My conference presentation “Reading the British Isles in 21st Century American Speculative Fiction” was accepted to LonCon3, the World Science Fiction Convention.
Reading the British Isles in 21st Century American Speculative Fiction
An American website asks why the British always play posh characters, while dailymail.co.uk wants to know why Americans always portray the villains with English accents. When the historical is irrelevant, how do American books and films present characters from the British Isles? Guest Author Robin Hobb said, “Fantasy allows us to drop all our baggage and look at the big questions in the world with no preconceived loyalties” (Orullian), but sometimes it plays to or preys upon those expectations instead.
With a focus on the twenty-first century portrayals of the British Isles—places and people—American speculative fiction is far more nuanced than the question threads mentioned above suggest.
While English characters are the most common, there are also Irish, Scottish, and Welsh characters in speculative fiction novels, movies, and television series. Most often the characters are expatriates living long-term within an American setting, though some are visiting or on temporary business.
In novels the languages are usually represented generically, such as “Why are you speaking Welsh?” (Briggs, Silver Borne 43). Sometimes, however, there are quotes in a particular language of the British Isles (including eighth-century Old English) and one American speculative fiction author has written an entire novel in Gaelic (Tim Armstrong, Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach).
On screen, actors portray characters in a variety of ways, with differences in clothing, habits, and accent.
Occasionally the stories of American speculative fiction authors are even set within the British Isles. The primary geographic representation of the United Kingdom is London, though the coastal areas, rural areas, and farther reaches of Wales and Scotland are also presented. England has been articulated as a bureaucratic maze, posed as a backdrop, and introduced as an exotic locale; well-developed presentations are often set during periods of global war.