Tuesday, July 21, 2020

A New Illustrated History of Taiwan

A New Illustrated History of Taiwan
by Wan-yao Chou, translated by Carole Plackitt and Tim Casey

Looking for a good, easy-to-read book to provide a general overview of Taiwanese history? 

This book is not a comprehensive history of Taiwan, nor does it pretend to be one. Powerful figures from Koxinga to Lee Teng-hui are mentioned only in passing, because Chou’s focus is instead on the ordinary people, and how their lives were shaped and impacted by historical events. 

And the book does a stellar job tracing the history of Taiwan’s people, from the Indigenous inhabitants up through colonization from Fujian and Guangdong in the 1600s and 1700s, to the effects of 20th century politics on Taiwan’s people.

Areas where I felt my knowledge needed beefing up and this book was informative included a concise summary of distinctions between Taiwan colonization from Quanzhou, Zhangzhou and Guangdong; good overviews of the two big rebellions against Japanese rule in Taiwan (the Chiaopanien [aka Tapani] rebellion of 1915 and the Wushe [aka Musha] rebellion of 1930); a survey of Taiwanese domestic home rule movements of the 1920s and 1930s; and a brief discussion of pro-democracy stirrings in the 1950s and 1960s.

Early on in the book, Chou writes “Sometimes one’s understanding of history increases if one stops using modern concepts” (p. 50). This is a great line which I wholeheartedly agree with. In the text, it refers to the fact that the close association between Taiwan and Penghu in fact got a relatively recent start; Penghu was closely tied to China’s Fujian Province for centuries before any Chinese government gave much thought to colonizing Taiwan. 

But of course, the idea that “sometimes one’s understanding of history increases if one stops using modern concepts” is a great lesson that should be hammered into the head of people around the world. For more on this general area, see my review of Sam Wineburg’s book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on your Phone) and what I wrote about thinking like a historian.

The book’s title highlights the fact that this is an illustrated history of Taiwan, and the illustrations are the main feature of the book.

The illustrations highlight and shape key moments in Taiwan’s history. I looked and couldn't find most of them online, but some of the ones that I will specifically remember include:

A group of young Taiwanese musicians at an outdoor pavilion in Kaohsiung in 1934. They’re all smiling, joyful even -- many are laughing. Among them are Koh Bunya, a singer and composer who would eventually live in post-1949 China and face persecution during the Cultural Revolution. I wonder if the other men and women would have similarly complicated life stories. (p. 247)

A linguistically fascinating 1944 photo of a sign saying to 常用國語. Nowadays in Taiwan, 國語, which literally means “national language”, refers to Mandarin. But in 1944 Taiwan 國語 would have meant Japanese -- the pronunciation is different, but “national language” is written the same way in the two languages. So this sign extorted Taiwanese to speak Japanese, using exactly the same written word for Japanese that nowadays means Mandarin! (p. 273)

A striking image from an Atayal village in 1950. Chiang Kai-shek, dressed in a fedora and black cape, making an inspection tour. His son is a few steps behind him in military fatigues. Among Chiang’s retinue is Atayal leader Losin Watan, easily recognized in a dark suit, who would be executed along with five other Indigenous leaders four years later. (p. 338)

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Red Moon

Red Moon
by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2018

Fred Fredericks is an American engineer who travels to the moon in the year 2047 and soon finds himself entangled in the assassination of a Chinese official up there. His life becomes even more complicated when he runs into Chan Qi, the daughter of one of China’s top leaders who appears to be on the run from the government, for some reason that he does not yet understand.

The plot then consists of Fred and Qi going back to Earth, on the run, hiding, almost captured, on the run again, hiding, almost captured, returning to the Moon, on the run, hiding, almost captured… look, the plot’s not what we’re meant to focus on. The plot is just Kim Stanley Robinson’s vehicle to show off the setting (his depiction of the future) and an exploration of society and politics. Just as in all of his novels.

I’ve realized that I am really bad at writing up my impressions of Kim Stanley Robinson novels. But I feel compelled to write up my immediate reactions to this one, which is so heavily about the near future of China. I live in Taiwan, a land that fits snugly in the liminal space between the Chinese border on one side and the Nine-Dash Line on the other. So safe and cozy.

