Today, the guys in the Goodreads Top 5 Wednesday group have an interesting topic, one which seems to be coming up more and more lately: Books Not Set/Inspired By The Western World. “Talk about books that are set outside of the Western World (so outside of North America and Western Europe) or if they are SFF, books that aren’t inspired by those places. So no medieval fantasy setting, even in outer space!”
As a lover of medieval fantasy settings, I find this last caveat a bit annoying, because fantasy is generally populated by magical creatures, strange races, and every shape, size, color, and creed of people that the author’s imagination can dream up. So whether the “setting” is inspired by European, Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, African, or some non-human culture doesn’t seem easy to determine nor really important, because, obviously, the setting isn’t really Western if people fly around on dragons, level mountains with magic, or spend their time fighting mutant chaos warriors from another dimension. Instead, fantasy settings are a hodgepodge of ideas; the very best of the genre meshing the magical with the ordinary, the unbelievable with the mundane, to create worlds completely new and original with which to dazzle their readers.
But even though I didn’t agree with the topic’s proposition, it was worth exploring. As I mentioned, this demand for non-Western inspired fantasy seems to be a growing trend, and so I needed to do some research, ponder a few things, and put together a coherent response for this type of criticism of my favorite reading genre.
At this point, I’m turning it over to actor Chris Platt to issue a statement in my behalf to everyone who is about to read this article.
I want to make a heartfelt apology for whatever it is I end up accidentally saying . . . I hope you understand it was never my intention to offend anyone and I am truly sorry. I swear. I’m the nicest guy in the world. And I fully regret what I (accidentally will have) said . . .
I am not in the business of making excuses. I am just dumb. Plain and simple. I try. I REALLY try! When I do (potentially) commit the offensive act for which I am now (pre) apologizing you must understand I (will likely have been) tired and exhausted when I (potentially) said that thing I (will have had) said that (will have had) crossed the line. . . Trust me. I know you can’t say that anymore. In fact in my opinion it was never right to say the thing I definitely don’t want to but probably will have said. To those I (will have) offended please understand how truly sorry I already am. I am fully aware that the subject matter of my imminent forthcoming mistake, a blunder (possibly to be) . . . is (most likely) in no way a laughing matter. To those I (will likely have had) offended rest assured I will do everything in my power to make sure this doesn’t happen (again).
Okay, with the pre-apology out of the way, I want you to know I spent a lot of time thinking about this topic. Initially, I thought perhaps what the topic was referring to was fantasy such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I mean, that seems to be the seminal work many people point to as the blueprint for “European-type” fantasy. But even if that is so, what exactly about the men of Gondor, Elves of Rivendell, Lorien, and Mirkwood, Dwarves of Erebor, Ents of Fangorn, Orcs of Mordor, Hobbits of the Shire, and all the rest could possibly make them “inspired by the Western World?” Is it their languages? Their religious beliefs? Political systems? Morals? Types of warfare?
So I pondered. Contemplated it even more. And I grew more perplexed, because LoTR’s races don’t look, talk, believe, or act alike in any particular way. Perhaps they relate to one another as enemies/allies of Sauron, but they are far from a homogeneous culture. Rather, they are races who have interacted with one another for centuries and been changed through the diffusion of ideas between one another. All of which meant I couldn’t isolate what would make LoTR Western inspired. Back to the drawing board.
Finally I came to the realization that perhaps this whole “Western Inspired” caveat is somewhat of a flawed premise to begin with. Let me explain why I believe so.
As you’d expect, modern readers view elements of culture through their own preconceived beliefs, based upon their individual/group experiences. Certainly, there are many who are history buffs and bring more to the table, but by and large most readers use the modern litmus test for what is Western, Eastern, Middle Eastern, African, and so forth. However, a custom which is Western today wasn’t necessarily “Western” in the recent or remote past; a fact which generally produces skewed results when guessing on a fantasy societies inspiration.
At least that was my hypothesis, and like the methodical, scientifically minded reader I am (I’m making fun of myself there.) I created a simple, scientific poll which I forced a dozen of my closest friends to participate in. The test basically consisted of me describing a generic fantasy culture with strange names, magic, common language, and one very different custom, then the participants were asked to tell me if the society was inspired by Western civilization. I took down their answer, ran them through a terribly complex algorithm which I created myself and reviewed the data. Let me share a few of the results.
Society Number One was a fantasy culture where monotheistic religious principles similar to Judeo-Christianity were the basis of worship. The religious beliefs here were based off the Nestorian Christians; this group of Christians (mostly from Egypt, Levant and Anatolia in the West to China and Sumatra in the East) were certainly not European in nature and held “Christian” beliefs far different from those of their fellow adherents to the faith at the time, who tended to be more orthodox (I’m using the term loosely.) However, 91% of people polled immediately labeled this culture “Western Inspired” simply because anything remotely Judeo-Christian is viewed today as “Western Civilization.”
My second society was constructed around heavily armored horse and riders as the mainstay of the fighting forces; all other aspects of the society were generic, including a tendency toward polytheism. When asked, 100% of those polled said this society was inspired by Western civilization because it had medieval, European knights. Unfortunately, all of them were wrong, because I based these warriors and their fighting style upon the cataphracts of ancient Antiquity; the Medians, Persians, and other Iranian tribes being the forefathers of heavy cavalry, covered in mail and using lances. Yet again the erroneous modern belief knights are European resulted in an incorrect categorization as to this culture’s inspiration.
