kaigou: Jung-In (Kim Jae-Wook) looking very please-no (1 oh dear heavens no)
[personal profile] kaigou
I've been on a recent tear through a slew of non-European-inflected high/epic fantasy, and I'm starting to wonder if it's just me. Am I finding the cultural mixes in some stories to be awkward or badly-done because I know too much (or even only a little more than nothing!), or is it because I'm not fluent enough in the cultures to be comfortable with mixing them up?

In a three-way tie for most egregious, there's Shea Godfrey's Nightshade, which has this visual within the first few paragraphs. The numbers are me, counting the ways.
Jessa walked straight among them, a dark green sari[1] wrapped about her lower body in turns of silk and draped forward over her left shoulder with a long-sleeved golden choli[2] blouse beneath it. She wore a burka[3] that covered her head and face, though it was not quite long enough to hide the ends of her hair[4].

The men lounged upon the dais. The raised platform curved about the head of the vast oval room like a horseshoe and closed in on the wide aisle that led to the throne at its deepest point, the Jade Throne[5], which was the seat of all power within the land of Lyoness[6]. ... Jade was the province of the throne and these were the chairs for the sons of King Abdul-Majid[7] de Bharjah of Lyoness.

This was my brain's reaction as I read:
1, 2. Ah, okay, an Indian-inflected setting.
3. Why a burka? Wouldn't you just pull the end of the sari to drape over your head? Or maybe this is Pakistani-inflected, with a Muslim touch?
4. There is something really wrong with this burka. It's missing like, the rest of it. Or her hair is past her ankles. Wait, does the author actually mean she's wearing a chadri? That would make more sense.
5. Uhm, like the Jade Emperor? China's in here, now? Or Guatemala. (Mayans being the other major culture that had jade mining and prized the rocks highly.) Unless the author's thinking serpentine, which isn't jade, but gets mistaken for it often -- and serpentine was prized in the middle east.
6. ...Except for the French-styled name, whut.
7. Looking pretty middle-eastern, there.

I'm not saying I have an issue with middle-eastern-inflected stories, even if it sounds like name-dropping on Indian and Chinese. (I'll let it go with only a mention of the author portraying a quasi-middle-eastern family -- with their chained dogs two inches away from outright dog-fighting -- as barbaric and cruel. I think the only adjective missing here was 'swarthy'. Hello, typecasting 101.) Regardless, maybe if I didn't know there's a difference between a burka and a chadri, or didn't realize that not everyone east of the Tiber dresses like Gandhi extras, maybe I wouldn't be bothered. Or maybe if I knew costume and dress far better than the smatterings I do know, I wouldn't be under the impression that these things don't mix.

But then there's a different type of egregious, like Joel Rosenberg's Hour of the Octopus. (It's the second in a series, but after reading this one, I doubt I'll bother tracking down the first.) The author gets credit for trying to have a Japanese inflection (c. 1995 publication), but wow. Japan's got a lot of history (as does pretty much anywhere), and I'm not enjoying not-knowing the generalized place in history for this story, anymore than I'd enjoy, say, reading a story set in Northern Europe for which it could be anywhere from 150 CE to 1600 CE. A lot happened in the interim: fashions changed, attitudes changed, beliefs changed. I could no more mistake the Heian for the Edo, than I could the Norse for the Lutheran Reformation.

Like, here. Quick, can you spot what tripped me up?
Bek De Bran was arrayed in full warrior's garb, from the twin peaks of the lacquered steel helmet that topped his head, to the reticulated bone armor that covered his shoulders and chest, down to the skirt of leather straps that hung about his thick waist, partly covering the kneezers and greaves, and the brass-pointed boots on his feet. His armor's finger joints clicked like dice to keep time against the shaft of his spear as he hummed a simple soldier's jig.

... I stepped into my trousers—both feet at once, the way an acrobat dresses—then pulled a nappy cotton tunic over my head. I belted it tightly across my waist with a broad black sash.