So what do I think of the setting of Red Moon?

For someone who has included plenty of Chinese people and settings in his fiction before and so has had many chances of getting all the China cliches out of his system, Robinson sure includes a lot of China cliches in Red Moon. To be fair, most of them come via the thoughts of supporting character Ta Shu, an elderly poet and celebrity whose musings reference topics ranging from Feng Shui to 5,000 years of history, and perhaps Robinson simply didn't have space to include the many younger Chinese who roll their eyes and mutter “Okay, Grandpa” at his cliches.

It’s extremely difficult to glean what Robinson thinks of the real-life PRC regime in Beijing. I should make it clear that I certainly don’t see him as one of those Westerners who feels the need to make excuses for the PRC government’s misdeeds. After all, his future-China suffers from serious problems which directly stem from 2019 China. What's more, he breaks realism and invents unlikely surnames to tell us that China is currently led by President Shanzhai (President Knockoff?) who seeks to be succeeded by an official named Huyou (Flickering? Swindle?).

I’m curious about what Taiwan is like in this universe, but Robinson doesn’t make it easy to extract that information from the text. At one point the China-ingenue Fred Fredericks gets up to speed about Taiwan from characters who are not from there: it seems the status quo of 2047 is basically the status quo of 2019, and Beijing is playing super-nice to Taiwan to entice it into closer ties. But then just a few chapters later, Ta Shu hears some official Beijing propaganda calling on the people to resist the poisonous lies of the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, the Taiwanese. So it’s very hard to tell what’s “really” going on with the Taiwan of this world, and I suspect Robinson never worked it out because Taiwan’s not what he’s actually interested in.

Regarding his Hong Kong of 2047, we hear there are protests surrounding the end of the fifty years as an SAR, but there are no details. Robinson published Red Moon in 2018 -- in other words, this future Hong Kong was written after 2014 but before 2019. I frankly find it a bit curious that Robinson went to the trouble of setting Red Moon in China in the portentous year 2047 but left his depiction of Hong Kong so vague.

Finally, there’s Xi Jinping, who is remembered by several characters as a positive force, a strong leader who tried to improve China before he had to eventually step down and was replaced by a succession of weak leaders culminating in the current President Knockoff. On the one hand, this is clearly meant to be some characters’ subjective opinion and not objective fact; on the other hand, it’s all we ever hear of the Xi Jinping of this universe. Does it reflect Robinson's own opinion? No idea.

But to be fair, Robinson thinks globally, and in the final chapters of Red Moon we see a worldwide revolt against the moneyed ruling classes. This is a global movement, far too big to be defined by one country, even China.

What I kept comparing Red Moon to was another China-centric futuristic novel written by a Westerner, Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang. That book, written in 1992 and set in a 22nd Century where China is the global hyperpower and the USA is a backwater, will linger in my mind longer than Red Moon, it’s got a more varied plot and, frankly, is lighter on the China cliches.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning
by Ada Palmer, 2016

Lately, I’ve gotten into a weird pattern where I write something about the first novel in a series, and then after I read the following books I end up cringing at what I wrote about the first one. So it’s with some trepidation that I’m writing up my reactions to Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, the first book of her Terra Ignota series. I’m definitely going to read more of the series. Let’s see if my take embarrasses me then.

Like Yoon Ha Lee’s work, Palmer goes strong on the worldbuilding, but in a very different way. It’s the 25th century and human society has evolved. 

Now there are no nation-states. They  have been replaced by the seven Hives, transnational organizations that individuals may join when they come of age - or they may choose not to. 

Families have been replaced by bash’es, flexible structures ideal for the raising of talented children. 

Religion, having caused so many problems throughout human history, is heavily regulated and can be legally discussed only in the presence of a licensed professional.

Gendered pronouns are seen as unfashionable and slightly barbarous, though our story’s eccentric narrator takes perverse pleasure in using them (and not always in the way you or I would).

