What's the Chinese for "fail"?

Sliding Void is the first in a series of hard SF novels by Stephen Hunt, author of a series of steampunk novels that I really enjoyed: The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and The Rise of the Iron Moon. Hunt’s interest in space opera and SF was fairly clear in The Rise of the Iron Moon, so it’s no surprise to learn that he also writes hard SF, and although it’s also weird to read him in a completely new genre, the book was enjoyable and interesting – though not without its flaws.

The basic setting is a universe some thousands of years in the future, with the usual necessities of hard SF: hyperspace has been invented but travel is slow, there are many settled planets and terraforming and expansion is ongoing, the settled universe is divided into the core and the periphery, and the core is ruled by a shifty and sinister organization (in this case called “the Triple Alliance”) that maintains order at the expense of freedom and corruption. Of course, one can stay a step ahead of the alliance by working on the fringes of space, but not everything one does out here on the edge is entirely legal, etc. The outline of the setting probably seems to have a lot in common with Serenity/Firefly or Traveller:2300, including the importance of China in space exploration and the settling of planets on national lines (this is a German planet, that is a Chinese, etc). It’s pretty standard.

The story centres around one Captain Lana Fiveworlds and her oddball crew, who are running a free trader in classic Traveller style, tramp trading on the periphery. They need money in a hurry and get called in by an old contact to whom they owe a favour; he gives them the task of taking on a new crewman to help him escape from his arse-backwards mediaeval ice world, where he was a prince until he got a bit too arrogant and ran a war that got half the world chasing him. Unfortunately, there is something up with this new crewman and things rapidly go pear-shaped. That’s it! We then have to wait for book 2 to start finding out why things went wrong, and what they’re going to do about it.

This book is quite short and well-told, but interestingly a large part of the story is set in a fantasy world. The crewman is from the planet of Hesperus, a failed colony world that slid into an ice age soon after it was colonized. It’s an interesting story: the colonists were refugees rescued from an interplanetary war by a well-meaning aid agency and packed across the galaxy in cryonic sleep, arriving on their colony with nothing but the resources in their ship and nowhere to return to, their world having been destroyed. Soon after they arrived their new planet, which had looked so promising, fell back into an ice age and the colony fell back into the bronze age, so that when we stumble on it the planet is more like a norse kingdom than a sci-fi setting. I really like this idea, I think it’s quite believable and a terraforming outcome I don’t think I’ve read in a long time (perhaps in Ursula le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest? I can’t recall…) Stephen Hunt does this part particularly well, and the way the rest of the universe treats this planet is a sure sign that we aren’t dealing with a particularly well-meaning Alliance. No Culture here, folks.

The rest of the story, though brief, is well-written. It’s got occasional hints of “realism” such as has started to creep into modern genre writing – swearing, “gritty” settings and the like – which is particularly jarring when you’re used to Hunt’s other, gentler, steampunkier works. Hunt’s vision of hyperspace is cute – it’s all mathematical and humans can’t handle it, because they get “addicted to the maths” – and means that humans are dependent on the help of an alien crab species who are religious in their mathematics, and believe that entering hyperspace gets them closer to their mysterious mathematical god. The rest of the SF world is fairly standard, though some of the information technology ideas are cute: the characters refer to a wiki to learn about Hesperus, and when their barbarian crewman needs to be oriented to the modern world he is given full-immersion entertainment packages that give him 6 months of real-time experience of someone else’s life in a couple of hours. This means that two days after he’s arrived on ship he has already lived several years of subjective life in the modern world, and is speaking like a mixture of policeman and starship crew. His adjustment is otherwise not handled so well though: his first experience of eating rice just flicks by without any mention of how he feels about this new experience, and there are a few other moments where we really could get a deeper sense of his disorientation in his new world. Having spent half the book establishing his barbarian credentials, we see them all washed away in a chapter, which is a bit weak. Given that the whole thing is quite short, a few more chapters to have him settle in – perhaps including a moment of craziness – would be nice.

Another thing about this book that really frustrated me and nearly had me give up on it was the massive Orientalism fail in the middle. When we first meet the Chinese engineer, Paopao, he orders Calder (the barbarian) to make his favourite food: Ochatsuke. He has a list of ingredients in his kitchen which includes dashi and jako. Stephen Hunt has carefully researched the recipe for a Japanese traditional food, complete with Japanese names, and had his chinese character act as if this is some Chinese food or spiritual rite of passage: the food labels are all written in Chinese (how do you write jako in Chinese?) and Paopao tells Calder that “A man who steams rice may be trusted with the care of antiproton storage ring.” The implication is that this traditional Japanese food is somehow of cultural significance to this Chinese engineer, who judges his staffs competence on their ability to make it. This is, I think a straight-out orientalism fail: either Hunt doesn’t care about the difference between China and Japan, doesn’t know (despite having careful knowledge of a Japanese food that is quite obscure outside of Japan), or knows nothing about China and figures his readers won’t notice the difference. He obviously couldn’t make the dominant Asian culture in space Japan because that doesn’t fit the current narrative about an ascendant China, but he couldn’t be bothered doing the basic research on China necessary to fit the character to the story. The same applies with the stupid way he writes Paopao’s language: I’ve met enough non-native speakers of English now to know that the way Paopao speaks is not the way it works. On the one hand he says

