An Orientalist fantasy

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2012 12:31 am

A few months ago I had a post up about Game of Thrones, where I argued that to a great extent the book and the world that George R. R. Martin created was racist because that’s true to how pre-modern worlds generally are constructed structurally. When fantasists create a ‘secondary world’ they are almost always using our own universe as a prototype, often shading or refashioning some aspect here and there to taste. A true fantasy which is totally counter-intuitive and lacks familiar coherency is without any anchor for a reader, and so lacks narrative power. Fantasy stripped away of injustice or oppression would be without dramatic tension. Utopia does not sell. Additionally, the speculative element in this literature is sharply bounded by precedent. Modern fantasy in its origins is simply an elaboration of the epic literature which is often at the root of contemporary civilizations. J. R. R. Tolkien attempted to create in his own works a simulacrum of a rich epic folk past for the Anglo-Saxon peoples analogous to what the Scandinavians had thanks to Snorri Sturluson’s efforts.

My post on Martin’s work was prompted by the ruminations of one Saladin Ahmed, whose piece in Salon manifested all the stale standard post-colonial inflected drivel which riddles much of popular literary criticism. Ahmed popped up in the thread of my post, but actually misunderstood the intent! The reason is pretty straightforward I think: our “paradigms” are so different that he had a hard time hearing me correctly initially. I responded to Ahmed, but weirdly enough though he hung around the comment thread he never really engaged with me after I made my own stance clearer to him. Whether it disturbed him, or did not interest him, I will never know.

With all that back story entered into the record I actually purchased Ahmed’s debut fantasy novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, a few days after my encounter with him on this weblog. I spent about a month reading it on my Kindle in my spare time here and there. Why did I spend money purchasing fiction produced by someone whose ideas I perceive to be second-rate and derivative? There are two major issues. First, many colored people complain about the ‘Eurocentric’ nature of fiction, film, etc. But complaining is easy. Where are these people when it comes to actually producing their own alternatives? Ahmed has done this, so for that one has to give him his due. Second, just because on finds an author disagreeable, objectionable, or even offensive, does not mean that an author is not worth reading. I doubt many of Tolkien’s readers today share his traditionalist Roman Catholicism. It is after all a work of fiction. Nor do all of Isaac Asimov’s readers of his Foundation series go along with the implicit atheism that’s a reflection of the author’s own views (Hari Seldon was based on Asimov himself).

Throne of the Crescent Moon actually got very high marks on Amazon. But if I had to rate it, I’d give it 3.5 stars. It wasn’t a bad book, but neither was it a page turner, at least for the first 2/3. Since I read it on the Kindle I didn’t have a page count handy, but Amazon said it has 288 pages. And that’s the problem: Ahmed tried to do too much on too small of a narrative canvas. Many of my criticisms of particular elements of Throne of the Crescent Moon can probably be reduced down to the fact that the author simply did not develop the thread very well because he was trying to do so much in parallel. As a concrete example Ahmed’s attempts to create romantic side-plots over the course of this one book were about as believable as what the late Robert Jordan achieved: plausible only to a 12 year old. After finishing the book I’m willing to chalk this up to limitations of space, and assume that the full arc of the relationships will be fleshed out over the trilogy. Because of the short length of the book though the primary character managed to develop some depth his accomplices remained a bundle of psychological reflexes.

Probably the best thing about Ahmed’s narrative is that despite the excessive set up and frankly torpid plotting of the first 2/3 things start to speed up over the course of the last 100 pages or so. Unlike many first volumes of a series this is not just a “set up” book. Though at the end there are some loose ends you can really read Throne of the Crescent Moon as a standalone, rather than just an introduction to a series. The ending may have been a bit hurried, and perhaps forced, but it was certainly more satisfying than what you find in many fantasy novels, which never seem to get to any point (e.g., the last of Martin’s books to name one!).

The spottiest aspect of  Throne of the Crescent Moon is the world-building, and the novelty of a faux Islamic civilization. My version of the book did not come with a map, and the geographic margins were not very clear to me. I appreciate that Ahmed did not replicate our own world in totality, changing only a few of the names, but that also means that the onus was upon him to fill in some of the empty spaces. Again, this may be a task left to later books, but it left me unsatisfied. Many of the basic elements seem to be drawn from the world of the high Abbasids, with Bedouin and “marsh Arabs” making appearances. And just as fantasy based on a European medieval model tends to create their own variants of Christianity, so the author created his own analog to Islam. But there were just enough difference that the derivation was not a replication. The religion in   Throne of the Crescent Moon was Islam-like, but clearly not Islamic.

