Science fiction and fantasy are all about reaching beyond the horizon — so it's not surprising that many of the greatest speculative fiction authors have broadened their own horizons. And you can see it in their writing, because the experience of negotiating a very different culture and learning another language reshapes the way you think about exploration and discovery.
Here are 31 great science fiction and fantasy authors who lived in foreign countries — and how their writing changed as a result. If we left out one of your favorite authors who lived overseas, please chime in in the comments — there's no way this can be an exhaustive list!
Top image: The Kinslaying at Alqualonde from the Silmarillion, by Ted Naismith
Murakami wrote The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle while he was living in the U.S., and he credits the experience for creating the feeling of alienation in the book. Murakami told the Paris Review:
During the four years of writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was living in the U.S. as a stranger. That 'strangeness' was always following me like a shadow and it did the same to the protagonist of the novel. Come to think of it, if I wrote it in Japan, it might have become a very different book. My strangeness while living in the U.S. differed from the strangeness I feel while in Japan. It was more obvious and direct in the U.S. and that gave me a much clearer recognition of myself. The process of writing this novel was a process similar to making myself naked, in a way.
Gaiman's classic novel American Gods came as a direct result of Gaiman's move from the U.K. to the U.S. As Gaiman told January Magazine: "It was what American Gods came from: discovering that America was a much more complex place than I thought it was and that the Midwest was a much more complex place." In another interview, in Rain Taxi, Gaiman added that living in America changed his writing style, especially in this book:
It influences the language I use to communicate. With American Gods I was trying very, very consciously—there was a level at which it was a little like trying to write a novel in French—you know, "this novel is to be written in American."
Vonnegut is one of a few speculative fiction authors whose transformative overseas experiences came during wartime. Vonnegut's time in Germany during World War II changed his works tremendously, and his novel Slaughterhouse-Five is based on his life as a POW, during and after the Allied bombing of Dresden. In Timequake, a character receives a purple heart in a situation similar to Vonnegut's own.
The classic magical realist novel House of Spirits started out as a series of letters that Allende wrote, while in exile in Venezuela, to her dying grandfather in Chile. Allende explained in an interview:
Well actually, I started my first novel, "The House of the Spirits"... because I was living in exile in Venezuela and my grandfather was dying in Chile. And I could not return to be with him, so I started a letter for him that turned into "The House of the Spirits," my first novel.
Later, after Allende moved to the U.S., she started writing novels about traveling to the U.S., such as Daughter of Fortune.
The author of Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber, The New Moon's Arms and several other great books was born in Jamaica, and then lived in Trinidad and Guyana before immigrating with her family to Toronto, Canada at the age of 16. In an interview, she talked about how this culture shock and awareness of cultural and linguistic tensions shaped her work, especially Midnight Robber:
It's an experience I've not seen described much. I had lived in the U.S. as a child, when my father was studying theatre at Yale University in Connecticut, so I wasn't totally unprepared. Still, the enormity of suddenly becoming a member of a minority (and not a very popular one at that), of being in lands where people spoke like the people in movies (and they said I was the one with the accent!), of being unable to get the foods I'd grown up with and loved, of eight months of the year having to clothe oneself in a space suit in order to be able to remain alive when one stepped outside one's door is something to which I'm still not fully reconciled.
Lewis was an atheist while he lived in his native Ireland — but after he moved to England, he became a devout Christian, through his association with close friends Tolkein and Hugo Dyson. And that, in turn, led to his writing of one of the most famous fantasy series of all time: The Chronicles of Narnia.
She was inspired to write Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus during a summer in Geneva. And later on, Shelley and her husband Percey Shelley were forced to flee to Italy, to escape their creditors, for several years. The experience of being an exile abroad, and her intense relationships with her husband and their friends, led to the writing of her post-apocalyptic novel The Last Man.
His work of post-colonial science fiction, The Calcutta Chromosome, won the Clarke Award in 1997. And he credited his experiences living in Sri Lanka and New York, plus teaching in universities all over the world, for helping him to cultivate a sense of wonder. In an interview, Ghosh said:
I've been away from home a lot so it's something I think about, especially the sense of being away from your country, being away from everything that is familiar, being in a place that's completely different and new. I think it's one of the most wonderful things to be able to have that sense of wonder, and I do think that people challenge themselves more when they are away from home.
