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.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside
by Quincy Carroll

I live in Asia and I teach English. This colored my reactions to Quincy Carroll’s novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside -- a book I enjoyed reading.

The story opens with an easily irritated and easily irritating older Western man, an English teacher, trying to make sense of a bus station in Hunan, China. A few pages in and I had a strong negative reaction to this guy. Oddly strong. Why? I happily meet all sorts of people in fiction that I wouldn’t want to hang out with in real life, but this washed-up man and his context struck a little too close to home. Surely it can’t be that I’m afraid of becoming him, if my life goes horribly wrong? No, I don’t think that's it. Rather, I think I'm afraid there are people who might lump all of us long-term language teachers in Asia into a category, and think he is a good representative type.

This is a tale of two Westerners working as high school English teachers in Ningyuan, a small town in Hunan. Daniel is a young man who sincerely wants to help his young students. He speaks good Mandarin and is generally well-liked in the community. However, he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He’s a good teacher and he’s interested in improving his professional skills, but he also doesn’t want to remain a teacher his entire life, and he’s afraid of wasting his youth in backcountry Hunan. (Personally, I think even if Daniel doesn’t stay a teacher forever, he’s still gaining experience and developing useful skills in Ningyuan, and so even from a purely selfish perspective he is hardly wasting his time, but he’s a fictional character so it doesn't matter what I think.)

Unfortunately, Daniel’s insecurities eventually get sussed out by his newly arrived coworker, my friend from the first chapter. He is called Thomas by his students but he calls himself by his surname Guillard in his POV chapters. Guillard is a cranky, jaded American in his 60s who has been bouncing around China teaching English for years, usually through an alcoholic haze. He sees Daniel’s desire to help his students and improve his community as youthful idealism that he just can’t abide, as he loudly makes clear to anyone within earshot when his patience runs thin.

We see Ningyuan entirely through Daniel and Guillard’s eyes; the local Chinese people generally do not get complex characterization, with one exception. Bella is a student at the high school where Daniel and Guillard teach, and is quite eager to improve her English skills to secure a better future for herself; as a result, she tends to latch onto foreign teachers to maximize her English speaking practice time, and she figures prominently in both Westerners’ time in Ningyuan.

The story unfolds over an academic year, as we follow the experiences of these two English teachers in Ningyuan. Daniel has a large circle of local and foreign friends, both in Ningyuan and back in Changsha, but he’s unsure of how he himself fits into either Ningyuan or the local Westerner scene. Meanwhile, Guillard has no friends. At best, other people merely tolerate him. I’m not sure I mustered enough empathy to really feel sorry for him, as he’s so clearly made his own bed.

As I said above, while I’ve never lived in China, I’m also an English teacher in Asia, and I can’t help but have purely idiosyncratic reactions to this book. I will sheepishly admit that I started out as an inexperienced kid who didn’t really know what I was doing. (To be fair, a lot of us did.) Now that I have far more experience and some certifications, I’m able to see language teaching as an actual profession, not just a thing that one does.

As time goes on I’m increasingly amused and befuddled by people who can’t seem to conceive of language teaching as anything other than what inexperienced backpacker-teachers do. I liked the ridiculous Welshman who Daniel meets in a bar in Changsha, who seems to think TEFL consists of pointing to a glass of water and saying “WA-TER”. (If I met him in real life, I would say in a gentle tone of voice, “You obviously had a bad experience as a teacher. Would you like to talk about it?”) What I would have liked to see in the book was an actual professional teacher, someone with a Master’s and/or a DELTA or equivalent, who could refute Guillard’s cynicism without the baggage of Daniel’s insecurities.

That said, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside isn’t so much about TEFL specifically, as it is about Westerners in East Asia. Guillard is a negative stereotype of Westerners in Asia, to be sure, although most of us would be lying if we said we’d never met real-life Guillards. Daniel is the more interesting character. Outwardly happy and popular, Daniel could have found a good job in the USA if he’d wanted one. Instead, he came to China, where he is working towards something he himself can’t define yet. Did I like the novel? Yes, I did. Daniel's an engaging enough character to spend time with, and I was curious to see how the human train wreck called Thomas Guillard would play out.

