In conversation a few weeks ago, Tarun Bhartiya asked me for a specific kind of reading recommendation: a list of ten books of speculative fiction—from any period and any genre except horror—that would be a good introduction to the form for a reader of fiction who hasn’t had much exposure to it so far. This is what I’ve come up with, after thinking about it some.
First, it turns out that many of my favourite books are, in fact, horror; a lot of others are kind of inside baseball, in that they are more enjoyable if you’re familiar with other books of their genre, or the texts they may be referencing. Ruling all these out as much as possible, I tried to find points of exit, rather than points of entry, into what Delany likes to call our paraliterature.
To me, speculative fiction is not a subset of fiction “in general,” or even a parallel to literary fiction where they exist side by side as equivalent genres on a shelf. Strict naturalism in literature is the exception, not the rule, an insistence on navigating capitalist realism strictly on its own terms, which can be a fruitful asceticism but is best understood, to my mind, as a special case. Fiction is by its nature speculative: all literature is about making shit up, events if not worlds. And much of what is considered mainstream or general or classic or literary or otherwise non-genre fiction does not in fact respect a strict constraint of naturalism. Pale Fire has psychokinesis, poltergeists, and a made-up country. Beloved revolves entirely around a haunting. Peter Wimsey solves his mysteries in a world where ghosts are real. And so on. There is an ocean of story in which strict naturalism is merely a jetstream—powerful and of tremendous consequence, to be sure, but not the whole of the thing. And the name of that ocean is the fantastical, which is to say, the realm of the unconstrained imaginary: into this ocean feeds the epics, the tales, the utopias, the experiments, the poetry, the rayguns and the rakshasas, all our gods and ghosts and demons, all that can be made from wild and molten language. We may choose constraints as we will—the corset and bustle of whatever passes for hard science in a given decade, the full metal diving suit of strict long 20th century naturalism—but we wear them by choice, and many great writers not commonly identified as fantasists will divest themselves of those constraints at will, for effect or for joy.
That said, an introduction to speculative fiction should consist of writers whose work is recognized as belonging to the form, because that recognition is an important social reality. And within that, I particularly wanted to showcase speculative fiction’s capacity for politics, and a range of very different styles and stylists over a fairly wide span of decades. And so this list begins to take upon itself its own set of constraints. Nothing on it is at all likely to be surprising to the aficionado: they are all popular books, some extremely acclaimed. And yet I think as a selection it’s still a little idiosyncratic: I came up with several such lists and picked this set over others, after all, because I wanted its global and historical spread, and because it suggests a particular genealogy of the fantastic, one from which a great many well-known names are missing. This is intentional, because my assumption is that if a reader of fiction has not yet found their own way into speculative fiction, that many of its more popular manifestations have failed to appeal so far. Far more than two roads diverge in the wood, that is to say, and I don’t know whether to call this trail pleasant or rugged, because after all the paraliterature and everything it contains is not a forest with defined paths but an ocean, trackless but mappable. These are some of the islands I love best.
Reiterated in the form of a list, the books are:
The Invention of Morel (1940), Adolfo Bioy Casares
Titus Groan (1946), Mervyn Peake
Solaris (1961), Stanislaw Lem
The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), Gene Wolfe
The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), Amitav Ghosh
Amatka (2012), Karin Tidbeck
A Stranger in Olondria (2013), Sofia Samatar
Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013), Ahmed Saadawi
The Queue (2013), Basma Abdel Aziz
This list (as distinct from the gallery of book covers above, which is in no order whatsoever) is in chronological order of publication. This is not a recommended reading order, of which I have nothing specific in mind. Perhaps if in need of a starting point among these ten books, I’d suggest starting with Saadawi or Ghosh. And arguably, in some cases there are meaningful connections suggested by the books themselves—for example, you could say the Tidbeck is speaking to, or through, the Le Guin in some ways—but that doesn’t necessarily require anything in response. Each exit point is its own creature, its own path of approach, suiting different readerly moods. I don’t know if any given reader would love all ten of these as much as I do, and it’s certainly possible, even likely, that there are enthusiastic readers in entirely different terrains of speculative fiction to whom none of these are of particular interest, but you’d need a different guide to go where they go.
The “Sinhala nation” does not exist, and yet the state is designed in its service, and all politics revolves around its fears and desires. This is how we got where we are.
This is not the need of the hour, you might say: we were talking about gas, and food, and fertilizer, and the absent dollar. I agree. This is not the need of the hour. The hour, which has many needs, is greedy. It wishes to swallow up all thought with its many mouths. The hour has no time for the day or the decade, much less the century. With nothing but the eternity of hours in our hands, we exchange the important for the urgent. The hazard is not simply that the one goes unaddressed in favour of the other: it is that the many branchings of the urgent are rooted in the important, and by ignoring the root for the branch, we address symptom but not cause. Worse, we accept the unaddressed cause as a given, take its framings for histories, incorporate its agendas into our purported solutions, and thereby create more and more urgent needs for the hours to come. That, too, is how we got where we are.
