The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
A couple of years ago, I discovered this amazing website called io9, full of sci-fi and weirdness, great writers, actually pretty good commenter community, and one day I clicked on the link at the top called Jalopnik and my love of hooning was reborn. This isn’t about hoonage though, it’s about sci-fi, and Charlie Jane Anders, one of the founders and former co-editor of io9, and her novel (which I thought was her debut, but it’s not) All the Birds in the Sky.
I’d been avoiding reading this for a while. Maybe because I like her a lot as an io9 writer, so heavy expectations here for a skiffy/fantasy novel. Maybe because I read the first pages and it didn’t really click with me. But I needed some fiction to read, so it landed in my backpack as part of a quartet on Friday. And now I’ve finished it. Bunked off ballet training this morning for that.
I’m sticking with my “like her a lot”/“didn’t really click” vacillating. If someone asked me if they’d like it, I’d say, “If Jo Walton’s Among Others, Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files series and/or Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory did it for you, and you’re fine with deeply San Francisco-centric story-telling — and I mean deeply, I can taste the locally sourced artisanal — you’ll probably get a kick out of it.” Or, “It’s a whiter, hipsterer, startup-er, unthreatening middle-class version of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People trilogy.” You can “To tha Googz” if what you’re looking for is a two-sentence synopsis, I’m kinda crap at those; my reading for pleasure concerns are more like chewing on bones.
Chewing on bones, then. I liked much of this. Charlie Jane is a smart writer and knows how to weave a story like tapestry over hundreds of pages. For me it’s a little too influenced by American-centric pop culture and the rather (also pop culture) Hegelian dialectic binarism that it views the world through. I’d like to read a novel from her where she forgoes these devices. I’d also like to read one without a whiny, verging on skeevy hetero manchild as one of the main protagonists. I know he spent a lot of his teens getting a kicking, but fuck me, he needed another and in the words of the great poet Chopper Read, harden the fuck up.
I was thinking about ballet choreographers, and the tendency for the gay male ones to make quintessentially heterosexual pieces, in fact to perpetuate that as the only possibility for ballet, and I was wondering why Charlie Jane, who’s hella queer, would go for such a white bread hetero pairing of the two main characters. It might be she was mocking/satirising/ironically depicting these binaries as a story structure, somewhat in parallel to the material activities of the two. If so, I’m not sure it worked or was necessary, and me being the bolshie one think ditching this conceit would have made a far less pedestrian narrative.
I often worry when I write like this that it reads as “Hostile to Everything”, when in fact I enjoyed quite a bit — enough to bunk off training this morning to finish it. Maybe to say this isn’t a review, it’s me trying to elucidate what didn’t work for me, to describe that in more considered terms than a string of obscenities. So, will I read her next novel? If it’s sci-fi, yes, yes I will.
I think it’s mediæval art. Well, not the art itself, but the people writing on it. They are quite frankly a little … boring … need laxatives (less charitable Frances says: elitist wankers actively excluding anyone who doesn’t fit their clique-ish posing). I mean, come on, mediæval northern European history is mad crazy. I know this cos I’ve read heaps, and know most people think it’s all peasants pushing muddy sticks in muddy fields, falling over with the plague, waiting for the Renaissance to kick off—that’s the look people give me when I say “mediæval” I see it behind their glassy eyes, “…muddy sticks…” But it’s fucking not. It’s shitloads more progressive, analytic, philosophical, creative, than much of the following hundreds of years. Seriously, have you read Descartes? Set Europe back about 1500 years.
Also I did not read so much this year. A mere 36 books, of which 22 were fiction and 14 non-fiction. I blame my slightly out-of-control internet addiction (now under control courtesy System-level blocking of a chunk of the internet Sunday through Friday night), for the decrease, as well as not so much science-fiction being published that tripped me out—I do read a lot of fantasy, and some of it was pretty good, but honestly if there was say twenty writers of the Banks/Leckie/Miéville/Stross level splurting out skiffy, I’d either be hoovering a book a week of the stuff, or more likely dispensing with it altogether for the high fibre stuff. As for non-fiction, preceding paragraph.