The novel, which I read in the 2017 Camphor Press edition, certainly gets us thinking about the current global dynamic, that allows Westerners to come to Asia, often get a job with few (if any) formal qualifications, and make a modest living. This doesn’t really flow in both directions. And it’s not going to last forever. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Six times nine = Forty-two

I rewatched the six half-hour episodes of the old 1981 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC TV show, inspired by this article. I hadn’t seen it in 20 years or so.

It was better than I remembered. Why did I remember any part of this less than fondly? I think it's because the last time I really paid attention to this story in any form, I was immersed in an adolescent smart-alecky culture which so overused lines and gags from the Hitchhiker's Guide that they became stale. The cure for this turned out to be a decade of not revisiting Douglas Adams's work, which gave the old gags new freshness.

The basic storyline by the late Douglas Adams is well-known: middle-class Englishman Arthur Dent survives the destruction of Earth at the hands of dull interstellar bureaucrats due to his friendship with alien Ford Prefect. He and Ford eventually fall in with celebrity criminal Zaphod Beeblebrox, who happens to be vaguely related to Ford ("We share three of the same mothers"), and fellow Earthling Trillian, a woman he not only once knew but had something of a romantic interest towards. The utter improbability of their meeting again is lampshaded to perhaps the most epic degree I have ever seen in fiction. In the following episodic storyline, Arthur learns some highly disquieting things about the Earth, the Universe, and the origins of the human race.

The TV show was based on an original radio series from 1978; this radio series was also adapted into a series of novels, which is probably how most people nowadays get introduced to the story. From a book reader's perspective, the plot of the six TV episodes roughly corresponds to most of the first book (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and about half of the second (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).

The special effects of the TV show get criticized a lot. I think this is unfair. Yes, Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head is one of the all-time great special effects failures, made worse if you know that apparently they had genuinely hoped it would look cool. But apart from that, the special effects actually stand up rather well, when you remember that we’re talking about 1981 effects technology on a TV budget. And the Guide ‘animations’ are a triumph of design. I particularly liked how an epic space battle between vast fleets of warships was represented as an early-1980s video game.

It’s also true that Trillian was played as a ditz and dressed in Space Cheerleader uniforms. But hell, if we're going to be honest, if anything it’s even worse than that. Remember the original Star Wars trilogy’s infamous three female characters with dialogue? (Apart from Leia, Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma were the only women who got to say anything in the three movies.) Well, I just realized for the first time that apart from Trillian, the only woman with any lines at all is that female Golgafrinchan nincompoop in the final episode. Both are played by Americans, so we’ve got the oddity that we never hear a woman with a British accent.

But of the show’s massively male-dominated cast, I have to say they generally did a good job, with David Dixon’s performance as Ford Prefect as the standout. (That said, I also liked Mos Def’s very different interpretation in the 2005 movie, so maybe I’m just a Ford fan.) Simon Jones makes Arthur Dent more assertive than I remember him, which is hilarious given that he has no control over anything that happens to him at any point. Marvin’s silly robot suit kinda grew on me, and I even came to like the goofy, generic sci-fi look of the background aliens. Lots of silver reflective clothing and gratuitous goatees.

In the end, I appreciated the dark nihilistic black comedy of the whole thing. Other media -- the novels and the radio series -- continue the story, but as far as the TV show is concerned we’ve got these six episodes and that’s it. So we have no reason to believe Marvin survives his fatal plunge into the sun. Arthur and Ford are going to spend the rest of their lives on prehistoric Earth, and are not too happy about it. We’ve met a whale that gained self-awareness just in time to die tragically and messily, and a sentient head of livestock (played by the Doctor!) who cheerfully offered himself up as meat and then committed suicide off-screen. This universe is bleak and that is wonderful.

All in all, a solid 3 hours or so of retro British TV.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yerevan and Tbilisi: One Tourist's Superficial Impressions

We visited Armenia and Georgia this year. Prior to our trip, I didn’t have too many preconceived notions of life on the ground there, except for stereotypes about post-Soviet states. This was my first-ever time in the old Eastern Bloc of the Cold War. (I’d been to China and Vietnam, but they don’t really count -- Beijing and Hanoi never marched to the beat of Moscow’s drum.) I expected crumbling 20th-century factories and wonderfully ugly 20th-century Soviet architecture. And yes, I saw examples of both of those.

But both of these countries are also busily remaking themselves in the post-Soviet era. Now, I’m not going to say anything about either nation’s contemporary culture, because I don’t have the knowledge. I was just a tourist in both countries, drinking wine and visiting grand old stone buildings in the countryside. I’m so ignorant I still don’t even know how much I don’t know.