He shifted his right hand to his spear, and idly poked at me with its rounded butt end. "Be quicker, whether it pleases you or not. The hunt awaits Lord Arefai, and Lord Arefai awaits you." Typical of a member of our beloved ruling class to be impatient to start a morning of killing things.

"Shoes," I said. "I need shoes."

Don't get me wrong; the narrative voice is delightfully snarky... and every now and then, the author managed a reasonably quasi-sounding Japanese name, like Lord Toshtai and his son Arefai. Which may raise eyebrows among you, but trust me, those are good names compared to so many of the rest of the cast: like Bek De Bran, Lord Crosta Natthan, Narantir, Madame Lastret, Deren der Drumud, Madame Rupon, Garvi Denten, Dun Lidjun, and my personal anti-favorites, Lord Minch and Lord Edelfaule. The last of which keeps making me think of Edelweiss.

I mean, languages have patterns and rules. Much as I hate the Dreaded Random Apostrophe (TM) so beloved of some SFF authors, I can at least swallow that much as a glottal stop if there's some kind of consistency. It doesn't have to be in-your-face with the pattern (hello, Ms McCaffery and your consonant+apostrophe+rest-of-name pattern), but still. Certain vowel combinations, certain consonants, you don't have to know a language to get a 'sense' of what works. And the names in Hour of the Octopus are all over the map. All over the globe, even. There's no rhyme or reason at all.

Plus, shoes. I'm not sure whether they'd be sitting outside on the veranda, protected by the eaves and carried to the step to be put on, or whether you'd store them in your room but carry them out (unless a servant carried them for you), but putting them on while still on the bedroom's woven floor? No. Hell, not even in Korea. (China? The historical dramas I've seen, I think shoes stay on.) A'course, that's once I got past the notion of trousers being pulled on, given that I've always been told the reason hakama stay up is because they're tied/connected in some way to the obi closing one's kimono. So if you skipped the kimono+obi, and pulled on a tunic, wouldn't your trousers/hakama fall down?

And then I got to the part where the women's dress is described as being loose enough around the bust to show bustline and a little cleavage. Whut. And the capper, the dress being slit up the leg to show thigh when the woman kneels. Wait, is this a cheongsam with an obi? My brain breaks just a little, at this point. Where am I?

Or this.
My guide exchanged a few whispers with the servitor on duty on the second floor of the donjon, and they both led me down the long hall, past pastel paintings of spotted fawns frolicking in a cool green bower. A whole herd of the long-legged young deer, their soft pelts a warm and friendly brown, capered all the way down the wall ... the whole effect occasionally broken by the knob of an invisible door.

...The servitor stopped in front of a doorknob that was the only sign of a door's presence, then knocked four times against the white tail of a prancing baby deer. I heard no answer, but she pulled on the knob, and the ragged edge of invisible door swung open.

I figured, okay, "doorknob" but he really means "doorpull", for those large solid internal doors. Except for the "swing open" part. Do what? Does the author get half-points for at making the door swing outwards, instead of the US-style of swinging inwards? Because those puppies should be sliding. And take off those shoes, damnit.

(They're not even shoes; they're boots. Hmm, trousers plus tunic plus boots. Maybe the author watched one too many wuxia and didn't realize just because Chinese and Japanese garments have an over-under V-front doesn't mean they're the same thing?)

Then I tried Daughter of the Empire, by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts. A few selections:
Keyoke bowed as his mistress approached. Behind him stood the tall and taciturn Papewaio, his face as always an unreadable mask. The strongest warrior in the Acoma retinue, he served as both companion and body servant to Keyoke. He bowed and held aside the curtain for Mara as she swept past.

...All that remained between the Lord of the Minwanabi and his goal was herself, a young girl who had been but ten chimes from becoming a sister of Lashima. That realization left a taste in her mouth like ash. Now, if she were to survive long enough to regain family honour, she must consider her resources and plot and plan, and enter the Game of the Council; and somehow she must find a way to thwart the will of the Lord of one of the Five Great Families of the Empire of Tsuranuanni.

