A Cultural Fantasy Manifesto

People wo have engaged in certain kinds of discussions with me are probably quite tired of hearing me flag my comments with “that makes the anthropologist in me think X” or “since I’m an anthropologist . . . .” (I’m a little tired of it, myself.) But I’ve come to realize that it’s an important clue to how I think and what I think, not just in an academic or general context, but specifically with regards to my writing. Which has led me to identify what I’m trying to do with my fiction, at least a good percentage of the time. And since “anthropological fantasy” is an unwieldy term, let’s call it “cultural fantasy.”

What this means is that worldbuilding is not just important to me; it’s one of the most central parts of what I do. (With some stories, maybe the most central.) Character, for me, arises from and is shaped by the socio-cultural context of the individual; their beliefs and the actions they take aren’t independent of that context. People aren’t puppets of their cultures, of course, but neither are they free of them.

It also means that I’m promoting cultural relativism. Often people misunderstand this idea; they think it means that everything’s okay, that you can’t criticize a practice if it’s a part of somebody’s culture, so in the end you can’t criticize anything. Not true. Cultural relativism means trying to understand the reasons why people do things, how that practice fits into what they believe about the world — trying to see it from their point of view. It means releasing the assumption that there’s automatically something more natural or right about the way your own culture does things — which, yes, in the long run means you’re going to be more accepting of odd practices, because they don’t look so odd anymore. Something they do in one culture may be no weirder than what you do in your own — or equally weird. You end up seeing how your own cultural practices are constructed and artificial. But understanding the reasons behind human sacrifice or whatever does not require you to say it’s okay: a reason is not the same thing as an excuse.

Corollary to that: I’m not interested in constructing an ideal society, where there’s perfect gender equality, racial harmony, religious tolerance, and a benevolent government, to name a few things I happen to like. Utopias bore me. I’m interested in constructing messy, complicated societies that are full of flaws and then saying, ooh, this is interesting, let’s see what happens if I poke it here. And concurrently with this and the previous point, I’m interested in making up cultures that are different.

Folks, the real world, taken in all its multifarious glory, is weirder and more wonderful than you could possibly imagine. And what that means is that there are (to butcher Kipling) nine and sixty ways of constructing governments, families, religions, genders, meals, music, fashion, houses, and anything else you care to name, and every single one of them is neat. I have an abiding love for Celtic, Norse, and medieval culture, but you’ll rarely find them in my fiction, because I want to introduce readers to things they haven’t seen before. It’s a fine line to walk; too much weirdness, too many new and unfamiliar things, and you start losing readers. But I want to keep extending my writing out into new cultural territory, exploring all the different ways people can live, and what that means for who they are and how they act. Especially in fantasy, where metaphysical propositions can be accepted as literally true, with demonstrable consequences that might seem unrealistic in the real world.

So when I say “cultural fantasy,” this is what I mean: fantasy where the world is as interesting and developed as the characters are (and develops those characters in turn), where you’ll find ideas and practices that aren’t all familiar north-western European constructs. And since some of you Gentle Readers reading this may know my writing only through my novels, I have this to say to you: if you’re in the camp that thinks their setting isn’t that original, I’ve gotten better since then, and if you’re in the camp that things they were fabulously original, I’ve gotten better since then. I have a thousand and one worlds in my head, and I want to spend the rest of my life exploring them, and bringing readers with me.

0 Responses to “A Cultural Fantasy Manifesto”

  1. aliettedb

    Character, for me, arises from and is shaped by the socio-cultural context of the individual; their beliefs and the actions they take aren’t independent of that context.
    Oh yes. I’m with you 100%. The problem, of course, is getting the whole socio-cultural thing across in less than 5k words…

    • Marie Brennan

      There’s always novels. ^_^

      I’m slowly learning the trick of doing what I want in short form. Though it still has a problem I need to fix, I’m extremely happy with “Kingspeaker” in this regard; I feel like I nailed the cultural thing I was trying to do there, in 4800 words.

  2. sora_blue

    Fantastic post.

    I loved your novels, and I’m (im)patiently waiting to see where you take readers next.

  3. mindstalk

    Have you read the comic Finder, by Carla Speed McNeill? It’s describable as anthropological SF, with a lot of worldbuilding.

    • Marie Brennan

      I read the first volume, but it didn’t hook me enough to make me buy more.