Only if you submit to them, Mister Fighting Fourth. Sometimes it beholdens man to remember

which is perfect lyrical English and very advanced, including careful omission of an article such as non-native speakers often get wrong. But then he says

Found it inside fortune cookied on station above Kunjing Four

dropping both the subject (which I think is a Japanese, not a Chinese, problem) and all the articles, and mangling a sentence which anyone who can say the former would surely be able to spout very quickly and easily. Now, I don’t think anyone can get language misuse right (it’s extremely hard) but stuffing this up to this extent, while also mangling the character’s cultural origins, is a pretty big level of fail. It’s disappointing, and sloppy. I understand that with the ascendance of Asia, and the recognition that the 21st century is going to be the Asian century, people want to fit Asia into their inter-galactic hegemonies, and not being Asian are likely going to screw it up somehow. But there’s still a minimum level of research that one could do, in this case as simple as buying a Chinese cookbook and visiting a good restaurant.

I think we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of sloppiness in the years to come …

Anyway, aside from the small orientalist unpleasantness, this story is enjoyable and worth giving a go if you like classic hard SF. It’s reasonably well crafted, moves fast, has a smooth and easy narrative style, and has some nice ideas to add to the genre. Stephen Hunt’s writing is sometimes a little jarring, as if he were occasionally slipping into a young adult novel style, and sometimes his genre-bending doesn’t work, but in this case he’s combined a low-tech fantasy world with a hi-tech spacefaring civilization very well. I wouldn’t say it’s ground breaking or stellar in its achievements, and I think Hunt has been more creative in his steampunk work, but I can still recommend it. Read this book if you want to see a small amount of genre-bending in an otherwise classic, easily readable hard SF, but give it a miss if you demand only classic tropes in your SF.

So I’m still struggling through the introduction of the PhD thesis I promised to read: understandable since the introduction is still going at page 50. In between my last post and this one I’ve had to wade through some sleep-inducing academic wank, but now I’ve got to the outline in the introduction of the importance of race, and its fluidity in cyberpunk.

The first thing to note, mentioned quite a bit in this article, is that Gibson had never been to Japan when he wrote Neuromancer, which was written in 1982. So here we have a North American in 1982 writing a book redolent with themes from a country he has never visited, during an era when North America was afire with fear of what the Japanese were going to do in America (this was the bubble era and Japan had just, apparently, become the largest creditor nation in the world – they were supposedly buying up American businesses and land). This, I think it’s easy to see, is a situation ripe with potential for cultural stereotypes to eclipse nuanced thinking.

It’s worth noting before we go on – and for the rest of any posts I get around to writing about this – that the author of this thesis I’m studying makes it clear at this point that his goal is not  “reading cultural representation for their positive or negative (authentic or inauthentic) portrayals”, but that he is interested in examining the ways that these representations “function to reiterate, challenge, transform and/or create cultural norms”. His interest is the relationship between existing stereotypes of Japan, the way the cyberpunk texts interpret them, and how these interpretation serve to create new images (at least, that’s what I assume this means). I know a lot of (both of) my readers are eager to find examples of transparent whining leftism, so please relax – this chap is trying to do something a little more interesting than that.

So what does the introduction tell us about how race will be handled in the thesis? For a start, in the 4 pages covering “The Fluidity of Race” we don’t see the word “multiculturalism” once, even though Gibson himself states that “I’ve always lived in Vancouver … a Pacific Rim city with a lot of interaction with Japan.” Vancouver, the world’s most multicultural city, in a country with a policy of multiculturalism… it seems that this might have influenced Gibson’s views on race and his power to interpret race, or to imagine multi-racial societies. Also, isn’t Vancouver in … Canada? But the classic interpretation of cyberpunk is as an American urban myth. So for example we find this description of the relationship between America and Japan at the time:

the now obligatory Japanese reference also marks the obsession with the great Other, who is perhaps our own future rather than our past, the putative winner of the coming struggle – whom we therefore compulsively imitate, hoping that thereby the inner mind-set of the victorious other will be transformed to us along with the externals

[this is actually a quote from Jameson, a key post-modernist writer influencing our author’s text]. But is this right to apply to Gibson? If he lived in Vancouver most of his life, is this relevant? Canada is a resource exporting country, and such countries are never threatened by manufacturing countries the way that another manufacturing country (e.g., America) might be – the manufacturing countries need us so long as we have stuff in the ground. The quote as written certainly sounds like something that could be said about Phillip K Dick, or about Allied war propaganda from world war 2, but is it applicable to the mindset of a man who has “always lived” in a multicultural city as relaxed and easy to live in as Vancouver, in a resource-exporting country? I think it might be a little overwrought. And Jameson seems to be saying this about Bladerunner as much as about Gibson’s work.

