Welcome to Exotica or OMG I see Brown People
I’ve always been a bad guy. Well, at least when it came to pulp stories and pulp inspired stories. Read some Conan and you will quickly see that the people of MacEurope (a processed Europe, like processed cheese) frequently square off against the nasty people of colour of Exotica (all the cultures vaguely inspired by African, Mesoamerican and Asian societies).
It doesn’t take much work to thumb through a few issues of Weird Tales to see that as interesting as an ‘exotic’ location could be to a writer, at the same time it was often repellent. Yellow peril, African savages, stupid Natives. Such characters danced through the pages of pulp fiction and, of course, made it into sword and sorcery. When people of colour where not being put in the role of the enemy or the fool, they were completely absent.
Through the years, even with the sword and sorcery revamp and rebirth of the 60s and 70s, not much changed in Exotica and MacEurope. Part of it was due to the legacy of the pulp world, of those Weird Tale covers in which evil Asians were leering at pretty women, part of it was based on the mistaken notion that the real Europe, the real Middle Ages resembled MacEurope. This is, of course, false. Europe is a wide space made of very many different nations. The Middle Ages lasted for a long time. A Spanish man living in Seville in the 11th century (when it was under Moorish rule) would have had a very different experience from a man from Rome in the same time period. In the end MacEurope, really, seems to be inspired by an imaginary Great Britain. No wonder, then, that MacEurope was very white.
Because there were only two spaces – MacEurope (us) and Exotica (them, a place for the white adventurer to have some adventuring) – and because MacEurope was often a narrow, bizarre vision of Europe, diversity had a hard time making it into sword and sorcery.
Then Imaro appeared in the 1980s. The African American author Charles R. Saunders had penned several adventures of his African character before he went on to publish Imaro in 1981. Imaro was quickly labeled a black Conan. The cover of the first edition seems to agree with this: Imaro looks suspiciously as a white man with a tan. Imaro, however, was more than a pastiche or a copy of Conan. He was a complex character interacting in a world unlike any other: a land inspired by African history and mythology. Although Saunders published a sequel to the first novel, and although he also wrote stories about a female warrior called Dossouye, these seeds did not seem to take and Imaro has never been a super-popular hero. However, Imaro did help to show what could be achieved when writers abandoned the shores of Exotica and MacEurope and decided to sail other waters.
And it’s not like all was lost. Nowadays, there is a small but active group of sword and soul fans (fantasy fiction based on African culture and mythology). Examples of this include the Meji books by Milton Davis. It’s also worth mentioning that Saunders has continued to write sword and sorcery adventures starring Dossouye and Imaro. Looking in another direction, Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is an example of sword and sorcery which abandons MacEurope.
I was talking to someone the other day who told me the Aztecs were technologically inferior to the Spaniards because they didn’t use metal armour or wield big swords. This person failed to realize that the Aztecs didn’t wear heavy armour because: a) They didn’t ride horses. There were no horses to carry your heavy ass to battle. b) They didn’t carry heavy swords, instead relying on other weapons for attack, because they didn’t have the materials to make such swords.
The Aztecs did wear armour, armour which worked perfectly well for the conditions and weapons they were going to face. Aztecs also traveled by canoe, living in a city that might have resembled Venice. They had aqueducts, saunas, and a system of agriculture which used ‘floating gardens’ to farm on a lake.
In the future, maybe writers will explore such settings more frequently, not as ‘exotic’ vistas, but as solid, well-constructed worlds where realistic heroes face adventure and magic. It will also benefit the sub-genres of sword and sorcery and Cthulhu Mythos to have more diverse authors among its ranks (call it POCs or my favourite term, multicultural) and more international writers. It’s not that MacEurope didn’t have its moments. I just want to see what’s on the other continents of this map.
What cultures and locations would you use in a sword and mythos story? Let me know. Oh, before you turn off your computer, check out this long article about Imaro that appears at The Cimmerian. Also remember to give some cash to Sword and Mythos.