The universe is your box of legos
Yesterday, I spent the bulk of my time traveling from one part of the world (which is very, very far away from the United States) to another part of the world (which is also very, very far away from the United States.) I did it on a four-engined turboprop airplane design, dating from the Korean war — painted gray, and with black lettering on the fuselage that any Roman citizen of the first century could have understood. Oh, not the words UNITED STATES AIR FORCE per se, but the alphabet would have been familiar.
The language actually originates from a relatively tiny kingdom that grew to dominate a relatively tiny island off the west coast of continental Eurasia. That little kingdom, having endured assault-by-sea from the North Men, did itself eventually deploy the greatest sailing fleet the world had ever seen. That fleet spread the kingdom to every place on the globe. Thus a Commonwealth was born. And even though the United States split away from that Commonwealth almost 250 years ago, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Through two world wars, the United States came to the aid of that Commonwealth — speaking the same language, and sharing cultural roots — eventually picking up where the Commonwealth left off. So that by the end of the 20th century, English had become the dominant business language of the world, and American business interests were in almost every country.
So that by the close of the sixteenth year of the 21st century, I, a servicemember of the United States, could drive through the poorer neighborhoods of the Hashemite Kingdom, and see familiar signs for McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the Safeway grocery store chain. Again, all written in an alphabet any first-century Roman could recognize. The Romans — whose two-thousand year old stone columns still rise above a hill top not far from the regional airport where my C-130 lifted off, to fly me south and east.
Why am I telling you this?
Because when I returned to my main place of duty, I saw a message from a friend pointing out yet another science fiction panel at another science fiction convention, dedicated to hand-wringing over an invented literary sin: cultural appropriation.
Nevermind that I had just spent Wednesday night eating delicious Brazilian barbecue at a restaurant in a tony Hashemite Kingdom suburb, staffed by people from Southeast Asia. Where astoundingly delicious slices of beef were served hot and juicy, right off the spit. In the style of the gaucho feasts of South America.
Oh, did I mention that the first turboprop engine design, was developed by a Hungarian mechanical engineer named György Jendrassik? Did I also mention that some of the first theoretical airscrew concepts originated on the drawing board of an Italian genius, named Leonardo da Vinci? Or that the present ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom once had a cameo appearance on a Star Trek spinoff? And that the present ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom is also partaking in a multi-national alliance to defeat a barbaric theocracy presently trying to dominate lands that once belonged to the Akkadians, then the Amorites, then the Hittites, and the Babylonians, Arameans, the Persians . . . well, you get the idea. In a thousand years, I expect the region will be controlled by somebody else. Perhaps some new empire spawned from some as yet unthinkable piece of the world. It’s happened before. It will happen again.
Which is to say, cultural appropriation isn’t a sin. Cultural appropriation is civilization itself.
To suggest that kitbashing or borrowing from real-world cultures, when creating fictional cultures, is problematic, is to suggest that the 21st century in its entirety is problematic. Nothing — absolutely nothing — we listen to, or watch, or eat, or use with our hands, or wear on our bodies, is the result of a monoculture. For ten thousand years (and more) human beings have hunted and traveled and talked, telling stories, over and over again. Passing on information and tradition, as well as ideas, which have been blending and birthing still newer, sometimes better traditions and ideas, down through the generations.
Did you eat spaghetti or General Tso’s this week? How about sushi? Spicy Thai? Have you eaten at a Luau? Ever tried to surf on a surfboard? Do you like jazz music? Hip-hop? Bluegrass? Rockabilly? Do you like Japanese animation? Does your favorite pro basketball team have a Serb or a Frenchman playing — basketball, the sport created by a Canadian, now played in every country?
You see, life is cultural appropriation.
Oh, I know, the stated complaint (from the inventors of literary sin) is that it’s shitty for any writer to play into a stereotype or a trope, especially if it’s derogatory or demeaning — for all definitions of derogatory and demeaning that include, “Makes traditionally Designated Victim people look bad.” Note, it’s perfectly okay to do ham-fisted and derogatory representations of people who aren’t Designated Victims; especially if we’re talking a traditionally Judeo-Christian culture. You will seldom read or hear complaints (from the inventors of literary sin) about artists who make Israelis or American Southern Baptists look bad. In fact, Evangelicals especially are a favorite villain — for many SF/F authors.
