Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

In Defense of Exoticism

by Daniel Abraham

I should be writing something besides a blog post.  Seriously.  Caliban’s War, the second book of The Expanse, and The King’s Blood, follow-up to The Dragon’s Path are both due June 1st, and I’m paying a little now for kicking back last year.  Oh, they’ll be done, but a blog post?

But some recent conversations about escapism and racism and fantasy have got me going.  I’ve been thinking about exoticism.  And about guilty pleasures.  I’m still thinking through all this, so it’s going to be a little rough around the edges.  It’s all part of the conversation after all.  When I have it all figured out, I’ll stop talking about it, probably.

The power to cloud men's minds, especially when they really want to get clouded

So here’s what’s on my mind.  Exoticism is — rightly — something of a dirty word.  It is the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar.  The example that always comes to mind for me is Lamont Cranston — The Shadow — who learned the power to cloud men’s minds “while traveling in East Asia.”  But there are a thousand other examples.  Charlie Chan.  The cliche of the magical negro.  Even overly racist propaganda like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have at their heart the impulse — the attraction — of a world outside the familiar.  And by familiar, I mean familiar to the audience for whom the works are intended.  There are billions of folks who travel in East Asia every day without learning the power to cloud men’s minds.  They’re Chinese.  And while Jews will find the Protocols unfamiliar, they don’t find ’em exotic.

I want to say up front that I recognize the problem of exoticism in practice.  It is dehumanizing for the people whose culture is being appropriated, reinterpreted, *mis*interpreted, and used.  It is exclusive by nature.

But here’s the thing, I don’t think the attraction of it is in its exclusivity.   When I listen to the old Shadow radio programs, I have that moment of guilt, but I also have the little frission that the writers at the time meant me to have.  Lamont Cranston is romantic and mysterious.  He knows secrets that we do not, because he’s been outside of the world we know and he has returned changed.  I don’t take pleasure from the thought that I have taken the actual cultures of billions of people and changed them into an Alec Baldwin movie.  I take pleasure in the intimation that somewhere, somehow, there’s a way out.

Yes, yes, this isn’t about the real Far East.  I know lots of folks who traveled to the real Far East, and I’m pretty certain Maureen McHugh doesn’t have the power to cloud men’s minds, or if she does, she uses it sparingly.  But it’s as true of Tomb Raider’s Kuala Lumpur or — to be really self-aware about it — John Crowley’s Aegypt.  Exoticism is an attempt to take a psychological — maybe even a spiritual — state of mind and place it in the real world.  It’s doomed to fail because most of the real world is already filled up with folks who don’t find their struggles to find clean water and food particularly exotic or ennobling.  But I have the feeling that, as with most pleasures (and especially pleasures that are hard to give up), there’s something important in it that we shouldn’t turn away from.

The other thing this chimes off in the back of my head is attitudes of men toward women.  Specifically the paired strategies of denigrating women or putting them on a pedestal.  Again, either choice is the imposition of a different story over a real human being or class of human beings.  Again, that’s what makes it toxic.  But it’s not what makes it an attractive strategy.

There’s something in at least my psychology that is deeply attracted to the idea of an Other.  Of something different than my familiar world.  An outside.

There’s a danger in looking for that in the literal world — within history.  And it’s something that screws us up whether we’re trying to put God into history or Lamont Cranston into Thailand.  But that doesn’t take away from the hunger behind it.  For escapism, for exoticism, for the idealized other.  I don’t think that desire is in itself pathological, and I don’t want to see it thrown out with the bathwater.

Does that make sense?

21 Responses »

  1. While in Morocco, I learned the mystic arts of drunkenly breaking my hand.

    Malta only taught me the mystic art of driving on the wrong side of the street.

  2. While in East Asia, I learned the mystic art of getting too drunk to be let back in the dormitory… Which, really, is a terrible thing to tell a group of twenty year old college kids because what are they going to do at that point, stop drinking?

