mass fighter will experience much less mechanical stress for any given acceleration than the space cruiser- an inverse law of mass to maneuverability. Argument b) is more context related, since it assumes that computers exist that can handle the task of piloting a space drone- and this also means making assumptions about what a space fighter does. We will undoubtedly use our best robots as pilots, but so far, our best robots are of meat and bone with ionic circuitry…

    On the biological note, or meat and bone pilots would have to withstand crushing accelerations in combat, probably worse even than terrestrial pilots do. The seats might be designed as hi-tech waterbeds, or maybe even the pilots could be immersed in oxygenated fluid- the claustrophobic need not apply.

    There are more arguments I disagree with, like Mr. Robinson’s assumption that lasers ALWAYS magically hit their target if it is within a few light seconds (especially if it is a space fighter…), or the silly idea that no one would design a combat spacecraft that would accelerate more than 3g because humans can’t stand it. Jet pilots often experience 9-12g during acrobatic maneuvers, and maximum for a human on a rocket sled was 46.2g, so yes, we can withstand higher than 3g.

    You are right, of course- often movies just portray space fighters as analogues of modern jets. This does not mean, however, that a compact, low-mass “space fighter” is necessarily infeasible for space combat- and they sure are fun toys for learning physics (an alien space fighter accelerates at 50m/s/s for twelve seconds, how fast is it traveling after the maneuver?) XD It seems that DARPA is ahead of me, however, with High Performance Spaceplane.

  8. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Oops- sorry- I forgot to finish editing the top part of my comment. I meant to say Athina’ sounds better than Athi’na.

  9. Asakiyume says:

    How I deal with customs, relationships, historical events in my fiction will not be necessarily palatable to fellow Hellenes, just as Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death raised hackles among Nigerians.

    Yes. There’s no one spokesperson for any culture or subculture, and no person or organization one can apply to to get an imprimatur for one’s work.

    The more a secondary-world culture is an alt-[insert real-world culture here], the greater my expectation that the author will try to be faithful to the details of the real-world culture that it’s based on. The more the secondary-world culture is its own creation, the less that’s the case and the more I judge it based on its internal consistency and rationality. I haven’t read Bujold, but definitely in the case of Sherwood Smith’s Colend, the mingling of the French and Japanese aesthetic means no one would see the culture as a roman à clef for either of the contributing components.

  10. Athena says:

    Indeed, you and I agree that distance from the original culture is a crucial factor in expectations of verisimilitude. I’ve read several Vorkosigan stories of Bujold’s — Barrayar, the primary culture visible in them is far more generic than Smith’s Colend: it’s pretty much Bismarck’s Prussia or Tsarist Russia.

  11. intrigued_scribe says:

    …and when people write they do so as individuals, not representatives-at-large of their “kind”. So even when “natives” write about their own culture, whether history or fantasy, they transmute it through their personal experiences and filters.

    This, absolutely. Even where the most absorbing works are concerned, elements that are fully accessible to one — whether on an intellectual or empathetic level — may prove remote to another. Similar kinds of distance, I’ve found, can arise in works set in locations that bear surface similarities to one’s own.

  12. Athena says:

    Exactly. The worst choice is to homogenize a complex mixture, whatever the context.

  13. Laura says:

    As a linguist as well as a fan of SF/F, one of the most frustrating aspects of the genre is the lack of any real depth in alien languages, or even in ones based off of existing languages. I can’t expect authors to spend years creating a language, but the attempts at grammar are often nonsensical at best.

    Apologies if this is a bit forward (and feel free to delete my comment, since this is off-topic from your actual post), but there were a few problems with your remarks on French and English linguistics. On a minor note, the circumflex in French can indeed represent a silenced S—or other letter that once appeared in the orthography—although it most frequently indicates a different pronunciation of the vowel, or, very occasionally, is simply a way to differentiate between two words which would otherwise be homographs as well as homophones. For another, stress in French is prosodic, not lexical—the only time stress falls on the final syllable of a word is when it’s the final word in a phrase. While stress in English is lexical, it is actually variable rather than fixed, and its placement in a word depends on a variety of factors including dialect, what the speaker wants to emphasize, if the word is a noun or a verb, whether a vowel has become a schwa, etc.

