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Expat Authors and (American) SF

Before I begin, a caveat:

I’m not really so well-read on the lives of golden-age American SF authors. Not so informed at all, and so there may be an unreasonable amount of assumption in what I’m suggesting below. I would love to be corrected if I am way off-base.

Okay, with that aside: lately, I’ve been studying the work of Ezra Pound, with whom I feel some affinity — despite his being a nut and a fascist — because he was both a writer and an expatriate at the same time. This got me thinking about how many major writers in the English Language during the 19th and 20th centuries were — temporarily or permanently — expatriates. Along with Pound, you have Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot,  Edith Wharton, Henry James, Frederick Douglass, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, and plenty of other major authors. Hell, even the unforgivably horrible Ayn Rand was an expatriate American writer, though for her it was America that constituted her “foreign” second home. (Unlike Asimov, a fellow Russian-American, she actually grew up in the USSR, and for her America was a foreign land, not the place of her upbringing.) That’s not to say everyone who mattered (for better or worse) in the world of American letters went abroad, but it is striking how many celebrated American mainstream writers went abroad.

What I find interesting is my impression of how few SF authors — as far as I can tell — went through similarly expatriate periods. Some SF authors traveled extensively, of course. Did this affect American SF profoundly?

British SF authors seemed to have lived abroad much more often, especially in the days of the British Empire. Though he didn’t write SF full-time, Rudyard Kipling made significant contributions to the genre and traveled extensively, having lived in both India and England, among other places. H.G. Wells also traveled extensively, though as far as I know, most of that happened after he’d moved from writing scientific romances to political and “mainstream” novels. George Orwell’s life in Burma clearly played some part in his later writing, including Nineteen-Eighty Four, but he spent much of his life in England as well. Michael Moorcock lived abroad for some time, as well — but the one mention I have found specifies Texas as the place, which is at least within the Western and Anglophone world, and no so foreign as India, Burma, or Korea. And of course, there are Canadian SF authors who ended up as expats within the Commonwealth — Cory Doctorow and Geoff Ryman in the UK, and Jamaican (or Jamaican-Canadian?) author Nalo Hopkinson in Canada (though she’s been there since she was relatively young, IIRC). And, I’m sure, there are plenty more examples…

Some early American SF authors also traveled widely: As far as I can tell, Jack London — another author from whom SF was part of, but not the whole, of his literary oeuvre — was the first SF author to visit South Korea. Spoiler alert: he wasn’t too impressed, but he also managed to be what I guess is the first Western SF author to write SF about Korea. And of course, Heinlein traveled around the world with his second wife, though of course that was after a lot of his most well-known work was written, or at least that’s my loose recollection… and Heinlein mostly didn’t live as an expatriate, he traveled. (And yeah, there’s a difference.)

From what I gather, the majority of the major figures in American SF from the 1920s onward seem to have been the sort to remain in their homelands. Philip K. Dick went as far as Vancouver, but not to Tokyo or Berlin; from what I gather — and I may be wrong –Asimov, after arriving in America, basically stayed there: ironically, he was afraid of flying, and so avoided long-distance travel in general. but I find very few examples of them actually living abroad as expatriates for extended periods of time, or, more importantly, who wrote major works while abroad.

When you compare the roll calls, and the nature of the time spent abroad, it’s interesting how relatively provincial the lives of a lot of SF authors in the “good old days” were, compared to their peers in the mainstream literary scene. Hell, even H.P. Lovecraft — considered by many to be a kind of foundational fabulist in not only American SF but also in that nation’s horror and fantasy/weird fiction — couldn’t stand the small amount of difference he experienced in Brooklyn, and fled back to Providence, Rhode Island very soon after his move to New York.

There are more recent exceptions to this dominant American trend too, of course, especially more recent ones: Russell Hoban has lived abroad for years (in the UK, if I have my facts straight) and Lucius Shepard spent a significant amount of time down in Latin America; Bruce Sterling seems to be a perpetual expat, though rather than settling in one country, he bounces from place to place almost constantly. Cordwainer Smith spent some time in China (and, if I remember correctly, in Australia), and JG Ballard spent part of his childhood also in China, as he dramatized in his novel Empire of the Sun. Undoubtedly a number of the young men associated with Golden Age SF in the US served in World War II, and were in that capacity stationed in places like Europe and the Pacific. Arthur C. Clarke spent a significant part of his live in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, as well. William Gibson, too, lives abroad, though if you ask me, Canada and the US (and for that matter the UK and Australia) are at least similar (and close) enough to deserve a caveat when one starts using the word “expatriate”; one is living within the Anglophone world, and to some degree one does not experience the “otherness” one might living in a society where one’s language is foreign, where one’s culture is alien, where one is truly and constantly an outsider.

And of course, today, I know (or am net-acquainted with) plenty of expat SF writers: Jason Erik Lundberg, Justin Howe, and the members of my own writing group. There are plenty of us now, all over the world. And that’s to say nothing of expatriates from other places who are living and writing in the USA, Britain, and other core sites of SF-production, of course: Nalo Hopkinson, who I’ve mentioned above, is one of many examples including, among others, Vandana Singh and Anil Menon. And then there’s people like Lavie Tidhar, who is both from and living in places that are outside the core zones of SF production.

But setting aside these mostly more recent examples, compared to we look at the time when many mainstream American writers were living as expatriates through the 1920s, we find that most SF authors were not. I’m sure there are a few explanations: one being that SF actually paid enough for authors to live in cold-water flats, or that SF fandom had a more organized support system for authors and other creators to network together: Fred Pohl, I think it was, had interesting stories to tell in Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s  Hell’s Cartographersregarding the living arrangements of young hopeful authors like himself, back in the early days of fandom. Meanwhile, Europeans might have been more welcoming to literary authors, than to American pulp/pop-fiction writers. Likewise, I think America (or Britain) was probably the place to be for SF authors who wanted the best access to opportunities with editors or publishing companies, whereas opportunities were perhaps not so scarce abroad for more “literary” or “mainstream” authors.

None of this is to criticize those authors: they were likely being very rational (at least economically) in their decision to stay in the USA. But I cannot help but wonder how different American SF might have ended up being if there had been a significant number of expatriate authors working in the field from its beginnings. Would there have been more racial stereotypes? Fewer? There’s no reason to assume the effects would all have been positive: I have run across plenty of expats in Korea who are more bigoted against Koreans, or Northeast Asians, than they might have been if they’d stayed in their homelands. Yet the positive possibilities taunt the imagination: might American SF have been more cosmopolitan, or more attuned to a global vision of the world on terms other than just American terms? How might have the genre fared globally, and how would SF in America have been affected? How about native production of SF in those far-flung places where the expats ended up?

(Or am I completely off-base? Those who have examples: post them. I’d love to know more about this… and yeah, it kind of sounds like an interesting starting point for a writing project, doesn’t it?)

I’ll probably follow this up with a few notes on how expat SF authors can use their experience.

UPDATE (later that night): Oh, and before anyone points it out: yes, I am skipping over other people who fit into other categories not mentioned here. Where does someone like Aliette de Bodard fit, living in France as a native but writing in English? But this is far from my main point, which was just to note that while lots of mainstream American writers lived abroad in the old days (especially the 1920s) American SF authors seemed not to do so as much.

I should also note that while I’m not crazy about all those authors I mentioned, Graham Greene (another author who spent a lot of time abroad) and Pound and Eliot are among my favorite writers, genre or no.

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