Thursday, June 17, 2021

Books I've read, May-June 2021 edition

Since the beginning of May it seems I have read four complete novels, all of them existing in very different areas of a large, amorphously defined supergenre that we may call “speculative fiction”.

The Song of Achilles

by Madeline Miller (2011)

The story of the life of Achilles, told from the viewpoint of his lover Patroclus. A 3,000-year-old tale full of gods and warriors and heroic blood being shed, told as a modern novel with modern-day storytelling conventions.

First, just on its own terms this is a very readable and enjoyable novel based on Greek myth. An engaging quick read. 

But second, this sort of novelistic treatment is very helpful for me. The truth is that never at any point of my formal education did I get taught the Greek mythology that Western culture has been referencing ceaselessly for millennia, and although obviously I picked up bits and pieces over the years, I never got it to really cohere in my head in a memorable way. It didn’t help that I never had a clear entry point, just a mass of stories about gods or humans or both, existing in a world without clear rules.

Repackaging Greek myth as a concrete story told with the conventions of a modern novel helps me build a mental scaffolding that makes it much easier to keep things straight in my head. Miller’s novel has really helped in this regard, as did her novel Circe, which I read last year. (Mary Renault’s fiction is also good for this.) This version of the story does have its idiosyncrasies, but as even a cursory look at Wikipedia makes clear, the story has existed in multiple versions since ancient times.

One thing that even I knew about the Achilles myth was the origin of the phrase “Achilles heel”: the notion that his heel was his weak spot because his mother had dunked him in magical water everywhere except there, and then had thought “eh, good enough”. This always struck me as extremely stupid and I was gratified that Miller gave this part of the story exactly the attention as it deserved: none, save for a solitary bit of mockery.

Against a Dark Background

by Iain M. Banks (1993)

Sci-fi action adventure. Laser guns and spaceships. Iain M. Banks. This story of a wealthy noblewoman who gets the news that a religious sect that wants her dead has been granted a one-year period during which it can legally kill her is as much of a page-turner as any Banks thriller, and I pretty much raced through its nearly 500-page length on my Kindle.

This is some quintessential Iain Banks, set in a one-off universe: an isolated star system that’s been teeming with people and technology for tens of thousands of years, a palimpsest of wars and atrocities. In parts of the story he seemed to be channeling Douglas Adams, sometimes Adams in his more whimsical moods and sometimes in his existential angst.

Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders (2017)

A very odd novel, full of historical tidbits and meditations on death, that I am frankly at an absolute loss as to how to describe. 

The plot could be described as a bit of supernatural-tinged historical voyeurism: President Lincoln’s young son Willie has just tragically died and his body has just been interred at a Washington DC cemetery where the spirits of the dead interact at night. These spirits inhabit the cemetery because they are still tied to the world of the living; they don’t even think of themselves as dead, only ill. Lincoln is so despondent over young Willie’s death that he visits the corpse at night, causing quite a commotion among the spirits.

I picked it up wondering if it would turn out to be unremittingly sad, but it’s not. The quirkiness of the point-of-view, alternating between the eccentric spirits of the dead, Abraham and Willie Lincoln themselves, and snippets from various actual nonfiction sources, is very lively and the fact that I genuinely never quite knew where Saunders was going with the narrative helped me deal with the morbid subject matter.

(Anyone who screams “but Lincoln in the Bardo is not speculative fiction!” gets a glare from me; I can make the tent as big as I want.)


by Claire North (2018)

Theo Miller works for the Company, the conglomerate to which the government has outsourced much of its governing apparatus. Theo’s job is to calculate indemnity payments that convicted criminals must pay to the victims -- for instance, murderers have to pay more if their victim was actively trying to improve their health by joining a gym, or if the trauma of the murder means survivors must attend expensive counseling sessions. If you can’t pay, it’s the “patty line” for you -- not necessarily flipping burgers, but some kind of menial work must be done to help pay off your debt.