Many people have hailed this world as a particularly plausible future. I’m not convinced of its plausibility, but I also don’t think it matters so much. I’m happy to accept this world as a given, a fait accompli, and see what Palmer does with it.

The story deals with a handful of interconnected bash’es that occupy the pinnacles of power in global society, inhabited by a variety of strange characters. One of the most influential individuals in the world is an androgynous model for hyperrealistic dolls who has expertly leveraged their pop fame to wield real political power. Another highly influential political figure is a French nobleman who has cultivated a shameless and fabulous media image strutting around in eighteenth-century finery. There is a patina of low-level absurdity throughout this universe, but that does not make it any less realistic.

Our primary narrator is a former criminal by the name of Mycroft, feared by the masses as one of humanity’s greatest villains and also the trusted confidante of the rich and powerful. Initially I assumed Mycroft was some kind of political criminal, caught trying to undermine the system, but the truth, when eventually revealed, is closer to Se7en than Manning or Snowden.

And then there’s a boy who can do magic. Thirteen-year-old Bridger has genuine, unexplained magic powers, which the narrative never tries to give a rational backing. Most summaries I’ve seen do not mention this bit of cross-genre pollination (which is hardly a spoiler, as Bridger is introduced at the start of the story), but I like it. Bridger’s existence introduces an uncertain element into a society whose long period of stability already seems to be coming to an end.

This is a work of political intrigue that guides us through an unusual futuristic culture that is the most interesting kind: neither utopia nor dystopia. All is pervaded by an intellectual aesthetic inspired by the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. 

The Terra Ignota series is four volumes in total. I’ll come back to this post after I read subsequent installments and we’ll see if I cringe in embarrassment at what I've written.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Machineries of Empire

Machineries of Empire
Ninefox Gambit (2016), Raven Strategem (2017), Revenant Gun (2018)
Yoon Ha Lee

After I read Ninefox Gambit, the first in Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, I wrote a blog post where I kicked off by immediately saying “I know it looks like a space opera, but maybe you should think of it as high fantasy.” Frankly, now I re-read that and I’m embarrassed. I think I sound like Comic Book Guy.

But all the same, the amorphous and possibly irrelevant line separating science fiction and fantasy is something that I’ve been thinking about lately. Every work of speculative fiction presents the audience with a universe and asks them to accept it on its own terms. In Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire, that universe runs on strange indistinguishable-from-magic technology that doesn’t quite work like anything that the reader has seen before. There’s a lot for us wrap our brains around in Ninefox Gambit.

The remainder of the trilogy, Raven Strategem and Revenant Gun, do spectacular things with the foundation the first book lays. Trusting that the reader is now up to speed on how this universe works, Lee delivers a tightly focused story and fewer viewpoint characters than the first book to describe an insurrection that could mean the end of the brutal interstellar empire known as the Hexarchate.

The Hexarchate is named for its government split into six factions, each ruled by a Hexarch. Each division has a well-defined function within the empire; for instance, the Kel supply the troops and are known for their mental conditioning that renders them obedient, while the Shuos are the spies and schemers. (The author has this spoiler-free cheat sheet on the six factions on his website which I unfortunately didn’t know about until I had finished the series.)

The Hexarchate’s weird technology relies on everyone following and organizing their thoughts around an incredibly intricate calendar, which happens to require people’s death by slow torture on specified holidays for the full effect. Rival calendars constitute an existential threat to this system, so the Hexarchate stamps out these heresies with overwhelming force.

And that was what spurs the plot of the first book, Ninefox Gambit, in which the Hexarchate was forced to bring out a reserve weapon to deal with the latest heretical rebellion: infamous general Shuos Jedao. Hundreds of years ago, Jedao was executed following a battle that he won after he unnecessarily caused over a million collateral deaths and murdered his command crew. But it would be a shame to let such a tactical mastermind just simply die, so one of the Hexarchs kept his soul around through technological means of his own devising. (This particular Hexarch is a 900-year-old mad scientist who the reader should keep an eye on because he is important.)

