Saturday, June 2, 2018

In an alternate universe

Beijing’s decision to support the Taiwanese independence movement made perfect sense. In terms of short-term benefits, the abolition of the old Republic of China that had been limping along in Taipei since 1949 allowed the Communists, at long last, to claim final victory in the Chinese Civil War. They made a big fuss about this on Chinese state media, with plenty of propaganda praising their Taiwanese allies for being on the right side of history.

In the medium to long term, China benefited in more substantial ways. In return for its support as the Taiwanese people finally demolished the remnants of the ROC and gained full admission to international bodies such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, the government of the Republic of Taiwan signed military treaties with China that gave Beijing a significantly strengthened strategic position in East Asia. The opening of Chinese military bases in Taiwan soon after the abolition of the ROC was seen in Beijing as an important step in establishing Chinese dominance in the South China Sea, the east Pacific, and beyond.

Long forgotten were the few lonely voices in the Chinese government that had once called for a military invasion of Taiwan. The immense destruction and loss of life that an invasion and forced annexation of Taiwan would have entailed, not to mention the risk of sparking a wider conflict with the United States and Japan and the fact that even a successful annexation would have meant dealing with a resistant and unwilling subject population for decades afterwards, meant that it was difficult to understand in retrospect why anyone had seriously entertained such an absurd suggestion. After all, Beijing had managed to achieve everything it had wanted, at far less cost and far lower risk, without trying to incorporate Taiwan into its territory.


To be clear, this is not the world I want to see. But I have a hard time understanding why it’s not a very good deal for Beijing. If you strip away the “inseparable part of China” bullshit that’s just there for the credulous foreigners, it seems pretty clear that China’s desire to control Taiwan is based on pure geopolitics.

Look at a map of East Asia: You’ve got Japan (US ally with US military presence), South Korea (US ally with US military presence), and the Philippines (US ally with US military presence). If you assume that a Taiwan that’s not controlled by Beijing will likely be in the US orbit, then it’s easy to see why China covets it. All else is propaganda bullshit.

It seems to me that the scenario I described above is a much easier and less risky way for China to get what it wants. The only thing wrong with it is that, as it directly contradicts China’s propaganda over the last few decades, maybe they just can’t get there from here.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Forbidden Nation

In his 2005 book Forbidden Nation, Canadian journalist Jonathan Manthorpe tells the history of Taiwan. More a book-length work of journalism than an academic work, Forbidden Nation does not strive to be comprehensive. Fortunately, it is well-written and engaging -- but in the end, I wished Manthorpe had paid more attention to certain aspects of Taiwan’s history than he did.

The preface gives us a concise recap of Taiwan’s international position, told from a pro-Taiwan perspective. Apart from the references to President Chen Shui-bian, every sentence in the preface could have been written in 2018 rather than 2005. (The book jacket proclaims in now thirteen-year-old prose: “It is clear that Taiwan has now entered the decade in which its independence will be won or lost.”) The chapter that follows describes the shooting of Chen and Annette Lu the day before the presidential election in March 2004, using the attempted assassination as a frame to introduce other issues in Taiwanese history and society, such as the last years of the KMT dictatorship and the deep roots that organized crime has in Taiwan.

Manthorpe then takes us back in time, to give us a fuller history of Taiwan’s place in the world. This is where we begin to see that Manthorpe is primarily going to show us Taiwan through foreigners’ eyes. Of course, this is unavoidable in the beginning; the native Taiwanese of the first millennium AD did not write things down for future historians. It’s amusing to read the very early attempts by China to subjugate the island (which they tended to get mixed up with Okinawa). The first time China tried to assert military supremacy over Taiwan came in 607 AD, when a military expedition headed by General Chen Ling tried to get the islanders to acknowledge the supremacy of the Emperor of China. The Taiwanese were not interested.

As time passes and written documentation of Taiwan becomes more abundant, Taiwan’s place in the East Asian geopolitical and economic scene comes into much sharper focus. Manthorpe dedicates ample space to the 17th century, starting with the pirate-businessman Li Dan (spelled Li Tan here), who built up a great international business empire in the spaces between Chinese, Japanese, English and Dutch authorities. His heir was Zheng Zhilong (Cheng Chih-lung), who founded the Zheng (Cheng) dynasty, of which Zheng’s son, who became known as Koxinga, is the most famous member. When it comes to descriptions of the age of Koxinga, one could do a lot worse than Manthorpe’s work. The book describes how Koxinga’s forces actually came very close to toppling the Qing entirely when they besieged Nanjing in 1659, a fact that I had been entirely unaware of. According to Manthorpe, the Qing were saved only when they launched a well-timed attack on Koxinga’s forces just after Koxinga and his top aides drank themselves silly celebrating his birthday.

Koxinga was, of course, the one who kicked the Dutch off Taiwan in 1662; his descendants then ruled the island until 1683. Manthorpe provides a detailed and readable account of Koxinga’s conquest of Taiwan, and then the years of his family’s rule. Assuming his description is accurate (I’m no expert), this is not a bad short introduction to Taiwan in the 1600s.