Which brings me to the point of the title: if Saladin Ahmed was named Salvatore Anderson I believe that many people, including Saladin Ahmed, might accuse the author of engaging in “Orientalism.” Though there is a technical meaning for Orientalism, the reality is that it just refers to a whole class of instances where Westerners co-opt, characterize, or utilize, non-Western motifs and cultures. For the first 2/3 of   Throne of the Crescent Moon every other character is quoting the Koran-equivalent every other sentence, and there’s a reference to God every third word. I exaggerate, but it read like a Westerner’s stereotype of pious Middle Eastern folk who fear an Almighty God. Some of the reviewers at Amazon criticized the author’s rendering of female characters. If he was Salvatore Anderson I can’t help but wonder if some of those critics might wonder if he was stereotyping male-female relationships in the Middle East, and projecting an Orientalist fantasy of sexual relationships upon Islamic societies? The reality is that I suspect that in 288 pages there is only so much you can do, and the female characters were not developed because of feedback in the editing process. Often male authors who are criticized for this rectify the situation in future books, but you are still left with the reality that rectification is necessary in the first place.

Now, what if Saladin Ahmed wrote a book set in an analog of India? I can only imagine the attacks he might suffer from angry Hindus, who perceived in his treatment some sort of slight. A reader in the earlier post quipped that Ahmed was clearly not going outside of his comfort zone, an Arab creating Arabesque fantasy. But the reality is that in today’s hyper-sensitive identity-focused world where frauds and the intellectually lazy are always on alert to scream bloody murder, the best thing to do is write what you know in an essentialist sense so that you can insulate yourself from charges of insensitivity toward the Other. This is not always enough to insulate you. A white Western author who only writes about whites may be criticized for being exclusionary, but that is probably a better state that being criticized for depicting non-whites with insensitivity.

Overall Throne of the Crescent Moon is an interesting, if not outstanding, book.  Its basic constituents in substance are not particularly original, though stylistically the author brings his own Arabesque spin. Due to constraints of time I’ll probably not be reading further on in the series, but if the author is given more latitude by his publisher to write longer I wouldn’t be surprised if the future editions are more well written as editors start to operate with a lighter touch. Though I do have to add for a genuinely original take on the fantasy genre, instead of simply rearranging the furniture, you probably have to go to Brandon Sanderson. Unfortunately Sanderson’s work tends to read a bit on the young adult side, but his world-building really does break out of the Tolkien template.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
MORE ABOUT: Fantasy
  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    “Ahmed has done this, so for that one has to give him his due. ”

    Indeed. Reminds me of the Sikh director’s retelling of Snow White, Mirror, Mirror, with Julia Roberts. Lots of Sikh motifs to add interest. The story looks like it’s set in the Crime of the Tartars, which is, well, new.

  • marcel

    This may be old hat to you, but it’s an alternative take on Middle Earth — an inversion — that I enjoyed (and was I a fan of ME as a young teen – poster and map of ME on the walls above my bed, reread them god knows how many times! Sometimes it seems like I went, seemlessly, from Oz and Narnia to Middle Earth, as I got older.)

  • http://www.textonthebeach.com Seth

    “If Saladin Ahmed was named Salvatore Anderson I believe that many people, including Saladin Ahmed, might accuse the author of engaging in “Orientalism.””

    I’ve always felt like part of the post-colonial beef is simply, “Don’t tell stories about us,” which basically is asking humans to stop doing what they’ve probably done for >50,000 years: tell stories about new, frightening, exciting, or unknown things. I would imagine there was plenty of “othering” of the Europeans (God, I hate that term) as they tried to conquer the world.

    Also, it is interesting that when an “Other” does tell the story of his own world, it often takes a form that would receive all sorts of criticism had it been told by whites.

    I understand the critique, the whole “Don’t tell our stories” line. I just wish people gave it in a more nuanced, historically aware spirit, the way Lee Daniels does in the link. In fact, I think that there is way for postcolonial, race, feminist, whatever theorists to present their ideas in a way that makes sense and would even receive understanding from Ted Nugent: unfortunately, said theorists typically resort to shrill oversimplifications, derivative victim roles, and pointless finger pointing.

  • April Brown

    I wonder if the Mongoliad crew will get accused of Orientalism. Also, I wonder if well known and respected authors like Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson are less likely to get picked on.

    I might try to pick up a copy of Throne of the Crescent Moon – I have a personal fantasy about doing free market things to shape the world the way I want it. In this case, financially supporting any attempt at fiction or fantasy (even if it’s not great) that comes from the sphere of a religion that is better known for calling for the death of Rusdie. It seems like there’s not a lot of fantasy, and even less science fiction, that integrates Muslim culture and perspective. I wish there was more – I think it might calm down some culture wars.

