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Alain [userpic]

13th child by Patricia Wrede

May 24th, 2009 (11:30 pm)

I've just read 13th child by Patricia Wrede. It's a tightly written book, well thought up in every way, about growing up in a land full of magic. It's an alternate history also, and the centre of something of a controversy because the main venue is "North Columbia", a North America where English speaking settlers are in the process of colonizing a land where there are absolutely no Amerindians in sight.

Wrede has been criticized for having written a novel where all of the Amerindians have been "pre-empted" by having never left Asia thousands of years before. But it doesn't say so in the novel. It's a sad fact that there are so many novels set in the U.S. where Amerindians are never taken into account or even mentioned that if Wrede hadn't said, on the Web, that she had set up a North America with no Amerindians in it I would never have noticed it.

Since English isn't my mother tongue one of the really important things for me is that she's also "pre-empted" all of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers and settlers. There is no mention of them in the story while there is a mention of South America having been quite successfully settled by people from Africa. And of course the French colonies of North America, which were the original "block" to U.S. colonial expansion, to the North and to the West, are totally nonexistent, having been pre-empted in a similar fashion. It's all English-speaking settlers everywhere, with not a sign of the Spanish, Portuguese and French languages. Up to now I haven't heard a single voice criticizing Wrede for this. This doesn't surprise me because U.S. science fiction authors and U.S. alternate history authors have been doing this for more than sixty years and critics have been traditionally narrow-minded when picking out the nits.

Yet, Wrede is very much aware of other cultures and while she does simplify things, as past U.S. SF authors have done repeatedly, she takes a great deal of trouble to integrate into the story the idea of a multiplicity of ideas and traditions across the globe.

When I first heard of the controversy I wondered how Wrede dealt with the question of what happened to those Asians who didn't cross over to the Americas, and how she dealt with Asians in general. From what I could read through the critics it seemed that she just brushed them off. But no! She doesn't! While she has no need to delve in the entire alternate history of "her" Earth, she does make a crucial element out of the existence of Asian culture and an Asian magical tradition. In her heroine's world that Asian tradition of magic-making is part of the great triad of European, African and Asian magical traditions.

So, OK, Asians never went across the Pacific to the Americas, but on the other hand they didn't huddle in caves for thousands of years while the Europeans marched on to greater and greater knowledge of magic theory and practice. The Asians developed their own approach to magic and according to legend their great sorcerers were the ones responsible for driving the great dragons out of Asia and Europe, centuries ago. Also, when the heroine needs to put her nascent magical powers in check her teacher (a very savvy black woman, well versed in the three great magical traditions/cultures) shows her how to use an auto-disciplinary technique developed by Asian magicians.

If Wrede is to be denounced then about 90 % of all U.S. SF authors should be vigorously denounced for their cultural simplifications. Wrede should be praised for being a lot more open to other cultures than is usual in U.S. SF novels.

Comments

Posted by: Alain (ndgmtlcd)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 07:07 pm (UTC)

Maybe, in one of the upcoming books, she'll have kung-fu Chukchi tribes doing Hijero-Cathayan magic.

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