Beyond the Comfort Zone

As I’ve spent the last couple of years pushing myself out of the bounds of “traditional” western SF/F reading, I’ve come to realize something: getting out of your comfort zone isn’t just important to do as a writer, it’s integral to being a good reader too. If you continually barrage your mind with stuff all drawn from the same sources, it’s going to run together and numb you a little bit. You’ll start picking up on things like the three-act structure that tends to dominate western storytelling (for good reason, mind you, it’s a great format) and expect certain things to happen at certain points in the story. There’s an emphasis on conflict-driven storytelling in genre fiction, and I’ve come to believe that if that’s all you read you won’t appreciate its strengths because you won’t be aware of its weaknesses.

I’ve found myself reading a lot of eastern fiction lately, partly because I’ve gone out of my way to do so and partly because it’s gaining traction and popularity in the west. You have Chinese authors like Liu Cixin finally being made available, manga/anime being more widespread outside of Japan than ever before and often accompanied by novels and novellas, Korean drama making an enormous mark in streaming platforms, and western authors playing with the plot structures and tropes relatively newly introduced. In some cases this is more respectful to the original culture than in others, and the threat of writing orientalism looms over genre fiction in particular where authors have become used to slapping a new coat of paint over the vikings, or the ancient Celts, or medieval England and France. Most do not have a background in, say, Chinese history – I certainly don’t, and I consider myself pretty voracious when it comes to learning about other cultures – and may just be putting that coat of paint over harmful stereotypes. Or worse, feeling so insecure in lack of knowledge about a culture that you feel the need to put a narrator like yourself smack dab in the middle and end up writing yet another white savior story.

At the same time you have people who have done their research and immersed themselves, that’s how you get stuff like Brandon Sanderson’s Korean-influenced Stormlight Archives, or Elizabeth Bear’s Mongolian Eternal Sky trilogy. That’s good reading. They’re a nice doorway to more and more native literature, or stuff like Ken Liu’s work where he has a background in translating Chinese novels and is familiar enough to incorporate elements of them into more western-style plot structures and create fascinating hybrids. More on him shortly.

I should pause to mention I’m only picking out Asian literature as an example here because I have some decent references on hand and have been immersing myself in it lately, but this applies for anything outside of the standard purview. Arabic literature is pretty distanced from anything else I’d read prior, and the same with Russian, Finnish (weirdly enough most of the Finnish speculative lit I’ve read has a lot in common with the kishōtenketsu plot structure), books out of South America and others.

The best thing about reading this kind of stuff is twofold: you’re expanding your mind and giving yourself a wider variety of brain nutrition, which is perfect for escapism, and you’re able to compare and contrast it to the stuff you grew up reading. I find that returning to more medieval European stuff is enjoyable after a time away, because it feels less… same-y. It’s like going back to a dish you enjoy but ate way too much of after sampling a bunch of other flavors, and if you’re a really observational reader or you’re reading as a writer, you’re going to start recognizing and isolating key ingredients in each of the different regional delicacies, which is how you create new fusion foods that try to make the best of both worlds, excising the flaws in each by covering them with the other’s strengths.

71953.jpgIn keeping with that theme of “go out, read something different,” my recommendation today is Ken Liu’s Grace of Kingsthe first book in his upcoming series The Dandelion Dynasty. The sequel is due out in just a couple of months so now is a perfect time to start working on the first one.

Grace is one of those fusion novels I talked about before. He draws a lot of his influence from literature and war records dating back to China’s Han Dynasty and blends it seamlessly with storytelling structures similar to what you’d see in western epic fantasy. I ended up reading it three times the year it was released, first as a writer and then a couple of times to dissect it and look at the ingredients of the piece and how Liu prepared them. Something he’s brought up in his interviews before and that stood out to me in the text is that he wanted to work with the concept of negative space in literature so as to mimic its use in Chinese visual art from the era he was inspired by. It’s a book that tells you as much by what it chooses to omit as by what it includes, and that’s not a technique I see used very often. I think it works well here because the narrative voice is one of a historian going over a historical romance novel rather than a close third person perspective. It evokes the image of someone teaching you about the history of a place that never existed and one of the major wars that shaped its political landscape for generations to come, and that kind of storytelling is like catnip to me. It helps that he’s set it in an absolutely fascinating setting, too. It’s decidedly low-fantasy (outside of the airships) and much more interested in interpersonal drama and sweeping military movements than explaining the minutiae of magic systems piece by piece. It’s also more than a magical China piece, he’s set it on a densely populated archipelago which means that he can start with a Chinese basis but then has to rework a lot of the history and culture, incorporating elements from Polynesia, Japan and other civilizations that have gone largely ignored within this kind of fantasy story. Instead of feeling like a muddled, cherrypicked pastiche it has the weight of an actual civilization and history behind it, the kind of setting where after I finished reading the book I really wanted some faux historical documents to follow up and explore elements that the story hadn’t been able to touch on.

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