Monday, October 29, 2012


"What is snow like?"

I didn't expect that question, though maybe I should have. I'd just been in the United States, and people who had never left Tanzania were naturally curious. So I did my best. "Cold and wet."

"That sounds great. If you got hot, you could rub some on yourself to get cool!"

That conversation (very loosely translated from Swahili) is one of my favorite demonstrations of worldview. It's the assumptions we don't consider that get to us, limiting what we can imagine of the world. Even though our ability to travel or get information is unparalleled in human history, all too often we don't venture very far beyond what we know and understand.

Books are the antidote for that. They tell us that reality is stranger, more terrible, and more wonderful than we know.

That's why I write fiction. Fiction exercises our ability to consider things that are new and unfamiliar, to reconsider our beliefs, to listen instead of judge. Non-fiction prepares us for specific things that exist, but fiction prepares us for anything that could exist.

So when I write, I try to show the diversity of the world. That means I end up writing a wide variety. You can see many different points of inspiration in Sorcery and Scholarships, which is packed with different things. Arguably too many.

One is globalization. The world is increasingly interconnected and I wanted my story to reflect that. All too often, stories about supposedly global conflicts center on one country and the rest of the world just sort of floats in undefined space. It's fine for fey/wizards/vampires/whatever to be based in Europe, but are we supposed to believe that they just ignore rising powers in South America and Southeast Asia? Is it too much to ask for Africa to... well, exist?

Not that stories shouldn't have focus. Two countries in particular fueled mine. One is Japan, which exported many elements of anime and manga to me. The ability to have action without the limitations of a special effects budget is something that it does well, and there's no reason fiction can't do the same.

Another is the cultural perspective of the US. There's something very valuable in the irreverence toward tradition that you find there. Since I assume most of you are Americans, you may take this for granted. In all too many parts of the world, "Why?" is a question that simply isn't asked, and "Because it's always been this way" is considered an adequate explanation for anything. Tradition has much to offer as well, but I find attitudes that question far more fascinating.

One last thing that inspires my writing is the breadth of human morality. We tend to assume that everyone believes what we believe, which makes discussion difficult even within one country, much less between them.

For example, I've commonly heard people say that all human societies believe that murder is wrong. That would be nice, but it isn't exactly true because "murder" has slippery definitions. This can get ethically tricky, so let me skip to one end of the continuum: I know cultures that believe murder is only killing a member of your nuclear family - killing anyone else is fine or even expected. That's not hypothetical, either. Less than half an hour's drive from where I'm typing this, there's an ugly conflict over water rights that has left dozens dead, with no moral judgment from anyone in either community.

That exists. So do hundreds of other things that are important, and in-depth discussion of them would probably make everyone angry eventually. Justifiably so, because our beliefs about the world matter.

Therefore fiction matters. Especially with fantasy, where we can encounter things even more radically alien than anything on Earth. I may have waxed philosophic above, but there's another part of me that just loves writing about crazy new things. You can have everything from fey with slightly different moral codes to creatures that exist in completely different modes from humans and fail to comprehend the difference between a living and dead body.

So for me, the same thing that makes fiction fun makes it important. We spend most of the day within our own homes, cultures, and understandings. But eventually, you'll run into your equivalent of snow, and what you've read will determine how likely you are to understand.



  1. Ian,
    Thank you so much for your post. My favorite part is when you said,"Fiction exercises our ability to consider things that are new and unfamiliar, to reconsider our beliefs, to listen instead of judge. Non-fiction prepares us for specific things that exist, but fiction prepares us for anything that could exist."

    This is the reason I read and write speculative fiction. I enjoy the wonder and magic inherent to the idea that almost anything could exist even if its only in someone's imagination.

  2. I loved this, Ian. You bring up so many good points. It's easy to get boxed in to our own cultural way of thinking.


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