But here we see one of my two big gripes about the book. Manthorpe does a good job bringing history to life through concise biographies of people who are important to Taiwan. Li Dan, the pirate lord from Fujian. The Zhengs, also based in Fujian. Liu Mingchuan, the Qing governor of Taiwan in the late 19th century. And many Westerners who played small parts in Taiwan’s story are also remembered. For instance, there’s Maurice Benyowsky, a Hungarian count who found himself on Taiwan’s east coast in 1771. (Long story.) He gets a full page, and just to be clear, I don't deny he had an interesting life. Even George Psalmanazar, famous for regaling western Europe with his fascinating and entirely made-up tales of life in Taiwan (which he almost certainly never visited), gets a page.

But no Taiwanese individuals prior to the 20th century seem to have any agency at all in Manthorpe’s pages, apart from a few rebel leaders who were all eventually chopped to pieces by the Qing authorities. Of course, one could certainly argue that this reflects reality; Taiwan’s destiny prior to the last decades of the 20th century was indeed primarily in the hands of outside forces. But I would have liked to see more Taiwanese perspectives. It would have been interesting if Manthorpe had chosen some local Taiwanese people who represented different aspects of pre-modern Taiwanese society and fleshed them out to the same extent as the various Chinese and Western figures he described. For the record, the earliest Taiwanese individual who Manthorpe seems to think warrants much discussion is Lin Hsien-tang, political activist in the early 20th century.

Into the modern era, Manthorpe’s focus continues to be rather idiosyncratic -- why does he give us so many more biographical details of Chiang Ching-kuo’s life, as opposed to Chiang Kai-shek or Lee Teng-hui, for instance? He devotes several pages to relations between the PRC and the USA from the 1960s to the 2000s, which is not unreasonable, but it makes it all the more frustrating that he pays comparatively little attention to the White Terror and Taiwan’s democratization. This is my other big source of dissatisfaction with “Forbidden Nation”. I suppose it’s unfair to criticize Manthorpe for where he chooses to focus -- after all, it’s his book, not mine. But the impression one gets from these sections is that the Taiwanese are people that things happen to, rather than people who do things.

Manthorpe concludes by looking at the results and aftermath of the 2004 election, and I feel he’s ending on a high note by putting the focus in the final chapter squarely on Taiwanese politics and its relations with China. For all my gripes, Forbidden Nation is well-written and informative about the areas where it chooses to focus on. I wouldn’t recommend it as a general history of Taiwan for newcomers to the topic, but it’s an interesting read for those who are already knowledgeable about Taiwan -- and know what he’s giving short shrift to.

Forbidden Nation covers similar ground to Denny Roy's Taiwan: A Political History, which is near it on our bookshelf. Overall, Roy’s book goes into much more detail, especially about the ROC period, although it was written before the 2004 elections. The tone of Roy’s book is also much more objective -- while he’s obviously sympathetic to Taiwan as a nation, he doesn’t state his pro-Taiwan views as explicitly as Manthorpe (and I’m not saying this because I disagree with Manthorpe -- in fact, I largely agree with him). Manthorpe’s book has a much livelier prose style and is a quicker, easier read.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Three on Politics

Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick 

In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, democracy appeared triumphant around the world. Yet now, in the second decade of the 21st century, things appear very different. People in countries that transitioned to democracy now feel disenchanted with it, and in many places authoritarianism is creeping back. This 2013 book attempts to explain this situation. 

Kurlantzick examines a range of countries, including Thailand, Malawi, Egypt and Taiwan, and he looks critically at what Western democracies have done to encourage democratization, as well as China’s emergence as an alternative model. Thailand seemed to make concrete steps towards democracy and then regressed, while Malawi's economic problems that accompanied democratization have left many people cynical.

Taiwan has, if anything, consolidated and strengthened its democracy in the years since the book was written in 2013. The country does not come off looking so great here, as Kurlantzick focuses on the excesses of the Chen Shui-bian administration that followed the country's democratic transition. But I do appreciate that he treats Taiwan with dignity by dealing with it on its own terms, rather than as an eccentric appendage of China. 

Some notes that represent my takeaway from the book: 