The technology requires a body to tether Jedao’s spirit to, which brings us to the first book’s main protagonist: Kel Cheris, a military officer with a good head for the bizarre math this universe’s technology runs on. The plan was for Cheris to cautiously use Jedao’s experience and guidance as she led the Hexarchate forces against the heretics.

The events of Ninefox Gambit did not go according to plan.

At the start of book two, Raven Strategem, Jedao appears to have fully taken over Kel Cheris’ body, and he has taken advantage of the Kel’s obedience conditioning to gain possession of a formidable Kel military force for his rebellion against the Hexarchate. Cheris/Jedao cease to be a viewpoint character for Book 2 (keeping it uncertain who is actually in control of Cheris’s body), as new protagonists come to the forefront, including both military officers and a Hexarch with a decadent and incestuous personal life whose schemes are a main driver of the military and political strife that continue through the end of the final book, Revenant Gun.

The first book was heavy going with all the weird worldbuilding to wrap my head around, but now that the setting is established the second and third books are real page-turners. The setting is strange, the technology is unusual and often upsetting (some of the calendar-based weapons are pretty nasty), and the stakes are high, as the Hexarchate is a violent, brutal entity. Machineries of Empire, at its core, is a work of military SF, though one that’s set in a universe where physics follows very strange rules.

And there are numerous other angles I could discuss here but others might be better qualified, such as the exploration of queer sexuality. On the whole, this world is unlike any I have read about before, and I will remember it.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Empty Throne: Those Above & Those Below

Those Above & Those Below
by Daniel Polansky, 2016

Imagine a series with all of the low-fantasy political intrigue of A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s two books long and then it’s done because the author finished the story. Sound good?

In the Empty Throne duology, Daniel Polansky introduces us to a continent of medieval feuding states. Aeleria is a militaristic expanding power, reminiscent of ancient Rome. The steppes of the Marches are inhabited by fierce nomadic peoples, whereas the cities of Salucia are run by traders who prefer to hire mercenaries to fight their wars.

And yet none of these petty human states will ever amount to anything compared to the Others, also known as Those Above, or Eternals, or as demons, depending on one’s point of view. Majestic, strong, agile, long-lived beings, Those Above have claimed suzerainty over the continent for thousands of years, allowing the human nations to bicker and argue while they live lives of leisure in their vast city, the Roost. Why should they meddle in the affairs of puny humans, whom they think of as insects? After all, if a human nation gets out of hand, they can swoop down from their mountaintop abode to effortlessly crush them.

The Others are the sole bit of magic intruding upon this universe. We never really find out what they are, or where they came from, but it doesn’t really matter. They’re not tyrants, and they don’t rule with anything close to an authoritarian iron fist. In fact, they are utterly unconcerned with human welfare. Their beautiful mountaintop city is surrounded by a teeming human slum, a place of squalor and misery ruled by organized crime. They don’t care. Most of them don’t even notice.

The story of the Empty Throne duology -- Those Above and Those Below -- is the story of the human rebellion that aims to topple these complacent, sublimely perfect creatures from their position.

The story is told through the eyes of four main protagonists, two Aelerian and two at the Roost. Bas is a grizzled veteran of Aeleria’s army, famed as the only human to have killed an Eternal in combat. It’s through Bas’s eyes that we see most of the story’s battle scenes, which uncompromisingly depict war as a brutal, unglamorous endeavor. Eudokia is a brilliant, ruthless, amoral woman who has risen through her own efforts to become the most powerful figure in Aeleria’s male-dominated government. 

In the Roost, Calla is a privileged human who lives among Those Above on the mountaintop. She is essentially a pampered slave, not that she would see herself that way. It is Calla who eventually emerges as the most sympathetic of the four main protagonists. And Thistle is a young thug who grew up in the vast slums on the edge of the city. Thistle’s eventual character arc is not difficult to predict, but it is difficult for him to break out of the patterns of behavior that he grew up with.

Those Above and Those Below are best thought of as a single long novel arbitrarily split in two. The pacing might not be everybody’s cup of tea, as the first ¾ of the story slowly, methodically builds toward a conclusion that, when it comes, feels thoroughly inevitable. But the slow buildup is important; it gives meaning to the tragedy that finally unfolds.