This part of the introduction concludes with the statement that

in an era of globalisation, Asian Americans are becoming ubiquitous in American popular culture both as producers and consumers. Globalisation … has been accompanied by intensified transnational cultural practices and cultural hybridities in societies around the world. Thus “race and its cultural meanings remain at the core of globalizing media flows and their local receptions”

This leads to the discussion of the other big issue in cyberpunk, globalisation, but it doesn’t seem to me to put the race issue to bed. Is the representation of race in cyberpunk related to globalisation or to the triumph of multiculturalism as a cultural model, if not for everyone in the west, at least for young people from a certain cultural elite? And what does that tell us about the kinds of stereotypes that will enter the work of a man who had never visited Japan when he wrote the book? Will they be stereotypes based on outdated cultural models of Japan, or will they be a combination of the various Oriental things he saw in multicultural Vancouver (including shops, Asian cinema, visits to chinatown, art exhibitions etc.) and the hugely influential Bladerunner? If so, the stereotypes Gibson is building are being built not only from a distant, imagined Orient, but from an Orient which has plonked itself on his doorstep, modified itself to suit a relaxed, multicultural, very Western city, and presented itself to him full of late 70s and early 80s vigour.

If so, what we’re seeing here is the production of stereotypes in a very different way to that envisaged by Said in Orientalism. We’re also seeing, perhaps, the production of images of the Orient in a sub-cultural genre that may not actually be influenced very strongly by the insecurities and biasses of that great producer of modern popular culture, America. Perfect material for the development of a theory of post-modern Orientalism. But our author hasn’t mentioned multiculturalism or paid much attention to Gibson’s Canadian heritage – so is he going to miss this chance when he approaches the topic in more detail?

Only time will tell…

In my previous post I mentioned stumbling across an analysis of cyberpunk and orientalism, which interests me for a lot of reasons, and I’ve subsequently decided that since I’m living in the shadow of the zaibatsu without a job, maybe it’s time I embarked on a shady criminal information-hacking project, so I’m going to try and read through the thesis I found and draw together some kind of themes or conclusions from the tangled mess that is postmodern critique.

… So to start with I thought I’d do a survey of what is already available on the internet about cyberpunk and postmodernism. According to this (awesomely brief) description,

markers of postmodernism recurring in cyberpunk include: the commodification of culture, the invasive development of information technology, a decentering and fragmentation of the “individual”; and a blurring of the boundaries between “high” and “popular” culture.

which maybe helps to pin down why cyberpunk is considered to have such strong links to postmodernism, and also to nihilism – which, incidentally, I didn’t realise had a whole branch of academic theory devoted to it, primarily stemming from the work of Baudrillard. I don’t want to pursue the discussion of nihilism too far though because I find it seems to get incomprehensible very rapidly. Interestingly though, the intersection of cyberpunk, nihilism – which posits an absence of external morality – and postmodernism, with its reputed objection to “truth”[1], draws in a lot of young christians. For example, this blog describes some common misconceptions about postmodernism held by its christian critics, and maybe helps to show what postmodernism is not. Obviously, those whose religion is based on a single text are going to have some big issues with postmodernism, which is all about criticising the relationship between “the text”[2] and “truth”.

Modern feminism has also found an interest in cyberpunk, as a fictional representation of the liberating effect of technology for modern women. This is briefly discussed here, with again some reference to the Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway.  This could be interesting if it led me back to Haraway, whose work I struggled with many years ago with the help of a friend. I hope it doesn’t, though, because I’m largely not up to dealing with her language… But I don’t think I’ll be pursuing any further feminist involvement in cyberpunk in and of itself (though I may stumble across some in time), because I only have limited time and my main concern is the Orientalist part[4].

The thesis I have started reading states its perspective on the importance of cyberpunk for postmodernism in the introduction:

Cyberpunk’s postmodern scene, the flow of people, goods, information and power across international boundaries, is theorized in Fredric Jameson’s work on postmodernism as the cultural logic of late or third stage multinational capitalism, fully explicated in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism(1991). Importantly, Jameson finds cyberpunk to be a significant manifestation of this, the “supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself”(419). … Moreover, this postmodern scene, a global array of disjunctive flows, specifically encompasses Japan: the multinationals, for example, are depicted as Japanese zaibatsu.