The author of the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated China Mountain Zhang actually lived in China for a year, teaching at Hebei Teacher's College. McHugh told Contemporary Authors Online:
I always felt that to write required experience, so I moved to New York City when I was twenty-three; I thought I'd get experience there whether I wanted it or not. In fact, I thought that, in order to write, the experience ought to be a little uncomfortable. It ought to make me re-examine things. This eventually led me to the People's Republic of China, where I lived for a year as a teacher at Hebei Teacher's College. Along the way, I began to use writing as a way to figure things out.
The things I needed to figure out were clear and straightforward at first. What would it be like to have been born as an average person in a third world country? What would it be like to live surrounded by violence? Now the questions are ones everybody has to address. Why are some people singled out for privilege, and why are some people unlucky? It's not as if I really expect answers, but I grew up believing that there was causality, that the events around me had some sort of narrative flow. I was a bookish child, and my view of the world was that events made a certain narrative sense.
As I get older, I find that, if there is any order in the world, it is imposed. The responsibility of the artist is to create a focal point—Wallace Stevens's jar on the hill—around which to order experience.
The Drowned World author was born in Shanghai to British parents, and wound up in a Japanese internment camp during the war — an experience he wrote about in Empire of the Sun. Later, Ballard emigrated to the U.K. And many of his later books are full of apocalyptic bleakness, intense brutality, and a dim view of human nature. Ballard told Spike Magazine:
I don't think you can go through the experience of war without one's perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience. The war came, I spent three years in the camp, and I saw adults under stress, some of them giving way to stress, some recovering and showing steadfast courage. It was a great education; when you see the truth about human beings it's beneficial, but very challenging, and those lessons have stayed with me all my life.
Borges seldom gets categorized as a fantasy author — but he was nominated for a Nebula in 1976 for the short story "Utopia of a Tired Man," and he won the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement in 1979. And Borges' fantastical imagery and writing style have been a huge influence on generations of fantasy authors. Borges was born in Argentina, but lived in Switzerland from 1914 to 1921, as well as a brief stint in Spain. He also had an English grandmother who taught him English literature. He combined his knowledge of literature from around the world with Argentinian history and culture, to create a unique form of magical realism.
Cooper won the Newberry award in 1976 for The Grey King, a fantasy novel based on Arthurian legends. And even though Cooper moved to the United States in 1961, her work remained distinctly British — perhaps even more so, in recation to her surroundings. In an interview, Cooper explained how being in America helped her to write about her home:
The English author J. B. Priestley was a friend of mine, and he used to write to me when I was going through this dreadful homesick period. In one of his letters he said, do not worry about being away from your roots; you will find you write better about a place when you are away from it. That certainly turned out to be true with The Dark Is Rising books. They were immensely British, yet all except the first were written either here in Massachusetts, or on a very small island in the Caribbean where we have a house.
That house in the Caribbean seems to have had a huge impact on her work as well — the adventure in The Dark is Rising starts off when a mysterious carnival mask arrives from the Caribbean. Cooper also wrote the children's picture book Jethro and the Jumbie, based on a Carribean folktale.
The author of The Chronicles of Prydain lived in both Wales and Germany for long periods, which helped inspire the setting and language in his famous series. Alexander said in a profile:
I had always been interested in mythology. I suppose my brief stay in Wales during World War II influenced my writing too. It was an amazing country. It has marvelous castles and scenery. It has its own language. It was quite a big experience for me. I'm sure that stayed in my mind for a good many years and became part of the raw material for the Prydain books.
And Alexander's Westmark series was also influenced by his experiences during World War II, especially in the books The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen.
This is another author whose wartime experiences influenced his writing — Haldeman served in the Vietnam War, and his experiences directly influenced his portrayal of war in The Forever War. Haldeman wrote:
Twenty-eight years after Vietnam, the smell of roadkill still brings back the smell of days-old bodies rotting in the jungle heat. My first combat experience was to jump out of a helicopter into a "hot LZ," a landing zone that was under enemy fire. We jumped into six-foot-high elephant grass and lost sight of one another and all sense of direction. There was steady machinegun fire from both sides. One side yelled in English and so I staggered over there, having learned nothing from twenty years of war movies, and rolled over a dusty berm to relative safety. As soon as I dumped my cargo — plastic explosives, a chain saw, and a welcome case of Budweiser — I was overcome by the smell of the dead.