  • The so-called Washington Consensus caused people to associate the adoption of democratic systems with World Bank-sponsored economic policies in the early 2000s. This indirectly did massive damage to democracy’s reputation when the economic crisis of 2008 hit. Democracy had become tied to economic reform in many people’s minds. When economic reform failed, people's impression of democracy took a hit along with it.
  • Another reason why people become disenchanted with democratization: it often seems to lead to increased corruption. Sometimes this is merely perception. In authoritarian regimes, it’s easier to hide corruption (see China’s ability to suppress news), while in a country with a freer press, muckracking journalists are able to blow up corruption scandals. But it can also be genuine. When you have free elections, the incentives for corruption become so much greater, because political campaigns in fair elections need money. Not just for campaign advertising and other legitimate expenses, but also for vote-buying and other shady tactics that are not necessary in fully authoritarian systems. 
  • Western countries often focus on elections as if they’re the be-all and end-all of the democratization process, while neglecting other things such as a fair judiciary and the promotion of NGOs and civil society. Also, it certainly doesn’t help matters when the USA gives the impression that it thinks free elections would be a great thing just so long as the Washington-approved candidate wins. 
  • They also promise too much. The West proclaims, when you become a democracy, your economy will improve and it will be all roses and unicorns! And then when that doesn’t happen, the middle and lower classes become discontented and pine for authoritarians again. By contrast, look at Nelson Mandela, who encouraged South Africans in the 1990s to believe in democracy while also warning that it would be a long, hard road. 
  • Many democratic developing countries, such as India and Brazil, are wary of criticizing the internal affairs of other, more authoritarian developing countries because they remember colonialism and interference by outsiders. 
  • The elites in newly democratized countries were often the oppressed opposition under the old authoritarian regime, and they may continue the same mindset once they are in power. Unfortunately, what worked for them when they were bravely resisting their authoritarian oppressors may not transfer well to the new reality when they’re the ones in charge. 
  • Note that even when democracy is in decline, things aren’t as bad as the worst days of authoritarianism in a country that’s never seen democracy. Putin’s Russia is not as bad as Stalin. Thailand in 2010 is not as bad as Thailand in the 1970s. 

Umbrellas in Bloom by Jason Y. Ng

This is an account of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement of 2014, told by local activist Jason Y. Ng. It doesn’t pretend to be unbiased, which is fine with me. Ng is very clear and upfront about his pro-democracy opinions and his involvement with the movement -- he was one of the regular denizens of the camp at Admiralty, where he helped students with their schoolwork and was apparently a fixture of the political discussions there. I’m putting this all up front in case anyone wants to say some variation of “Dude, Ng’s biased and he lets his opinions seep into his reporting!” My response would be: Duh, of course he’s got opinions, it’s a personal account. 

The Umbrella Movement was the physical manifestation of Hong Kongers' displeasure at how they were being treated by Beijing. After seventeen years of "One Country Two Systems", it had become clear that the Chinese government had absolutely no intention of giving up its heavy-handed interference in Hong Kong's internal governance. For several weeks that autumn, three urban sites in Hong Kong were occupied by large groups of protestors. While they did not succeed in getting Beijing to back down, they got the attention of people across the world. The Umbrella Movement may well turn out to have been the proving ground for a new generation of Hong Kong leaders -- people who the Beijing government would very much like to shut up for good right now.

I like visiting Hong Kong. It feels like more of a busy, bustling city than Taipei, and so it’s is good to visit once in a while just to experience the contrast. It is fun to explore and the food is excellent. Every time we go, we spend some time roaming the ground floor of Chungking Mansions growing inexorably fatter and fatter. But I feel like I’d only have to live in Hong Kong for a short time in order to feel disenchanted with it. Part of it is the fact we’d probably end up paying twice as much rent to live in half as much space. But I’m also afraid I’d get incredibly disheartened with the politics if I followed it on a day-to-day basis. 

From a Taiwanese perspective, Hong Kong is a warning of a dystopian possible future. The more Beijing tightens its grip on HK’s political system, the more convinced Taiwan becomes that they don’t want any of that, no sir. 

I admit that my background knowledge about Hong Kong is not terribly substantial, so I won’t comment on Ng’s book in a deeper way than this. But I do appreciate the information he provided about how Hong Kong elections work (or at least, how they worked in 2014), and the gap between what locals want from the government and how Beijing is shaping things -- which is rather ironic, as Ng seems to think this is the most boring part of the book! 

He also gives rebuttals for the most common arguments that you hear from the pro-Beijing side -- that discontent in HK is caused by Western interference aimed at destabilizing China, that Hong Kongers are merely jealous that they’re not Asia’s premier financial capital anymore, and so on. 

Ng also adds some of his own thoughts on protest movements, how they can work, and some of the potential dangers. My own knowledge of the theory and practice of street protests is shamefully lacking, given that if anything they’re growing in importance both in my country of citizenship and my country of residence. I do notice a copy of L. A. Kauffman’s Direct Action sitting on my bookshelf unread. Hm... 

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels

This is a pessimistic title but I’ve got good news: it's mostly stuff you probably already suspected. That’s a relief, perhaps? 

Let me make one thing clear immediately. This book is about elections. It is not about a free press, freedom of assembly and association, a thriving civil society, the rule of law rather than the whims of those in power, the freedom to not be oppressed by a tyrannical government, or any of the other things that we associate with democracies rather than authoritarian systems. At least, not directly. You could certainly make a case that free elections are a necessary precondition for some or all of the other good stuff. 

In other words, this book is not repeat NOT making the case that democracy is no better than authoritarianism. 

Rather, it focuses on demolishing the idea that free elections, by themselves, produce responsible government attuned to what the voters want. Achen and Bartels center their argument around what they call the “Folk Theory of Democracy”: the great masses of people have sufficient good sense to make wise decisions at election time, even if many individual voters are severely lacking in this regard. 