      Certainly there are people who write the kind of thing I like to read (and write); it makes me very happy whenever I find another one.

  4. elizabethcbunce

    “People who have engaged in certain kinds of discussions with me are probably quite tired of hearing me flag my comments with “that makes the anthropologist in me think X” or “since I’m an anthropologist . . . .” But I’ve come to realize that it’s an important clue to how I think and what I think, not just in an academic or general context, but specifically with regards to my writing.”

    You nailed it. For me, it’s a critical component to the way I approach my work. Plot and character are born from setting, and I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I don’t think that anthropology did this to me, though… I think it was that instinct that drew me to anthropology to begin with… and then anthropology gave me the tools to work through and express the concepts that really captivate me.

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, yeah. <g> I’ve just had a tendency of late to flag for people why I’m approaching whatever it is we’re discussing from the angle I am, since they usually don’t know, or the topic is tangential to anthro, or both.

      Maybe what I need is a button saying “I’m an anthropologist! Ask me how!” <g>

  5. prosewitch

    I’ve gotta say, hells yeah to your manifesto. As much as “anthropological fantasy” appeals to me, I think “cultural fantasy” works better to convey that the focus of the fantasy is on culture, its significance and effects… whereas anthropological fantasy might be about anthropologists, which I would find really entertaining, but it might not be for everyone.

    I share a lot of your concerns in this, though I tend to be a bit more cynical about cultural relativism’s tendency to lead to nihilism if left unchecked. But obviously I’m all about understanding other cultures from the inside out, and giving fantasy more flavor than proto-medieval-European-whatever.

  6. calico_reaction

    So I just found this manifesto. πŸ™‚ Huzzah, I say! I’m always insanely jealous of writers I know (or in your case, know OF) who studied and/or were anthropologists. I wish I’d been that smart in college, cause that’s my answer the whole, “If you knew then what you know now, what would you study in college?” And I would respond, with great vigor: ANTHROPOLOGY!!

    But, alas, I didn’t. And right now, I have no interest in going back to school (I’m working on an MA anyway), so there’s always independent study.

    It’s funny, though: I really like your term, and it got me thinking about SF. Usually, soft SF is considered to be the more anthropological, but if there were a different term, like “cultural SF,” I think that would shut a lot of people up in the genre who bitch and moan about a book not being SF just because there’s no hard science in it.

    You’ve given me something to stew over. Thanks. πŸ™‚

    • Marie Brennan

      There is, indeed, always independent study. And in some ways that might be more useful in writing, because you won’t be spending time on things like fieldwork methods; you can focus on the content of anthropology, the different quirks of cultures and how they operate.

      I’d love to see “cultural SF” replace “soft SF” as a term. You’re right about the derogatory connotations of that adjective, in part because of the gendered qualities we assign to those words; “hardness” is masculine, whereas “softness” is feminine, so Real Men write hard SF.

      • calico_reaction

        I’d love to see “cultural SF” replace “soft SF” as a term. You’re right about the derogatory connotations of that adjective, in part because of the gendered qualities we assign to those words; “hardness” is masculine, whereas “softness” is feminine, so Real Men write hard SF.

        GREAT observations. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of gender; rather, I’m always reminded of the wars in science departments, where psych majors have to defend the fact that they, too, study a science, whereas some of the other sciences sit back, laugh, and refuse to acknowledge them. I know too many people (men, interestingly enough) who soft at the idea of soft sciences being real sciences.

        Hell, technically speaking, politics is a “science”. “Hard” science people may not like, but they should take up their griefs with whoever coined “political science” as a term. πŸ™‚

        One thing I get tired of in SF: stuff being coined “soft SF” that really isn’t. Sometimes reviewers make said mistake, which is forgivable, but I’ve seen the very writers of the work do it too, and that makes me nuts. They think it’s soft SF because they have political strife and introspective characters in their story, when anyone can really see it’s “regular” SF because it’s a lot of action, adventure, etc.

        Then again, I may be on crack, so I’ll shut up. πŸ˜‰

        • calico_reaction

          I so wish LJ would let us edit comments…

          I know too many people (men, interestingly enough) who soft at the idea of soft sciences being real sciences

          I meant to say “SCOFF at the idea…”

        • Marie Brennan

          Yes, there’s also the difficulty that people use the same term to mean a variety of things. We’re never going to get everybody to agree on terminology, though. <g>

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