Ever since independence, and in fact, even before independence, Sinhala-Buddhist discrimination, boycotts, and pogroms against minorities—“riots” is how they are often described, but we are beyond euphemism and out of fucks to give—are the basis of how this country works. The pogrom, in particular, is not a moment of aberration. It is fundamental. The pogrom is a disciplining engine. Its purpose is to restate the nation-state. The pogrom is a ceremonial recitation of the vision statement, for a country defined in the attempt to create a clear-cut, fixed Sinhala majority that would forever rule the island: rendering of half the Tamil population stateless, boycotts against Tamil businesses, the erasure of the Tamil language, violence against peaceful Tamil protestors. This was the defining issue at independence, and, with hundreds of thousands dead and the North under occupation, it is the defining issue today. This is not, as it is usually framed, “the Tamil question.” This is the Sinhala question.
The baseline environment of discrimination, punctuated by the regular cycle of pogroms, serves economic purposes, ideological purposes, and political purposes: undermining, destroying, and looting minority businesses; intimidating and terrifying minorities and dissenters into submission; and creating security crises that can be exploited for political power. It reinforces the border of the nation: who belongs to the majority and who does not. It is a simple machine, containing no sophisticated electronics but only mechanical wheels and levers that any fool can oil and maintain. Many fools have.
There is a problem of rhetoric in describing the pogroms as solely either disorganised or organised. Casual descriptions tend to fall into one or the other, but neither works as an explanation by itself.
On the one hand, if you say the Sri Lankan pogrom is solely disorganised, spontaneous violence by Sinhala Buddhists against Tamils or Muslims, then you risk absolving state actors (or other ruling-class actors, such as opposition politicians attempting to destabilise the state) of responsibility. The direct involvement of the likes of Rajaratna and Mettananda in the 50s or Cyril Matthew in the 80s or any number of contemporary examples demonstrate that state and ruling class actors are absolutely a factor and cannot be ignored. Much scolding of “ignorant mobs” or appeals to the better nature of said “mobs” relies on the underlying idea that violence erupts spontaneously because of bad ideas held by other people, and can therefore be avoided by exhorting said other people toward personal growth. Of course, there is plenty of evidence that a lot of perfectly ordinary people have terrible, racist, violent ideas, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine many of them happily joining a mob given the opportunity. We can accept this as a contributing factor, but not the sole or ultimate cause.
On the other hand, if you say such violence is solely organised, entirely managed by the state and/or other nefarious actors, then you risk absolving the Sinhala Buddhist polity at large—it’s essentially a denial that widespread or structural racism is a serious contributing factor, which it undoubtedly is. Pogroms require years of indoctrination and propaganda, to prime and maintain a sufficiently large segment of the population in the necessary cultural separatism, supremacism, paranoia, and ethical illiteracy required to make mass outbreaks of violence possible when its instigators demand it.
So. obviously, the answer must be that the pogroms are both organised and disorganised. They have always been nurtured and prepared and heated up over years, then actively incited and led in the moment of boiling over. It’s important not to lose sight of this “both,” though, because what matters is the interaction between organisation and disorganisation. Instigation can but does not require conspiracy of the more obvious sort. Sri Lanka is, by design, a leaking gas cylinder and the political culture is to sit on it and light matches.
It is not enough to say “stop lighting matches.” Even the leak isn’t the root of the problem: it is the nation-state, framed as compressed, productive, explosive fuel. This is indeed useful for those who cook with it—we know their names and their dynasties well—and they are least inclined to change the state of affairs, because for them these are the affairs of state. But for those of us who are under pressure inside the cylinder, rendered and reproduced as toxic and flammable, the need of the hour and the need of the century are aligned: we have to find our own safe way out, because the only other destinies that shall be made available to us are conflagration or consumption.
The Sinhala question is not a question: it lacks precisely that sense of questioning, of openness or discovery. The Sinhala question is an assertion, a definition, a tautology; it is only a question in that it troubles those capable of being troubled, just as it comforts those who are not. The Sinhala assertion is simply this: the island belongs to the Sinhala nation from the strait to the ocean, and the state, coterminous with the island, must serve the Sinhala nation. The occasional attempt to gentle and liberalize this assertion simply adds one word (“first”) to the end of that assertion, acknowledging that those outside the nation may also be included on sufferance within the state. As our constitution puts it, Buddhism shall have the foremost place, while other religions shall have their rights assured; the official language is Sinhala, and Tamil shall also be an official language. The Sinhala state serves the Sinhala nation, which is formulated as a fixed, pre-democratic majority and therefore defines the Sinhala state, and in this way the two continually reproduce each other. And meanwhile other people may also be there, as long as they remain relegated and understated, which is to say, neither part of this nation or another.
The Sinhala assertion justifies the Sinhala state, but it produces the Sinhala nation as a given. It is easy to identify the Sinhala state. It is the deterministic finite state machine—the elected representatives, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the laws, the police, the military—dominated by those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests. It accepts certain inputs but not others, and produces predictable outputs in response. It is, by definition, unjust and undemocratic.
But what, exactly, is the Sinhala nation? Is it those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests? No, not quite. Imagine an enthusiastic Western tourist who becomes a de facto immigrant, perhaps living down south and opening a boutique bed and breakfast, who learns fluent Sinhala, adopts Sinhala customs such as the New Year, wears sarongs, converts to Buddhism and can quote his Walpola Rahula as easily as his D.T. Suzuki, goes to temple on Poya days, makes Vesak lanterns, marries a Sinhalese and fathers children, identifies so strongly with the culture that he says we when he speaks of Sinhala interests, and is proud of it. Is this person Sinhala or part of the Sinhala nation? Obviously not. The answer is “No, but his children are half Sinhalese.” This answer is not really an answer to a question: this answer is the Sinhala question, which is the Sinhala assertion. It is the statement that to be Sinhala is not in the mouth, not in the head nor body, not even in the heart, but in the blood.
