I doubt if there are any studies to prove or disprove the idea that speculative fiction is a first world pastime. To clarify, “first world” according to the Urban Dictionary refers to an informal classifications of countries:
The world classes (first, second, and third) have no official definition, but are often times used to describe the economic position of a state. The differences between the classes has less to do with the economic well being of the nation, and more to do with the geopolitical divides that emerged during and after the cold war.
First world is generally defined as a western style state that is usually capitalist and democratic, which has a high standard of living.
I’ve lived in a couple third world countries, one underdeveloped and largely agrarian, the other developing with a greater mix of urban and rural society. What do people from those nations think of speculative fiction—from gaming, comic books, movies or TV, and novels? Do they engage with science fiction? With fantasy? With horror? Or are those broad-brush genres only interesting to first world countries?
At the level of literature, speculative fiction depends on a literate society, so that must be in place for a country to have any awareness of the stories that are available. Second, a certain level of economic achievement seems necessary for people to spend money going to the movies, buying TVs, DVDs, computers and computer games. And finally, a significant amount of time seems necessary for people to spend reading or gaming.
But I have to wonder. Speculative fiction, at its core, involves the struggle of good against evil, so doesn’t that idea indicate that our stories are for everyone? Aren’t people in Sudan and Nigeria and Ukraine and Bolivia and Yemen concerned with despots and evil empires and heroes and struggle?
I think those elements and themes are universal, so I want to say speculative fiction is for everyone. But I wonder. Are the day-to-day conditions for people not living in a first world country perhaps too close to the pretend conditions of our speculative fiction. I mean, many don’t have to imagine a government depicted in dystopian, or war shown in epic fantasy or ostracism or alienation portrayed in a science fiction. They live with despotic governments, the dangers of war, unfair treatment based on ethnicity. Why read speculative fiction if you only have to look out your window to see the clash of good and evil.
Add in one more factor. Many of the third world nations have a greater awareness of the supernatural than do those of us in the first world. For instance, in his books Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Quereshi, of Pakistani descent, pointed out that many Muslims put great trust in dreams as a guide for their future.
Of course, Hinduism is predominant in India, and that belief system relies on any number of supernatural elements. Buddhism likewise starts with the the ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment, achieved over many lifetimes of rebirth.
Other places in the world believe in animism, a kind of pantheism that sees all things as possessing a “spiritual essence.” Still others cling to a form of indigenous beliefs that have been labeled as “superstitions.”
While the latter can identify with the ultimate struggle between good and evil, some of the other religions see the world through a different lens. What does speculative fiction say to them?
And should we care? Is speculative fiction only for the first world, and are we to accept the idea that no one apart from first world individuals will benefit from science fiction and fantasy?
I suspect that some who love these genres will argue that “benefit” is not the goal. That speculative fiction is nothing more than entertainment, that we are to let every culture find their own entertainment and not concern ourselves with what they do or don’t do in their free time.
I have to wonder about that position. I mean, as many have pointed out before, Jesus told stories. The Bible is filled with stories. And at least on two occasions someone in Scripture told a story that would have to be identified as speculative. The Bible, remember, was not originally written to first world cultures. Jesus didn’t come and live during the internet era, or during the industrial revolution.
He spoke to third world Middle Easterners and He included stories that they understood but that we today also can understand.
I realize that no one who writes fiction is writing Scripture. Nor are we preaching sermons. But as we engage in the thematic base of speculative fiction—the struggle between good and evil—I wonder if our reading audience might not reach beyond our own borders. Is there any better way to bridge the gap between disparate worldviews than through story? And particularly through speculative stories?