My third society was one where manorialism existed; serfs being held in a form of bondage, tied to their superior’s land; all other aspects of the society the same generic fantasy I’ve already mentioned. Without any hesitation every polled friend confidentially answered that this society was “100% Western inspired.” Again, they were wrong, because the serfdom I mimicked was the type used in another part of the world. This time I used the serfdom practiced by China from the Zhou dynasty until the end of the Han dynasty. I chose this type of manorialism specifically because it had a distinct Asian element to it, which differentiated it from European serfdom. However, I could just have easily picked the form of serfdom used in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt (Sixth to Twelfth dynasty), Muslim India, Japan, or the Chinese Qing dynasty (1644–1912). No matter, it seems a large group of people believe only Western civilization had serfdom.
The last example I used was a society where the social norms include polygamy, as well as the practice of secluding women in confined areas. Those polled immediately said this type of society was not Western inspired but Middle Eastern in nature. Great guess, but wrong again. I used the concubinage of ancient Greece as well as ancient Rome and ancient China as my basis for this societal custom, mixing certain elements together to create a unique situation. Yet, due to the fascination the institution of the harem exerted on European arts during the Age of Romanticism and Orientalism, concubinage is today viewed as solely a Middle Eastern, or Islamic, practice, which is completely inaccurate.
So, those were the results of my simple test. The data (small sample size though it was) reinforcing my belief that this whole question of decided what culture a fantasy society was inspired by was somewhat flawed to begin with. Most people’s guesses generally wrong and skewed by our societies modern misconceptions.
But my test also raised another important question to the forefront of my mind: Are fantasy societies only inspired by one culture or another? Is that even a bad thing? “Inspired by” doesn’t mean that the fantasy is only about one culture. Quite frankly I can only recall a handful of fantasy books where after reading I thought the culture was a carbon copy of the “Roman Empire” or a reproduction of “Late Medieval Period France.” Rather, most fantasy authors mix and match ideas, cultural traits, religion, and other things to the point there is a little Western, a dash of Middle Eastern, some Eastern, and more than little African in the mix. But don’t take my word for it, read what an author of an Asian flavored fantasy wrote when posed a question regarding historical influences for his fantasy world.
Asker: What influences from history (if any) did you draw upon when writing The Emperor’s Blades?
Brian Staveley: I taught ancient world history as well as comparative religion for a bunch of years, and the influences from real-world history are legion. Just to pick a few:
The Shin monks pull from Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto, (though, of course, their religions is very different from any of the above).
The Annurian Empire, in terms of population, level of technology, extent of trade, etc, is similar to Tang era China. It is NOT Tang China, there are hundreds of differences, but that provided a jumping-off point.
The Kettral were my attempt to make a fantasy version of modern special forces, something I hadn’t really seen done before.
The conflict between the Church of Intarra and the Unhewn Throne has myriad historical precedents all over the world.
So now I must ask everyone: Is Brian Staveley’s The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne inspired by Western, Eastern, Middle Eastern, African, or some other culture?
Personally, I believe it is obviously inspired by many different cultures. Tang era China might have been the greatest influence, but there are small tidbits from every where and every when, which Mr. Staveley used to create something all his own. And he is a perfect representative for how the majority of SFF authors create the culture in their stories. At least, that is my opinion.
Of course, this brings up yet another question: If Mr. Staveley is among the norm of fantasy writers, then why is there a growing trend to point at the state of fantasy and say there are not enough books based off non-Western civilization? Is it a fair question? Is there even any proof the problem truly exists? Is the issue relevant going forward?
Personally, I believe I’ve illustrated to some extent that guessing the inspiration for a fantasy culture is nearly always inaccurate. Historically speaking the world’s cultures have all passed ideas back and forth to one another for thousands of years, so we have many things in common, especially if you look at history. And if authors like Brian Staveley are explaining that they use many cultural norms from around the world to build their own fantastical worlds, this fact seems to argue against there being some subconscious conspiracy to only use Western civilization as inspiration for stories in the genre. All of which means this whole issue appears to be a non-problem.
So why does it continues to grow? Well, it could be less about the facts and more about emotions. Some individuals examining every book under a microscope, demanding that it pass their litmus test of diversity. (Sorry, if that sounds harsh, but I just read an article where Game of Thrones was being labeled racist because it didn’t have more minority characters. I suppose I see where the criticism comes from, but then again, the last romance book I looked at didn’t have very many middle aged white guys with dad bods on the front cover.) No doubt, there are some areas of the genre where calls for more diversity might be based upon facts, but this whole idea of lack of non-Western inspired cultures is a bit silly to me.
So what is the whole point of all this? Not much really. I was asked a question, thought about it, ran a test, and decided I’d give my opinion. I’m not an expert, just a blogger who needed to post an interesting article today. Maybe, I’ve written a piece which made you smile, think, or question something you wouldn’t have questioned otherwise. And if you’d like to share this post so my page views would go up I will not complain at all.