    Anyhow, this is really interesting and my first reaction was that you’re skating on some thin ice here. But in general I think there’s something useful about the idea of the Other and the Uncanny in a way that lets us examine how we relate to specific others without tripping over the oh so problematic specifics. Which connects directly back to your earlier point about race in fantasy. It can definitely be incredibly problematic if handled badly (see, Tolkein) but can be incredibly insightful if handled with an eye towards deconstructing the generalized concept rather than the specific (see Ursula K. LeGuin).

    Where you run into trouble is when your invented Other has traits that can be too easily mapped to a recognizable minority (see, Yoda, Jar-Jar Binks, and oh so many others). That said, SFF is the perfect place to dissect the way we relate to Otherness and the Uncanny because it’s like having a clean room. You can create constructs and models and set them loose on each other, and have fun with it too– extracting that frisson of exoticism– without the consequences of racism.

    Anyhow, obviously I think this is a really interesting topic and I’m glad more and more people are considering how it plays into SFF. It’s a way for the unreal to reflect on the real without stepping into deeply consequential and problematic stereotypes.

  3. “Does that make sense?”

    Yes. Yes, it does and very well said, sir.

  4. What you say makes a great deal of sense – and it is important to keep in mind that it is a reciprocal process. The East has its own exoticism about the West. In my own writing I use European mythology as a liberal spice, and though my ancestors were from the Old World I cannot claim their stories, while I can claim those of the Native American peoples even less. My point is that there is always a balance in what an author is salting their work with – balancing the imagination, the longing for the exotic and the unfamiliar, and the fantasy of the other (of whatever sex) with respect and an openness to hear the true experiences of those others.

    • I think cultural syncretism is ubiquitous and inevitable. Borrowing from each other is what cultures do. Sometimes it’s enriching, sometimes it’s oppressive. But I can’t imagine it ever stopping, you know?

  5. I actually had a much longer response for you, but you’ve already acknowledged how this is problematic, and I didn’t feel like wasting my time whittling down the systemic issues your post defends, so my real question is:

    Why do you need a defense for this desire? Why do you need an outside? Why do you need a way out? Especially knowing that this way out depends on the exploitation of others? Why? Why defend it?

    That’s what I really want to know.

    • I’ve grown a little wary of the wall-of-short-essay-questions format. You’re asking me seven different questions, and with different answers. I’m going to try to answer as best I can in a single response.

      I believe that authentic pleasure is usually an indicator of interesting things about human needs. In this case, it seems to me that the pleasure people take in the exotic (and what DongWon called the Uncanny — which is a great term) isn’t a direct product of its exploitative aspects. Which suggests there may be ways to address that need in ways that don’t depend on the exploitation of real people.

      Also, because I’m writing second-world fantasy, I’m professionally in a position where scratching that itch may be something I can do ethically.

      Also (ooh, frustrated here. this is why I don’t like that shotgun-question approach — brings up more than I can answer without either writing seven different posts or one that wanders around trying to catch all the points that were brought up. Grrr.)


      Also, I think that needs and desires aren’t moral or immoral in themselves. How we go about meeting them is, on the other hand, very open to discussion.

      As to why I need an outside, I don’t know that. It seems like it’s a pretty common thing, but I haven’t got a good theory nailed down yet on that.

    • Oh hey, I found your comment on Tumblr (which I don’t grok or I’d have left comments there).

      I’m hearing you say that you think creating an idealized Other is in itself toxic even when the Other is an explicitly imaginary group because similar things have been done to the detriment of real non-imaginary people. Am I understanding you correctly?

      • I’m not Jha, but I have an answer to your question: yes.

        Making an idealized, ‘exotic’ Other is damaging even when that Other is imaginary or even nonhuman.

        Here’s my argument: You say that you find pleasure in that literary device, even knowing how messed up it is, and take it as evidence that there is some good in it. I’m the same, but my conclusion is that, like slapstick abuse (making abuse funny), society has TAUGHT me to take pleasure in it even though it’s horrible.

        So, from my perspective, any kind of exoticism in fiction by the part of the author (characters themselves can be racist) and reinforced by the omniscient narrative is damaging because it TEACHES that pleasure, teaches people to want to make the Other exotic and dehumanized.