One of science fiction's greatest grandmasters, the British Clarke lived in the United States and Sri Lanka, where he lived until he died. He wrote the short story "The Man Who Ploughed the Sea" after scuba diving in Florida and studying the ocean life. And after he moved to Sri Lanka in the 1950s, he kept scuba-diving — and the ocean becomes a major motif in his work, from the astronaut who becomes a sea farmer in The Deep Range to the dolphins of Dolphin Island. Not to mention the groups competing to raise half the Titanic in The Ghost from the Grand Banks. Also, The Fountains of Paradise seems to be about a fictionalized version of Sri Lanka. In the novel's foreword, he writes:
The country I have called Taprobane does not quite exist, but is about ninety percent congruent with the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Though the Afterword will make clear what locations, events and personalities are based on fact, the reader will not go far wrong in assuming that the more unlikely the story, the closer it is to reality.
McDonald's most famous work might be the India-set River of Gods, for which he spent a lot of time in India. McDonald said in an interview with Trashotron:
I really can't write about real-world locations unless I've been there... Certainly, India is an assault on the senses and sensibilities, and I suspect everyone has one moment that shocks them, no mater how liberal they think they are (I mean this in the European sense, rather than the US). I was stunned by the Dom Rajas panning the ashes of the dead for gold at Varanasi, and for sheer in-yer-face utilitarianism, the medic at the Royal Burning Ghats at Pashupatinath in Nepal: he collected corneas for transplants. The family said yes, he whipped back the sheet; worked fast with the knife, put the sheet back and the next thing you saw were two expanding circles of red where the eyes had been. He stored them in a thermos flask.
Also, McDonald moved to Ireland when he was five, an experience that left him with an "abiding interest in divided societies and the agonies and energies that engenders."
This American author lived in London and Ibiza, and it influenced books such as Immortality Inc., The Status Civilization and Dimension of Miracles. In one interview, Sheckley said, "in science fiction, we owe it to ourselves to see things in as many ways as we possibly can... To understand more... and broaden ourselves."
The famous dystopian author lived in Burma where he worked for the police, and he reflects on the experience through the character Flory in Burmese Days: "All of us living a lie the whole time... the lie that we're here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it's a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can't imagine." His guilt at being part of the machine of oppression clearly leads to the struggles in Nineteen Eighty-Four and his other work. He also spent a lot of time in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, which he wrote about in Homage to Catalonia.
The Israeli-born author has lived in South Africa, Vanuatu, and Laos, and now lives in London. He was in Dar-es-Salaam during the American embassy bombings in 1998, and stayed in the same hotel as the Al Qaeda operatives in Nairobi. According to the blurb on his novel Osama, these experiences — as well as narrowly avoiding the 2005 King's Cross and 2004 Sinai attacks — led to his story "My Travels with Al-Qaeda" and his novel Osama.
This Campbell Award-winning writer worked as a journalist covering the civil war in El Salvador, and his 1987 novel Life During Wartime takes place during a Central American war. And Shepard's travels frequently inform his writing. In one interview, he described the year he spent working in a Cairo bazaar:
I was doing stuff for a man who owned several shops in the bazaar that catered to tourists, but whose main business was the money market and smuggling. During the '60s, it was tough to get anything from the West in Egypt. Among the things my friend brought in were good quality women's stockings, hacksaw blades, electronics. He also trafficked in drugs and on occasion I saw uncut diamonds that were moved up through the Sudan.
That experience spawned one of his stories, "All the Perfumes of Araby."
The Embassytown author lived in Egypt for a year, as an 18 year old, teaching English. Miéville told Lightspeed Magazine, talking about the Arab Spring:
I think that what is sometimes being called the Arab Spring is one of the most profoundly important, moving political events of my lifetime. And I find, partly because I used to live in Egypt, but also just because of its world historic importance, I find the scenes in Egypt almost unbearably moving, and I'm kind of on concerned tenterhooks because of the way the revolution has been hijacked by certain elements within the military and so on. Different countries, different situations, but there's no question that they've acted as inspirations for each other. So count me as a big fan.
The author of A Clockwork Orange spent years as an expat, including a stint stationed in Gibraltar, a long period teaching in Malaysia, a period in Brunei, and a long stint as a "tax exile" in Malta. He also spent a couple years in the U.S., before winding up in Monaco. He also went on a cruise to the U.S.S.R., including a stay in Leningrad — which led to the invention of the "Nadsat" slang used in A Clockwork Orange.
The Ender's Game author went to Brazil as a missionary, and this experience influenced a lot of his work. In particular, the Portuguese settlement in Speaker for the Dead was directly inspired by Card's time in Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe was a direct influence on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Adams' own travels around Europe helped inspire Arthur Dent's peregrinations. At least, in one interview, Adams said he'd told that story so often he assumed it must be true.