    Thanks for the review

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #4, ‘orientalism’ actually specifically alludes to a 19th and early 20th century fixation on the near eastern orient. it seems that far eastern settings aren’t totally unknown; e.g., some of sean russell’s work, while the feist-wurts collaborations drew upon far eastern motifs for the ‘empire’ series.

    It seems like there’s not a lot of fantasy, and even less science fiction, that integrates Muslim culture and perspective

    i think people would get attacked, mostly verbally. but who knows?

  • RafeK

    Guy Gavrial Kay’s Under heaven is an interesting example of a white western author setting a story in “oriental” setting that was well received. I thought the treatment of chinese historical dynamics was nuanced and interesting but I don’t know very much about China. The only complaint I had was presence of the bad ass chick trope.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    . I thought the treatment of chinese historical dynamics was nuanced and interesting but I don’t know very much about China.

    so? isn’t the point that it’s fantasy??? i know that ggk’s stuff is historical fantasy, but i think that’s the beauty of these sorts of derivative fictions. the details don’t matter too much.

  • RafeK

    Razib, yes I agree, I was just qualifying my perception of it as nuanced with my lack of background knowledge off of which to judge it. To the original question of how throne of the crescent moon might be received if the author was white I can only offer under heaven as a potentially insightful example without any of the actual insight.

  • http://wulfkurtoglu.blogspot.com/ Wulf Kurtoglu

    Might I be permitted to put in a word for my own novel, *Broken Fences* (in Lowland Scots, *Braken Fences*)? The setting is Central Asia in a near future, with a variety of ethnic groups in play, and I’ve tried to give the major characters inner lives that reflect their upbringing within particular cultures – sometimes more than one. The heroine is half Scottish, half Indian, and is also well educated in Chinese, by then one of the main languages of educated people worldwide. I don’t actually know more than a few words of Chinese, but it’s easy enough to find nursery rhymes, proverbs, quotations from Confucius, etc. (in English translation) to flesh out the cultural background. I should probably confess that Wulf is a nom de plume (taken from a character in the novel who would have known the story), and that I myself am Scottish. I’m imagining a future when many of the educated elite will have hyphenated identities, and in any case China and India will be at least equally powerful and influential with the West. I like to imagine cultures interacting through the medium of individuals, so of necessity my fiction runs outside the tramlines of my own western upbringing. As for what critics might think … I should be so lucky as to attract their attention!
    More information at my blog (mainly in Lowland Scots, but it’s not hard to read) http://wulfkurtoglu.blogspot.co.uk/

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    To the original question of how throne of the crescent moon might be received if the author was white I can only offer under heaven as a potentially insightful example without any of the actual insight.

    it seems that genuinely far eastern contexts are not so uncommon, and not objectionable. the ‘near orient’ is the major issue….

  • ScottM

    This book was recommended to me by a fellow graduate student who is Persian but not a Muslim (yes, actually from Iran). She thought that since I read so much science fiction that fantasy would be my “thing”.

    Now, my distaste for most fantasy novels wasn’t directly the reason I turned it down. Instead I read the sample provided by Amazon and found it didn’t have spectacular writing (and if I’m going to read a book outside my genre it had better wow me from page one) and it felt like it was trying to tell a traditional western fantasy story only changing the scenery and characters. It felt forced.

  • floodmouse

    “In today’s hyper-sensitive identity-focused world . . . the best thing to do is write what you know in an essentialist sense so that you can insulate yourself from charges of insensitivity toward the Other.” – You can’t please all the people, at least not all the time. No matter what you write, there will be someone out there who is not going to like it. Even if you stick to writing what you know, somebody else will think they know better. The whole point of speculative fiction is to stretch the envelope, not chop off the pages so they fit inside.

    I haven’t actually read much fantasy lately. It appealed to me when I was younger, but the older I get, the harder I find it to relate. It seems to me that most books categorized as “fantasy” focus on adolescent emotional issues, whereas most works of “science fiction” deal with mature characters who have already come to terms with the problems of “personhood,” and are ready to move on to the broader issues of dealing with a problematic society. Science fiction is where it’s at. Somehow it seems to be looking forward, not backward.

    Having said that, obviously there are exceptions: Good fantasy stories, and bad science fiction. Overgeneralization is the death of accurate reporting. I haven’t read the particular book being discussed in this post (I can barely find time to keep up with my other reading), so please excuse me from making a specific comment. I like the idea of something that’s not just a rehash of medieval swords and sorcery.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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