But what I can do is compare and contrast the two capital cities. Even to a casual visitor like myself, Yerevan, Armenia and Tbilisi, Georgia present very different images.

I liked both cities. I would happily spend a few more days in either city. And they look very different.


The city of Yerevan is built on an incline. South is downhill, north is uphill, consistently across the entire city center. At the “bottom” you’ve got Republic Square; at the “top” you’ve got the massive statue of Mother Armenia holding her sword and glaring across the valley at Mount Ararat in the distance. And she is standing next to a kiddie amusement park with rides and cotton candy, but you can’t see that from the downtown, you can only see Mother Armenia up there on the hill.

Yerevan is a city of big solid stone buildings, often adorned with plaques that tell you which government agency is located inside. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many big solid stone buildings taking up entire city blocks outside of Washington DC. Say what you will about the Soviet Union -- and there’s a lot you can say -- they were very good at large-scale stone architecture.

There’s not much that is old in Yerevan. There are a very few historic buildings in the city center. The tiny, ancient church known as the Katoghike is an exception, but its singular existence just makes the lack of other pre-20th century buildings even more noticeable. Just outside of the city center is a neighborhood called Kond, where old houses still exist, but next to the monumental architecture elsewhere, Kond looks almost like a neglected slum by comparison.

Yerevan's downtown was built, for all practical purposes, in the Soviet era and later. A map of the city center has a strong “planned community” feel to it, and with good reason: architect Alexander Tamanyan planned it in the 1920s. According to Lonely Planet, he deliberately oriented the grid system so that major avenues pointed to Mt. Ararat.

I am thoroughly unqualified to make more than the most superficial observations of Armenia. But as someone who makes a living from Taiwanese students’ need to improve their English in order to study abroad, I have to say it was a welcome knock to my worldview to come to a country where English isn’t the primary foreign language. Russian can be seen and heard everywhere in Yerevan, and I’m sure the majority of Yerevanites are perfectly capable of having a conversation in it. English is spoken by some, but we faced much more of a language barrier than monolingual Russian visitors would.

It makes me wonder what it’s like to be part of a small linguistic community. The total population of Armenia (even if you add Nagorno-Karabakh) is no more than the combined population of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. When we went to the supermarket, a few packaged food labels were in Armenian, but the vast majority were in Russian (plus some English). The washing machine in our accommodation was all in Russian, because why would a multinational company bother manufacturing and selling appliances with Armenian writing on them? I wonder if it’s possible to even live a modern lifestyle in Armenia if one only knows Armenian. There’s so much that we speakers of dominant languages take for granted.


Because we visited Yerevan first, my impressions of Tbilisi tend to be in contrast to Yerevan.

While Yerevan has very few pre-20th Century buildings, Tbilisi has loads of them, particularly south of the modern city center (in the “Old Town”). Tbilisi seems to have been a much more prominent city prior to World War I; back then, when it was known as Tiflis to non-Georgians, it was an important regional city of the Russian Empire and seems to have been known to internationally-minded people around the world.

While Yerevan has a very cohesive, well-defined city center. Tbilisi is more spread out, despite the two cities having comparable populations. As tourists in Yerevan, we only took the subway once (partly to see what it was like, and partly to reach the northern half of downtown without walking back up the incline). By contrast, in Tbilisi we took the subway rather more often, as stuff to do was dispersed over a larger geographical area. A map of Yerevan has a “planned community” look to it, but no one would ever get that impression from a map of Tbilisi.

I mentioned Mother Armenia standing atop a hill above Yerevan's city center, holding a sword. Well, Tbilisi has a Mother Georgia statue atop the hill overlooking the Old Town. She's holding a sword in one hand and a wine glass in the other.

While Yerevan doesn’t show signs of a major tourist industry, other than a couple of tour company offices in the city center, Tbilisi's Old Town is full of foreign tourists and companies catering to them (and I’m not making any judgements -- I myself was a tourist!). That is in addition to the extensive 19th and 20th-century city center, north of the Old Town on both sides of the river, which is full of not only photographable buildings, but also cafes and shops making their tourist-friendly nature clear through English signage. (Russian signage also exists, as in Yerevan.)

