Speculative Fiction: Which Cultures are Underrepresented?
Why are Eastern Asian, Polynesian, and Siberian Cultures Underrepresented in Speculative Fiction?
The renewed interest in the high fantasy genre as part of modern streaming shows and movies (Game of Thrones, The Witcher, The Lord of the Rings) has inspired speculative fiction writers and screenwriters to create new worlds based on historical periods, but also reflecting real-world issues affecting our society in the present day. However, there seems to be a prevalent focus on certain cultures more than others.
Most of these aforementioned shows are inspired by Eurocentric time periods and historical views. But, what about other cultures?
However, most audiences seem to associate ‘medieval’ with “Medieval Europe,” usually ignoring that many civilizations had their own medieval stages despite not necessarily occurring at the same time as Europe’s.
We asked for insight in the r/worldbuilding subreddit, and the most common thought seemed to be that Western Europe, specifically medieval Britain or France, the Roman Empire, and the Greek, Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese civilizations are the most commonly represented cultures in speculative fiction.
On the other hand, there’s little representation of Mesoamerican, Pre-Columbian, Eastern Asian, Polynesian, Mongolic, Siberian, Indian, Andean, African, Middle Eastern, and Medieval Central Asian civilizations and cultures. Regarding time periods, anything before the Romans barely receives any attention.
There’s also a lack of modern fantasy settings that aren’t urban fantasy, steampunk, cyberpunk, or other variations.
At least The Witcher has inspirations in Slavic mythology and Eastern European costumes, which are also ignored in favor of their Western European counterparts. This last bit is ironic, given how many modern fantasy tropes and creatures are inspired by Eastern European folklore.
Making things more concerning, when any of these cultures are actually represented, it’s usually done in a ‘theme park version’ type of way, where specific customs of their culture are cherry-picked in ways that simplify an otherwise rich civilization into mocking caricatures.
It’s also easier to write something inspired by existing, successful works of fiction. It’s even easier to sell it to a studio, and an audience, if they are already used to streaming similar stories. Why do extensive, unpaid hours of research create a realistic setting inspired by any of these underrepresented cultures, only for it to be rejected by a studio because it doesn’t fit within the mold?
There’s nothing wrong with writing a medieval European-esque setting for a fantasy story, but plenty of untold stories from other societies abound. And, these stories also need voices and writers to make them a reality. Some even believe it’s a duty for writers and storytellers belonging to underrepresented cultures to use their art as a platform to rewrite histories of imperialism through the lens of fantasy.
So, it’s time to break the ruling trends of speculative fiction and shed some positive representation on other cultures and time periods. And who knows, perhaps their story will be the next Game of Thrones. We’ll never know unless we try.