The setting is a dystopian England, but one that doesn’t come across as a future so much as a different version of the present, in which certain qualities have been exaggerated to bring them into stark relief. The world we see here is one that already exists for many people, is the unspoken message as I understood it. This story is not rainbows and roses. Rebellion against the Company means that a lot of innocent people get hurt, and the narrative does not shy away from that. 

The plot is launched when Theo runs across Dani, an old friend and lover from before he was Theo -- his whole adult life he has been living with an assumed identity. He really has no choice but to help her in her plan to bring down the whole corrupt Company structure. Dani has a daughter, who may or may not be Theo’s and who has spent her life in indentured servitude, and suddenly Theo has something to live for that’s more than just keeping his head down and surviving.

From reading other people’s reviews, I’ve gleaned that apparently many people are put off by the slow pace of this story. I thought it was just right, but then I’m a sucker for stories that effectively dig into the characters’ minds and psychology. If done well, it’s as compelling to me as a fast-paced plot.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Taiwan: A New History


Taiwan: A New History (Expanded Edition)
Edited by Murray A. Rubinstein

This is a collection of seventeen articles on the history of Taiwan, from before the Dutch colonial period to the end of the 20th century (the expanded edition adds an updated chapter that takes us to the year 2007). Compiled by Murray A. Rubinstein, who also contributed two articles on modern Taiwan, the book covers politics, economics, society and literature.

The chapters take us through a more-or-less comprehensive history of the country, though as a collection of articles by multiple authors, the coverage can be a bit idiosyncratic. Some chapters go into wonky detail, others less so. A novice to Taiwanese history may find it tough going at times, but there’s a lot here to interest a reader who’s already broadly familiar with the overall arc of Taiwanese history and would like to learn more.

I read the book sequentially, but the fact that it’s a compilation means the reader can jump in at any point without compunction. As most of the book was completed in the 1990s, much of the language and description comes across as a bit dated: in the introduction, Rubinstein writes of Taipei as the “stronghold of the ‘ethnic’ mainlander population that still dominates the central government”, and a bit later refers to the pre-MRT Taipei suburbs as “choking sprawl” (p. ix-x). Thinking historically, though, this is not an unfair description.

The unusual second chapter is one I will remember. “The Politics of Taiwan Aboriginal Origins” by Michael Stainton outlines three theories of the origins of Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples: briefly, that ancestors of the Indigenous people migrated to Taiwan from Southeast Asia (the “southern origin” theory); that they migrated from China (“northern origin”); and that the ancestors of Taiwan’s Indigenous people, having migrated from what is now China in remote prehistory and after a long cultural incubation in Taiwan, eventually spread throughout Southeast Asia and became the ancestors of today’s Austronesian peoples.

But the purpose of Stainton’s article is not to weigh the evidence for and against the different theories; rather, he looks at how the different theories have been championed by various modern political ideologies, to justify Japanese hegemony in the first half of the twentieth century and Chinese dominion over Taiwan in the second half. As the chapter’s true focus is on modern politics, strictly speaking this breaks the chronological order that the book is arranged in, but in my opinion the chapter nevertheless makes sense here. It is inevitable that history will be appropriated and interpreted for political ends, a place like Taiwan will certainly be no exception, and Stainton’s chapter gives the sequential reader a foretaste of modern ideological battles.

From here the book progresses roughly chronologically, with various experts on Taiwanese history (mostly Westerners, with a few exceptions) sketching out overviews of their particular eras and topics.  As I mentioned, some chapters are wonkier than others, and authors come in with their own biases and preconceptions; I felt I detected a pro-KMT slant in “A Bastion Created, A Regime Reformed, An Economy Reengineered 1949-1970” by Peter Chen-main Wang, but not so in other chapters.