So we know that cries of, “Cultural appropriation!” are selective at best, and deliberately, obtusely blind at worst.
But, leaving aside this new, tedious debate — when are we allowed to portray cultures and peoples, and why? — it’s helpful to remember that for SF/F we’re talking about extrapolated futures and alternative realities. Tolkien drew heavily on the folklore of Western Europe, when he created the world of Middle Earth. But none of the peoples nor cultures of Middle Earth are one-for-one analogous to, say, the Swedish, or the Scots. Tolkien borrowed what seemed good to him, and invented the rest. Analogs can be guessed at, or inferred, but this is an eye-of-the-beholder operation. You’re putting Tolkien on the couch when you do that.
And as much as I know it’s trendy for 21st century literary wannabe-psychologists to put us all on the couch, sometimes it’s useful for us to stand up off that couch, rhetorically punch those lit psych people in the mouth, and walk out saying, “I made it up, and the readers liked it — so sue me, assholes.”
Again, I look to history. To the millions of ways in which cultures and peoples have been crossing over with, and borrowing from one another, in countless ways. This is how our world came to be. This is what life is about.
To those who enjoy wagging their fingers and shouting, “You’re doing it wrong,” I say: go to your music shelf, and throw it all out. Now, go to your kitchen cupboard and your refrigerator, and throw all of that out too. Go to your closet, and throw all of that out as well. Your books and movies? Throw ’em out. Throw out your furniture. Throw out your rugs and your framed art on the walls. Throw out the cat, the dog, and the aquarium. Leave it all on the curb for the garbage truck to collect.
Then sit in your cold, barren home, and be proud of your purity.
Otherwise, I am going to gently suggest that it is impossible to “do it wrong” where SF/F especially is concerned.
If you’re writing a historical thriller or mystery that relies heavily on getting the facts right, sure. Do your research. And take your lumps.
But if you’re doing SF/F, you’re basically taking a dozen (or more) different lego kits, emptying all of them together into a single, large bin, stirring vigorously, then pulling out the pieces one at a time to create . . . whatever the hell you want! And like anyone who grew up with legos knows, you cannot do it wrong. That was the beauty of legos in the first place: infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Castles, spaceships, dragons, moon bases, jet airplanes, you name it. Or variations thereof, to the very limit of your imagination. No rules. Just you, and whatever the hell you want. Your lego world can be anything, constructed from anything. Just like Minecraft — which my daughter plays endlessly, and which seems to me the modern, virtual-world equivalent of legos.
Again, research is not a bad idea. I’m presently doing advanced research for a project that is both epic fantasy and alternate history. I feel like I owe it to my readers to try to get as many of the basics right, as I can. But I am not going to let fear — of the hand-wringers — stop me from creating where inspiration demands I create. Because this is a fantasy too, and all fantasy involves a degree of sacred license; to make what must be made, even if from whole cloth. Tolkien did it. Donaldson did it. Eddings did it. Jordan did it. Rowling did it. Sanderson does it. Name a popular fantasy writer who sells well, and you will find it’s a combo effort: research and studious world-building, combined with inventive manufacturing of details, languages, settings, and events; that may or may not have any root in the real.
With science fiction, we’re usually talking (potentially) far-future human civilizations, and alien cultures featuring alien beings which may not think or feel like human beings at all. Or, perhaps, the aliens are even more human than anyone might suspect? It’s up to you. I am quite sure if someone had approached Caesar Augustus on his throne and said, “Within five hundred years, your Empire will be dust, but its echoes will carry on through half a dozen new nations; including one republic which will ultimately launch rockets putting men on the moon,” Augustus might have assumed insanity on the part of the speaker. But that’s precisely how things played out.
When the American Experiment is a memory — five hundred, or a thousand, or ten-thousand years from now — what echoes of the United States will still be felt in that time, and in those places? Will the inhabitants of far-flung worlds read ancient records about men named Washington, or Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or Reagan, and ponder the lessons such leaders have for the (then) present time? Will the alphabet of the Romans adorn the hulls of starships? Or will it be Chinese hanzi? Russian cyrillic? Modern Standard Arabic? A new form of written communication we can’t even begin to guess at?
You, the author, get to decide.
And if you’re satisfied you’ve done your due diligence, for your world, and your audience . . . to hell with the complainers.