Visitors to Tbilisi see the streets full of cafes with tourists dining alfresco, hosts using English to beckon passers-by to come eat, and shops selling tourist souvenirs. This is common in many touristy cities in the world, but not in Yerevan (although Yerevan's got a miniature version near the bottom of the Cascade Complex). Georgia is putting a lot of effort into developing its tourist industry, and Tbilisi shows it.

Yerevan’s not a boring city. Far from it! I’m just saying it’s not obviously touristy. No matter where you are in the city, you get a local experience. You can get a local experience in Tbilisi too, but you just have to get away from the touristy bits.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Things I've Read: May-June 2017 Edition

I read a bunch of books in May and June while traveling outside of Taiwan. I dipped a bit into non-fiction, including two by Bill Bryson. (Summary: Bill Bryson travels around and does a fair bit of complaining, sometimes unfairly, but he’s funny and entertaining so all is forgiven.) But when it comes to fiction, I read:

1 um, fantasy? Urban fantasy? Magic realist?
1 space opera SF
1 near-future techno-thriller
1 absurdist comedy romance
1 hard SF horror

The Gray House
by Mariam Petrosyan
Translated by Yuri Machkasov

The Gray House was first published in Russian in 2007 and it became a cult classic in the Russian-speaking world long before the English translation I read was published in 2017. Mariam Petrosyan is Armenian, and I read her book as I traveled in Armenia and Georgia. The Gray House is not explicitly set in any specific country, but it seemed fitting to read it in the author’s homeland.

The eponymous House is a boarding school for physically disabled children and teenagers. These young people are isolated from the wider world and neglected by the system, and so they have developed their own miniature society within the walls of the House. Petrosyan’s 734-page epic exploration of this world was not only engaging, it practically colonized my brain during the two weeks or so I spent reading it, as my mind would keep working through the complexity and to try and untangle the plot long after I put the book down. The worldbuilding of this quirky little community is intricate, and it is very gradually revealed to us readers. Once we’re comfortable in this little world, we begin to get hints that something supernatural is going on. This thread gradually grows to become the main element of the story. We’re in full-on fantasy territory by the novel’s latter chapters.

The story switches between “present” and “past” chapters. The novel kicks off in the present when a disgruntled boy called Smoker leaves his conformist dorm in the House for more freewheeling surroundings down the hall where eccentricity is tolerated, but Smoker’s place at the center of the narrative is soon overtaken by his oddball classmates. They are all known by nicknames: Sphynx, Tabaqui, Vulture, Noble, and so on. (I write “classmates”, but I’ll be damned if I know what, if anything, these kids are taught in their classes.)

There are also chapters that take place half a dozen or so years before the main story, setting up the present-day situation. As the story moves back and forth in time, the elusive details of the House, its inhabitants and its history gradually come into focus.

The plot meanders and takes its time to unfold, and much must be inferred by the reader, but I was eager to delve deeper into the mysteries of the House and its inhabitants, to figure out how things worked. This is one of the very few novels I was tempted to begin rereading immediately: I felt I could get just as much out of it the second time.

A Google search of the book’s Russian title, «Дом, в котором...», reveals a devoted fan community, comparable to that of Harry Potter, which was in place well before the novel ever penetrated the Anglosphere. Linguistically I can’t comprehend what these fans are saying without the unreliable help of Google Translate, but the gorgeous fan-made artwork helps me see how it all came across to those readers who experienced the story in the original language. Obscure in the English-speaking world but not so elsewhere, The Gray House not only provided me with a rich, original world to explore, but also made me thankful for translators who help literature cross boundaries.

The Player of Games
by Iain M. Banks

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a celebrity player of strategy board games, said to be one of the finest in the galaxy. Because he lives in the Culture, an immensely wealthy and powerful interstellar anarcho-socialist state, he has the luxury of living a life of leisure, surrounded by material comforts. But Jernau is dissatisfied with his life; he feels ennui. Seems like the right person for the Culture’s ruthless, shadowy Special Circumstances division to recruit for a mission that requires mad board game skills…

This was my second of Iain M. Banks’ exceptionally well-regarded Culture novels, after Consider Phlebas. I am stubbornly determined to read the Culture books in order, even though most Banks fans don’t recommend it. I think I see why. Consider Phlebas, the first one published, had lots of neat ideas, and there wasn’t anything wrong with the storytelling. But I felt worn down by page after page of action scenes that I think would have worked much better on a movie screen, or perhaps in a cable TV miniseries.