The book attacks this idea from several directions. When voters are passing judgement on the performance of the party in power, how can they assign credit or blame accurately? Is even possible for most voters to vote for the party that fairly represents their views, when voters’ choices are dictated from the top down by the parties? And this presupposes that most voters even make voting choices based on coherent already-existing beliefs, when there is quite a bit of evidence that for many (most?) people, their political views are a consequence of their party and group loyalties, not a cause of them. 

The authors make a convincing case, and anyone who feels a sense of deep disagreement or revulsion with the previous paragraph should give it a read so that they can respond to it. 

How does it mesh with the two other, unrelated books I wrote about above? Well, Kurlantzick’s book does take aim at people who see free elections as the be-all and end-all of democratization, which fits with Achen and Bartels, though coming from a different direction. As for Ng’s memoir of the Umbrella movement, one might think I’d suffer cognitive dissonance by reading the book so close to Democracy for Realists. The events of 2014 were the result of calls for free elections, after all. But the underlying issue was the desire that the future of Hong Kong ought to be in the hands of Hong Kongers, and free elections for Hong Kong would, by the very definition of “free”, not be controlled by Beijing. Nothing in Achen and Bartels’ book undermines that. 

I am strongly pro-democracy, and I remain so after reading Achen and Bartels' book. They weren't trying to make people give up hope on democracy. They merely want us to have a realistic view of what elections actually are. Democracy for Realists makes important points about human nature and politics -- points that many of us have probably suspected for a long time, but that here are stated clearly and openly.

 Some bits that stick in my mind, weeks after I finished it: 

  • There’s a wonderful section about how an uptick in shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916 may have cost Woodrow Wilson a considerable number of votes in that state. Wilson, of course, did not run on a pro-shark platform. But the shark attacks might have contributed to a sense of bad times, which puts voters in a mood to punish the incumbent. It didn’t change the result of this particular election, but the authors go on to make a far more alarming suggestion. They estimate that if not for the effects of voters “punishing” the Democrats for poor climate during the late 1990s, Gore might have comfortably beaten Bush in the Electoral College. 
  • Economic performance in Q14 and Q15 of a Presidential administration’s term is a fairly strong predictor of the incumbent party’s reelection. By contrast, there is no strong evidence that voters consider the economic performance in previous quarters. This is a major flaw in the so-called “retrospective” theory of voting, the idea that elections are a judgement on how the party in power has handled things (which in practice often means the economy). When you consider the length of a Presidential administration, basing your judgement on economic performance in the two quarters just before the election means you’re practically letting random chance decide. 
  • Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936 is often described as voters ratifying the changes in direction that Roosevelt and his team had brought to the government during the Great Depression. But Roosevelt’s success in 1936 owed a lot to rising incomes in several key states. Voters who felt themselves to be better off chose to reward him. If Roosevelt had had to run for reelection in 1938, when ordinary Americans felt the economy to be much weaker, he might well have lost. 
  • And speaking of the Great Depression, it actually brought about a strong sentiment of “throw the bums out” across a wide range of countries. The authors survey several Western democracies, which shared the common feature of punishing the party that was in office when the Depression hit, regardless of their ideology. They also look at the provincial government of Alberta in Canada, where voters frustrated with the Depression voted in the Social Credit Party, best known for its significantly outside-the-mainstream monetary policies. 
  • There’s a nifty analysis of how self-identified Republicans’ views on abortion changed in the 1970s and 1980s; as the party shifted from being neutral on the issue to becoming explicitly pro-life, the party members’ views also shifted. And this was true of men much more than women, as you would expect if you assume women feel more personally invested in the issue. 
  • At the close, the authors list some genuine benefits of democratic elections that they believe do indeed stand up to scrutiny. Even when controversial, the results are widely seen as legitimate. (No one died in violence associated with the 2000 recount in Florida. In some countries, that would be miraculous.) There is reason to tolerate a vigorous opposition party, and politicians seeking reelection have every incentive to avoid violating ethical norms, knowing that their opponents might be in power in the future. Finally, democratic elections promote civic engagement.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

SF I've Read: First Chunk of 2018 Edition

My science-fictional reading from the first few months of 2018:

China Mountain Zhang
by Maureen McHugh

It’s the 22nd century and China is the world’s economic, military and cultural hegemon.

The primary hero of this novel is Zhongshan Zhang, a young engineer in New York City. Zhang lives in a nominally socialist United States which is an economic and technological backwater compared with global hyperpower China. His Chinese-born boss tries to set him up with his daughter -- if he marries a citizen, a coveted spot at a Chinese university could be within his grasp.

Anyway, the boss's matchmaking attempts are doomed to fail, because Zhang is gay. This is a world where gays in the US generally find it good career advice to stay closeted, but they’re better off than their counterparts in China, where homosexuality is illegal. Zhang’s also hiding the fact that he is of mixed-race heritage; his parents spent good money to have his genes tweaked so he would appear fully Han Chinese, because this is a world where such looks really matter.

