Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Monday, 23 April 2012

Decolonising the past

From the Middle Ages making modern fantasy be racist to modern fantasy re-writing history – I’ve been reading Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in the past few weeks.[i] They aren’t medieval at all – I’m not just interested in medievalist fantasy whatever the past couple of post might suggest. Novik’s books are set during the Napoleonic Wars in a world inhabited by dragons which, with their human riders, form air forces and take part in the conflicts. But they also do more. The protagonists – the dragon Temeraire and his rider Captain William Laurence – repel a French invasion early on in the series, but later books are much more concerned with European encounters with the rest of the world. The Franco-British war provides a backdrop, but to date the heroes have been to China, Africa, Australia, South America, and at the end of the most recent seem headed back to China. The underlying premise of the series is “what might have happened if all the places colonized by Europe had had similar, or superior, armed forces?”

 In the Temeraire series Novik treds a tricky path, and does it well. Rewriting history into “worlds that weren’t” can be problematic if all that happens is the bits that are uncomfortable or politically inconvenient simply get taken out. There are examples of this in Novik’s world – Spanish conquests in the Americas, for example, fails because the Incas have dragons. But the coming of Europeans is not without consequence as disease ravages the Incan empire, vastly reducing its population. Australia, specifically New South Wales, is colonized, but Chinese trade interests seem likely to prevent further predations on the rest of the continent, at least by the British. Cape Town is colonized by the Dutch, who brutalize the indigenous inhabitants of the area – who do not have dragons. Soon after the British have conquered the Dutch colony, however, they are forced to leave by the Tswana, a central African civilisation (who do have dragons), who also destroy the slaving ports on the west coast of Africa, and at the current time in the series have invaded the Portugese colony of Brazil in order to rescue those who had already been taken and their descendants. Although she doesn’t dwell on them gory detail, Novik doesn’t shy away from the brutality and devastation wrought by colonization and slavery – although there is yet to be a book set in North America.

Not everything that fits into the fantasy genre is what I would call speculative fiction, by which I mean that it doesn’t always ask a question,[ii] let alone a significant one. Novik is one of what I think is a growing number of authors writing for the mainstream Western fantasy market that are exploring issues around colonisation. Terry Pratchett’s Nation, and Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles are other examples. And there are others which use feature the not unrelated theme of world exploration: Michael Stackpole’s A Secret Atlas series, and Kevin J Anderson also has one which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.[iii] Explorations of colonization are usually associated with science fiction –Star Trek for example –than with fantasy partly because, I think, the former often gets taken more seriously, and is thought of as being more serious, than the latter. And it’s relatively easy to write a book about colonisation when all you have to do is put your colonisers aboard space ships instead of the ocean-going kind. It seems like a positive thing for fantasy to taking up these types of issues also,[iv] particularly if it’s done well.

[i] Thanks to Derek Newman-Stille for recommending these to me at the ICFA conference.
[ii] There are lots of different ideas about what ‘speculative fiction’ really means, and plenty of people who would say that it’s mutually exclusive with ‘fantasy’. Margaret Atwood springs to mind. Obviously I don’t agree.
[iii] If anyone can add to this list I’d love to hear about it. There are also a lot of non-Western writers, and those whose works are neither aimed at nor read in mainstream markets. Once again I’m thinking about fantasy in its incarnation as simultaneously mass and popular culture. All but Stackpole are authors I’ve found in airport bookshops, and I encountered his series in a general bookstore not a dedicated fantasy/sci-fi shop.
[iv] I’ve recently head of an independent fantasy game Dog Eat Dog designed to explore colonisation, its impacts, and dynamics. It is due for release later this year.

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