Most chapters focus on the political, economic and/or social aspects of a particular era of Taiwanese history, but some are more idiosyncratic. One early chapter, “Up the Mountains and Out to the Sea” by Eduard B. Vermeer, describes Fujianese economy and society in the 1600s and barely mentions Taiwan (the relevance to the book is that this was the era of the first large-scale Han migration to Taiwan, which was largely from Fujian). Later in the book, Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang contributes two chapters on Taiwanese literature, a topic that I had been mostly unfamiliar with.

And then there's Robert P. Weller’s “Identity and Social Change in Taiwanese Religion”. In the book’s sole chapter that occasionally uses a Taiwanese romanization system (I’m not savvy enough to tell you which one) rather than Wade-Giles, Weller writes a fascinating overview of Taiwanese religion that fits in not only Tudi Gong and Matsu (or Tho-te Kong and Ma Co, in the chapter’s orthography) but also modern religious organizations as well. 

Weller credits the “amorphous” quality of Taiwan’s folk religion, with its variety of gods and beliefs in ghosts, as helping it survive social and political changes: “Had it ever achieved a truly systematic orthodoxy, this religion might have faced a crisis during Taiwan’s centuries of constant transformation. Instead, there has been a regular reproportioning and reinterpretation of the complex elements that had always been there.” (p. 353)

The narrative history chapters that form the bulk of the book contain lots of fascinating nuggets that I was formerly unaware of. For example, “Between Assimilation and Independence, 1945 - 1948” by Steven Phillips gave me an interesting look at Taiwan in the brief year-and-a-half window between August 1945 and February 1947, when the press was freer than it would be at any point prior to the 1990s, possibly because (oddly, considering official fears that after 50 years of colonial rule the Taiwanese were more Japanese than Chinese) the ROC authorities were surprised at the level of criticism they were receiving from their new Taiwanese subjects. 

“Taiwan’s Socioeconomic Modernization” by Murray A. Rubinstein, amid its general coverage of Taiwan’s development, gives us a fascinating description of Guanghua Market in Taipei in the 1970s: “a two-story bazaar where one could buy cheap antiques, old books and magazines, and student paintings. It was a delightful and always busy site that one could enjoy walking through, searching the stalls at one’s leisure.” (p. 374) A far cry from today’s electronics market that stretches far beyond the original structure. Later in the chapter, Rubinstein describes Taiwanese urban sprawl in the 1980s and 1990s, and while the intent is to stress the amount of growth and urbanization, it all seems positively quaint from the standpoint of 2021.

In the final chapters, authors Rubinstein and Cal Clark describe the period that laid the foundations of modern Taiwan politics, the Lee Teng-hui and early Chen Shui-bian administrations. I was reminded that while I like to think of myself as a politics nerd, I really am an amateur, and there is much I am unfamiliar with. I read of a strange time, not so long ago, when the National Assembly still existed, the Legislative Yuan was far larger than it is now, and the New Party was not only seen as a major force in Taiwan party politics, but occasionally teamed up with the DPP in short-lived anti-KMT coalitions, which needless to say would be unthinkable today. I need to read up more on how the structure of the ROC government evolved during this transitional period.

The sections on the evolution of cross-strait relations during the Lee Teng-hui and early Chen Shui-bian era also intrigues me, although I would like to read something more meaty than the tantalizing but short tidbits that these chapters provide, such as the interesting diplomatic case of Liberia, which tried to maintain full diplomatic relations with both China and Taiwan in the 1990s. I did notice the book never mentions the ‘1992 Consensus’, either the phrase itself or any particular agreement that the phrase could refer to, but to be fair the relevant chapter was completed in 1999, when the 1992 Consensus did not exist yet.

All in all, “Taiwan: A New History” filled in several gaps in my understanding of Taiwanese history (while making me aware of many other gaps), and exposed me to some interesting new perspectives. It’s not quite the English-language general introduction to Taiwan that I have been pining for, but the reader who already knows a moderate amount about Taiwan will find plenty of interest here.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Recent novels I've read, 2021

I am reviving these little book blurbs, because I need something to hold myself accountable to my intention to read more and read faster...

