A Cultural Fantasy Manifesto

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 . . . .” (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.