This statement is a fiction, a fantasy—an epic fantasy, a myth of origins imbued with great power, for all that it is, at a very simple level, without meaning. It means nothing, and yet it means everything: it is why blood is shed. It is the essence of Sinhala racial-national thinking. Not to be too Sapir-Whorfian about it, but there’s something telling about the use of the same word for race and nation (and species for that matter,) especially when that word becomes a rallying cry.
What, precisely, does ජාතිය mean in Jathika Chinthanaya? It is usually translated nation, as in National Thought or National Consciousness, but Gunadasa Amarasekara, its primary theorist (most recently seen being cringe on main) has of course long since clearly identified the nation with the Sinhala Buddhist, so it could be translated more accurately as Racial Consciousness. That is indeed the great intellectual contribution this ideology represents: anxieties about birth rates, fertility, and replacement, racialized demographics as power. As with the Mahinda Chinthanaya, it barely deserves the description of thought, much less consciousness. It is, rather, the unexamined unconscious of an unconscious nation, tottering somnambulistically over brink after brink, doing itself terrible damage with each crash but so far, never waking up all the way.
In this, the ideology is far older than the late articulation given to it by the likes of Amarasekara. It is the same reasoning through which the demographics of the island, as represented in the flag, were set at 5:1:1; proportions obtained through not only the violent disenfranchisement and deportation of Tamil populations in the very moment of independence, but through the differential definition of populations by race and religion. Tamil-speakers are broken up by religious and regional groupings, and Sinhala-speakers are not, though they could also be: a grandparental generation contended with Kandyan and Low-Country Sinhalese as distinct races, and if Sinhala Christians and Sinhala Hindus and Sinhala Muslims had been counted in similarly distinct silos, the proportions would shift again. All such definitions are fluid, unfixed, and of relatively recent provenance: the “Sinhala nation” is about as old as the car, or the telephone, which is to say, a device utterly inextricable from modernity. It is impossible to use a colonial tool of division for anticolonial campaigning without opening the way to tremendous postcolonial violence. The inability to rid ourselves of this device is, at root, how we got where we are.
Ranil Wickremasinghe gave a speech the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to the island—under Ranil’s protection, as always, continuing his service as Gota-by-proxy for these past few months. In this speech, he cited Buddhism as an explanation and justification for a neoliberal capitalism. An incoherent one, in that he described it in terms of a national desire, rooted in Buddhism, to be free of debt 1, while the world he and Gota are building is one of deep and permanent indebtedness, but this is only incoherent at the level of mere economics, whereas Ranil is speaking on the level of Racial Consciousness. The appeal is to Sinhala pride, traditionally a precursor to tremendous violence (the Sinhala nation having willfully inherited the mantle of whiteness, “Sinhala pride” is merely Kandyan KKK kosplay, and nothing to be proud of) but Ranil wants to extend this technique to directly support economic violence as well.
This rhetorical gambit seems to be a pet theme for Ranil. A notable previous attempt was his 2005 book Politics and Dharma, presumably ghostwritten but no doubt to his direction, which argued, via a tiresome and irrelevant restatement of samma ajiva, that capitalism was fully compatible with Buddhist values. Perhaps it is: the idea of what “Buddhist values” are has been so severely degraded in this country, from Mahanama to Mahinda, that there seems to be no reason why Buddhism should object to mere exploitation once it has already enthusiastically condoned genocide. But unlike Buddhist jingoism and unlike Buddhist pogroms, which rouse passionate, violent support from much of the self-identified Sinhala nation, Buddhist capitalism only tends to rouse mumbling acquiescence at best. The Sinhala nation is a great many people who have been successfully taught to hate the other, while the neoliberal capitalist rhetoric has successfully taught a great many people to hate themselves (as witness the many people begging for their own impoverishment and exploitation that you will see in any conversation about privatisation: many actively wish for public services to go away and despise the notion of a public good.) But the two rhetorics do not (yet) fit together, despite Ranil’s attempts to try and make them click into place. Persuasion is a field of wrecked experiments from whose ruins you can trace the outline of many a political project, but just because something has crashed before doesn’t mean that failure is preordained.
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1: This, incidentally, is why it is important to look first at the dirty underside of things, whether speeches by a President, press releases by the IMF, strategic meetings by a ruling party. There are always positive, or at least less-negative spins or aspects or readings that are possible. But if you don’t anchor yourself, then you risk getting lost in a frothy cloud of hypothetical positivities that may or, more likely, may not transpire. The worst that is openly spoken of, on the other hand, can be guaranteed to be the least of the trials to come. In most public statements from political actors, only the worst even approximates the real. The rest is sugarcoating, or more pyrotechnically, flares being sent up to distract any heat-seeking criticism. Top Gun isn’t the only 80s propaganda currently enjoying a massive resurgence. ↺
Six years ago I posted an update here saying I was joining Strange Horizons as a fiction editor. A brief update now—having read over 5000 submissions since, edited over half a million words in 117 stories from 112 authors—to say I am stepping down again. My whole career, and indeed the world, has changed a lot in that time. Six years is a good solid shift at the editor’s desk: I’m grateful to have had the chance, and to be leaving the magazine in the extremely capable hands of the new editorial team.
