Limits of Imagination?

Not mine, or yours, but of a certain worldview.

Should we reign in our imaginations and empathy, our sense of understanding of fellow humans, or even trying to imagine how non-humans might think and react and behave, because we are not them? It’s a question that started in the history field and has now been boiling through the sci-fi fantasy writing sphere for a while, and bubbled up again because of a writing contest for new fantasy novellas.

This is what raised my eyebrows:

“Until the end of this open period, will only be considering novellas of between 20,000 and 40,000 words that fit the epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, high fantasy, or quest fantasy genres, whether set on Earth or on an original fantasy world. However, we will only be considering novellas that inhabit worlds that are not modeled on European cultures. We are seeking worlds that take their influences from African, Asian, indigenous American, or Pacific cultures, or any diasporic culture from one of those sources. To qualify, novellas should center the experiences of characters from non-European-inspired cultures.

“Both Lee Harris and Carl Engle-Laird actively request submissions from writers from underrepresented populations. . . .” [highlights in the original – see link]

The second paragraph, in its entirety and not what I have it trimmed to here, seems fairly standard from what I can find at, and is part of a deliberate effort to encourage non Anglo writers, and others. That no longer bugs me too much—I’ve become used to seeing the EEOC notices on academic job listings that translate into “we really need minority women so we can make our quota with the Feds.” Before you roll your eyes, ten years ago my then department chair was nervous because through a series of planned hires and medical retirements (unplanned, no-notice), the department needed to fill four professor slots in one go. All the slots got filled, but the Chairman was pretty worried that one might be blocked by HR because the candidate was a Middle Eastern gentleman and not a woman, and sex outweighed ethnicity on the HR diversity weighting.

Back to the main topic – when you combine the two portions of the submission guideline, you get the impression that the selection group believes that people of European descent, specifically males, cannot write fantasy in non-European settings and cultures. Or more accurately, should not write fantasy in non-European cultures and settings. If you add this to the fuss at the Australian writers’ conference about cultural appropriation and how an Anglo female writer who writes fiction about an African woman is somehow silencing African woman writers, the take-away is that only X can write about X, only Y can write about Y, and if Y ventures to write about X, she is stealing X’s power to tell stories.*

Really? Humans have so little empathy and so little ability to imagine and to capture the sense of what life is like for other people that we dare not write about anything we have not personally experienced, or our ancestors were not personally involved in? By that rule and implication, I could not have written Blackbird or Forcing the Spring because I’m not male. I certainly could not have written Hubris and Renaissance since I’m not a reptile, and I need to stop the Rajworld books at this moment if not sooner, because I’m not a 12-year-old of South Asian-Italian-African descent. Oh, and I need to pull the Alexi stories, because I’m not of Ukrainian ancestry and Athena T. Cat doesn’t text (thank Heavens!)

All eye-rolling and silliness aside, this mind-set leads to some pretty grim outcomes if you follow them far enough. If you can only understand and write about your own culture and ancestry, why study other places and times, since the people are too different to fathom? And if they are too different to fathom, why bother trying to get along? Why not just set up a separate economy, residential regions, social organizations, mutual aid groups, emergency aid groups, and so on? That’s the least harmful road. Worse, and more likely given what certain subsets of the population are preaching, is that a critical mass of people will decide that since Q group is too different to understand, they might as well not be around, and they are probably inferior anyway. If they are that inferior then Qs are probably not really human the same way that WE are, and can be evicted (at best) or exterminated.

There’s no bad idea that I can think of that has not had at least one rerun. We, as a species, have been down this “too inferior to tolerate” road before. I really don’t want to go there again.

Am I reading way too much into a call for fantasy novellas? Five years ago I’d say yes, “Lighten up, Francis!” Now? How many times have activists announced that Anglos cannot even begin to understand People of Color, that heterosexual people can’t empathize with LGBTQ-and-so-on [better go pull Circuits and Crises off sale], and similar phrases? I think there are far better ways the people at Tor could have phrased their story request that wouldn’t set off so many of my alarms and have achieved the same thing.

I am curious as to what stories they get, and what settings are used. I’ve read wonderful fiction set in mythical China (The Bridge of Birds), a gripping fantasy retelling of the first part of the story of Rama and Sita, stories set in a world modeled on feudal Japan (Servant of Empire, Daughter of Empire, Mistress of Empire), and I’d love to track back down the novels about either a Masai or Hausa hunter in space. They were on my “oh, that looks cool, I’d better remember those” list that I lost. And there were those stories in the first few Sword and Sorceress anthologies about the woman warrior from Dahomey, and . . .

I just wish the people at Tor had gone about it in a way that didn’t feed so well into the idea that we must limit our imaginations because we dare not try to understand other people, places, and times. That way lies danger.

*Apparently this is a new psychic power, or there is some new planetary story rule, that there can only be ONE story about certain topics, and once that is written (or stolen), it can never be told again.


5 thoughts on “Limits of Imagination?

  1. “If you can only understand and write about your own culture and ancestry, why study other places and times, since the people are too different to fathom? And if they are too different to fathom, why bother trying to get along?” Hmmm, the logic employed here by TOR (and others) would make my job as a diplomat either impossible, and therefore unnecessary, or inherently exploitative, if trying to figure out where another culture is coming from is exploiting them.

  2. “If you can only understand and write about your own culture and ancestry, why study other places and times, since the people are too different to fathom?”

    This reminds me of something from the archaeological theory seminar I took that just made my brain hurt. One of the Scandinavian countries, or perhaps Finland (can’t remember after five years, sorry), had an ethnic minority. Not much was known about their distant past, though they’d left a fair bit of archaeological evidence behind. None of the local archaeologists had engaged in much study, however, because they didn’t believe it was appropriate to study the minority’s past themselves. They believed that only members of that minority had a right to perform such research, and they’d be usurping the right if they tried. I did restrain from loudly exclaiming “WTF?”

    • I know, that sort of thing makes me want to wave my hand and say, “OK, I’m sorry, I’m slow. Just to confirm – it is better that this culture’s history be lost forever because there are no members of the current group who have the archaeological and curatorial training needed, than for someone else to study that culture? Thank you.”

      The Comanche Nation has set up a community college program in ethnology/archaeology for that reason. If the Anglos won’t do the work, because it is not proper or because tribal elders won’t permit Anglos to do the research, then he Comanche are going to do it, and do it right.

Comments are closed.