By contrast, The Player of Games had me utterly enthralled from beginning to end. It actually made me think “Perhaps I don’t play enough board games” -- I don’t know if Banks himself was into strategy gaming, but his descriptions of Jernau’s experience as he put his whole self into games not only seemed plausible enough as the way a master gamer thinks, but also presented board games as a fun intellectual challenge.

The book was fun enough that it didn’t matter that the board-game-centric culture of the alien Azad race, the novel's antagonists, didn’t strike me as terribly believable. I think I subscribe to the theory that Azad was meant to be a satire on us Earthlings, and their weird alien biology was thrown in there as a red herring (note that for all the attention paid to their tripartite sex differentiation, when all was said and done it was irrelevant to the plot). Whether you believe that or not, one book is exactly as long as the Empire of Azad need to stick around to be a foil for the Culture, and not to overstay their welcome.

by Genevieve Valentine

Near-future technothriller. Our heroine Suyana Supaki is a Face. As far as we schlubs sitting on the couch in front of the TV are concerned, she is the living embodiment of her country, and its main representative on the world stage. In this world, geopolitics has just gone ahead and adopted all the vapid, shiny aspects of celebrity culture. Viewers at home know the countries of the world through their Faces: beautiful, stylish young people who hobnob at trendy bars and clubs, working out international alliances. No presidents or prime ministers even rate a mention; I suppose no one pays attention to them anymore. Meanwhile, the paparazzi lurk outside, hoping to capture some unauthorized images of Faces, possibly causing great diplomatic embarrassment and making big bucks.

One of these paparazzi is Daniel, who manages to snap some pictures of Suyana in central Paris just as she’s wounded in an assassination attempt. Despite his clearly muddled ethical situation, he throws his lot in with Suyana, getting her medical attention while hustling her away from those who would cause her harm. Suyana is no damsel in distress: even as she’s bleeding across half of central Paris, she remains the main decision-maker and driver of the plot. She herself does not have squeaky-clean hands, as not even the government she represents (the “United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation”) is aware that she owes allegiance to a shadowy radical environmental group.

Persona is the first volume in a trilogy, so I don’t know how the story eventually turns out. I can say that it’s a very fast read: I polished it off in a few hours.

Still Life with Woodpecker
by Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins is an oddball. It’s not just his knack for appearing half his actual age in all photographs taken this century, but also writing oddball books.

Still Life with Woodpecker is the earliest Robbins novel I’ve read -- it’s as old as I am, and full of fun dated 1980 details (though it’s good to know satirical takes on left-wing activism haven’t changed much in nearly 40 years). It is a love story between a radical anarchist-eco-terrorist and an heir to a deposed European royal family, and it’s full of odd takes on sex, bits of goofy humor, and long asides on whatever Robbins happened to be thinking about at the time (these three things are not always distinct from each other).

You’re not going to read this for the plot; you’re going to read it for Robbins’ authorial voice and style. I read Robbins whenever one of his books happens to cross my path (which works out to about once a decade), and whenever that happens I find I appreciate it greatly.

by Peter Watts

Peter Watts’ brand of science fictional horror is ruthless. He makes George R. R. Martin’s reputation for killing off main characters seem naive and adorable. His Rifters trilogy probably overdid the darkness, despair and death at the expense of the cool, mindblowing ideas, but his 2006 novel Blindsight achieved a perfect balance and won a well-deserved reputation as one of the best SF novels of the decade.

Echopraxia takes place in the same universe as Blindsight, with a different cast of characters. Daniel Brüks, who is probably the most psychologically normal and well-adjusted protagonist Watts has ever created, is a field biologist who gets caught up in a conflict between rival groups of posthumans which he can barely begin to comprehend. He soon finds himself in space with a motley assortment of humans and near-humans who treat him with varying degrees of contempt and condescension. Many people die. This is a harsh universe. Along the way, Watts works in a ton of ideas taken from cutting-edge science; many of these are elaborated on in the book’s lengthy Afterword.

In the late 21st-century world of Blindsight and Echopraxia, we humans have been forcibly made aware that powerful extraterrestrials are monitoring Earth. We don’t know what they want, we can’t do a damn thing about them, and their existence has given the human race a collective neurosis that we really can’t afford as political instability and climate change are wreaking planetary havoc. Also, vampires are real. Yes, literal vampires are actually real. In Blindsight’s best and most well-known bit of worldbuilding, Watts made vampires scientifically plausible, and the result is even more horrifying than the supernatural creatures of legend.

