Monday, April 16, 2012
Postscript on Orientalism
I don't often write about my own work here, but the post on orientalism put me in the mood to discuss some practical worldbuilding. Not long after I started as a columnist for Royal Archivist Publishing, I was given the job of writing the Guidebook to the Wàiguó Liánméng, an overview of one of the setting's major factions. I started with only a rough sketch, based on what had already been written: I knew that it was a world-spanning alliance of nations; and, based on the names of those nations, that some of its influences were Chinese, Korean, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Indian cultures.
My first thought was, "How do I avoid making this into an orientalist fantasy?" It says something about my lack of confidence in the possibility that the first draft of my introduction to the guidebook more or less said, "I can't stop you from turning this into a book about the exotic Other." Thankfully, my editor asked me to revise it.
Rather than give in to the temptation, I chose a different starting point. What would happen, I asked, if two cultures that met each other far from Earth avoided the usual dehumanizing rhetoric of conflict and instead recognized their shared humanity? This is where the motto of the Wàiguó Liánméng came from: "You, too, are human." Everything else evolved from there.
Because their main rival in the setting was Roma Exterra, a Roman empire that has continued to expand across worlds after its fall on Earth, I decided that the trademark of the Wàiguó Liánméng should be an ideal of multiculturalism. For better or for worse, the alliance aggressively protects the uniqueness of all its member cultures, their traditions, and their languages. What would it take to make a society like that function? Suddenly, diplomats and translators became important figures, as well as the conflicts between ethnic subfactions. In my section on laws of the alliance, I emphasized ethnocentrism and cultural genocide as areas that most worried leaders.
Even technology became involved. Because leaders are unwilling to set one standard for technologies across worlds, the Wàiguó Liánméng developed an entire subcategory of inventors whose job is to adapt the devices of one planet for use on another. I called them burikoru, a nod to the French bricoleur. The alliance's military is likewise based on adaptability over regimented tactics, which seemed like both an expression of diversity and a way for gamers who use the setting to justify the mismatched teams of adventurers who make up most groups.
I haven't gotten much feedback on the setting since it was published, so I don't know how well I actually achieved what I set out to do. What I do know, though, is that making the effort to recognize and avoid familiar tropes can be rewarded by opening up creative paths that we might otherwise ignore.