The final chapters of this story are unremittingly grim and sad. There is a sense that this was the only way the story could possibly play out, with human nature being what it is, and with the Eternals seemingly unwilling or unable to compromise. The violent end might have come at a later date, if things had gone differently, but it would still have come eventually. It’s not pretty when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

It may be tempting to find parallels between this story and the state of the world in 2019. If there is a lesson here, it is a warning of the horrific consequences if those at the pinnacle of power cannot change course or compromise with those they deem weaker.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Haven't updated since May, ugh

I haven’t updated this in several months! It’s a bad habit to let this blog lie fallow. I should read more and write more.

Well, I’m going to try to update more regularly, now that I’m back from a 2 ½ week trip to Europe. What can I say? It was good to see family. Ate a lot of Western European sweets that put Taiwan to shame. We spent several days in Paris and nobody was rude to us -- it seems we missed out on a classic cultural experience. For the record, Marseille is a delightful, underrated city. And if you’re going to see immensely popular European tourist attractions, buy your tickets ahead of time whenever humanly possible.

Flying long-haul airlines is a good time to see movies. On the way to France I saw:

Toy Story 4: I like Pixar. I’ve never disliked a Pixar movie (bear in mind I’ve never seen any of the Cars movies). Oddly enough, I’ve never seen the very first Toy Story, a weird omission that I’ll have to rectify at some point. I’ve never really had an emotional connection to the Toy Story series, so I feel unqualified to say if it’s a good thing that they keep making movies after Toy Story 3 seemed to provide a definitive and satisfying end. But I can say that Toy Story 4 is quality entertainment and is as inventive as I would expect from any Pixar film.

Rocketman: An enjoyable look at Elton John’s music, though to be honest if you strip away the music and costumes there’s not much here. Actually, that’s a silly thing to say. The music and the costumes are the whole reason to watch.

Vice: I was curious about the oddball casting, especially Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, which kinda works if you accept he’s creating a new character rather than impersonating a real person. Overall though, although Vice has a few genuinely clever bits, it also has a lot of sarcastic snark that thinks it’s more clever than it actually is. A sober look at the Late Ante-Trump Era of the Republican Party could make for an interesting movie; whatever Vice is, it is not sober.

And on the way back I watched:

Amélie: I saw this one on the way home from Paris, feeling that I may as well watch it as it’s a well-known film, it hadn’t crossed my path before, and I’d just been in Paris. My verdict? I see what they were aiming at, but it wasn’t really to my taste. But allow me this one flight of fancy. Upon arriving in Paris I had managed to immediately lose my wallet (long story short, I’m an idiot). No one ever found it; it might as well have vanished into thin air. Watching Amélie, it suddenly occurred to me: Amélie is a real person, she found my wallet, and she was taking her time trying to think of the most whimsical, quirky way she could return it to me! Well, screw you, Amélie, I just wanted my wallet back.

Stan & Ollie: Having seen a bunch of Laurel and Hardy’s films as a kid, I was suitably primed for this film about L&H’s attempts to revive their career in the 1950s. As with all films of this type, great liberties have been taken with the real-life chronology, but the main thing most viewers will remember will be the acting by Steve Coogan and John C. Reily. The two actors, especially Reilly, do a superb job channeling L&H -- it’s an astonishing oversight that neither one received an Academy Award nomination. This is a low-key, understated film produced by people with an affection for a bygone era of show business.

As I said, now that I am back in Taiwan I shall try to post things more semi-regularly...

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A People's Future of the United States


A People's Future of the United States

There’s some great writing in this SF anthology, covering a range of sub-genres ranging from fantastical allegories to realistic extrapolations from the world of today.

And as the title implies, this anthology is heavy on the politically charged stories. The degree of explicit relevance to today’s politics varies depending on the story, but it’s safe to say none of the authors mean to inspire anyone to run out and work for the reelection of the current President of the United States.

A large proportion depict a United States that has taken a hard turn towards right-wing authoritarianism. I’ll get to those in a moment.