This one's got aliens -- I think -- so it's veering into SF, but still. The names feel all over the place, to me. They don't feel like there's a pattern, a greater culture of which they're all a part. Not like I'd have a problem with it, if they weren't (all of the same culture), but I'd like some indication, then. Somewhere.

Plus (and I freely admit this is probably just me), I don't have a sense of the environment. Frex, the story mentions paper screens, but doesn't say whether they're set in any kind of ornate frame (ie Korean screens, vs plainer Japanese screens). There's little to no mention of garments worn, or utensils used, or sleeping arrangements. It's not that I want these things to pin down the "just a generic Asian environment" so much as these are clues that tell me what that environment is like. Is it cold and rainy in the winter, with short dry summers; are the winters somewhat temperate and the summers blazing hot? How is a great house laid out? How is the city laid out? What's the terrain? I not only lack a sense of cultural base, I lack a sense of time, but worst, I lack of sense of place.

But more than that, I think it's that I just can't reconcile myself to a fantasy/fiction world that cribs from Japanese and Chinese (and, it seems, maybe a fraction of Korean), and treats the mixture as something legitimately unify-able. Sure, there are elements in one borrowed by the other, and way back in history two of them adapted the third's written language to their own ends, but far more de-jives than jives. To me, it's sort of like mixing the Sicilian culture with Swedish culture: sure, they both use the roman alphabet, and they're both into sailing, but I don't even have fingers or toes enough for the crucial ways they differ. Or any two European cultures, for that matter; you can't just take two cultures that are majorly different from your own and figure that by default they must be pretty similar to each other.

Two stories get it better (not sure about 'right', but I can say 'better'). One is Dragon in Chains, by Daniel Fox, which incorporates pirates, jade mining, a deposed emperor and his regent-mother, native sailing folk, temple priests with shaolin-like styles, and a dragon chained at the bottom of a treacherous waterway between the mainland and an island. The names may not all be Chinese necessarily, but they have a consistency to their patterns (consonants and vowels); the attitudes and perspectives have solidity; the dress and behaviors don't throw me out with a sudden Japanese or Korean element. Sadly, it's also a strongly lyrical, even literary, writing style, and that makes the work feel more distanced -- it's certainly not your non-stop action-fantasy kind of story. But it's at least culturally consistent, which after the other stories is a nice balm.

A different way of treating it, but one that works well within context, is Brent Weeks' The Way of Shadows. I can't seem to cut/paste an excerpt from .pdb, so I'll summarize. Almost all of the story is set in Cenaria City, which is described as a kind of marketplace-crossroads, culturally, not unlike merchant crossroads like Shanghai was in the 20's, or southern Spain in the 1500s, or modern-day San Francisco or Sydney: a place where a variety of cultures smack up against each other, almost from block to block. There are the Ceurians, whose sa'ceurai are a miliary class, and whose architecture (rice paper walls, deep eaves, woven floor mats, floor-sitting and -sleeping) is distinctly Japanese. The Alitaerans have names, titles, and architecture similar to Rome; the Ymmur are from the steppes, renowned as archers and horsemen, hello, Mongolia. (Despite that, I confused 'Cenaria' with 'Ceura' repeatedly, while reading, but the names were different enough -- Cenarian names tending to be vaguely Teutonic -- that as long as a person was in the scene, I could keep it all clear.)

The story may have other issues (something for another post, another day), but in this respect, I thought the author handled the adopted-from-real-world quite well. Maybe that's because no one specific culture really got the brunt of the focus; Cenaria seems to be so multicultural that the majority of the citizens are pretty capable at shifting from one cultural context to the next. Miso for breakfast, croissants with lunch, pasta for dinner, and fermented mare's milk before bed. That kind of cosmopolitan crossroads-of-the-world approach turned discrepancies -- doorknobs and swinging doors, indoor-shoes and floor-sitting, and knife-fork eating in one chapter and eating-sticks in the next chapter -- into a positive, rather than a glaring inconsistency.