The Lord of the Rings author served overseas in World War I, and found himself laid up in a hospital in 1917 with "trench fever." He started writing The Silmarillion during that time, calling it The Book of Lost Tales.
The author of Camp Concentration lived in Spain, Central and South America, and visited Africa. He said in one interview:
I've profited more, I think, from travelling. A great many writers who begin to publish young use travel as a kind of experience accelerator. Or surrogate? Travel forces one to be a better observer. One is always forming and discarding theories, tastes, friendships. The danger of such liveliness is that one may lose touch with what is central, but one may lose that touch without even stirring from the shore of Walden Pond. Ultimately I suspect that one must strike roots, but I have yet to make up my mind where. The more I travel the harder that decision becomes.
The author of The Stainless Steel Rat and Make Room, Make Room! lived in Mexico and various parts of Europe, before settling in Ireland. Harrison wrote:
We settled in Cuautla, Mexico because that is the town where the paved road ends. We went to England because a fan flight had been organized for the first world sf convention outside of North America. We went to Bromley because we met an English fan at the convention who lived there. We stayed there some months because money ran out and we couldn't pay our bill to leave the loathsome residential hotel where we were staying. With the bill paid we moved to a Pakistani rooming house in London because we had met Pakistani friends of Hans Santesson's. It was a very cold winter and when an old friend wrote us he would be going to Italy it did not take much more temptation to join Gary. (This was Gary Davis, World Citizen Number One.) I wrote a last true confession story to buy our way out of England and we went to join him on Capri, the island made famous by the song - which was about all we knew about it - where he had friends. It was some time before Gary showed up, followed closely by the police since he had entered the country illegally and without a passport. But we were well settled in by that time and could only wish him luck when he was arrested and sent off to the concentration camp at Frascati. But Gary had been staying in France with Dan Barry, another American expatriate, who came to join us in Capri a few months later. Dan is the well known artist who had just started doing the comic strip Flash Cordon for King Features. He needed a writer and since there were very few ex-comic artist American science fiction script writers living in Europe I got the job. Then we went back to the United States to find a decent doctor and to bounce my agent, next to Denmark, because we had a friend there named Preben Zahle whom we had met in Mexico when I heard him trying to explain his automobile problems in French to a mechanic and I aided him with some translation. Preben was a very fine painter who also acted as consulting art director on Tidens Kvinder, the leading Danish woman's magazine. Through his good offices I wrote some travel articles for the magazine and even collaborated with Joan on an article about travelling with children. About which we had amassed a good bit of empirical information. We had planned only to visit Denmark, but we liked it so much we stayed six years.
When she was 12, the Wrinkle in Time author moved with her family to the French Alps, for her father's health.
Actually, the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell author didn't travel much until that novel became a success. She told Bookslut:
That's one of the things Strange and Norrell has done for us (Colin and me): we've been able to travel and see places that would have been completely beyond our scope before. We've been to the States several times, to Norway. And I'm soon going to Italy and Sweden.
The author of Palimpsest, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and Deathless has lived overseas a lot — she attended Edinburgh University and lived in Japan for two years. She told Rain Taxi:
Place is important to me, I think, because I travel so much, and part of the process of moving to a new place, getting to know it, is writing about it. So wherever I live at the moment gets into my work in wormy, windy ways. Post-industrial Cleveland affects Palimpsest and infects it; rural and urban Japan is all through The Orphan's Tales. Maybe it goes back to poetry-I'm always writing about my actual life, confessing it, even when I'm writing about manticores and faceless children.
In another interview, she said, "I have an irritating case of wanderlust, and there's few places I don't want to go."
The author of The Time Machine traveled to the United States (to speak to Roosevelt) and subsequently to the Soviet Union (to interview Stalin) in 1934. And these two trips apparently had an impact on his work, especially his film adaptation of his novel The Shape of Things to Come. Wells told Stalin:
I cannot yet appreciate what has been done in your country; I only arrived yesterday. But I have already seen the happy faces of healthy men and women and I know that something very considerable is being done here. The contrast with 1920 is astounding.
In the final act of Wells' film Things to Come, the working class of a futuristic false utopia rises up, and the influence of his Soviet Union visit seems hard to deny.
Additional reporting by Amanda Yesilbas, John Cartier, Rob H. Dawson and Devin Garabedian.