Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
by Haruki Murakami
English translation by Alfred Birnbaum
Published in 1991 (Japanese); 1993 (English)
Published by Vintage Books
ISBN: 0-679-74346-4

The Hard-Boiled Wonderland: Our protagonist is a Calcutec. He has been trained to use his subconscious mind for encryption of sensitive information. The bad guys are called Semiotecs. They are criminals who deal in stolen information for profit. The setting is a slightly surrealistic Tokyo. The plot is set in motion by the protagonist's meeting with an eccentric elderly scientist with an underground lair, and his oddball granddaughter.

The End of the World: Our protagonist arrives in the city and takes up work as a Dreamreader. He is separated from his shadow, which is put to work and will eventually die. The city is home to a herd of unicorns. Our protagonist starts work reading dreams in the library.

Confused? Don't be. Haruki Murakami shows us through the startlingly well-formed world of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland in the odd-numbered chapters. He never quite gives us enough exposition for us to be certain of the contours and rules of this world, and yet he relates our nameless protagonist's story with enough confidence that I assumed for a while that this novel took place in a universe Murakami had established in earlier books. (It doesn't.)

And in the generally shorter even-numbered End of the World chapters, the nameless protagonist (presumably the same man as the hero of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters, although it's a while before we find out for sure), devoid of memory or knowledge of why he has come to the City at the End of the World, develops a regular everyday routine in his new surroundings.

I've been aware of Murakami's name for some time, but this is the first time I've read his work, or experienced this particular sort of surrealism. The protagonist of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland has lived something of a humdrum existence, despite his unusual occupation, and as the plot progresses he sees his life torn to pieces. But Murakami keeps us at an emotional distance; I felt intellectually engaged, but never really cared much what happened to him or the other (equally nameless) main characters, or how much worse his life was going to get.

Instead, it was in the far more fantastical End of the World chapters, in the world of furry unicorns and shadows that can talk, where I felt much more emotionally interested in what was going to happen. Somehow Murakami manages to make the novel work as a unitary entity, even in the early chapters, before the reader has a clue how the two settings are going to be connected.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Blue Mars

Blue Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published in 1996
Published by Bantam
ISBN: 0-553-57335-7

And so the trilogy reaches its end. Blue Mars opens with a newly independent Mars. Earth is a royal mess, having been hit by a horrific ecological disaster that was, surprisingly enough, actually not the fault of human beings. The Martians took advantage of the chaos and broke away at the end of Green Mars. As Blue Mars begins, the pieces are just beginning to be put back together.

I find it difficult to summarize a traditional plot for Blue Mars. It's the story of the evolving political situation on Mars, in the planet's first few decades as an independent entity. And it's the story of Mars' relations with a devastated but still powerful Earth, vast and varied and impossible to describe glibly with throwaway descriptions, home to many who view Mars with wary curiosity, and maybe, just maybe, would like to get off Earth and move there one day. (This is the source of much consternation and controversy among the Martians.)

But events are always seen through the eyes of individual characters. Each novel in the Mars trilogy covers several decades of in-universe time, and by the end of Blue Mars more than 150 years have elapsed since the beginning of Red Mars. Thanks to medical advances, we end the trilogy with the same core group of main characters, members of Mars' First Hundred, that we began with (although there has been attrition due to deaths).

There are new, younger characters, the descendants of the First Hundred, who dominate the narrative for whole sections of the book at a time, but in the end the story always shifts back to the perspective of one of the over-200-year-old protagonists.

As a result, we never stop seeing Mars from the point of view of approximately a half-dozen slightly astonished old people who have seen massive change in their lifetimes. These oldsters are practically immortals, symbolic of particular ways of thinking, of points of view, of ways of seeing the universe, and they remind me of the protagonists of Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt, who keep getting reincarnated into new bodies over the centuries as history progresses. (But they are not literally immortal. As it turns out, humans over the age of 200 have an alarming tendency to drop dead suddenly of no clear cause.)

Although the author has acknowledged that the terraforming of Mars happens more quickly in the Mars trilogy than is strictly speaking realistic, the technology of the Mars trilogy never strays far into the fantastical. (As opposed to, say, Greg Bear's superficially similar novel Moving Mars, another story of Martian politics and independence, in which the level of technology is realistically advanced for the novel's first half, but then leaps into 'indistinguishable from magic' territory.)