Echopraxia expands on Blindsight’s worldbuilding. We learn far more about this word’s posthuman societies that have modified themselves to dramatically boost their brainpower. We normals can’t comprehend them, let alone compete with them! Vampires are expanded upon as well. It’s true that Valerie the Vampire in Echopraxia seems much weirder than Sarasti the Vampire in Blindsight, but my explanation is that our narrative is filtered through our point-of-view characters’ impressions, and since Daniel Brüks is much more of a normal human than the posthuman cyborg who narrated Blindsight, it’s not surprising that he’s far more weirded out. (Or maybe Sarasti just worked harder to acquire human social skills.)

When all is said and done, the theme of this book is manipulation. Everybody is being manipulated by powers they cannot comprehend, to fulfill agendas they do not understand. (You can go look up the dictionary definition of "echopraxia" if you like.) Watts definitely likes to put cheerful nihilism into his fiction, and while I wouldn’t want to read a steady diet of it, it makes for a fine bracing occasional read.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Taiwan: A Political History

Taiwan: A Political History
by Denny Roy

I'm trying to read more books about Taiwan, alternating between fiction and non-fiction. Denny Roy’s history is the latest one I've completed.

I’ve lived in Taiwan for a decade. I already knew the broad outlines of this land’s history. But this was the first time I read a survey of Taiwan’s post-1945 political history. I figured it was time I learned more, and indeed I did learn a lot from Roy’s book. Now, the book is not for the novice with no preexisting knowledge of Taiwanese history. Denny Roy tends to move back and forth through the decades, expecting his reader to already know the political progression from the elder Chiang to the younger Chiang to Lee to Chen. But if you’re moderately familiar with the basics, this is an informative look at Taiwanese politics from 1945 to 2003, when the book was published.

I write “from 1945 to 2003” even though the book is billed as covering the full scope of Taiwanese history. In reality, everything prior to 1895 is covered in twenty pages. The fifty years of Japanese rule, 1895 to 1945, receive another twenty-two pages. The remainder of the book’s 246 pages are devoted to the ROC era. This is fine -- there is certainly a lot to say about Taiwan under the ROC, and the starting chapters do provide necessary historical context for what comes after -- but the reader should be aware that this is not a comprehensive source of material about Taiwan before 1945.

In fact, I was a bit frustrated with the coverage of early Taiwanese history. On page 21, Roy writes of “a total of 159 sizable rebellions during the period of Qing rule, including three particularly large ‘Great Rebellions’ in 1714, 1787, and 1833”. He then goes on to describe an uprising in 1721 in which rebels seized control of a large portion of Taiwan, forcing the government to flee to mainland China. If this doesn’t qualify as a ‘Great Rebellion’, some truly epic uprisings must have been cut for space! On page 22 two rebellions are briefly described as taking place in 1786 and 1832; Roy never mentions one that happens anytime close to 1714.

Fortunately, Roy’s coverage of the 1945 to 2003 era is interesting and informative, and filled in several gaps in my knowledge of Taiwanese political history, about which I do not claim to be an expert.

To take one example, I noted a recurring theme where the ROC’s stubbornness decades ago contributed to the country’s present-day international status. It was the ROC that took Taiwan out of the United Nations: even when Chiang Kai-shek came to accept a PRC presence in the UN, he couldn’t bear the indignity of the PRC taking his place on the Security Council, and so Taiwan quit in a huff when the PRC was admitted in 1971. (p. 134-135) Similarly, there was a time when Beijing would enter into full diplomatic relations with countries that recognized Taipei, without demanding that these nations break relations with them. They didn’t need to -- Taipei would be so angered at the perceived disrespect that they would be the ones to sever ties with one more diplomatic ally. (p. 130) Well done, ROC -- that’s worked out well for you, hasn’t it? I can only conclude that ROC leaders must have been perpetually convinced that the PRC was on the brink of implosion -- not an entirely illogical belief, when you consider what the PRC must have looked like to them for the first quarter-century of its existence, staggering from one massive self-inflicted crisis to another.

