Language may be the most obvious barrier to cultural exchange, but it is also the easiest to hurdle: a good translator can capture much if not all of the character of a great novel. The real barrier to sharing between cultures is culture itself. British literary fiction, deeply fascinated with the minutiae of class structure, isn't of much more than passing interest to most Chinese readers. Not because Chinese culture isn't every bit as fascinated with its own social structure, but because if you buy a rulebook you want it to be for the game you are actually playing. As far as a cultural artefact serves as a guide to a culture, it belongs uniquely to that culture.
The Marvel comics' superhero franchise Avengers Assemble launches this weekend to audiences in dozens of cultures worldwide, and dozens more in coming weeks. At first sight this seems a triumph of international connectivity, but the sci-fi blockbuster transcends cultural boundaries by doing away with the whole problem of meaning and replacing it with CGI spectacle. The director, Joss Whedon, has pulled off an impressive feat in packing so many mythic symbols and archetypes into one movie, while completely castrating their meaning.
The geek culture that made Marvel comics part of its mythology has, like all other cultures, been repurposed by capitalism as a way of selling products to the mass market. And with an estimated 25% of under-34s self-identifying with the geek demographic, it's arguable that geek culture is really just a response to a lack of culture, a generation who have grown up alienated from any sense of cultural belonging, and are left clinging on to Hollywood product.
It's as a response to that cultural void that science fiction becomes genuinely interesting. In the midst of an ever accelerating technological revolution, science fiction has emerged as the literature best able to articulate the relentless pace of social change. And as that technological revolution has spread outward from the western world, so the symbols and archetypes of science fiction have become a shared language for understanding the new world we are entering.
The World SF blog edited by Israeli born author Lavie Tidhar has been cataloguing the emergence of international SF since 2009, and the increasing cross-pollination between SF communities in Europe, South America, Asia, China, India and elsewhere. It's an absolute must read for anyone still hardwired in to the Americanised, anglophone conception of SF. Much of the focus of translation efforts in the international SF community so far has been short fiction gathered in anthologies such as the Apex Book of World SF and Phillipine Speculative Fiction, but an increasing number of full-length novels are finding translation.
The work of Liu Cixin, eight-time winner of the Galaxy award and arguably the most popular SF author in China, is now available in English translation. Liu Cixin's writing will remind SF fans of the genre's golden age, with its positive focus on scientific development, combined with a consistently constructive vision of China's future role as a global superpower. It's characteristic of an SF genre which has been embraced by Chinese culture because it is seen as representing the values of technological innovation and creativity so highly prized in a country developing more quickly than any other in the world today.
Russian SF has a long and well-documented history as an outlet for political perspectives that were otherwise repressed. But it is as a critique of the values of western capitalism that the genre has recently caught attention. The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Eskov is set in the Middle Earth of JRR Tolkien, immediately after the climatic battle of The Return of the King, and has recently been issued in its second edition translation free online, despite objections from the Tolkien estate. The book reimagines Lord of the Rings as a history written by the victors, with Mordor recast as an emergent industrial nation crushed under the heel of a war-mongering western alliance lead by Gondor, and Gandalf described as "engineering a final solution to the Mordorian problem". If this mirrors a large proportion of European / Russian history it seems entirely valid, given how easily exactly the same reading can be made of Tolkien's fantasy epic.
There may only be a small wave of translated SF reaching the anglophone world today, but the internet is quickly unleashing much more. I'm only beginning to scratch the surface myself. Who are the other international SF authors we should all be reading today?
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