Of the 112 authors I worked with, for 49 of them it was the first time they’d sold a short story at professional pay rates. For 19 of them, it was their first time being published at all. I wanted to honour a long-standing Strange Horizons tradition of making space for brilliant new writers, so I’m particularly happy with these two facts. It’s been amazing to be part of a project like this, one of the world’s most prestigious genre magazines but also a genuinely unique internet collective: a massive, distributed, evolving, all-volunteer team, non-profit and reader-funded for over twenty years. This was an opportunity to influence the shape of the genre in a small way, and I hope I did it justice.
I am honoured to have worked with all the excellent editors and readers at Strange Horizons as well as with the many writers who trusted us with your work. Thank you so much to all of you!
As you have probably heard by now, Sri Lanka is in crisis. That link, and pretty much any news source at this point, has more coverage if you need it; if you’re looking for deeper analysis, I recommend these articles by Mario Arulthas and Ahilan Kadirgamar as good starting points.
The short version: price hikes, inflation, and severe shortages are hitting all Sri Lankans hard, and obviously working-class Sri Lankans, who constitute the vast majority of this country, are the hardest hit.
Official poverty rates aside (they tend to be defined in such a way to minimize the number of people who are formally “poor”, so as to make good poverty reduction stats), even before the crisis hit, nine out of ten Sri Lankans were living on less than $3 a day. Seven of those nine lived on about half that. The conversion of those numbers from rupees to dollars is based on current (and collapsing) exchange rates to give you an idea of how far your donations would go right now, and how much even small donations matter.
A meal, as costed by most of the relief efforts below, is less than $1. For $10, you can make sure ten people get a square meal.
I want to add that those income stats themselves are actually from an official government survey in 2016: long before the pandemic, even, never mind the current collapse. So they are certainly far too positive for what’s going on right now, but it’s the best official number I could find. Conditions were already precarious at best: we are now over the edge and in free-fall, which is why so many people are protesting across classes and political tendencies.
Small-scale mutual aid initiatives are obviously not going to solve the crisis. But they do keep at least some people fed in the meantime, and as anybody who has ever been hungry knows, that’s hell of a lot better than nothing.
I’ve been trying to keep this page updated as various relief initiatives spin up or wind down, so as long as the date at the top of this post is relatively recent, the below are active.
As of late 2022, many projects have wound down or gone on hiatus. The best way to help at this point is supporting mutual aid efforts for food and dry rations via Amalini De Sayrah’s Google document, which is the most comprehensive resource tracking many relief efforts.
Everything listed in the above document are on-the-ground mutual aid initiatives. If you’re on the island, you can donate directly via bank transfer, and if you’re donating from overseas, you can use do an international bank transfer or use a service like Wise.com. Bank details and instructions on how to use Wise are in the document.
These are efforts to provide food and dry rations to low-income communities in different parts of the island, all of whom have been hit very hard by the shortages and price hikes. Any and all of them are good to support, and deserve whatever you can give! (Document linked in the tweet below is the same Google doc.)
Please donate and signal boost as much as you can! Any help you can give is deeply appreciated.
There is a particular tendency in genre fiction very well demonstrated by this thing that Jayaprakash Satyamurthy found under a rock and dragged into the light last year.
Or rather, there are quite a few things happening here at the same time, and they are adjacent, perhaps, but distinct. Let us disentangle them somewhat.
Sometime in the mid-twentyteens, Bryan Thomas Schmidt put out a subs call for an anthology of fiction from writers around the world—the phrase he used, in fact, was “foreign natives”—except Africa, because he’d already got Mike Resnick to represent Africa. Why did he think Mike Resnick, a white American, could represent Africa in such an anthology? Because of Resnick’s Kenya-themed “Kirinyaga” books and stories, of course. Because in the tiny, insular world of white SFF of his generation, Resnick had carved out that niche. He had become, canonically so in this pocket whites-only universe, the African SFF writer.
A somewhat less ugly example. Has there ever been an article in the Sri Lankan media about Sri Lankan speculative fiction that did not mention Arthur C. Clarke? I don’t know the answer to this question for a fact, but I suspect not.
Clarke was, in point of fact, not Sri Lankan, but he lived here in a state of such absolute colonial privilege that they made a new category of resident just for him. Seeing as he was capable of distorting the very concept of citizenship around himself, as a wealthy, famous, white English settler in a newly postcolonial nation, it is unsurprising that he continues to occupy the high ground in the unconsidered literary history of Sri Lankan speculative fiction. It is a negligible feat, by comparison. Unlike in Resnick’s case, the identification of Clarke with Sri Lanka (or rather, the other way around) is widespread in writing about SFF, both local and occidental. The island becomes a funny line in his author bio, a quaintness, much like the number of cats an author might have.
There is something wrong happening in each of these instances, obviously. For my purposes here, the question at hand is not whether the stories are good or not, or whether the authors/editors are good people or interesting artists or not. Clarke certainly wrote some wonderful stories; he may also have been a pedophile, a persistent charge that I’d long dismissed as a common slander against a gay man until the relatively recent accusation from Peter Troyer, as documented by Jason Sanford. Neither Schmidt nor Robert M. Price, the editor of Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart, seem likely to be interesting curators from my perspective, given their contemptible sensibilities, but it’s certainly possible that their anthologies have included stories that I might have liked. Any fool can pick obvious winners. Many fools do.
These things are not irrelevant, certainly, but they also confuse the issue because they are more compelling and more immediate than what I’m trying to point at, which is how canons are manufactured.