Of course, there's also Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn, which... oh, I don't know. I just couldn't stop rolling my eyes at the Hidden subplot, or their so-called pacifist ways. (Via names and other details, the story all but comes out and admits the Hidden are Kakure Kirishitan, aka xtian.) Maybe it's just me, but the notion that the hero is a gentle soul not meant for killing people due to his upbringing as a Hidden/Kirishitan just strikes me as... making a quiet, subtle commentary. And given the crap xtians have perpetrated in history, it's a commentary I find hypocritical and offensive. Add on top the whole ninja-ninja-ninja thing, and I'm already not so interested. I mean, the story's well-written, and it does get a lot of little details right, but I couldn't stomach yet another story about ninja. Honestly.

Do not get me started on the Detective Chen stories. Tried those. Made it to the second book, threw it against the wall, and decided I'd rather re-read the Judge Dee novels twenty more times than another Detective Chen cultural mashup.

Holding out faint hope for Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, but not holding my breath. I'd like to be able to finish Dragon in Chains, first, but it's slow going, that lyrical style. Will have to report back on Quartet whenever I get around to it.

In the meantime, is it just me? Would I be served better by not knowing the cultures quite so well -- and frankly, I know bits and pieces but I hardly know the cultures -- or is it a matter of unfamiliarity that makes me resistant to mashups? If I could handle a story where it's a mashup of, say, the southern US and Sweden, is that because I'm so invested in each that I can see past the details to the objective and enjoy the discrepancies rather than gnash my teeth at them? A'course, this is setting aside what lies beneath, which is whether anyone has the right to mix, match, and mess up someone else's distinct culture for the purposes of fiction. Especially that whole "Asian-influenced" title, which means nothing. There's no one "Asia" anymore than there's one monolithic "Africa" or "Europe" or any other major land mass.

Know more? Know less? What do you think?

But still, I could forgive a lot more, I think, if the names weren't so atrocious.

(frozen)

Date: 8 Apr 2012 06:41 am (UTC)
dharma_slut: They call me Mister CottonTail (Default)
From: [personal profile] dharma_slut
as far as names go, I think I have the answer right here

I mean-- I've used this thing many a time myself, but you can't just take the first ten names generated. You have to pick and choose, alter and fudge, and regenerate and pick a couple more to fuss with.

(frozen)

Date: 8 Apr 2012 07:07 am (UTC)
wordweaverlynn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] wordweaverlynn
I don't know much about the history and culture of China, Japan, and India, but I definitely picked up some of the issues with these samples. Not all -- I don;t know enough to recognize the mishmash you see -- but the issues with the names seemed egregious. And the sari-plus-burka.

(frozen)

Date: 8 Apr 2012 08:27 am (UTC)
maat_seshat: Shuurei seated at a desk, studying, with Kouyuu leaning in behind her. (Shuurei studying)
From: [personal profile] maat_seshat
What the hell is someone in a society that can forge steel (for a helmet, no less, not a sword) doing in bone armor? With brass in his boots? You don't even need to know the culture to think that makes no sense.

Okay. Breathing and finishing reading the post now.

(frozen)

Date: 8 Apr 2012 08:52 am (UTC)
maat_seshat: Shuurei seated at a desk, studying, with Kouyuu leaning in behind her. (Shuurei studying)
From: [personal profile] maat_seshat
Finished. Very interesting! I'd guess that one of the reasons you're mentally rebelling is because a lot of the cultural elements are there as trappings, rather than growing out of the culture, so there's no reason they would give you a sense of "place", since that's not the role they're playing for the author. (Did that make sense?)

So a story written by a British author who decided to use a mishmash of Southern and Swedish culture to indicate "exotic" would be irritating, whereas one written by a Swedish person who moved the the US South (or vice-versa) and cared about both would be interesting even if it didn't quite mesh?