        That’s me as a feeling person. On a purely technical, writer-to-writer note, exoticism is shallow. It takes the potential complexities of an invented culture and boils them down to pretty stereotypes. Fiction has enough problems with shallow world-building, and I don’t think the frisson of ‘oh la la’ from certain readers makes up for it.

        • Hey, Luna. Thanks for coming by. It’s good to hear from you.

          Part of what I’m hearing you say with this is that if an imaginary culture is drawn with enough depth and psychological accuracy, it stops being exotic. That makes some sense to me (though I’m still pokin’ at it), but I was left wondering what you feel the appropriate role of the mysterious and inexplicable is in fiction.

          For example, Gandalf.

          Here’s a man who is placed outside normal human affairs by his relationship to magic. Tolkien was very careful not to explain magic or mages — to leave them with that sense of being a little bit outside the normal world. If I’m understanding your take (and God knows I may not be), you’d say that presenting Gandalf and the other wizards that way is in itself damaging because the pleasure I take in that sense of a character being outside the normal would I can then apply to real people and cultures in the world to real and damaging effect.

          Is that about right?

          • Thank you for replying.

            No, that’s not what I meant. A character or culture being outside the reader or main character’s norm (‘normal’ being a subjective term) can be exciting, can seem mysterious or inexplicable. But that shouldn’t be the *truth*- a section written from the foreign character’s head shouldn’t reinforce the stereotypes.

            For example, a Victorian English character is perfectly allowed to think of the ‘mysterious East’ and the ‘inscrutable Orientals.’ But if there’s an Asian point of view (POV), they shouldn’t actually be like that from their own perspective. Heck, with multiple viewpoints, you could have a story where everybody thinks everybody else in a diverse group is exotic, but all of them think themselves quite normal, because normal is subjective.

            Exoticism has its place in a character’s head, and if that character is the POV, then it’ll influence the narrative. But those thoughts should not be true, and should not be supported by the foreign character’s POV or by omniscient narrative facts. Also, there are ways to show that a POV character’s perceptions aren’t accurate, and they should be used to cue the reader that the stereotypes aren’t correct. That doesn’t mean all questions about the foreign character/culture must be answered, but it leaves them mysterious in a non-Othering way.

            Does that make sense?

          • That does make sense, and it’s a formulation I hadn’t seen before. If you don’t mind my following up a little, though?

            I’m — of course — coming form a context of writing fantasy and science fiction, and one of the things that comes into that literature is the genuinely alien. One particular book comes to mind. I don’t suppose you’ve had a chance to read Jo Walton’s Among Others? (As an aside, the real pain in the ass of having so many books published every year is that I can hardly every find folks who’ve read the same stuff I have. Makes conversation hard.)

            Anyway, Walton has fairies in the book, and they’re very strange. She makes it clear that their thought and language relationship to reality and death is very different than ours. I don’t know that I’d call them idealized or demonized either one, but they are an embodiment of something outside our reality. Conscious, sentient, capable of action and will, but alien.

            Now granted there’s a very strong narrative voice in the book, and if you don’t trust her, it’s possible to have the fairies have their own perfectly unexotic inner lives, but that’s not particularly supported by the story.

            I can’t ask you to pass judgment on something you haven’t read, but it seems to me that your objection to the exotic would apply there. And please correct me if I’ve misunderstood.

            I am struggling here with the idea that telling a story about the strange and eerie fairies that live in the walls or aliens on Ganymede or the elves of Lothlorien is comparable to a story about the wily Japanese or something like that. Granted that it may be falling in a bind spot of mine, but I don’t see that a fairy tale in which the fairies really are different from you or me is by its nature an immoral story.

          • Sorry, I haven’t read Among Others. Also, I replied to this comment instead of the most recent because for some reason, this was the last comment that I could see the reply button on. Apologies for any inconvenience.

            I think we’re working from a different understanding of the word ‘exotic.’