Infinite Detail

by Tim Maughan, 2019

In the near future, the Internet goes down. Suddenly, completely and permanently.

That’s the premise in a nutshell of this near-future novel. The motivations of the people behind this deliberate attack are treated with some sympathy, but at the same time, the consequences are clearly portrayed as disastrous and tragic, as the global economy collapses and lives and relationships are torn asunder.

The narrative effectively brings home the effects of this global event by focusing on the local. Most of the story takes place in English city of Bristol, several years after the Internet’s destruction. (There are also flashbacks to New York City in the “before” times, where we see how the increasing online-ization of life is making the lives of people on the margins of mainstream society so much more difficult.) 

The very local setting is what I may end up remembering most about “Infinite Detail”. Post-collapse Bristol is described in sufficient detail that, if I ever find myself in the city with time to spare, I could easily spend a day on a “Places of ‘Infinite Detail’” tour. I know next to nothing about the city, but by reading about its post-collapse state as described in the novel I feel as if I’ve learned something about the urban culture that exists there now. 

The Name of the Wind

by Patrick Rothfuss, 2007

Possibly the most famous fantasy novel yet published in the twenty-first century, The Name of the Wind is the first part of the life story of the omnicompetent Kvothe, a man who now wants to live a quiet life despite the fact that he has become a legend across his faux-European-medieval continent.

To be honest, my big problem with this going in was that I knew it’s technically the first book in a trilogy, whose second volume appeared in 2010 and whose third still hasn’t made an appearance, which is the kind of thing that really puts me off a series. But, impressed by the book’s fame, I decided I would mentally pretend it’s a singleton.

Rothfuss is a skilled writer, I’ll give him that. Faux-European-medieval settings honestly don’t excite me much anymore, and our hero is way too much of a larger-than-life, good-at-everything-he-puts-his-mind-to fantasy figure, but the prose drew me in and I enjoyed this world and its logical, carefully-worked-out system of magic. At its end, the story is obviously only about a third of the way through, but I felt sated. (I will pick up the second book only when the third book has appeared in this world.)


by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, 2017

It is the very near future, and the quantification of our lives has reached its logical conclusion: we all have a Number, an algorithmically generated figure that represents our cumulative worth to society. Explicitly inspired by the Chinese social credit system, one’s Number is both an incentive to do good in society and a reward for having done good.

The novel is written as a tell-all memoir about larger-than-life Number mastermind Julius Common, from the perspective of his associate, the down-to-earth Patrick Udo. Udo’s narration uses spare prose that centers the near-future setting and the epic entrepreneurial figure of Common. NumberCorp uses questionable ethics as they bully skeptical governments into letting them become entrenched throughout the world. 

Befitting the truly global nature of the Number enterprise, the non-Western world is put front and center, including but not limited to the author’s native Sri Lanka. It’s an unambiguously good thing that, more and more, non-Western locales are being centered in English-language SF without being exoticized or otherwise reduced to local color.

A Memory Called Empire

by Arkady Martine, 2019

The interstellar Teixcalaanli Empire is militaristic and expansionist, a fact that the smaller nations on its periphery must constantly be hyper-aware of. Lsel Station, a small sovereign state that values its independence, is in a delicate geopolitical (galactic-political?) situation, made more complicated as their erratic Ambassador to Teixcalaan, Yskandr Aghavn, hasn’t returned home in fifteen years and no one knows what he’s been up to. When Teixcalaan informs Lsel without explanation that they require a new ambassador, young diplomat Mahit Dzmare gets a fifteen-year-old copy of Yskandr’s mind installed in her head -- not the ideal plan, but one must make do with what one has -- and departs for the Teixcalaanli imperial court.