My favorite story in the collection is probably the first one, “The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders. This is a tale of a quirky bookstore straddling the border between an independent California and a reactionary United States of America, and its owner Molly, a memorable character doing her best the keep the peace between the two groups of customers. The worldbuilding is not black-and-white (the USA may be Gilead-lite, but some of the glimpses we get of techno-utopian California are highly unnerving in their own way) and the political barbs the bookstore’s customers exchange ring true. As an aside, I really ought to read some of Anders's novel-length output.

Other memorable stories include (among others):

“Chapter 5: Disruption & Continuity [Excerpted]” by Malka Older, an academic account of the societies that replace the disintegrating United States of the 2030s and 2040s, written with subtle but mind-bending temporal quirks.

“By His Bootstraps” by Ashok K. Banker, in which the President of the United States (clearly meant to be the office’s current 2019 inhabitant) watches with incomprehension and dismay as government research into time travel backfires, creating a USA that has retroactively been inclusive and tolerant from the beginning of its history.

“No Algorithms in the World” by Hugh Howey, a portrait of an older conservative man who believes strongly in values of hard work and having to earn one’s living, who cannot cope with the transition to a post-scarcity economy.

“ROME” by G. Willow Wilson, in which high school students take a high-stakes exam that absolutely cannot be rescheduled despite the massive fire ravaging their city and coming awfully close to the exam center.

As mentioned above, there are also many stories set in near-future USAs that have turned towards right-wing authoritarianism. I’m uncomfortably aware that in many of these settings, as a white cis hetero guy, I’d be allowed to live a relatively privileged life, especially if I kept certain opinions to myself.

Of these reactionary futures, I think the one that left the biggest impression on me was A. Merc Rustad’s “Our Aim Is Not to Die”, about Sua, a young, non-gender-binary teenager on the autism spectrum in a future USA where such perceived non-conformity is prohibited. Sua has a state-mandated medical checkup looming in a few days and the inevitable results will cause them to lose everything they have in their modest life. Sua is such an inoffensive character, utterly terrified. The ending gives Sua a reprieve from their fate, and leaves open the possibility that Sua might rise to a traditional notion of heroism -- or might not, and let the heroism to others, and that’s okay too.

These stories about dystopian American futures range from extrapolations based on contemporary politics, to far-out weirdness. “The Referendum” by Lesley Nneka Arimah looks at how a small group of people reacts to the government’s stripping away of rights for African-Americans, presented as a scarily plausible scenario; in “Calendar Girls” by Justina Ireland, a young purveyor of banned birth control products gets sucked into political intrigue surrounding a powerful politician who helped ban them. Meanwhile, in “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” by N. K. Jemisin, oppressed communities turn the tables on their oppressors by taming the dragons that have been bred to intimidate them.

These future authoritarianisms hit me, personally, uncomfortably. Although I am an American citizen, I’ve lived abroad for most of my adult life. For the last 12 years I’ve lived in a country that could (arguably) be called the least authoritarian in Asia.

It’s not perfect. For one thing, the free press -- possibly the freest in Asia -- tends to focus on bloody sensationalism and partisan politics; for another thing, the lax libel laws are often misused by those with money to spare to harass people they don’t like. And that’s not even getting into the scary intersection of local politics and organized crime, or the blatant racism towards certain groups of outsiders (and I don’t mean Westerners). I’m not looking at this country with rose-colored glasses.

But for every problem mentioned above, there are local people working to make it better, and they have the freedom to do so without a tyrannical government harassing them and making their lives miserable.

And yet, it terrifies me that every knowledgeable person agrees that there is a real chance this country’s democracy could collapse within a few years. Not just degrade, but utterly collapse.

I don’t deny that, if that happens, as a non-citizen with a foreign passport I’ll have the opportunity to pick up and leave. And that does give me a degree of privilege. That doesn’t make me any less concerned about the place I have lived with my wife for twelve years, with our neighborhood, our friends, our jobs, our two cats.

And this has forced me to become more politically aware than I might have been otherwise. There is a lot to worry about, in many countries, not least the United States. The stories, characters and ideas in this collection can inspire us to go out there and work to improve things.