What’s the state of Southeast Asian sci-fi?

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Singapore

Publishing organisation: Kontinentalist

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-06-22

Language: English

Authors: Writers / Angel Martinez, Bianchi Dy
Code / Siti Aishah
Data analysis & visualisation / Bianchi Dy
Design / Amanda Teo
Illustration / Griselda Gabriele


Angel is a Manila-based storyteller and strategist. At Kontinentalist, she works as an editorial fellow where she creates visually arresting longform and micro-stories that bridge research and the public.

Bianchi is an urban scientist and artist trained in environmental engineering, with a passion for scientific communication and context-sensitive data storytelling.

Aishah handles front-end development of data-driven stories for desktop and mobile, as well as auxiliary data viz support.

Amanda does UI/UX design, designs data visualisations, and works on client projects.

Griselda is an illustrator, multimedia designer, and animator who also plans and creates social marketing assets at Kontinentalist.

Project description:

Asians are rarely the stars of modern mainstream science fiction. Oftentimes, our cultures are appropriated and reduced to stereotypes in Western media: white protagonists take the lead, while characters who look and speak like us are relegated to background roles. While Japanese and Chinese works in the genre have long enjoyed global recognition, gaps in representation in our own region continue to persist.

Our story maps out the state of Southeast Asia’s science fiction by showcasing our diverse collection of sci-fi stories and shedding light on how these works have reflected the region’s rich sociopolitical context across generations

Impact reached:

Within the journalism community, the story has been featured by publications and newsletters such as those of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, Quantum of Solazzo and Data Sketches.

On our website, it garnered 1,499 unique page views with an average reading time of 5 minutes and 21 seconds. It reached 3,745 accounts on Instagram, being shared 250 times and also garnering 452 likes on the actual story post.

Techniques/technologies used:

Drawing inspiration from the Hero’s Journey narrative structure, we challenged ourselves to create a data story that resembles an actual sci-fi novel! We combined an exciting plot told in the second person with breathtaking illustrations and “choose your own adventure”-like twists and turns. Allowing the reader to choose the country they wanted to dive into, as well as converting dialogue into text boxes (a nod to video games like Chinatown Detective Agency and comics like Trip to Tagaytay) allowed us to not only shorten the story’s scroll length and improve user experience but also replicate the immersive and interactive experience tales in the genre are known for.

Our team scraped through online databases such as Letterboxd, IMDB, and Goodreads and also crowdsourced science fiction titles from the public to put together an extensive database of works from the genre. We then ascribed themes and tropes to each title to create a scatterplot visualisation of the landscape of East and Southeast Asian science fiction using machine learning techniques (TF-IDF, tSNE) and Flourish. This was accompanied by scrollytelling (Scrollama.js) to reveal key points about specific stories.

Context about the project:

To our knowledge, there remains no comprehensive repository about Southeast Asian science fiction. Many stories within the region are not well-known and often dismissed as empty entertainment. Thus, they’re hidden in anthologies that are often inaccessible online and in print.

Support for local publishing also varies greatly per country: some industries have gone on to achieve international acclaim, while others have seemingly faded into obscurity. As a result, creators and enthusiasts alike have been hard at work behind the scenes.

This story is a testament to the importance of communities in keeping the industry afloat: we not only drew on and made links between several efforts of sci-fi writers and readers over the past decades in the narrative itself, but also relied heavily on their contributions to point us in the right direction and build up our Notion database.

While our database definitely isn’t exhaustive, we hope to encourage readers to find new works similar to ones they already love and start conversations that keep these stories alive. This way, more people can come to understand – in innovative and ingenious ways – how the past has shaped our present and imagine how we can work towards better futures.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

We sometimes have the tendency to view Asian issues from a colonial perspective because that’s what saturates the media we consume. It takes extra effort to highlight our narratives and tell them in new and exciting ways, on our own terms, but it’s a necessary endeavor.

For our story, we veered away from our usual writing style at Kontinentalist and chose to harness the power of creative nonfiction. This not only highlighted the genre’s strengths but allowed for a reading experience grounded in empathy.

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