To take another example, I knew Lee Teng-hui primarily for his more recent role as an elder statesman and a pro-independence figure who has decisively burned his ties with the KMT, so reading about how he was perceived when he was actually the head of the KMT was fascinating. In contrast to the impression I had of Lee in his retirement, Roy paints quite a different portrait of Lee as cunning politician - summarized on page 181 that “Lee’s desire to consolidate his power took precedence over his ideological commitment to political liberalization”. The book’s 2003 publication date means that there’s a time capsule-like quality to how certain figures are portrayed, notably the well-known anti-corruption crusader Ma Ying-jeou. Even Tsai Ing-wen makes a cameo on page 237 where she pops up in the year 2000 to clarify that Taiwan doesn’t accept Beijing’s One-China Principle.

Overall, as a relatively brief overview of Taiwanese history, Roy’s book gave me what I was looking for: I learned a lot, and several shameful gaps in my knowledge were plugged. There are still several books on Taiwanese politics sitting unread on my bookshelf, which I can read now with a better knowledge base to build on.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Things I've Read: Science Fiction Edition

There will be nothing about Taiwan here. But that's OK.

File:Seveneves Book Cover.jpg Seveneves
by Neal Stephenson

Suddenly, the moon blows up, which is never really explained. But that’s okay, because we’re more interested in what happens next. Like the Ewoks watching the Death Star’s destruction, humans of Earth are transfixed by the show in the sky until the grim truth becomes clear: According to the cold equations of physics, our civilization is doomed and the clock is ticking. Those bits and pieces of moon are coming down, and we can't stop them.

The thousand or so pages that follow encompass arguably the largest scope ever for a Stephenson novel, as all the resources of Earth are deployed to ensure that some humans survive the coming apocalypse. And then the book deals with the consequences of that. And then the consequences of those consequences. By the time the story ends, a hell of a lot has happened, is what I’m saying.

Overall, there’s a lot to like here. I’m generally a fan of Stephenson’s prose, and there are indeed some choice bits here. There are also plenty of pages upon pages of engineering geekery: we don’t get five pages of breakfast cereal, but we do get long, lovingly worked out descriptions of orbital mechanics and futuristic technology. That’s fine; many readers enjoy that sort of thing, I know.

I do have to say that there were times I felt my suspension of disbelief was under considerable duress. There were also a couple of rather remarkable narrative coincidences, and I’m still undecided about whether these things bother me enough to damage my liking for the book.

That said, it’s been months since I finished Seveneves and yet I keep thinking about it. It’s rare for a novel to persist in my brain like this.

Image result for the long way to a small angry planetThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers

We’re in a galaxy with faster-than-light travel and interstellar federations and starships where humans and aliens work side-by-side. Also there are space pirates, dens of scum and villainy, and massive interstellar wars. With all that said, our focus is on the relations among the crew of the small and fairly mundane starship Wayfarer, whose job is to facilitate interstellar travel-by-hyperspace by larger and (I’m sure they think) more interesting vessels.

This is cheerful, optimistic space opera. The interstellar lingua franca that humans and aliens use to talk to each other is rendered as hilariously colloquial contemporary American English. The ship’s techies are so blase about the wondrous indistinguishable-from-magic devices they work with that they’re free to devote considerable attention to the quality of their snack food.

Most of the scenes read like they could play out verbatim in a hypothetical TV adaptation. The feeling that this could be a novelization of a well-written sci-fi TV show is bolstered by the story’s episodic nature, as well as the fact that despite the moments of drama, action and even tragedy, the mood of the narrative keeps returning to that of a workplace comedy (and I mean that nicely).

ShadesofGreynovel.jpgShades of Grey
by Jasper Fforde

Droll British dystopian fiction. Our protagonists live in Chromaticia, a land ordered by color and governed by surrealistically arbitrary but strictly enforced rules. These people are all color-blind to varying degrees, and their social class is determined by the colors they can perceive, from red at the bottom to purple at the top. Main protagonist Eddie Russett is, as his surname implies, at the low end of the ROY G BIV class spectrum, but at least he can see a color -- that is, he’s not one of the Grey proletariat.

The writing style, and the glimpses we get of the everyday lives of these people, is very droll, but Chromaticia -- a future Britain that exists centuries after the unexplained collapse of our own society -- is a frightening totalitarian state, which could use a good overthrow.

All in all, Shades of Grey is a charming little dystopia that takes its time unfolding its true horror. Some reviewers were put off by the slow (if not glacial) pace of the plot development, but I saw that as a positive point. We readers have plenty of time to get accustomed to the rules of this strange society, and come to realize that all the odd bits that don’t initially make sense do, in fact, add up to a coherent yet highly unsettling big picture.