Mahit has spent her life studying Teixcalaanli language and culture in the classroom, but actually landing on the Imperial capital planet (a world-spanning city in the Trantor/Coruscant style) makes her feel like an uncultured foreigner. Her Yskandr-copy is unexpectedly unreliable, and interstellar communication is not speedy (Lsel and Teixcalaan seem to have very little awareness of each other’s current affairs), so Mahit is on her own and must figure out quickly who her potential allies are. On top of all this, the Teixcalaanli imperial court is in a particularly unstable period right now…

This is a sensitive and engaging work of science-fictional palace intrigue, occasionally reminiscent of Katherine Addison’s “The Goblin Emperor.” I’m a sucker for a very specific sort of worldbuilding where there’s neither a clear connection to our Earth nor any culture that’s supposed to be a sci-fi analogue to Westerners (Yoon Ha Lee is also great at this). As for the characterization, Mahit’s a sympathetic viewpoint character as she tries to both survive and accomplish her goals as a fish-out-of-water. The followup novel, A Desolation Called Peace, is out now and is on my reading list.

The Quarry

by Iain Banks, 2013

“The Quarry” was Iain Banks’ last novel; he died just as it was being published. It centers on a man named Guy and his teenage son Kit, who live in a rickety, soon-to-be-demolished house on the edge of a quarry. Guy has invited a group of old friends back to his home to reminisce about old days and hunt for a missing videotape that may contain something highly incriminating. He is dying of cancer, and the reader may morbidly wonder (as I certainly did) how much of the narrative had been completed when Banks received his own terminal diagnosis.

Like most of Banks’ books, I found it to be a very engaging page-turner, though this one was low-stakes and small-scale. Kit is the novel’s sole viewpoint character; I liked how Banks narrated the view from inside his head, as Kit is clearly on the autism spectrum and tends to consciously think through his social interactions in a way neurotypicals often don’t. Meanwhile, Guy spends his final weeks long-windedly bemoaning the rotten state of the world. In-universe, this is presented as unpleasant angry ranting, but as far as I can tell Guy’s rants are Banks’ actual opinions, and I had the thought that there’s little room for doubt what Banks would have thought of subsequent political developments had he lived (the book even works in some jabs at then-London mayor Boris Johnson).

My final observation is, as both The Quarry and Banks’ penultimate book, Stonemouth, contain references to the work of Seth MacFarlane, I have no choice but to conclude that the great Iain Banks, creator of the legendary Culture universe, probably watched Family Guy in his downtime, which for some reason I find very strange to imagine.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Novels I've read -- first half of 2020 edition

I’ve fallen out of the habit of writing about fiction I’ve recently read. I don’t know why -- there is no coronavirus-related reason. But I’ve decided that it would be good for me to keep it up. I don’t write for an external audience, not really -- this blog doesn’t get enough pageviews for that to make sense. I write this because it forces me to take my half-formed impressions of what I’ve read, and process them into a form that (I hope!) is comprehensible to other people. That, I think, is valuable for me.

I write for myself, but it’s crucial that I know other people can see what I’ve read.

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Butler is a new author for me, though I’ve heard her name spoken with respect and reverence by the SF community for years. Parable of the Sower takes place in a 2020s California that has slid, through accumulating entropy, into a dystopia that would have struck me as unlikely and overblown if I’d read the book in the 1990s when it was newly published, but reading this story in the real 2020 has made me fidget uncomfortably.

Parable of the Talents picks up where the first book left off, and main character Olamina passes through darkness that is even more painful and horrifying than what she went through in the first book. The story ends on an upbeat note in some ways, less so in others. Butler did an excellent job crafting both the setting and the characters (which cannot be said for every book I’ve read recently) and at the end of the story the reader will be left with very mixed, contradictory emotions. 