And for at least the China/Japan/Korea mashes, I personally tend to get extra annoyed because I'm familiar with how some people from those cultures do fantasy mishmashes, via anime, manwha, dramas, etc, where they are working from a position of substance rather than trappings, and it makes the trappings-motivated ones (usually written by outsiders) more upsetting.

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Date: 8 Apr 2012 10:52 pm (UTC)
nagasvoice: lj default (Default)
From: [personal profile] nagasvoice
Word here. This is where I tend to get annoyed. Handled well and subtly, one could imply all kinds of things about the world-building--I can think up scenarios that would explain some of the armor details. Let's say he's a poorer son who inherited a helmet of a style they no longer make because they were exiled after a war and fianlly worked their way up out of refugee camps in an area far from the sources of their original iron ore that lent itself extraordinarily well to making swords--as in the origins of sword-making from the pottery they were already doing--and somebody else wanted that resource and took it. And let's further say that they were defeated and disgraced by having their good swords taken from them back then, so now the fancy old-time swords are hanging in a blood enemy's racks. So they're reduced to improvising, in later generations, with things like laced armor made of other things. To the best of my knowledge (and I'm far from expert) the Japanese used lacquered bamboo for their laced armor, that's far lighter, more flexible, and in many directions stronger and less brittle, than bone would be. Samurai practice enough to know how fatiguing it is is carry too much weight on the body.
However, then I'm having trouble with his being so very casual about the helmet, those circs would mean it's probably a treasured heirloom and not used casually, or else they believe it has a spell of some sort and must be worn in daily drills NO MATTER WHAT, or something of that sort.
As one suspects that would be a far more interesting story, but one would have to write oneself, one is inclined to stop doing all the work for the writer and hurl the paperback into the discard pile.

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Date: 8 Apr 2012 08:56 am (UTC)
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] staranise
Meanwhile, I'm just going, "But the Vikings did go to Sicily! It was hilarious (to read about a thousand years later)!" Since the mashups did happen, and they were, um, dramatic.

But then, fantasy as a whole tends not to be good about actually multicultural societies, with warring social codes and levels of politeness and expectations. It's forever disappointing.

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Date: 8 Apr 2012 10:15 am (UTC)
kairia: Pam and Eric from True Blood. A blonde woman standing by a chair in which a man is sitting. (Pam & Eric - progeny and maker)
From: [personal profile] kairia
That's not a burka. That sounds more like the strip of cloth you use to make your regular headscarf into a niqab. Although if it doesn't cover her entire head, it would make more sense for it to be a chaader. also why the fuck would you wear a niqab/burqa/chadar with a sari, of all things? it would look horrible.

(frozen)

Date: 8 Apr 2012 01:42 pm (UTC)
tiercel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] tiercel
Welp, I must now admit that I quite liked Hour of the Octopus; possibly those details didn't register with me. I certainly didn't realize it supposed to be Asian in any way.

That aside, I think part of the problem is always going to be knowledge. It's like physicists watching action movies; once you know all the ways in which something is wrong, your brain starts screaming at you and you can't unsee it.

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Date: 8 Apr 2012 05:09 pm (UTC)
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] branchandroot
Yeah, I'm afraid you know too much to deal with the "all $REGION people look/sound/are alike" idiocy. I suppose the trousers could be more easily tied with a ratty cord to stay up supposing they were, you know, peasant clothing. But, in that case, what's someone in a great house doing wearing them? And the names are pretty egregious in all those examples.

I will say, Feist and Wurts do get around to showing some more of those place-setting details once the outsider (read, white) character enters the story to serve as a stranger perspective. But I don't recommend reading that far, because that's also the point where the story plunges headfirst into What These People Need Is A Honky and then it's even more painful. And it was pretty painful already, what with the "randomly Pacific/Asian/Possibly Aztec Too cultures are exotic and barbaric, and also utterly unchanging, whee!" attitude.