This essay is not, of course, actually addressed to the likes of Robert M. Price, an established bigot, or the fashy little press that gleefully publishes these white power anthologies. This is not a callout. Such a thing would be ridiculous. Price’s introduction to this anthology (readable via the Amazon preview) calls Edward Said a leftist propagandist and declares that orientalism is a good and desirable thing. There is no thought to engage with here: it is the desert of the clowns. Rather, I’m talking to the kind of people who write about books: critics, journalists, engaged readers. This is not about this or that particular book. This is about a tendency. A mechanism. A movement or transfer.
Are Resnick’s “Kirinyaga” stories particularly racist? I know I’ve read one or two, but it’s been decades and I don’t remember them at all, so don’t take my word for it either way. Clarke was not racist or even condescending toward Sri Lankans in his fiction, as far as I can remember. On the other hand, I would not bet a single rupee that Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart is racism-free, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. But the presence or absence of racism in the texts is not at issue here.
Nor is this about #ownvoices. It would be absurd to say that only Kenyans can write stories set in Kenya, or Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka. Sofia Samatar isn’t Kenyan either, but “Ogres of East Africa” is wonderful. Putting it in the same context as Resnick’s Kirinyaga is in fact vaguely embarrassing, a condition exacerbated by the fact that Resnick won multiple Hugos in the 90s for those stories while “Ogres” took third place in that year’s Locus poll. This tells you something about how genre literary awards fail, yes, but it also tells you something about genre canon formation. If you asked for Kenya-related speculative fiction from, say, a Hugo-voting audience (as a shorthand for a historically canon-forming, white-dominated, American-dominated body in English SFF), you’re still much likelier to hear about Resnick than Samatar, and long before you hear about Ray Mwihaki or Clifton Gachagua or any other writers actually from Kenya.
Recognition as a writer needs time. You must be published widely, read widely, remembered and reviewed and talked about. Resnick had work published decades before everybody else named here. These are deep structural advantages—whiteness, citizenship in the metropole, proximity to the western-based major publishing industry, early-mover advantage in name recognition. This matters because it turns canons into a kind of colonialism of the speculative imagination.
Canon is a tricky word. I am using the term lightly; I mean those works and writers who are widely recognized and repeatedly cited, which of course produces multiple and varied groupings depending on who you ask and for what purpose. Every such canon is formed by citation and repetition. Every act of curation contributes to it. Every anthology of African or Asian fiction, every article. Even a listicle adds a pebble to the pile. And in speculative fiction publishing, white Western writers, which is to say, specifically, white writers from the metropoles and settler colonies of the long British-American empire, especially those of previous generations, have had decades of a head start. Their canonization for work that draws heavily on the third world—as setting, as prop, as raw material—was built on the same lines as all other colonial enterprises, like the settler-colonial squatting that Resnick or Clarke perform.
Many, many traditions abound in writing fiction about place. They are often and easily confused. At minimum, you could make a crude distinction between work by the people who are, in the important sense, from there (i.e., including diasporas) and work by the people who aren’t (i.e., including resident white expats.) This does not automatically mean that the former is good and the latter is bad, or even that one is necessarily more authentic than the other. In the first place, authenticity is a trap and best avoided by everyone. And it is quite possible that sometimes an outsider will see more clearly than an insider. But this is not an evenly balanced sometimes, and it is especially not so when that place is a third-world colony of the empire. The contemporary publishing industry remains nearly as concentrated in the heart of the metropole as it was then. The imbalances of access and proximity have changed but little, and those imbalances are governed by long histories of orientalism, exoticization, and exploitation even if any given work is not. The question is not (or at least, not only) “is this book racist?” but how much easier it was for that book to be published (and reviewed, and cited, and canonized) than a contemporary work by an author from the place the book is writing about.
An example. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise, a book precisely as old as I am. Fountains is set in a version of Sri Lanka, and written by someone who had at that point been resident in Sri Lanka for decades. Here, too, I read the book so long ago that I don’t remember it at all. I have no quarrel with it and I’m not trying to cancel it—I feel like I have to keep making this disclaimer to forestall people summarizing this whole essay as me trying to cancel various books or people. Fountains probably won a Hugo and a Nebula and so on.
This is a good example of a book that falls, for me, squarely on one side of that line about writing about place. It is (probably) a fine book in the tradition of books that use Sri Lanka as setting or inspiration, but Clarke, as an almost ludicrously privileged Englishman sahibing it up in the colonies, had several orders of magnitude more access to the Western publishing industry than anybody who lived on the island in 1979. My father’s first novel (Tilak Chandrasekera, පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක්) came out that same year, as a matter of fact. It was “self-published”, as many local books were at the time, and by local standards it was quite successful, going on to multiple printings in the 80s and 90s.
පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක් is not speculative fiction, but it is absolutely a book about place, what would probably now be called autofiction—for my father in his first book, that place was the village in Kurunegala where he grew up. A village that, in the 1930s-40s that the book is set in, was in fact arguably in the jungle, or at least jungle-adjacent. (You could find some jungle there even in the 80s: I once managed to get lost in it as a boy. What can I say, jungle happens. Even the Mahabharata describes us as जाङ्गलवासिन, jangal-vasina, jungle-dwellers.) Clarke had arrived in Sri Lanka when my father was still a teenager, though out of the jungle by then and living in the same city. By the year these two books were published, Clarke had been living on the island for more than half of my father’s life, already a fixture. My father had no quarrel with Clarke either: he spoke of him admiringly, and bought me a copy of the Sinhala translation of 2001. They didn’t really live in the same country, as writers, for all that their houses were perhaps three kilometres apart for the decades of their later careers. They were by no means writing about the same place, and success as an author meant such wildly different things to them that they were not even on the same planet.