This just makes the expansion of humanity throughout the solar system all the more exciting. By the latter half of the novel's timeframe, there are permanent human cities from Mercury to Neptune and Pluto, and the first starships are beginning to leave our solar system for lands unexplored. (One of our principal characters departs on one of them, never to return). Humanity has escaped Earth for good, and it's all the more exciting when it happens in the hands of an author who treats space travel realistically. Robinson uses the phrase 'accelerando' for the phase of humanity's existence when we are spreading through the solar system and technology is developing at a rapid clip, teaching me that it was not, in fact, Charles Stross who was the first to use it this way.

One thing I want to say about the Mars trilogy here that I didn't say in my entry on Green Mars is what a fundamentally optimistic work it is. Humanity has its problems, we squabble with one another and are unforgivably short-sighted, we can be cruel and petty and mean, but this is a universe where by joining together and being civil to one another, we can muddle our way through. The Mars trilogy ends on a note of hope. The future's going to be bright.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster
by Dana Thomas
Published in 2007
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-311370-6

This book is about a topic that is entirely foreign to me. I am indifferent to luxury goods, and I am equally indifferent to what is fashionable and what is not. I'm not saying this because I'm proud of it; I'm just objectively reporting on what my brain finds interesting and what it does not. My brain still insists on misreading 'Louis Vuitton' as 'Louis Mutton'. If handbags were a unisex item, it wouldn't occur to me to see them as anything but practical and utilitarian.

However, I find business case studies interesting (probably a relic of my years teaching business English), so I was interested to read Dana Thomas' account of how the great luxury houses got their start in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, often as the creation of a lone genius, such as Coco Chanel or Louis Vuitton. The latter focused on making trunks for the travelling upper classes during his lifetime; his namesake company still continues to make old-style trunks today at the workshop in Paris, not that you'd know it by walking through a modern LV store.

The major luxury brands went into a decline in the 1960s and 1970s, but experienced a resurgence in the 1980s as the nouveau riche in Europe, North America, and most importantly Japan took to them to show off their wealth. Now mass-produced, mass-marketed items (with declining standards of quality, purists grumble), the luxury groups are no different from any other multinational.

Am I fooling myself about my supposed indifference to luxury brands? Thomas' book focuses on clothes, perfume, and handbags, which I (happy to smell like cheap aftershave) barely notice in my everyday life. But my wife and I chose to shell out the money for a new MacBook rather than a much cheaper alternative to replace our aging machine (another MacBook). Isn't Apple just another luxury brand?

Maybe in some ways, but it'll take a lot of convincing to make me believe I bought an Apple just to be seen with an Apple. Maybe my impression is skewed by the sort of cafes I hang out in, but Apple computers aren't nearly uncommon enough in this city for me to perceive them as a luxury item. And if I was under the impression that someone thought I owned a MacBook to be seen with a MacBook, I would be embarrassed more than anything. Am I fooling myself?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Typhoon and Other Stories

Typhoon and Other Stories
by Joseph Conrad
Originally published in 1903

I promised myself that this year I would read ten novel or novel-like entities written by people who died before 1950. The first of my ten classics is Joseph Conrad's Typhoon and Other Stories, a collection of four stories, ranging from short story to novella length, which have been consistently published as a consistent unit since Conrad originally wrote and published them that way back at the beginning of the 20th century.

Conrad's an interesting figure in the globalization of world history. He was a European who wrote with his heart in Asia and Africa. By standards of the time he was remarkably unconvinced of Europe's inherent right to manage the world. And yet to a modern eye his fiction is influenced by 19th-century notions of European superiority -- he was, after all, only human -- and I've never come across a point in his fiction where we see the world through the eyes of a non-European, or even meet a well-developed non-European character.

Of course, it is worth noting that despite his British citizenship, he was actually a native of Poland, a country that, for most of his lifetime, did not actually exist on maps. In other words, he himself belonged to a colonized people.

He's also respected in English-as-a-foreign-language circles for his near-unique status as a great English prose stylist who couldn't speak English at all until he was in his 20s. (Vladimir Nabokov, among others, is also well-known as a nonnative English speaker who wrote respectable English prose, but Nabokov learned his English as a child.)

Possibly as a result of his linguistic background, Conrad's got an odd prose style, a strange rhythm to his long sentences, that many readers find difficult or maddening. I just happily accept it as part of his particular style. Read Conrad, deal with his sentences. It's part of the package.


