Reading: Tricia Sullivan — Shadowboxer

A couple of months ago, I decided I needed some more fiction to read—right about now I’m in the same frame of mind, so will probably go off on a book-ordering spree shortly. One of the first to arrive was Tricia Sullivan’s Shadowboxer. I read her Double Vision a long time ago, I’d bought that in Zürich when I was going through two books a week during rehearsals. I hadn’t read any of her since, but being in a mood where I want to punch stuff, this being a book about mixed martial arts and sitting somewhere on the fantasy side of things, it slid onto my shelf with minimum of fuss.

I read it a couple of months ago, which shows clearly how far behind on book blogging I am. It also means anything I write is through a dim blur of partially rememberedness. I do remember liking the main character, Jade, who was quick to punch on and anything that needed ending she would end. Fists before thinking. Which of course gets her into all kinds of shit and sent off to Thailand to train in a not-posh establishment, the kind foreigners would only pay to avoid.

It’s around here it got a little wonky for me. I’ve read a lot of fiction which has either been set in or at some point of the narrative has ended up in Asia. The further south it goes, the more it generates something suspicious in me. Hong Kong stories in the ’90s are a good example of this, as are quite a few expat-y ones set in Bangkok. The last thing I read by Neal Stephenson before deciding he was serious in his ’Murica parochialism, Reamde was right up in this for southern China. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is another recent one so full of problems, yet so loved by an audience that really needs to read Orientalism.

Lately, another exotic locale getting its own orientalising is trans women. William Gibson had one in the otherwise pretty fucking good The Peripheral, as did Rachel Hartman’s Shadow Scale. There’s one here too, probably because if a book is set in Thailand it has to.

Gibson based his trans-signifying characteristics around ‘big hands’ (Fukkin’ WTF? I know!) and a propensity to cry (LOL trannies, amirite?) It was so obviously a weak attempt at a cash-in on what someone somewhere—ok what Gibson has decided is cool right now, and so very poorly executed. Lately I’ve been wondering how this can happen. A book—or any work of art—doesn’t exist in a vacuum, there’s always editors, proofreaders, blahdeblahers who are reading this shit long before it goes to print, and when not one of them picks up on it, it’s clear either no one in the room has the skills, or no one gives a shit. I have to wonder if cis people should be allowed to make art about trans people when they so evidently fuck it up every time.

I don’t remember so well the bollocks in Shadow Scale (a book I did like a lot), except it was a bro smashing things on top of a mountain who later on—when met in real life—was a chick. So, the angsty transition cliché. Yeah, ok, this stuff is real, but about the only good representation of a trans character I’ve seen lately is Nomi in Sense8, and that’s got Lana Wachowski writing/directing/producing so you’d kinda expect absence of fuckery. (Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black somewhat counts. She’s brilliant, but the series itself has big problems beyond just the awful white fool front and centre.) I want to see cis writers not falling for the trans clichés which cis people themselves manufactured and if they can’t bring themselves to do that, I want them to fuck right off.

Then there’s Shadow Boxer. I’m still not sure what I read, though I think the male Thai martial art star was supposed to have been kathoey of the beautiful, extremely feminine female type. Or it could have been the other way: beautiful feminine female got up on T and turned into international male kickboxing hero. My first problem here was—presuming the former is correct—the interpretation is Sullivan wrote a trans female character who detransitions. (I’m obfucating here between trans and kathoey; they’re not interchangeable, however I do think Sullivan is writing a Western cliché of kathoey which does not see one as different from the other.) The subsequent problem is she wrote that for the sake of some narrative trickery, cos it’s all about this bro in Las Vegas and this other chick in Bangkok and woah! Same person!

In fact, this is exactly what Gibson did, so neither of these novels had a character who was trans, instead they just used trans identities to pull a bait and switch. It’s important to remember here that not telling your lover you’re trans can result in a person being changed with sexual assault (in the UK and elsewhere) and that ‘trans panic defense’ is a real thing which men who’ve just beaten a trans woman to death can and do successfully use to get acquitted. So writing in a trans character just to use them for this kind of gimmick is … currently I’m listening to Syringe Stick-Up Mama, Te hare cavar tu tumba.

I don’t want to go into an excruciating analysis of this, but I have some highly dodgy feelings around Sullivan and her fiction. Even more than with the Gibson stuff she should have known better. She gets the MMA and Muay Thai, has all this down convincingly (less so when the setting moves to Thailand and partakes in quite a few clichés), yet around kathoey and trans stuff it turns right shady. It’s the downside of representation. We all want to see ourselves in works of fiction (look no further than the response to Empire for evidence), yet once this becomes a selling point, we end up with an ocean of shoddy ‘representation’ that demonstrates the lack of diversity within the industry (be it publishing, television, whatever) by virtue of being allowed through.


Secret Project Thailand Depart!

And that’s Dasniya off to Thailand at 2am via Mitfahr to Frankfurt then Colombo, arriving 30 hours or so after we stood rather cold at Osloerstr, in Bangkok. Excitement! Completely unexpected and unknown excitement for her three weeks ago also. (Shall wash the dishes, ja, ok?)

Reading: Paolo Bacigalupi — The Windup Girl

Probably when this was first published, amidst all the noise about it, I picked it up and got through a few pages and put it back down, or at least I have a memory of that. This time, well, it was cheap and on the shelves at St George’s but honestly, I should have put it back down.