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Date: 8 Apr 2012 06:01 pm (UTC)
alas: Avatar to indicate general interest - Ooh! (Default)
From: [personal profile] alas
Daughter of the Empire (if you didn't know) is actually a spin-off series about the baddies of Feist's Riftwar series - the names in the DotE world sound much more homogenous when contrasted against names like "Pug" and "Tomas" in that main series. But yeah, I'd agree that the setting is very much more based on romanticized western notions of the ~Orient~ than real Asian culture.

I have the same hesitation about whether the problem is knowing less or knowing more, but in the end I think the problem really is that I don't know enough to cry foul when it is deserved. (I had the occasional twinge reading The Years of Rice and Salt although overall I thought that was actually a quite enjoyable, thoughtful mash-up, although somehow the world still seemed kind of shaped by Europe, even in its absence.)

Also, I think a lot of the problem with English-language fantasy set in Asian cultures, is either 1) the author is hideously ignorant of the differences in Asian cultures (sadly still too true) 2) assumes the audience is ignorant 3)doesn't use mash-ups in a meaningful or coherent way. I think a good example of the difference of how European and Asian cultures tend to be handled differently in mash-ups is in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series.



The main planet of the series has people of Russian, English, French and Greek, and the names make sense for that, and a lot of the customs are obviously descended from those cultures. Separate cultures are also referred to occasionally. But it also has a long history of itself as a whole, and changes which make sense for that. (Or maybe it's just vague enough about its European trappings for me to swallow - I'll admit I'm not really that conversant with a lot of Russian and Greek culture too^^; so ignorance may be working for believability on that front.) Many other planets are also of obviously European descent. Contrasted against that is one planet that was introduced in the latest book, ostensibly descended mainly from Japan, and really the only majorly Asian influenced culture we've seen in series. Now, the names of characters are mainly Japanese, although there's intentional mashup with western names, and chinese ones escape out a few times too. But I'm not sure if the chinese names are intentionally placed in as a sign of a multicultural society (maybe?) or if they're there because who can tell difference with asian names? Because there aren't any other identifiably chinese elements to the culture. Most of the japanese elements feel a bit tacked on rather than thought out as well - versions of kimono being used as business-wear without explanation (nostalgia revival like with the hanfu in China, but successful?), even though salary-men in modern Japan are of course synonymous with the suit XD, and other things that make me think the author's being looking at ye olde Japan and importing them to her planet, than really looking at what might descend from modern-day Japan. Also, the legends and other background shaping cultural things are all borrowed from other cultures (Egypt and Europe) not Japan. This combined with redundant use of English and Japanese, and over explaining parts, does not make for a smooth believable experience D:.




TL;DR, and I think maar_seshat already said it better, oops.

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Date: 9 Apr 2012 05:33 am (UTC)
maat_seshat: Jessica Drew/Spider-woman drinking coffee, New York in the dawn light behind her (Jessica Drew)
From: [personal profile] maat_seshat
*winces* That's a...good warning to have if I ever decide to read the latest Vorkosigan book. Seriously Japan culture backed by Egyptian and European legends?

The interesting thing about her treatment of the Greeks to me has always been their slightly ghettoized position in Barrayaran culture, which is one way to write culture mash that doesn't quite integrate, though obviously has major pitfalls if you were to use it between, say, Russia and Japan instead of Russian and Greece. (I can practically hear my Japanese friends' outraged objections.) But she definitely does seem to have thought about it, particularly in the cases of Barrayar and Beta.

I don't know enough to cry foul when it is deserved.

That makes a lot of sense! Because if they're going to write about a culture, they need to write about its flaws as well as its good points, just as they would for a character, but if authors screw up in, say, one way that you recognize, then it gets really hard to say whether the cultural "criticisms" are essentially an outsider's imposition or growing organically out of the cultural matrix. I tried to read Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones, last year, after loving Howl's Moving Castle for years, but it used genies and harems and other "Arabesque" fantasy tropes that eventually made me toss the book across the room. I think it might have been worse because I don't know Arab history the way I know China-influenced history, so it was impossible to tell how much worse DWJ was going wrong once I recognized the most obvious tropes.