Typhoon, the lead novella, is a straightforward adventure story, as a British ship, under a Thai flag, is sailing not far from Taiwan, transporting a boatful of coolies to Fu-chau. (And here I was, thinking the correct old-timey Romanization of the city now known as Fuzhou to be 'Foochow'. I'd be hopelessly lost as a late-19th-century expat.) The ship manages to plot a course straight through a particularly nasty typhoon, providing an opportunity for a host of character portraits of various members of the crew.

In Amy Foster, a peasant from Eastern Europe intending to emigrate to America is the lone survivor of a shipwreck off the English coast and finds himself in a bucolic fishing village. He's not in America, but he doesn't care; he stays and marries the one girl who had been kind to him. Cultural tensions emerge. The story ends tragically, drowned in a sea of irony. Decades later, Hollywood outputs a product that is not intended for my demographic.

Falk takes place in a large East Asian city that is never specified (based on geographical clues I assumed Bangkok) and deals with a cast of characters who are entirely European. The narrator is a sailor who runs into trouble with the local tugboat captain, Falk, who incorrectly believes our narrator has designs on his girl. The girl in question is a Western woman, a relative of a German captain.

(Try as I might, I could find no sign in the narrative that the woman had actually returned Falk's advances, other than blushing and demurely looking down at her knitting when he came over to visit. Presumably, at that time, such a response was considered equivalent to crying, 'I love you, my dashing Captain Falk! And yes, I will marry you!')

And then Falk confesses that there is something about him, an episode from his past, which the woman and her family ought to know about before accepting him as part of the family. Let's just say I did not see that particular plot twist coming, and leave it at that.

To-morrow (the title's got the old-fashioned hyphen and everything) deals with a young woman who lives with her blind father in a seaside village, and her crazy old landlord who lives next door. The old man's son vanished overseas several years ago, but the father remains convinced that not only is his son alive, but he is returning home 'to-morrow'. (No matter how many years pass, the old man is always certain his son is returning 'to-morrow'.) He intends to marry his phantom son off to his young lady tenant when that happens.

Then one day, the son actually shows up. The father, of course, doesn't recognize him (after all, he's not supposed to appear until to-morrow). Drama ensues.


I do have to admit that on one level I feel like I read Conrad more for the history than for the literary qualities. Yes, the man was a literary genius, and I don't find him difficult. (To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, most 19th-century British literature I've read, I found to be easy to read and engaging. However, despite repeated attempts, I absolutely cannot stomach Jane Austen. I don't know why. Other people can have her.)

However, there's the pervasive sense that, more than his contemporaries, Conrad's writing is 'good for me', in both the positive and the negative senses of the phrase. Immersing my mind in Conrad's context of 19th-century globalization is good for me. That is why I read him. Enjoyment of what I'm reading takes a back seat.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Politeness, Privilege, and Political Correctness

OK, here it is, my contribution to the Expatosphere dialogue revolving around Debito Aruduo's broadside in the Japan Times.

(My wife's opinion is here. I don't disagree with her, but I have a different take on it, because I am a different person from her and if we were the same person then the legalities of getting married would have been difficult and headache-inducing.)

I have never lived in Japan and will not opine about that country. I have lived in Korea and Taiwan.

First off, I've never once been asked if I can use chopsticks in five years of living in Taiwan, nor have I been complimented on my chopsticks use. I don't think I'm being too oblivious to notice it's happening, because I got it all the time in Korea. (But I'm not going to be the jerkoff who says 'That never happened to me, therefore it couldn't possibly have happened to you.' After all, human beings are funny and unpredictable creatures.)

If I ever actually got 'Can you use chopsticks?' here in Taiwan I'd naturally assume that I was being involved (against my will) in a piece of performance art concerning interactions between Asians and Westerners. And I would respond that I was uninterested in playing that role, I have my own life to live, sorry.

But that leads into the first point I want to make: people in Taiwan, Korea, and probably China and Japan (I haven't lived in the latter two places) have things they say to foreigners to be polite that aren't meant to be taken literally. Koreans are infamous for complimenting foreigners on their chopsticks use. It's a running gag among the expat population. But I never, ever felt that there was the assumption that, as a foreigner, I wouldn't be able to use chopsticks.

I used to joke that Koreans did this because they knew it was a national stereotype and, as patriotic Koreans, they felt they had to do their part to keep up appearances and keep asking foreigners if they possessed chopstick-utilizing skills. But in reality, it's all about polite conversation.