This is why it’s so much more complicated than writers who are from there and not from there. A work that is in a significant way about place could, then, be many different kinds of text.
For example, you have the imperialist’s text, which sees a place the way colonial administrators saw it. Leonard Woolf’s Village in the Jungle is a classic of this type, with Woolf having been himself the very same kind of colonial administrator who appears in the text as the only oasis of sanity and rationality in a gothic horror of native madness and violence.
Clarke’s renditions of future Sri Lankas are a less heavy-fisted version of the same: the island is urbane and genteel and tropical and, most of all, small. The expat’s text, the postcolony that is merely the metropole writ very small, mimicking the upper-crust Colombo 7 life that Clarke understood.
Then we have whatever this is. A burdensome thing. Perhaps we could call it the kipling text.
Whether the orientalism renders the objectified as infantile, monstrous, exotic or what have you, what matters for all these texts is that there is a distinct flavour of that place, something like a spice, that can be taken out of it, mixed into a dish, a taste that the discerning reader can pick up, perhaps even become expert at picking up. Can you tell River of Gods from Song of Kali in a blindfolded taste test?
Consider an even more casual encounter with place: the tourist’s text. This is the author’s note from Trouble in Nuala, which is the first novel, published 2016, of a self-published cozy mystery series now at least ten books deep. The Inspector de Silva Mysteries is “set in the 1930s amidst the rolling green hills of colonial Ceylon” and is written by a white British woman, Harriet Steel.
This is the extractivism of setting at its smoothest and most efficient, its pathway having been cleared by a century or two of the texts that preceded it, that hacked their way through the jungle and laid down rail into the village.
Now in my sixth year as fiction editor at Strange Horizons, I have read a very large number of short story submissions and there have indeed been some, not many, stories that use Sri Lanka as a setting. A few are even authored by Sri Lankan writers, on the island or from the diaspora. Most, however, are not. Certainly, the worst have been strong examples of the tourist’s text. They have a certain distinctive quality of overextraction and give a great bitterness in the mouth. What’s hardest, as an editor, is that I try not to be more demanding of the Sri Lankan setting than I am of any setting. Or rather, I try to be no less demanding of any setting. What is true of the island is true of the world.
But there is also more than one kind of text in the other(ed) and orthogonal tradition, the writing of those who are from there. The tourist text can be written in both, and often is. And there are many others, both on the island and off it, often overlapping: the witness’s text, the refugee’s text, the exile’s text. Too, there are the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text, the paired science fictions of muttering uncles, seen more often in the newspaper opinion columns than on the bookshelves. And then there is the ideal that I think that any writer with some shards of conscience and consciousness might aspire to, the traitor’s text.
The traitor’s text must refuse authenticity—which is a fetish of the patriot, the tourist, and the imperialist. The traitor’s text is an ideal, being the work that must critique both the big empires and the little ones, so the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text are also traps that await all of us who are, undeniably, from there. Pits shallowly disguised with dry leaves. The traitor’s text is the measure, for me, of what writing about place must reach for. It’s available to anyone, whether you’re from there or not, but some things about it are just harder to reach if you’re not.
It’s important to say, I think, that I use setting in this essay deliberately. I do not say culture. I talked this over with Nandini, who pointed out that my use of the extractivism metaphor puts this essay in dangerous proximity to unintentionally reifying culture in the process of trying to do the opposite. This is one of the traps in talking about this, that it can so easily be confused with a superficial argument about appropriation. This is not about appropriation: this is about the problems of setting in fiction that trouble us all because we live in the same empire-haunted world, ruined by colony and postcolony alike, this tainted, unstable ground. There is no true and authentic fixed thing, and no one can, or should wish to, lay claim to it. Imagine the horror, if there were such a thing that you could hold in your hands, that you could never put down or toss away, how it would burn and cut. Jungle is not an object: it is a process. It jangles, it jungles. Sometimes jungle is inauthentic, being merely colonial-era plantations gone back to the wild. Sometimes the jungle in question is urban. I live in the city, crocodiles in the canal down the street, I’m in a WhatsApp group (alongside three hundred of my overly meme-happy neighbours) run by the local grama niladhari, who issues updates on vaccination schedules and so on. The title of his job, essentially the lowest rung of local government, has changed several times over the decades (gammuladaniya, grama sevaka, grama niladhari) but the prefix remains intact. It means village.
By its very nature, the traitor’s text must be layered. It is complex, because the world it describes is complex. It cannot essentialize. It cannot be condescending or onanist. It can never be cozy. This necessarily makes it a more difficult text to engage with than all the others, which makes sense because the traitor’s text can only exist in response to all the others: it comes after them, logically if not necessarily chronologically. When I write a horror story about a village in the jungle, it comes after Woolf, and must struggle with Woolf, and this would be true in many senses even if I had not read Woolf (I have, but as often happens, I only read the book after having already responded to it several times over.) This canon exists because Woolf has over a hundred years of citation. Woolf even has authenticity, having been in and around the very situations he writes about. This is why authenticity doesn’t matter in fiction. I do enjoy Village in the Jungle as a gothic horror—and that ending is magnificently written—but to enjoy it, you must understand that the bulk of its power and horror is in how and why Leonard Woolf came to be the person to write it.