It's even more frustrating when you can't quite tell how wrong a good-seeming book with one or two twiggy things is going.

(frozen)

Date: 9 Apr 2012 12:59 am (UTC)
dragonhand: (romans go home)
From: [personal profile] dragonhand
I would never say you'd be better served by not knowing cultures so well. So, some books are going to have a higher level of disconnect, but it's worth it to know everything you know.

I know just enough about clothes and architecture to be weirded out by those mash ups, but the names... the NAMES. Ugh. Even if a writer is making everything up from scratch, you've got to have some patterns in the sound combinations or SOMEthing. Names are pretty heavy duty for me, and picking the right ones for characters is deeply important. And it's not hard, these days, to do a little research and find those Saxon or Greek or Hmong names.

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From: [personal profile] maire - Date: 9 Apr 2012 02:00 am (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 9 Apr 2012 01:59 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
I can't answer any of your questions, but I'm now really interested in what you think of the cultural mishmash of /The Riddlemaster of Hed/ by Patricia McKillip and also of Barry Hughart's 'Ancient China that never was' from /Bridge of Birds/.

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From: [personal profile] maire - Date: 9 Apr 2012 05:32 am (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 9 Apr 2012 03:58 am (UTC)
firecat: red panda looking happy (Default)
From: [personal profile] firecat
lacquered steel helmet that topped his head, to the reticulated bone armor that covered his shoulders and chest, down to the skirt of leather straps that hung about his thick waist, partly covering the kneezers and greaves, and the brass-pointed boots on his feet.

This makes me think he's about to go onstage and perform a rock concert, more than anything else.

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Date: 9 Apr 2012 06:35 pm (UTC)
genarti: Stonehenge made of hardcover books, with text "build." ([misc] a world of words)
From: [personal profile] genarti
The key thing for me is that an author builds a society that feels real underneath it. I'll buy a lot of disparate elements taken from real-world societies if the author can convince me that these things really did arise organically from the culture in question -- whether it's a relatively isolated culture, or whether it's a mix of various in-universe cultures and ethnicities that's produced a cosmopolitan blending. There are a lot of ways to do that! But the author needs to prove to me that they've thought about it -- where the supplies for this or that come from, what social role and social signals are proved by wearing this or doing that (even if it's on a subconscious level for the character), etc. It can't be just, "Saris look cool! I like bone armor!" Saris look cool is an okay place to start from, if you want to make sure to worldbuild a society in which that's a logical thing for people to wear, but you have to have moved beyond that by the end.

The other thing is that real-world names for specific pieces of clothing (and food, and so forth) do carry signals for the reader that this is an Indian-inflected world, or a Chinese-inflected, or whatever.

If you want your imaginary society's women to dress in a made-up costume that resembles a sari with a separate headscarf and face-veil and, heck, leather riding boots and a cloak, sure, okay. (You'll have to convince me that this is a remotely practical outfit, or that there are reasons for and consequences from this specific kind of impracticality, but whatever; let's assume the author did that work.) But don't call it a sari and a burqa and give her facial tattoos called tā moko and stuff, unless you're going to own the nuanced and complex cultural influence you're calling on with those names. (And if you are going to own it, you probably can't fit all that into one story, unless you're really doing a ton of work on building a multicultural society.) If you just want a superficial similarity of clothing, talk about your character's lovely silk wrap and her modest headscarf/veil/headwrap and whatever, and/or come up with some judicious fantasy-language names for the items. Or, if you want your character to be wearing one piece from fantasy-India and one piece from fantasy-China and so forth, admit that everyone else will think she's wearing a bizarre mishmash and needs someone to teach her how to dress herself, if they're not outright offended. (Which could be an interesting story, done right! Most things could.)

That doesn't exempt you from fail, of course, and it doesn't mean you won't throw off and disconcert some readers. But at least you're not setting yourself up so much from the get-go for failure.

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