The very loose plot of China Mountain Zhang follows the title character's efforts to improve his career and his love life, as he navigates the options available to him in his world. The cover art of some editions shows our ponytailed protagonist standing in a weird landscape firing what looks like a futuristic weapon. That's because he's taken a job up in the Canadian Arctic and he's firing a laser drill to break up ice. That weird title? Zhang's nickname “China Mountain” is a literal translation of his given name, which his parents bestowed on him in honor of Sun Yat-sen, who Mandarin speakers call Sun Zhongshan. In Zhang’s own opinion, his name is ridiculous -- like Vladimir Lenin Smith or Karl Marx Johnson.

The novel also takes us beyond the life of our main protagonist to show us kite races in New York City (which involve ultra-light kites ridden by ultra-light humans; deaths are not unknown) and frontier existence on Mars, where the settlers are economically reliant on Earth and also have their own politics to deal with. We get discussion of “Daoist engineering” and, near the end, a lengthy digression on Marxist interpretation of history -- and I’m not sure exactly how it all hangs together, but it does. In her 2008 review, Jo Walton referred to China Mountain Zhang as a mosaic novel: it’s episodic, but the intent is to add up to a coherent big picture that’s greater than the sum of its parts. As Walton points out: “None of the characters in the novel have any political agency at all. They’re all helpless against the system, and getting by as best they can in the cracks.”

Futuristic fiction that was written decades ago often feels like an alternate timeline that split from our own world in the past. For instance, Donald Moffitt’s 1977 novel The Jupiter Theft takes place in a mid-21st century where Chinese spaceships fly across the Solar System but the Chinese Cultural Revolution continues unabated, its energy somehow undiminished after what must have been eight or nine straight decades of rooting out counterrevolutionaries and reactionary elements.

China Mountain Zhang was published in 1992. Some bits seem anachronistic, others less so. There are isolated references to the Soviet Union that would have dated the book immediately after its publication. And societal acceptance of homosexuality in this universe seems to have regressed from our perspective, but possibly not from the perspective of 1992.

But the idea that China will be the world’s cultural hegemon in the future, with Mandarin phrases seeping into American English just as English phrases have seeped into the world’s languages in our day, does not seem out of date in 2018. There are some bits of worldbuilding that intrigued me; for instance, while this world was clearly going to be inhospitable to Taiwan’s existence as an independent democracy, I’m curious about the book's only mention of Taiwan, where it, Hainan, Hong Kong and Shenzhen are said to have been China’s “original special economic zones”. A sign that the 1990s progressed quite differently in the book’s timeline, or merely a 22nd-century character misremembering history? Also, there are also references to Singapore English being the dialect of choice for Chinese to learn in this world, which is never fully explained. I don’t mind this; it’s a hint that there’s more to this world than the author makes explicit.

Use of Weapons
by Iain M. Banks

The Culture is a wealthy post-scarcity interstellar society where everyone can live a life of leisure. All material needs are met, no one ever worries about money, and people are free to pursue their hobbies and fulfill their potential. A wonderful place to live, but a boring place to write about. That’s why Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” novels actually focus on its problematic foreign policy and ruthless intelligence service….

Cheradenine Zakalwe is not a native of the Culture, but he was recruited by their Special Ops department due to his marvelous skill set. He combines the abilities of a 007-style secret agent with a strategic genius that enables him to swoop in during a war, take command of the losing side’s forces, and engineer an eventual victory.

Zakalwe does not question his orders, which is good for his ultimate superiors. The Culture is ruled by a group of super-intelligent “Minds”, basically post-singularity super-AIs, who can plot and scheme on a level incomprehensible to us mere mortals. The citizens of the Culture are essentially their pet monkeys. The Minds have no moral scruples about provoking a war that will kill thousands if they believe it will help prevent a bigger war that could kill millions. It’s better if their lackeys don’t ask too many questions.

Given my taste in fiction, I feel I ought to have read every one of Iain Banks’ books years ago. As it happens, I arrived relatively late to the party; I only picked up my first Banks after he departed this universe in 2013. Determined (for some reason) to read the Culture books in order, I found Consider Phlebas to be an interesting if episodic read that got bogged down in its long, lovingly-constructed action sequences. (I think part of the problem for me was Banks trying to put into writing what would have worked better visually -- which is why I suspect a good TV adaptation might actually improve it.) Then I read Player of Games, which I polished off within a 48-hour period on vacation last year. I enjoyed reading the story of Gurgeh the board-game-player-turned-operative much more than Consider Phlebas (even sparking a desire to play more board games in my life), and now I see why true Banks fans generally don’t recommend newcomers necessarily read the books in order.

Use of Weapons, Culture Novel #3, I found just as enjoyable as Player of Games, as I followed the story of super-agent-and-military-genius Zakalwe, the narrative moving backwards and forwards in time but never in a confusing or self-conscious way.

It’s rather ironic that I always rolled my eyes at rubber-forehead aliens in TV sci-fi, but when Iain Banks asks me to believe in a galaxy where humans apparently sprang up on thousands of planets independently, I cheerfully go along with it. (To be fair, there are a handful of real alien races as well.) This means that just as Earth has its poor countries that are mere bit players on the stage of global geopolitics, the galaxy has a large number of planets inhabited by humans with 20th/21st-century technology who use borrowed tech to maintain relations with other star systems. Whole chapters read like spy capers in ambiguously Eastern European settings -- at one point, Zakalwe even escapes pursuers by riding a funicular, that most peculiarly Old World European of modes of transport.