These are both books where the story is fractured among narrators who lead wildly different lives in different worlds. The narrators have very different voices and different understandings of the world; their readings of it are contradictory, even adversarial. Both stories are indirectly warped by the considerable gravity of a singular, intense, and unusual connection between two people that runs through most of the book and determines events.
In The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez, that relationship is between Nia, the self-assured captain, and Ahro, the magical orphan boy with Gully Foyle teleportation powers. Nia and Ahro learn to trust each other even though trust does not come naturally or easily to either of them. The book is most fundamentally about this connection, and to explore it, the book cheerfully explodes most of the tropes it sets up. The original Firefly-ish crew, the first found family, quickly abandons ship when asked to take unreasonable risks; the second found-family crew disintegrates in betrayal and violence. The special boy’s special powers—as in The Stars My Destination—represent a freedom beyond all constraint, which prove wonderfully useless for heroic purposes: he is captured, dehumanized, dissected while still alive, converted into an industrial asset, and put to work powering corporate innovations in cheap space travel. There is no heroic rescue, either, only a lifetime of exploitation. The book mildly relents in allowing a final escape at the very end so that Ahro might, perhaps, die in Nia’s arms. I resented this final reunion at first, because it seemed like a sop to that very sentimentality that the book spends so much energy in demolishing, being altogether too close to the stock twee space opera ending of flying off into the sunset, the core of the found family still intact.
But then I thought, perhaps it would have been too grim, to let them die apart. The story does, after all, describe a galaxy very recognizable in its ugliness, where the third world is now many worlds kept poor and indebted by capital, harvested of their resources. Nia is a minor agent of capital just as Ahro is an asset, neither of them ever having much say or even thought in the matter: their lives are simply overtaken by powers and events. This is a story against heroism and complacency, but it does not deny the power or value of human connection, even if that connection is most often tenuous or fleeting. The value of relationships is determined by the persistence of those who relate: neither Nia nor Ahro gives up on the other despite having every reason to despair, and so perhaps it is only right that they get to meet once more in the ruins of their lives.
Such a final meeting is explicitly denied in Trust by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, a denial toward which the whole book builds and seems inevitable only in retrospect (I was expecting a confrontation of some sort.) The core relationship here that between Pietro and Teresa. Where Nia and Ahro had a straightforwardly mother-son relationship that developed in strength over the years and whose consistency holds them together while they are apart, the relationship between Pietro and Teresa is more treacherous, more fluid. They begin as teacher and student, then lovers in their twenties, and finally, keepers of each other’s most terrible secrets. As ex-lovers with marriages and lovers and lives of their own, they remain uneasy correspondents, entering into what they call—Pietro and Teresa each accuse the other of coming up with the idea—an ethical marriage, a connection made purely of mutually assured destruction.
Pietro, deeply insecure despite his talents (like Ahro, he is singularly blessed, though his power is the uncanny charisma with which he seduces everyone he encounters) and successes in life, struggles to think of himself as a good person in his own right: does he do the right thing only because he fears that Teresa will punish him by revealing his secret to the world if he strays? Is he good only because he fears to be revealed as contemptible? In this way he does not cheat on his wife or abandon his children, nor does he become politically corrupt or make enemies in society, and so this book, too, explodes the tropes of its genre. Pietro still lives in unacknowledged terror of Teresa his whole life, even though, she tells us airily, she has long since forgotten those old secrets. Even at the end, as a lionized old man, he cannot bring himself to face her a final time at a ceremony in which she is to give a speech in his honour. Even in their seventies, he fears what she might say, how even nearing the ends of their long full lives, she might (and here, offhandedly, she seems to suggest to us that she still could, that she still really might) retroactively undo him with a word.
The first and most important thing to understand about the Sri Lankan flag is that every version of the lion flag is, definitionally, racist and fascist in symbolism, including the official one. It was intentionally designed that way, by committee. The proportions of the “majority box” to the “minority stripes” (5:1:1) were determined by population ratios which were determined by:
racialized census categories introduced by the British Empire in the preceding few decades and enthusiastically taken up by the burgeoning Sinhala-supremacist postcolony, which divided the Tamil-speaking population into sub-races by religion but not the Sinhala-speaking population and
the chaos introduced by the then-contemporary Citizenship Act, which made a massive proportion of the Tamil-speaking population stateless and disenfranchised.
The clear intention of the national flag’s design was to centre this Sinhala supremacism and marginalize minorities, represent them as barely-tolerated outsiders at best. Contemporary dissent (e.g. Senator Nadesan) makes it clear that this was not an analysis that was somehow beyond them. It was pointed out, very explicitly, and ignored.
The reason the flag is fascist in addition to being racist is (in addition to its reliance on racialization, the glorification of the dominant “race”, and the warlike symbolism, all fascist standbys) is because this lion also came accompanied by an entirely fictional mytho-history concocted by E.W. Perera and D.R. Wijewardena. The story is that the lion flag represents a return to a mythic precolonial history, which it does not. Purported centuries-old or millennia-old connections to Kandyan flags and Dutugemunu &c. are nonsense: fantastical worldbuilding as background for nation-building. Flags of the precolonial world did not serve the same purposes as nation-state era flags, any more than “Sinhalese” represented a racial designation rather than a political designation in the era before colonial racialization. They did not carry the same meanings, and the lion had no special place: you’ll find plenty of other animals wandering about in flags and other precolonial iconography, a whole zoo of them. The idea that there could be any sort of rebooted franchise, a meaningful remake, a direct connection between a symbol and its meaning before and after over two hundred years of colonial reprogramming and brainwashing is laughable.