It’s won a lot of awards, a Nebula, a Hugo alongside China Miéville’s The City and the City, which while that isn’t one of my favourites, I far prefer and it’s probably a good counterpoint to why Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is a dodgy work of science-fiction despite seeming quite well-written and obviously appealing enough to snarf awards.

I’ll start with the lesser issue, which has been annoying me in such abominable works as Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, and even some of Charles Stross’ more recent stuff. I call it authenticityism, and it’s a plague on literature. It’s the idea that by getting everything right, all the science and setting and ‘world-building’, you make a good story. In its useful guise, it’s called continuity, and it’s really useful: it makes things coherent. But lately it seems to be manifesting as an obsessive fixation on pseudo-accuracy, that the science in the science-fiction makes sense, and is ‘true’ even at the expense of being comprehensible to the reader — Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Fractal Prince falls into this at times, whereas Miéville’s Embassytown doesn’t, despite being equally demanding — or in a hyper-correct location and setting; believability reified through the ceaseless application of detail, which is both in this book’s Bangkok, and Stephenson’s southern China city.

This authenticityism causes a particular sensation in me, that it’s not authentic at all. Stephenson’s city in China seems true in the same way that scraping detail from Google Maps and Street View, Wikipedia, querying locals found by way of blogs and other sources, images from Flickr, videos from YouTube and staring at This Other, willing it to be genuine can give a veneer of authority on a subject. But it’s more an authority like Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, a Japan of Japan never visited, though entirely without the critical awareness of Barthes.

There’s a similarity in this writing method with the lot of internet trolls, who flame every small continuity or factual error, as though this scorched-earth correctness is necessary and renders the whole worthless. Possibly unsurprisingly, the writers who I find are most likely to fall into this style are white males who have some background in science or technology.

On to the major problem with this book, then. Oh, yes, I’ve read it. So much for not reviewing. Well, it’s in two parts, so I’ll dispense with one sharply. It’s reminds me a lot of John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, or other works by westerners set in the exotic, inscrutable Orient, in that everything Other is mentioned repeatedly until it becomes a blaring wall of noise against which the story is set. This could be partly another case of authenticityism, but I rather think that pointing Edward Saïd’s Orientalism at it would result in revealing something messy.

The main, fundamental, inescapable problem with The Windup Girl is that it is very much not work that’s good for women. It’s possible that the author genuinely believes he’s writing a work that is like a science-fiction reportage on the atrocious, beastial lives of women (of the genetically modified type, and of the trans type as embodied in two of the characters, one major — the windup girl of the title, and one minor, a plaything for a sleazy genetic engineer) in a third-world post-apocalypse Asian megalopolis, but in fact shows such a profound lack of imagination, empathy, or understanding of what a character who is female might be, that the only way he can illustrate this is through a similar blaring wall of noise comprised of degradation and rape.

It helps that this is so clear, because it also manifests insidiously in the place of the female characters — and there are quite a few. There are approximately five main characters (though one dies part-way through and hangs around till the end as a ghost), of which two are female, and we spend considerable time in all of their heads. The giveaway is that both the female characters are stripped of agency and autonomy, unlike the male characters. Kanya, despite performing the grande Coup d’état in the final scene, is never more than protégée to her dead captain, constantly at her side, judging, assessing, commenting on her actions. Of Emiko, the windup girl, she is (or at least she thinks she is) genetically programmed to obey her master, and even after killing her pimp moves directly on to the next great white saviour, even in the epilogue where she has arrived at some degree of selfhood. Other minor female characters are also there to be saved by a plethora of males, in fact I can’t think of a single female character whose role doesn’t circulate around a male.

Fundamentally, this is a work of a lack of imagination. The best Bacigalupi could do to represent a near-future dystopia is one where sexy, smooth-skinned, lithe and athletic, genetically engineered women are sex slaves, only fit to be saved by a heterosexual white alpha male from the west, who she of course happily fucks. And to underline just how dystopian this near-future is, she has to get raped. A lot. And Bacigalupi writes out pages of it with diligent authenticityism.

the great challenge

Julien Seri, the director of Yamasaki – les samourai des temps modernes which is not much of a samurai film is back with Les Fils du vent – The Great Challenge, which sounds like a straight-to-dvd number about a group of guys who jump around the outsides of buildings for a kick and get into serious trouble while slumming it in Bangkok.

I would explain the plot, but it would immediately expose a series of seemingly contrived plot devices in order to get the Yamikasi (the young troupe of French acrobatic building jumpers) to Bangkok, and into, well a whole heap load of trouble. But this film should not be analyzed in such a manner. Whilst puncturing your cornea with highly graded, much stylized Manga – esque images, Mr Seri has evidently immersed himself in Asian contemporary comic book and film culture, and the essence of marshal arts. Brief moments of spiritual enlightenment, racial tension and a love for one of the most exotically beautiful women to grace our screens in a long while (look out for Elodie Yung) puncture blistering scenes of fights a top bamboo scaffolded buildings, grim darkened steel warehouses, and a breath taking final denouement of ridiculous scale. Without a computer generated figure in sight. This is one for DVD replay buttons as mind boggling stunts are brushed aside with yet more bone crushing jumps, spins and kicks.