Banks was fond of two things that might not endear him to some readers: violent scenes that are memorable for being grotesque, and the astonishing 11th-hour revelation. These both served him well in The Wasp Factory, the novel that catapulted him to fame. And Use of Weapons concludes with a one-two punch, in adjacent chapters, of a bit of symbolic grotesqueness that the reader won’t soon forget, followed by a dramatic reveal that will force the reader to thoroughly reassess what kind of person our heroic protagonist really is. It’s been several weeks since I finished Use of Weapons and I’m still not sure exactly what I think of the ending. This is apparently not an uncommon reaction; in fact, a lot of opinions expressed online go something like “What did I think of the book? Well, I liked the first 90%”.

It will probably take a re-read before I really have a firm opinion of the ending of Use of Weapons. But I can say that since I finished reading it, it’s been on my mind much more than Consider Phlebas ever was.

Tropey Technothrillers!

In the first third of this year I also got around to reading two techno-thrillers I bought for my Kindle years ago: Wired by Douglas E. Richards and Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. The books are similar to each other.

Our protagonist is a highly skilled and competent man who is handy with a gun. He wants to be loyal to his superiors, but he comes to realize that he has been very badly misled about his mission.

He encounters a beautiful woman who can be lethal in a fight. She probably has more all-round competence than 99.9% of human beings. There is obvious sexual tension, but unfortunately it is not immediately clear where the woman falls on a Good-Evil spectrum.

Tropes are manifest and plot twists happen, at least one of which makes me feel really stupid that I didn’t see it coming, as in retrospect it was really obvious.

There are sequels, which I might pick up someday, but at the moment I’m satisfied with the book as a singleton.

Overall, both are perfectly serviceable page-turners, though I prefer Sakey’s book for being more inventive, more creative with its use of tropes and being better-written as a whole.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Taiwan-based fiction I've read this year

We’ve let our shelf of Taiwan-themed fiction at home grow and grow and I have yet to read most of it. The image above doesn't even show half of it. Apart from Bu San Bu Si below, I’ve read three Taiwan-themed novel written in English (Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island, Patrick Wayland’s The Jade Lady, and Vern Sneider’s A Pail of Oysters). 

On top of that, I’ve read a handful of translated full-length novels, most recently Rose, Rose, I Love You (see below). 

In case anyone is wondering, my ability to read fiction in Chinese, while not exactly nonexistent, is still hovering around “graded readers for foreigners”. 

 Bu San Bu Si, by J. W. Henley 

When I picked up J. W. Henley’s Bu San Bu Si, I knew two things about it: it was an English-language novel set in Taipei, and it was about punk music. I was tentatively interested in the first thing, as I’ve lived in Taipei for over a decade. But I was much less interested in the second thing, as I’m not really into punk music, or even Taipei nightlife. I happen to be one of those boring people who prefers to be home well before midnight. I don’t even like nightclubs. 

As it turns out, Bu San Bu Si (named for a Mandarin-language expression that means something like “shady and disreputable people”) is not an exploration of Taipei’s punk music scene. It is much more than that. This is a novel about a talented young artist who makes a series of very bad life decisions, with very unfortunate consequences. It gets violent and sad, and it’s not a cheerful read, but it is a very engaging and well-written one. 

Xiao Hei is a young man who plays in a punk rock band with his friends. They have real talent, and they have achieved some modest success in Taipei’s punk music scene. They dream of making the jump to something bigger. But it never seems to happen. Xiao Hei’s lack of a work ethic doesn’t help: to the frustration of his long-suffering mother, he seems constitutionally unable to hold down a steady job to help pay the bills. It’s hard to argue that this is because of his single-minded dedication to his craft, as he spends his off time in various stages of drunkenness. 

It's hard to blame Xiao Hei for his disenchantment. A corrupt KMT city councilor who blathers on about the greatness of Chinese culture has targeted the punk music scene for eradication, blaming it for the corruption of the city’s youth. You can see why Xiao Hei doesn’t have faith in his chances to get ahead by playing by the rules. Still, he’s responsible for his own decisions. And when his life collapses around him as a result of these decisions, the novel’s barely half over and we have a ways to go yet. 

The aforementioned city councillor is, of course, an iteration of an old trope: the authority figure who tries to stamp out the music these young’uns listen to nowadays in the name of traditional values. Henley skillfully makes this trope seem natural in the modern-day Taiwanese milieu. There is a political undercurrent to the book, as we hear older characters discussing their time under the old KMT dictatorship and there are references to the Sunflower movement which is taking place elsewhere in the city. None of this comes across as forced; it all flows very naturally from the plot and is valuable to set the context for Xiao Hei's life. 

 J. W. Henley is a writer I intend to keep an eye on. It seems he’s written one other novel, Sons of the Republic, which is also set in Taiwan and which Amazon is willing to sell me for more than eight hundred U.S. dollars. Thank you for that, Amazon. 