I’m inclined to agree with most of this position, though I’m going to skip over the supreme importance bit to see what our resident theorist has to say about Gibson’s view of Japan from the perspective of Orientalism, which he goes on to say will try to

“get beyond the reified polarities of East versus West” and in a “concrete way attempt to understand the heterogeneous and often odd developments” (Culture and Imperialism 41). By exploring a number of particular theoretical positions and terminologies, my intention is to work toward highlighting the dynamic of reflexivity inherent in postmodern orientalism.

(The quotes here are quotes of Said). This paragraph is easier understood in the context of the abstract, in which our resident theorist explains that his view of “postmodern orientalism” describes

uneven, paradoxical, interconnected and mutually implicated cultural transactions at the threshold of East-West relations. The thesis explores this by first examining cyberpunk’s unremarked relationship with countercultural formations (rock music), practices (drugs) and manifestations of Oriental otherness in popular culture.

This distinguishes the modern cyberpunk narrative of the orient from that of previous centuries, described by Said, in which the imaginative process is entirely one way – western writers and academics taking parts of the orient that appealed to them to form their own pastiche of cultural and aesthetic ideals of the orient which suit their own stereotypes; and then using these to bolster a definition of the West in opposition to an imagined Orient. In the cyberpunk world, characterised by postmodern orientalism, the Orient is actively engaging with, challenging or subverting the images which western writers and academics form of the East, and importing its own distorted images of the West, in a form of postmodern cultural exchange.

This cultural exchange is very interesting to me, and has been a topic of rumination for me on my other blog ever since I came to Japan. It’s clear that the West “dreams” the orient[5], not seeing much of what is really happening here; but at the same time the Orient has its own fantasies of the west, which have become increasingly influential in the west as the power of Japanese and Chinese media enables them to project their own images of the West back to it[6]. Both parts of the world also have their dreams of their own identity, and often these definitions are constructed at least partially in contrast to their dual opposite; but recently, with increased cultural exchange, it’s possible to see these identities becoming more diverse (at least in the Orient) as the “Other” hemisphere becomes less alien and the distinction between “Eastern” and “Western” blurs. I am interested to see if this phenomenon is sufficiently identifiable as to be described by a theory of postmodern orientalism, and that’s why I’m reading this thesis…

So, that’s the outline of what we’re aiming for. Strap yourselves in kids. We’ve taken the Blue pill…

[1] I think this is a misreading of postmodernist theory, which mainly seems to argue that the way we interpret truth is coloured by our cultural and linguistic assumptions. There’s an excellent example of this in the paper “The Egg and the Sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on sterotypical male-female roles”, Emily Martin, Signs(1991): 16(3), 485-501.

[2] “the text” is like a classic postmodern bullshit bingo cliche, but I actually think it’s a really useful word for catching the broad sense of what post-modernists[3] talk about when they do their critical analyses

[3] I’m really quite certain that I routinely confuse post-modernists and deconstructuralists, (deconstructionists?), but I don’t care because it’s their fault not mine. Nobody confuses a statistician and a mathematician, do they?

[4] Though actually I doubt one would have to google very far to find that Orientalism as a concept would have been significantly boosted by better consideration of gender relations…

[5] mostly, in the case of Japan, through a series of wet dreams or nightmares, but still…

[6] Consider, for example, the West as presented to the West by Miyazaki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, or in Full Metal Alchemist[7]

[7] I just want to point out here that if I was going to be a proper academic wanker like Said I would present these names in untranslated Japanese, on the assumption that you, dear reader, can just read everything, or that if you can’t you’re a worthless loser who doesn’t deserve to know what I’m talking about. Aren’t I nice?

After the dispute over my opinions about the nihilistic elements of cyberpunk role-playing, I did a little more digging and found that this element of cyberpunk is not exactly considered unique. I also discovered that, rather unsurprisingly, cyberpunk is a rich field of theoretical endeavour. I discovered a cyberpunk course at the peer to peer university (!?) which includes explicit analysis of the nihilistic elements of cyberpunk, along with some interesting discussion of the narrative components of the style. The conclusion of this post is that nihilism is a fundamental component of the genre (and some nice hat tips to the theoretical concept of nihilism are identified in The Matrix).

The P2PU course on cyberpunk also includes links to a lot of open access journal articles about cyberpunk, some of which could be worth reading.

Finally, I found an interesting-looking article on Cyberpunk and Orientalism, which might give an interesting insight into some of the things I’ve noticed before in Cyberpunk – particularly the 90s wave of Gibson et al – which seems to have a heavy degree of romanticisation of the far East. I have my suspicions about Said’s critique of Orientalism, but it does provide an interesting platform from which to analyse Western opinions of Asia, so I’m going to give this essay a go – even though it’s a PhD thesis so probably therefore hideously difficult to read – and I may provide a few interpretations of it on a future post. How’s that for taking one for the team?