Perera, an epic fantasy writer before his time, simply invented a brief and outsourced the design to a London designer (Southwood & Co. in Regent Street), presumably some white guy, who knocked off a generic European heraldic lion passant with finials and called it a day. At best, they were more likely influenced by British and Dutch colonial flags of the preceding generation than anything else, but seeing as how Perera, Wijewardena et al. were already thoroughly brainwashed by colonial programming, this would have been perfectly acceptable to the Sinhala supremacist mindset. It was Britishness that the Sinhala elite wanted and envied, to finally become the white man, the colonizer, the master sir.
The specifics of the flag’s design clearly didn’t really matter to Perera or Wijewardena, in any case, given that they found whatever the designer came back with acceptable. One wonders if there were private rounds of feedback and redesign, but I suspect not. The details only matter if you give a shit. All they wanted was to put a lion on it. Their strategy of decolonization was merely to ensure above all that the “Sinhalese” inherited the colonial mantle of whiteness on the island. Whiteness exists to be the race that dominates other races—this is why “race” exists and why it was invented—and in the postcolony, at least in Sri Lanka and probably elsewhere too, the changing of the guard was not reflected by the deconstruction of this construct of race, but by its rigorous enforcement. The goal was not and never unity: such things are judged by what people do, not what people say, and the national flag is the perfect example. Taking the colonizer’s place, becoming the colonizer was the only ambition of decolonization-era Sinhala elites. And it remains true today, which is why the national flag now exists in multiple unofficial variations, each one making the flag’s true nature more explicit than the last.
The version of the flag seen in the tweet, meanwhile, is of particular interest because it actually has no history that I’m aware of: it is an entirely new thing under the sun. Even the alleged historic flag of Kandy had finials, not fig leaves, so this is not that. Besides, all legitimized versions of the flag have the lion holding the sword by the hilt, not by the blade. The only flag that I’ve seen before with that design is Dayasiri Jayasekera’s innovation from 2020.
Of course, this version of the flag has the minority stripes, so it too is not a match. The perahera flag cannot claim a history even two years old; it is freshly hatched, mere days in the making.
But the return of this blade-holding lion makes me think that this is perhaps not an error after all. Perhaps it is merely a catwhistle, a new icon chosen by fascist thought leaders as being more appropriate for contemporary Sinhala modernity, a self-harming lion, a bleeding lion that can’t stop cutting itself.
Two books organized around films: in Don Delillo’s Point Omegathe film in question is Hitchcock’s Psycho, as experienced through an art installation that apparently did exist, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, which plays the film in extreme slow motion, two frames per second, so that the entire film lasts a full day. It being a literary novel, the fascinating frame story of the possibly aspirational murderer watching the film is rudely interrupted by a long dry visit to the desert, where an aspiring filmmaker attempts to persuade an ageing neocon intellectual to unburden himself of any secret guilts he may harbour over having supported America’s post-9/11 invasions both as a writer and as a kind of consultant to the military, a maker of useful fictions. The old man feels no guilt, secure in a cocoon of pretentious bullshit, until his beloved daughter (the daughter is a cipher and manic pixie, whose purpose is to be the sole object of her father’s uncritical adoration and the vaguely erotic yearnings of both the narrator-filmmaker and the Psycho-watching psycho) vanishes suddenly, and he is brought low by personal grief where culpability for atrocity could not reach. This is a short book that still manages to make its meat taste a little belaboured—though not as much as the dead horse that was The Silence—but the Psycho-obsessed exoskeleton is fascinating as a reading of Gordon’s installation. The desert bullshit sessions are interesting in the sense that any asshole old man’s ranting is interesting if you listen to it in slow motion, in the way it constantly betrays and subverts itself; the pointed reversal of de Chardin’s omega point to gesture in a vaguely Ligottian direction is the best of it.
In Experimental Film by Gemma Files, the (fictional) films in question are the works of an early twentieth century filmmaker named Iris Whitcomb, a series of short films iterating through increasingly symbolic dramatizations of a Wendish folktale. It being a horror novel, of course the folktale and the malevolent figure at its heart are real, and the plot devolves at the end into a race against time to stop it from getting out &c., which was rather disappointing because all the rest of the book is deeply fascinating—the narrator’s chronic pains in body and motherhood, her spiky, difficult relationship with Canadian film as an industry and a history, her slightly grimy ambitions, and the dynamic with her own mother, all wonderfully realized. For some reason, in both books I particularly enjoyed reading characters watching and reacting to films, probably much more so than I would enjoy watching those films myself. There is a great fascination in watching a watcher—something DeLillo’s Psycho-watcher does almost as much as he watches the film, observing and commenting on every other viewer who comes by. There’s an art installation that must be negotiated in Experimental Film, too: the narrator has to run the gauntlet of an entirely dark, claustrophobic space where the only cues are auditory, but the sensory deprivation, as one of the tortures that DeLillo’s neocon uncle romanticizes at length, forces a crossover between the art installation itself and the hallucinatory disruptions that might equally come from the narrator’s migraines or her hauntings.