After the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2022 and are eligible for the 2023 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.
For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.
Today’s featured non-fiction book is a fascinating study of how culture and the baggage it carries influence storytelling in general and speculative fiction in particular. Therefore, I am thrilled to welcome Gillian Polack, author of Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy to my blog today.
Tell us about your book.
What do we carry with us into our reading? What do we share with writers?
I’ve been exploring how we use fiction to transmit culture for a very long time. I wanted to explain where my explorations had led me, and find a way for writers and editors to think about fiction and for readers to get new insights. Story Matrices is that explanation.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Like many writers, I’m addicted to learning. I’m an historian, and a fiction writer, and someone who always tries to understand how the world works. My family focused on scientific explanations: I like the human side of things. It’s complicated and ever-changing.
What prompted you to write/edit this book?
Because I’m addicted to story, I wondered just how much of our invisible culture we carried in in the way we tell stories. I began to look at the world building we do and the paths we take when we tell stories and read them. What is the difference between story space for the reader and story space for the writer and, indeed, story space for the editor? As I addressed these questions, I discovered how very powerful genre literature is in our lives. Even those who have never read a science fiction novel have experienced the narratives we tell and the cultural material we embed into our stories.
I wanted to explain this: that genre literature is a powerful, powerful force, that culture is transmitted through story, that we can all think about story and through that thought have more control over what we accept from story. We can, in short, choose not to be bigots.
Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?
Because it takes speculative fiction seriously. Story Matrices is useful for understanding any story, but it’s described by focusing on our stories, on SFF.
It shows some of the stuff we’re all beginning to realise about the way people from various parts of politics translate the worlds in our stories to meet their own needs. It provides tools for thinking about these things, and it helps us discover how we share our world, as SFF fans. It also gives some thoughts on how we can work through the discovery that our favourite author is problematic – what parts of the worlds we read about do we actually share with these people we suddenly distrust? In simple form: do Harry Potter fans have to give everything up, because they do not want to meet JK Rowling? And how do fans interpret those aspects of the novels that hurt?
We need tools and methods for handling these things, and Story Matrices uses SFF to provide them.
Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?
When I dreamed of this study, years ago, I used to call it “A Universal Theory of Story.” It’s the opposite to that, but I still dream of writing a universal theory.
My favourite tidbit, however, is that you can interpret recipes using my tools. Every story is set in its own world, or, in the case of recipes, its own kitchen. I can prove this, in my kitchen. Maybe one day I shall…
SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?
Stories don’t stand alone. They’re part of a vast and complex narrative. Non-fiction is part of our discourse about that narrative. Some of this discourse is clear and obvious: if we know what the most fascinating works are in any given year, we can read them first. This alone is a good reason to have that category – so that we can find out about fabulous work we’d otherwise miss. Non-fiction very seldom gets the public airing that the most popular fiction gets, and it can be equally important.
There is, however, another reason for it. The category helps us understand who we are as SFF fans, and enables us to see the wood, and not focus only on certain trees in that wood.
For example, so many of us talk incessantly about bias towards white men in publishing. It’s easy enough to compare the wide numbers of male and female authors. It’s much harder to look at the number of writers who are non-binary.
Then we look at who we talk about and how visible they are. Male writers are more likely to get reviews, for instance, especially in the most notable review places. US writers also have certain privileges. Australian writers have fewer, but compared with writers from, say Malaysia or Zimbabwe, we do well. The hierarchy of publishing and what that means about works that are available to readers is never boring, though often frustrating.
When we look at which writers are written about by experts ie have studies of their work, get mentioned in academic studies and general non-fiction, we can see how this works. We can discover what underpins what we hear about and what we can find in bookshops. These are the studies that help us work through the fog of too many books, and give us a means of interpreting them. (Some of the white male bias comes from this discourse, which is another story. There are always other stories.)
When we talk about story, we influence what stories are seen. The Hugo category helps us make decisions about what is important to us, as SFFians. Me, I examine at the category every year and note who is visible and why, and what that visibility adds to our understanding of ourselves. This is as well as reading the cool books, never instead of reading them!
Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?
I want to recommend a set of communities. There are whole worlds of academic research that illumine SFF. German universities are looking at Australian speculative fiction, for instance, and the big Medieval Studies conferences always have a section just for people like us. I blog about them from time to time, when I attend a conference, or find a book that I want to share. My work as a medieval historian led me to the Tales after Tolkien people, and to fairy tale studies and ethnography and folk studies experts. There’s an amazing amount of very exciting work in all these areas right now, and so much of it is relevant to SFF. This is a golden decade for research that’s of interest to SFF fans.
Find me, tell me your interests, and I’ll introduce you to this side of my world.
Where can people buy your book?
Most online bookshops have it. Most brick-and-mortar shops can get it in. This sounds like an evasion, but it’s hard to know what shops on the other side of the world stock my books! (And, from Australia, most of the world is the other side.)
The easiest way to find a copy near you is through online tools such as this (the UK site given, but it’s international): https://booko.info/9781913387914/Story-Matrices-Cultural-Encoding-and-Cultural-Baggage-in-Science-Fiction-and-Fantasy
or, for those of you in the US, this: https://bookshop.org/a/1838/9781913387914
Where can people find you?
My website is: https://gillianpolack.com/ but I also blog every Monday at a favourite haunt (a treehouse for writers – a few of us set this up during the big COVID lockdown and have never left it) https://treehousewriters.com/wp53 . I write essays for Aurealis (the magazine) and elsewhere. I usually report the most interesting pieces on Twitter (https://twitter.com/GillianPolack) and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/gillian.polack
Thank you, Gillian, for stopping by and answering my questions. Do check out Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy if you’re interested in storytelling, culture and speculative fiction.
About Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy:
The culture we live in shapes us. We also shape the culture we live in. Stories we tell play critical roles in this shaping.
The heart of cultural transmission is how stories and the way we shape knowledge come together and make a novel work. How do they combine within the novel? Genre writing plays a critical role in demonstrating how this transmission functions.
Science fiction and fantasy illustrate this through shared traditions and understanding, colonialism, diasporic experiences, own voices, ethics, selective forgetting and silencing. They illuminate ways in which speculative fiction is important for cultural transmission.
This study uses cultural encoding and baggage within speculative fiction to decode critical elements of modern English-language culture.
About Gillian Polack:
I am Gillian Polack. I answer mainly to Gillian, but also to Dr Polack, Ms Polack, Miss Polack and “Hey, you”. I sometimes answer to “Gillian Pollack” because people simply can’t seem to get my name right. ‘Polack’ is not an insult in Australia and it is most definitely the correct spelling of my surname. I live in the centre of the known universe (Canberra, ACT, Australia).
I write, I think, I serve on committees, I teach. I am passionate about people, about books, about history.
I talk a lot. I dream a lot. The Middle Ages sneaks into my dreaming, and so does speculative fiction. Cooking sneaks onto my waistline.
Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.