 Rose, Rose, I Love You, by Wang Chen-ho 

The Vietnam War is raging, so it’s presumably the 1960s or so. Our story is set in Hualien, where a boatload of American GIs looking for some R&R is set to dock soon. The city’s business leaders want to make the most of this opportunity, and high school English teacher Dong Siwen pompously takes it upon himself to train local prostitutes in the arts of pleasing international clients. What follows is a comedy stuffed full of bawdy humor and double entendres. 

This is the minimalist plot of Rose, Rose, I Love You, published in 1984 by Wang Chen-ho, who would unfortunately die in 1990. As the translator Howard Goldblatt makes clear in the English-language preface, Wang’s original was full of wordplay and cross-linguistic punnery, deriving much of its humor from unexpected collisions of Mandarin, Taiwanese, Japanese and English. Goldblatt does an admirable job salvaging as much of the original humor as he realistically can, but I get the feeling that any translation would still merely be a shadow of the original. Since I doubt I’ll ever have the linguistic competence to appreciate the original, the translation will have to be good enough. 

And it’s funny. A lot of the humor comes off as dated or possibly diminished in translation, but many of the set pieces still work. My personal favorites are the local politician who makes a name for himself through his impromptu stripping on the campaign trail, and the painful demo English lesson that Dong Siwen gives at the end, which should have all competent language teachers cringing.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Fiction I've Read: August-October 2017 Edition

The Grace of Kings
by Ken Liu

Epic fantasy. I’m just going to get it over with and say that I’m going to be making some Game of Thrones comparisons here. It’s not because it’s the only other epic fantasy I know, but rather because it’s the best-known example of a certain sub-genre that Liu’s work also comfortably inhabits. This is a world where magic technically exists but is rarely front-and-center, and where most of our focus is on realistic history-inspired drama of pre-modern politics and statecraft.

For centuries, the kingdoms of the island archipelago of Dara have warred with each other, but in recent years the kingdom of Xana has conquered all of Dara and established centralized rule. Emperor Mapidere’s ruthless conscription of the common people for the sake of vast engineering projects has aroused quite a bit of anger, but many people choose instead to focus on the material benefits that his rule has brought. However, the Emperor is not a young man and his health is poor, so the future stability of the Xana Empire is not assured.

Kuni Garu is a street-smart young man who is quite good at talking his way into and out of situations; Mata Zyndu is a mighty warrior from a noble family, who seeks to avenge the grievous harm that Xana has done to his people. These two characters, among many, many others, populate a narrative that is filled with action and political intrigue.

The supernatural exists but never really comes to the forefront. Dara has a pantheon of deities who like to interfere in the affairs of mortals. (They say they have a rule against direct interference, but honestly that rule seems about as firm as the Federation’s Prime Directive -- that is to say, not at all.) In addition to gods, Dara also has some impressive steampunk technology -- airships, submarines, and all sorts of odd gadgets that the warring factions’ technologists seem able to whip up when needed. I’m not sure why all this technical expertise hasn’t snowballed into a full-on industrial revolution yet, but the worldbuilding nevertheless is intricate and engrossing.

Now, if you want to enjoy this fantastic grand adventure on its own terms, you can stop reading here. I’m not a historian but I am a history geek, and I feel like my impression of The Grace of Kings was somewhat bifurcated. I enjoyed the story at face value, but at the same time this book fully engaged my history geek brain. We’re talking complete nerdery. Why? Here’s why:

People make a big deal of how George R. R. Martin sorta kinda based Westerosi politics on England during the Wars of the Roses. And he did, kinda, sorta. But that’s nothing compared with what Liu has done here.

This is a remarkably direct fictionalization of the collapse of the Qin Dynasty and the bloody civil war that followed, from roughly 215 to 202 BC. Liu has merely transposed the setting from continental East Asia to an insular archipelago, added airships and other technology, and changed all the names. Otherwise, most of the characters correspond to specific individuals who lived 2,200 years ago, and political entities rise and fall as they did in the history books. The history that Liu uses as source material is very well-known in East Asia but much less so in the West; if you’re not familiar with ancient China, you have the privilege of reading a modern work of epic fantasy completely unspoiled, but a half-hour on Wikipedia will give away the broad outlines of the plot. (Where to start: Qin Dynasty. Chu-Han Contention. Have fun from there.)

I have to say that I am very impressed with this, as I’ve never read a work of fiction that adapted history on this scale, with this level of detail. It’s very well-done and the deviations from real history are seamlessly integrated. Of course, Liu's work can be enjoyed completely on its own terms. I personally couldn’t shake the habit of reading the corresponding Wikipedia articles while voyaging through Liu’s book, but that’s merely my own compulsive nerdery, not necessarily recommended for others.

The Man with the Compound Eyes

by Wu Ming-Yi

Translated by Darryl Sterk

Atile’i is a young man on the isolated Pacific island of Wayo Wayo. As expected of second sons in this society with limited resources, he leaves his home island forever in a tiny craft, trusting his fate to his people’s spirits. He ends up a castaway on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in this world a dense floating island. He struggles to get his bearings on this weird not-really-an-island, but unbeknownst to him the whole thing is floating towards land.