    Since this is the first time I’ve commented, you have a wonderfully insightful, informative blog. Thank you for posting the correct pronunciation for your name as well.

  14. Athena says:

    Glad you found the blog informative, Laura! Your linguistic fine points are correct. Nevertheless, when English speakers try out alien words, they default to the penultimate syllable for stress. Similarly, when people are taught French, all the words are stressed on the last syllable.

  15. Susan says:

    this has resulted in the parochialism of unquestioned dominant-group assumptions: stories written by armchair tourists (Bacigalupi, MacDonald, Roberts) get accolades and awards while those by outsiders (whether “natives” or “immigrants”) are discounted as too alien.

    Oh yes. LOTS of Celtic fantasy stories out there, but not many Irish writers in science fiction. I actually showed up as a solitary statistic in Clarkesworld “near miss” section one year broken down by country, there are that few of us. And I believe I have already mentioned “The Yeasts of Eire” (shudders)

    Mind you I need to read more of the genre.

    What I try to do as a writer is remember that “exotic” is relative. As a reader too.

  16. Athena says:

    Exactly. For some, orchids or roses are exotic. For others, they grow like weeds in their back yards.

  17. James Davis Nicoll says:

    At this point, SF/F is still heavily Anglophone

    Yeah, given the popularity of SF in China and in Japan I would not be that surprised to find out this not actually true. O

    and most of its practitioners are either Anglosaxons or live in an Anglosaxon country.

    With all due respect to the savage barbarians who swept over the lands of my ancestors in ages past [1], for which I bear them no grudge, bastards, Anglo-Saxon refers a specific group and even in settler nations drawing heavily from Britain are often outnumbered by the other ethnicities. A simple test of this hypothesis is to stop any random passerby in Montreal and ask them how Anglo-Saxon they feel. Note that in Quebec, PQ stands for Please Question; anyone with PQ button is actually a roving information agent.

    Anyway, SF in l’anglosphere is just Scottish romanticism flipped 180 degrees: instead of being unrealistically sentimental about the past, it uses similar techniques to tell unrealistic stories about the future. So not an Anglo-Saxon art form (although they no doubt have their own native art forms that don’t involve hitting people with axes and stealing their land) but Celt.

    (Thanks to Gernsback I may have to argue Luxembourgers are Celts rather than being pretty clearly Germanic. I am prepared to do this by pointing to the number of undocumented crypto-Belgae living in Luxembourg and arguing on obviously specious grounds that there must be a Gallic component to Luxembourger culture)

    1: And don’t get me started on the Normans. Who could have predicted when my distant relative invited them into a friendly little civil war in Ireland it would turn out so badly?

  18. James Davis Nicoll says:

    Also, my anglosphere includes India, if only because some day I want to hear Ashok Banker’s Hugo acceptance speech.

  19. Athena says:

    All well and good, James, but I’m using shorthand in which “Anglosaxon” is understood as the dominant cultural mode even in countries that have heterogeneous roots and trees, like the US.

  20. James Davis Nicoll says:

    It is a grating choice of term for everyone in the nations in question who don’t happen to Anglo-Saxon, akin to insisting for convenience on labeling Greece cultural efforts as Ottoman. I’m sure there’s a better shorthand out there.

  21. Athena says:

    Don’t try to bait me, and don’t try to have the last word on someone else’s blog. As you well know, because I already said so in the previous iteration of this exchange, I use the term culturally because it’s an accurate description of this particular dominance. I don’t lump Irish, Francophone etc. writers in this category, as you’re attempting to imply. If you want to do the fanboi pedant bit, do it somewhere else.