            Making something fundamentally different from something else (in this case, making the fae different from humans) does not render the fae ‘exotic.’ It just renders them different and unfamiliar to the humans, which is fine.

            Exoticism, for me, comes in when you say, not only are the fae different from humans *in general*, but all fae have those same differences, all fae are alike in way X, and all fae fall into a set of neatly prescribed stereotypes.

            Put it like this: if humanity (or one culture within humanity) is a spectrum, other races (or other cultures) should have their own spectrum, just as wide as humanity’s (or the first culture’s). Those spectrums may overlap or be totally distinct, but neither race/culture should be monolithic.

            It would be impossible to actually show an alien race having that wide a spectrum in one narrative- the collective literary works of our entire history only scratch the surface of our own diversity. But it can be shown that this elf is Jaskar Moonblade, not Tragic Elf Warrior #5000, even though he shares his culture and honor codes with other elven warriors. Obviously, if you have multiple characters of the designated alien race present, this is easier because their depth and distinctions from each other will null the exoticism, but their alien qualities (be they cultural, like judging people based on a handshake’s firmness, or biological, like laying eggs) will remain.

            So: exoticism = shiny, simple, exists for the viewing pleasure of the familiar character rather than having a life of its own. Alien = different, unfamiliar, independently complex.

  6. What about my long-ish comment on your “Toward a taxonomy of the thirteen races (A Dagger and Coin Joint)” post? 😀 That wasn’t a shotgun-style question… rather a pretty reasonable and thought-out response, imho. One that I’m pretty proud of, at that. 🙂 I’d be pretty interested (and honored!) to know what your reactions were/are.

    I mean… Culture shock does seem to be at the heart of secondary world fictions, no?



    • Hey, Juhan.

      I hadn’t actually read our comment back there as a question (well, except for the part about science fiction that Ty answered in a post all its own).

      I think we’re seeing the same thing and reaching for a terminology that works for it. When you’re talking about culture shock and sense of wonder and I’m talking about that joy in having something outside my usual reality and DongWon’s talking about the Uncanny I think we are all pointing toward the same thing.

      I’m still struggling with the in-world racism thing. On the one hand, if I’m making up the Haaverkin and I say they are all short-tempered and violent, that kind of means they are. To then say they aren’t determined by their race — that Haaverkin and Cinnae and Jasuru are all really just the same underneath it all — almost defeats the purpose of having them. That sense of authentic difference is what makes them interesting and attractive.

      The other thing that’s really sticking with me from this part of the conversation anyway, was Jha’s question about why I need a way out. I mean, I’m pretty clear that I do — or at least that I really respond strongly to that idea. I had been working with the assumption that the appeal was if not universal at least dirt-common. If I’m wrong about that, that’s really interesting.

  7. If you’re saying that trying to impose our need/desire for the Other onto real life is more dangerous than exploring it in fiction, then I agree wholeheartedly with you. In fact, I think the genesis of many relationship issues is that one person expects this ideal interaction from the other and they don’t get it. I know that was certainly true with my parents and I, and we’re only now beginning to recover from the effects of poor communication of our expectations of each other.

    On the other hand, there are definitely times when communicating that I want someone else to change their behavior patterns, by acting the way I’d want to be treated, is a valid imposition of desire on the real world. Without that, Gandhi never could have changed the world through civil disobedience. It just requires a lot of forethought as to whether the purpose is ethical and what means are ethical.

    I think the real thing that makes desire so intrinsically destructive is that we look for happiness and fulfillment through them, when, in my humble opinion, happiness is a product of our self-knowledge and the difference between our stated ideals and the morals our acts convey to others. Desire is all well and good when it has a purpose in allowing us to achieve a commendable goal.

    • Interesting points. I’ll need to sit with that awhile.

      I’d also clarify my point this way: If (as I assumed and Jha has brought into question) the longing for the Mysterious Land Where Things Are Different And Secrets Are Known (MLWTADASAK looks ugly — let’s call it Narnia) is universal or at least dirt common, then stigmatizing the desire itself seems problematic. Stigmatizing pathological ways of fulfilling it, I’m all for.