Monday, August 8, 2011

Western-Centrism In World Building: Up North, Down South

As I've been planning and thinking about the continuation of my "Katewin and The Phoenix" stories, I've been coming back to one of my first tenets from when I started out writing. I want to subvert tropes and challenge mainstream ideas.

Recently I've been thinking about world building (creating countries, landmarks, cities, maps etc), and one of the things that struck me about epic fantasy is how western-centric the settings are. More to the point, how northern hemisphere oriented the landscape is. There's always mountains and/or snow to the north, desert/hot/dry places to the south, "exotic" land to the east or across the sea, and the main story takes place in a reasonably temperate zone and the hero/heroine must travel through these exotic/unusual zones as part of the drama and their character building.

Sounds very familiar, yeah? How many epic fantasies can you count that has a "great northern wall" with evil or supernatural marauders who bear passing resemblances to Viking/Celtic fighters or spiritual Inuit people intent on "corrupting" the culture of their slightly southern-ish (and more cultured/educated) cousins, or exotic desert-bred magical people who seem vaguely middle-eastern? Yeah, I bet you could look at your bookshelf right now and go "Huh", just like I did.

This is because historically western genre writing by northern hemisphere (English speaking European and North American) writers has been privileged in big-market publishing over the stories of their non-English speaking, non-white dominant cultures, or Southern Hemisphere counterparts. I'm sure someone may even come up with an example or two of a great southern hemisphere based epic fantasy writer (let me help you out there: Juliet Marillier), but they are an exception, not the rule.

Indeed, the orientation (orient, meaning east, from the latin oriens) of map-making with North privileged at the top of the world and South, the unknown regions, looked down upon (the north-south bias) was normalized around the time of Ptolemy, a northern hemisphere geographer. With the major landmasses and population in the northern hemisphere (ie: the cultures privileged by a western told history), it makes sense that European and Northern American fantasy writers would "write what they know" - cold upstairs, hot downstairs, the natives can be found "down there", the evil in the unknown frozen frontier beyond the northern wall.

Yikes, you can see where I'm going, right?

Despite the population of the southern hemisphere being estimated at about 10% to 12% of world population, that's still a heck of a lot of people. That estimate is taken from Wikipedia by the way, and here's another interesting concept - even the page on the Southern Hemisphere is very northern hemisphere-centric (the male/western privileged editing community of Wikipedia which can influence western- and male-centric thinking is an entirely different discussion which the women at Galactic Suburbia had a crack at recently). For example: it has "lower levels of industrialisation". Read: has lots more "third world" countries. I don't know, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and good ol' New Zealand seem pretty industrialized to me. And hey, why is being hugely industrialized such a great thing? Destruction of biospheres, pollution, forced population movement and their trickle down effects don't seem so great to me.

Yeah, I still labour under the old problem of some people not able to point out where Aotearoa is on a map. Maybe it's a size thing - "my landmass is bigger than yours". Cough.

So what does this mean to modern epic fantasy and science fiction world building? Quite simply: break out of the northern hemisphere-centric mold. Build your world on a southern continent or in a southern hemisphere. My experience is that the majority of the cold and mountains are to the south, it gets warmer the further north I go; cold winds come from the south off Antarctica, warm winds come from the north; winter is the middle of the year, summer is the end/rebirth of the year.

Map of Pern from "The Renegades of Pern"
When I was thinking about the use of southern continents and hemispheres in epic fantasy, only one world leaped into my mind, and mainly because it has a dominant place on my bookshelf: Pern. I'm such a Pern geek I could pull out my copy of "The Dragonlovers guide to Pern" and check the landmass composition! While the Pernese story started out in a very European style northern continent, the story progressed to exploration of a much larger southern continent. Look at that map: mountains in the south, a large Pacific-like ocean, and a chain of volcanic islands indicating busy tectonic plates. Heck, if Anne McCaffrey, a white euro-centric writer, can create a southern continent dominated landmass world in 1969, why can't we do it today? The science and the story might not hold up so well today, but it's certainly something different from the usual northern-dominant ideal.

I'm sure McCaffrey can't be the only one, but she's one privileged by western publishing. I would love to know if there are some more fantasies that use a southern continent/hemisphere, so if you do know of them please put them in comments, thanks.

So I want to use my experience, "what I know", in my fantasy writing. It seems so ridiculously simple, but so logical. Surely not every world in the universes has all their major landmasses "up there". Imagine what it will mean to the etymology and psychology of a world that privileges south, east, middle or water areas as "up there". How will this change the culture, the people, their religion (if they have one), the dominant biology? Would it even be called north, south, east or west? This is the stuff the great "What Ifs" are made of.


  1. "Look at that map: mountains in the south, a large Pacific-like ocean, and a chain of volcanic islands indicating busy tectonic plates."

    All forming an empty, ideally fertile landmass ripe for colonisation by the Northerners, populated only by firelizards and a single artificial intelligence which desperately wants to be invaded; a landmass where the only buried history is the Northerners' own ... a bit of a colonisation fantasy there, IMO.

  2. I think more diversity not just culturally but geographically is a fine idea, it just takes much more thought to lay out and utilize because the prevailing world imaginary is a powerful organizing concept. The hegemonic conception of North/South is an easy template to establish and one that is validated by book sales and reader reception. The question I think about as I write is "Will people read something that so torques their worldview?"

  3. As the giraffe said to her lover the mouse "Nothing is ever easy".

    I'm not going to write to make it easy or be validated by sales (though that would be nice). I'd expect better of my readers. If someone feels too challenged by a kick-ass lesbian fat female lead (Katewin), or mountains to the south, then perhaps my stories are not for them. It's not like there's a dearth of hetero male farm-boy-makes-good in a euro-style fantasy land stories out there.

    I just ask WHY that has to be the norm.

  4. Tui: yeah, as I said there are problems in hindsight with the story (that link to the discussion about the bio-ethics of Pern is just one), including colonisation fantasy and the throw-back to a patriarchal society. Here I'm just talking about how different it is to find a world with a large southern continent actually used for story telling purposes.

  5. It would help your cause if you could spell "Argentina." Or if you knew how to write in general.

  6. Ohh, I made a spelling mistake *twiddles fingers by head* At least that's something I can fix. If you want to slag me off, how about being a grown up about it and not do it anonymously.