It’s ironic that I feel as if I should have more to say about these two books. They will probably stick with me longer than anything else I’ve read recently.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

It’s 22nd-century Thailand and brutal necessity has shifted the world’s economy away from dependence on fossil fuels. Various forms of bioengineering rule the day, ranging from algae to full-blown humans. Our title character Emiko the “windup girl” is bred to serve the wealthy and powerful. Reduced to living in a brothel in Bangkok, she is seen as less than human, by the law as well as the average bigot in the street. Other point-of-view characters highlight different sides of the main plot-based conflict, an internal struggle within the future Thai government that involves the giant Western agricultural conglomerates that wield tremendous power.

Some parts of this book rubbed me the wrong way. I could have done without the hoary East Asian tropes, such as the internal narrative of Chinese businessman Hock Seng whose attitudes towards laowai could have come straight out of the 1900s. This strikes me as unimaginative in this setting where so much has changed since our day. 

That being said, overall this is a novel where the characters exist to serve the setting, rather than the other way around, and this look at a hypothetical post-fossil fuel world through the lens of the political situation in a non-Western country is an interesting one. More than anything, this book is a portrait of future Bangkok, a vast city below the rising sea level, which is being kept dry by the heroic engineering efforts of the Thai government.

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson

Stephenson delivers nearly a thousand pages of Stephenson prose here in a hefty novel that delivers everything Stephenson fans could want and also could have really benefited from a very merciless editor. Despite the feeling that the book is at least 20% longer than its optimal length, there’s a lot of stuff here that I will remember. A mid-21st century setting (where QAnon-type theories have won the information wars) eventually gives way to an almost exclusive focus on a vast electronic afterlife: the Land. 

I actually could have done with more time spent in the novel’s middle section set in the 2030s. The breakdown of consensus reality is disturbingly ludicrous, in the same sense that “President Trump” would have been considered a ludicrous future ten years ago. This is a world where the Utah legislature believes the town of Moab has been obliterated by a terrorist nuke and everyone living there now is a paid crisis actor, and so refuse to issue license plates to Moabites (who roll their eyes, shrug, and make their own).  

The latter half of the book increasingly takes place in the Land. The most interesting parts of the narrative are the questions which are unanswered. What happens if the residents of the Land start interacting meaningfully with the physical world? (I’m picturing a future of Greg Egan-style crewed interstellar ships where the crews lack physical bodies, which makes the logistics of space travel far easier.) And what if that never happens and the bulk of the Solar System’s resources eventually go towards supporting an entirely inward-focused society? (Could it evolve into something resembling the religion of the Chel in Iain Banks’ Look to Windward?)

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

What a thing it is, to pick up an SF novel written in this day and age that’s only about 200 pages long, like a genre novel of fifty years ago! But this is no fast read; El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s rich use of language is something to be read slowly and savored. Two agents working for opposite sides of a conflict of epic proportions start leaving taunting notes for each other, but this progresses to the mutual realization that they have fallen in love. 

The details of this time war are labyrinthine and Escheresque, but the war itself is only a backdrop to the relationship between the two characters, which also eventually unfolds in very non-linear ways. This is the sort of book I want to go back and re-read, to pick up myriad details that eluded me the first time.

A week after I read it, This Is How You Lose the Time War won a Hugo for Best Novella; I haven’t read the competition but El-Mohtar and Gladstone definitely deserve the recognition.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

Banks is one of my favorite authors of page-turners, and I’ve read enough of his work that I know what his favored tropes are. Strategy games. Dark family secrets. Incest. (Face it, more than a few Banks novels feature incest, whether overt, implied, or symbolic.) The young protagonist of The Steep Approach to Garbadale is from a Scottish family full of secrets whose family wealth comes from a popular strategy game, and he has also been pursuing an on-again, off-again romance with his first cousin. 

This is familiar Banks ground. It kept me turning pages to get to the inevitable dark final revelations, but the plot is on the whole rather prosaic and never reaches the heights of weirdness of some Iain Banks novels (even if you only count the stuff he wrote with no middle initial). 

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.