A parable of cultural appropriation and the effects of imperialist foreign policy, The Unconquered Country won the World Fantasy Award when published in novella form in Interzone (1984). Although Ryman had published one novel, The Warrior Who Carried Life (1985), prior to The Unconquered Country, it was this short novel that catapulted him to the forefront of the fantasy genre. He followed the novel with more complex works, including The Child Garden (1989), that share few, if any, similarities with The Unconquered Country.
The Unconquered Country clearly is an allegory designed to illuminate the situation in Kampuchea in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. In Ryman’s novel, the Unconquered People represent the indigenous inhabitants of Kampuchea, and the Big Country represents the United States. The rebels who liberate Saprang Song near the novel’s end represent the Khmer Rouge.
The blatant sociopolitical content of the novel, coupled with its pseudoscience elements, make it unique in fantasy fiction. Although many fantastical short stories and novels have been set in Asia, few deal with modern situations. For example, Barry Hughart’s excellent Master Li series, which includes Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991), dwells heavily on the ancient past of China and its mythologies. A tenuous thematic parallel can be found in the works of Lucius Shepard, particularly his South American novel Life During Wartime (1987), but Shepard invariably explores his territory through the eyes of characters foreign to his settings.
A more comfortable, if less useful, connection can be found between many facets of the biological engineering described in The Unconquered Country and James Patrick Kelly’s novel Wildlife (1994). Ryman, however, combines nondidactic political discussion, stylized but psychologically complete characters, and, in the final third of the novel, the spirit world. His is a unique cross-pollination of forms and approaches to those forms.