I enjoyed the book immensely, and I look forward to the promised future installments following Eddie’s career in Chromaticia.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Pail of Oysters

A Pail of Oysters
by Vern Sneider

In 1953, American journalist Vern Sneider published his novel A Pail of Oysters to acquaint Western readers with the political situation in Taiwan. The ROC had come to Formosa less than a decade before, and the West saw it as a bulwark against Communism that must be supported with financial and military aid. Sneider did not write his book to bring us Chiang Kai-shek’s side of the story; he sides with the ordinary people of Taiwan who suffered under ROC rule, the White Terror, and the after-effects of the 228 Incident.

The story begins by introducing us to Aboriginal youth Li Liu, his family, and their daily struggle for existence, harvesting oysters from the coastline and trading them for rice and other necessities. Not a prosperous family even in peaceful times, their daily life is made harder by the bands of ROC soldiers (called ‘Save-the-Country soldiers’) who see it as their right to loot at will from these unimportant nobodies. When the family’s god-image is stolen, Li Liu sets off to recover it. On his adventure he meets friendly American (and obvious author surrogate) Ralph Barton, hardscrabble former prostitute Precious Jade, and Precious Jade’s brother, who goes by no name because he no longer acknowledges his tyrannical adoptive father.

The story that follows is a fairly simple one, all things considered, with a couple of big narrative coincidences that make it seem like the population of Taipei is maybe a hundred people. It is not hard to predict our heroes are not going to have a happy ending, even as the narrative teases us and makes it seem things might actually work out well for them. You know they’re not going to have a happy ending because the book’s purpose is to make people outraged. That’s not a bad thing, because sometimes outrage is warranted.

This novel is meant to raise political awareness, using the novelist’s timeless tool of taking impersonal numbers from news accounts (‘thousands executed in anti-Communist purges’) and turning the statistics back into tragedy by giving a small handful of them individual names, backstories and personalities. The number of verifiably Communist characters in A Pail of Oysters is zero, but we see how anti-Communist witch hunts can be a very useful tool for unscrupulous people pursuing their own personal vendettas that have nothing to do with politics. The book is also an interesting historical perspective on issues that, 64 years later, are still controversial and unresolved, notably expropriation of land owned by local farmers.

The book turns didactic midway through when a Taiwanese businessman with dissident sympathies, Mr. Chou, turns up to lecture Ralph Barton about what should be done for Taiwan, and by doing so crowds two of the three Taiwanese viewpoint characters out of the narrative for a large chunk of the book. Mr. Chou, whose views are never rebutted and so are presumably Sneider’s own, thinks the KMT shouldn’t be removed from power entirely, but rather sees a pro-democracy faction within the KMT that ought to be running the country rather than the authoritarians in power instead. (Presumably he's thinking of K. C. Wu and the liberal faction he represented. It's too bad that, at about the same time A Pail of Oysters was published, Wu went into permanent exile in the United States.)

One could argue that Sneider is fairly diplomatic towards the KMT/ROC, all things considered. He makes an effort not to paint ROC soldiers as uniformly evil, and Chiang Kai-shek himself is never directly criticized. Chen Yi, the military governor of Taiwan in the immediate postwar years, is the one real-life figure who does get thoroughly blamed by name in the text. Again, Sneider’s being diplomatic here -- by the time the book was written, the KMT had already removed Chen from power and executed him.

Sneider may have tried to be diplomatic, but it appears the KMT did not appreciate his helpful suggestions. The novel was banned in Taiwan, and according to the Taipei Times, rumor has it that pro-KMT students hunted down copies of it in libraries overseas and burned them (since that’s how you look like the ideological good guys, you know). The American political climate in the 1950s was not very receptive to the novel’s themes of “anti-Communist witch hunts hurt innocent people” and “the KMT is not always good” and so the book's success failed to live up to its author’s hopes.

To be honest, A Pail of Oysters is not great literature. But that doesn't mean it's not worth reading. Now that it’s available again from Camphor Press in e-book or paper form, it’s of great interest for anyone invested in Taiwan. A comparatively thin volume (I read it on a Kindle and was surprised at how fast the %-completed figure rose), it gives a fascinating historical perspective on Taiwanese history and politics as perceived by a Westerner in the 1950s.