Its target is the east coast of Taiwan, where university professor Alice Shih lives a solitary life, having recently lost her husband and son in a mysterious hiking accident that no one has been able to explain. Other characters include various denizens of rural eastern Taiwan, including natives of the Ami and Bunun Aboriginal tribes.

This is magic realism with a strong ecological theme. To be honest, I still don’t know exactly what is going on in every scene, or what exactly the titular Man with the Compound Eyes is. (A better familiarity with Aboriginal folklore might help.) Fortunately, I do not doubt that if I were to read it again, I would have a much better grasp of the story. I’m willing to handle this kind of ambiguity when I sense there’s an underlying logic that makes sense, which I’ll be able to figure out if I pay enough attention. Wu Ming-Yi doesn’t have to do all of the work for me.

I believe The Man with the Compound Eyes may be the internationally best-known translated novel that’s ever come out of Taiwan. And yet it’s so weird. I love that. What’s more, this is a Taiwanese novel that, while not being overtly political, nevertheless firmly grounds Taiwan in a local identity. Austronesian culture is more relevant to this story than Chinese.

The Teleportation Accident

by Ned Beauman

Dark historical comedy. Egon Loeser is a young creative type in 1930s Berlin. A set designer for experimental theater, he is fascinated by Lavicini, a legendary 17th-century stage designer, and the deadly theater accident that involved an elaborate piece of stage machinery that he built, called “The Teleportation Device”.

Unfortunately, Loeser is dissolute, shallow, narcissistic, and uninterested in politics to the point of obliviousness. When he sees a group of Nazis burning books, he takes them for performance artists and cheerfully joins them to chuck a couple of books into the fire and then wanders off, with no idea what he has just taken part in.

Following his crush, beautiful young Adele Hitler (no relation), he travels first to Paris (crossing paths with an American named Scramsfield, an expatriate scam artist even more dissolute than Loeser) and then to sunny Los Angeles, where he eventually bumbles his way into the experimental physics laboratories at Caltech. The leading lights of Caltech’s physics faculty are working on their own high-tech Teleportation Device, which may or may not actually work.

The narrative also thrusts the politics-averse Loeser into both Los Angeles public transport policy and a plot involving Soviet spies. From the local to the international, politics is something he just can’t escape.

The Teleportation Accident was Beauman’s second novel. I read his first, Boxer Beetle, over four years ago after apparently deciding The Teleportation Accident was too expensive for me. Looking back, it seems I felt in his first book Beauman was “attempting to insert as many bizarre things into a narrative as humanly possible and still have it make logical sense”. In his second book, Beauman is more staid and sane as he methodically builds towards a mad and loopy finish.

The two novels share a hovering presence around the outskirts of the speculative-fictional genre and a fascination with 1930s politics and culture. I never really cared about the characters and I wouldn’t particularly want to spend an evening with any of them, but the lively and witty writing style (of a Caltech scientist, he writes “the lenses of his glasses were so thick that, like an astronomer observing Neptune, he was probably seeing several minutes into the past”) and inventiveness of the plot held my interest until the close of the novel’s weird coda.

A Fraction of the Whole

by Steve Toltz

The Deans are an Australian family of eccentrics. Terry Dean was a legendary criminal. Years after his death, he still looms large in this universe’s version of Australian culture. His surviving brother Martin flits from one off-the-wall scheme to another in order to attain cultural immortality on his own terms -- he doesn’t want to live his life in his dead brother’s shadow.

Jasper Dean has the misfortune of being Martin’s son. Having been brought up a prisoner of his dad’s bizarre orbit, he yearns to break free -- he doesn’t want to live his life in his crazed father’s shadow. Martin and Jasper are our two principal narrators, and their story takes us from Australia, to Europe, back to Australia, to Thailand, and finally back to Australia.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I think the novel’s press is partly to blame for this; I was prepped to expect more of a laugh riot than what I got. The reviewers’ quotes on the cover of my paperback edition proclaim “Riotously funny” and “rampaging and irresistable”; these are not accurate descriptions of the novel, which is slowly-paced and, while very often clever, never becomes laugh-out-loud funny. Comparisons to A Confederacy of Dunces did not help. Not every comic novel whose characters discuss philosophy is A Confederacy of Dunces. This is a shame, because the book’s not bad by any means; it is very good at developing low-key absurd situations, and the character of Martin Dean, as he comes across when Jasper is the viewpoint character, is memorable and well-developed.

The misleading quotes are forgivable, but the problem I have a harder time with is that Martin Dean and Jasper Dean’s narrative voices sounded the same to me. It feels as if it shouldn’t be that way. After all, the plot basically revolves around the personality clash between them. There were times when I momentarily forgot which viewpoint character I was reading, and that really shouldn’t have happened. Maybe this was intentional, to show that Martin and Jasper were actually more similar than they thought? If so, it really could have been signaled better in the text. There’s a lot that’s good about this hefty 700+ page novel, but I feel too ambivalent about it to give it a strong recommendation.