It's small talk. It's polite chatter. Koreans feel as if they're missing out on a useful conversational gambit if they see you using chopsticks and they don't compliment you on it.

I suspect complimenting a foreigner on being able to make themselves understood in the local language is done out of similar politeness. I always feel like I'm in the minority when I say so, because it seems to be an article of faith among many expats that East Asians are uniformly astounded when white people can speak their languages coherently. But I honestly believe that these expats are misunderstanding people due to cultural differences. (I discussed my feelings about this a little more deeply in a post last year; perhaps my next post will be to explain why I have an oddly strong set of views on this issue.)

But I'd like to turn to a more fundamental issue. I like to reduce what seems like cultural differences to first principles, perhaps unfortunately for people within earshot of my pontificating. I honestly get the feeling that the source of a lot of the 'microaggressions' aggravation stems from the fact that these Westerners, for the first time in their lives, do not have in-group privilege.


The notion of 'privilege' was clarified for me some time ago by a blogger (I do not remember who) who lived in a city somewhere in the USA. He was a white man returning home late at night when he was stopped by police. There was some kind of trouble in the neighborhood, and the cops wanted to make sure he wasn't up to no good. Afterwards, he reflected that because of his Euro-American looks, he didn't have to wonder afterwards if he'd been a victim of racial profiling. He didn't have to wonder if the cops had made assumptions about the kind of person he was due to the color of his skin.

That's privilege. And it's worthwhile to be conscious of being the beneficiary of it. That way, you don't respond like a jerk when you find yourself without it.

Nobody's talking about police in Taiwan racially profiling white people. But the concept remains. In-group privilege means, when a stranger makes an odd assumption about you, you don't have to wonder if it's because of your ethnicity (or other social group). On this point I suspect there isn't such a huge gap between countries like the USA and countries like Taiwan.

Yes, the USA is more multiracial, but I've heard anecdotal evidence of people not of the dominant racial group in the USA experiencing much the same kind of 'microaggressions' that expats here complain about. Not from everyone, of course. But from people. It happens. On the flip side, I interact with people in Taiwan every day who are probably interacting with me in precisely the same way that they would if I were native Taiwanese and had the ethnic features to match. And that's me with my pretty poor level of spoken Mandarin.

If someone starts talking to me in a way that seems to serve no purpose but say, 'Hello. You look like you're a foreigner, you know', then first I need to remember in-group privilege, and then I need to not smear my mental impression of that person across the whole of Taiwan and go complaining about how annoying Taiwanese people are.

And finally, I'd like to move on to my final topic...

Political Correctness.

'Political correctness' could have been a useful term if it hadn't been hijacked by culture warriors.

In the USA, we have a history of race relations which is fraught with difficulties I need not go into here. As a result, we've developed a vast and subtle set of taboos and social conventions around the public airing of race and ethnicity that are thought to minimize the possibility of racial strife (and I'm not convinced it does a good job of that). Don't believe me? Go to a culturally diverse American city, interact with people of differing racial backgrounds, find ways of overtly and klutzily bringing up the other person's ethnicity every single time, and just see how many friends you make.

There's so much tension surrounding race in America that we turn to comedy to relieve it. The USA's  full of comics who take our inability to squarely face the issue of race and turn it into comedy. It's a rare foreigner who possesses the cultural knowledge and understanding to fully understand what's so funny.

And that's an important point. Every culture is complex, and I suspect every culture has its own set of conversational taboos that surround difficult issues (that local comedians probably mine to be edgy). But they're different from culture to culture.

But the thing is, if you grow up entirely within a single culture, your culture's political correctness is invisible to you. You don't think it's something particular to your culture. You think it's just the way things are in this universe.

What I'm saying is, if you travel outside of the West with the idea in your mind that it's dreadfully rude to make reference to a stranger's racial background, even obliquely, then you've got a lesson coming your way.

And if you think you've reached enlightenment on this issue and you go around saying, 'Don't get angry at the locals if they say insensitive things about race. They don't know any better', then you've learned the lesson wrong. Differing cultural sensitivities do not constitute 'not knowing any better'. (Unless you're a culture of one.)

Differing cultural sensitivities do not constitute 'not knowing any better'. I want to take that sentence and repeat it in 96-point typeface, but instead I'll just end the blog post here.