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.

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