I was going through supernaut a fortnight ago, finishing cleaning all the old images, which meant also looking at what I’d been reading, which in turn reminded me of being in China and the difficult relationship that place has to its history (mostly conversations like “…5000 years of history!”), which I then thought about specifically in Germany and its relationship to history (older history, let’s say pre- arbitrary mid-point of the reign of the Fredericks, like the Great, mid-1700s), and while everyone goes bonkers for Tang and Song Dynasties (618-907 and 960-1279 respectively) you’d be really hard-pushed to get an equivalent or comparable “Woo! Fukkin yeah!” reaction about Regnum Teutonicum, early Hanseatic League, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hildegard of Bingen. I’m all enthusiastic about it, but the writing, so so many wrist-slitting pages of tedium.
There’s less resistance to change in Chinese studies, given that substantial archives are still being opened—and moreover simply it’s not Europe, so for Euro-Anglo-American-based scholarship, there isn’t that subjective rewriting of identity which I think is deeply tied into writing on European history. Just to witness the concerted and heavy resistance in both academia and broadly across culture to the presence of Islam and brown people (North African, Arabian, Persian, Central Asian) as part of northern European history demonstrates the inflexibility of European historical narrative. And on that, of course we’ve always been here: the trade routes along rivers, across the Baltic, Black, and Caspian seas make any other history patently false.
Yar, so. The books:
Fiction first. A couple of late arrivals—K T Davies’ Breed (haven’t written about yet) and Steph Swainston’s The Castle Omnibus (three books in one and pushing 900 pages)—saved the year from being a total washout. Breed was a sweary anti-hero loser sucker for punishment (Davies liked pushing him off a cliff every few pages for shits and giggles), who turned out to be Saviour of Everyone, who then tells everyone Thanks But No Thanks, Also Fuck Off because that’s what you do when people treat you like shit ’til you’ve got something they want. Mad Staunch is our Breed. It’s definitely in standard fantasy land, but the swearing and horribleness takes it almost into Oglaf.
The Castle Omnibus, on the other hand, is dead serious reading. There’s a scene in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series where they land on a parallel world full of things which eat anything living. The insects here, the Shift (both a place between worlds and the fabric in which all worlds are held), even the feudal mediæval island (let’s call it Great Britain) could easily be the Stross’ universe from a different perspective. It almost, almost convinced me to be Book of the Year, but … Look, I’m totally down with a first person narrative who’s a fiend for the needle and spends the first part of every book smug in a “kicked my habit for good this time” state and fifty pages later is blasting three times a day, and who has wings, and who’s punk/goth/streetkid/bitter/sexy/unreliable narrator, but a few of the important female characters were iffy, kinda “Wow, the guys are wankers, but the women … fukkin’ bitches.” That and the unsatisfactory post-climax resolutions which are a structural function of how Swainston tells a story. Probably will read subsequent Castle novels in the absence of skiffy.
Also three from Ayize Jama-Everett, his Liminal series (The Liminal People, The Liminal War, The Entropy of Bones). Best writer you’ve never heard of. A little too calculated and superficial—his ability to write is more impressive than the scenes and characters, which often shrink into the panoply of heterofanboy fantasy (like the tough martial arts chick of Entropy). But still I devoured all three, ’cos I’m desperate for good sci-fi/fantasy that isn’t white people. Best read smoking weed and listening to Asian Dub Foundation.
William Gibson made a fucking spectacular return to Neuromancer levels of Fuck Me This Is Good in The Peripheral, then blew it equally spectacularly with bullshit bandwagon du jour for sci-fi and fantasy writers who wanna be cool: trannys! Yes, Gibson has a tranny. So does Rachel Hartmann in Shadow Scale. A tranny is a particular stereotrope cisgender writers love. They’re defined by metonymy: big hands, secrets, crying, physical stature, striking appearance. They occur in two places throughout the story: once in the past in male form, again in the present as female, but we’re not told this person is one and the same except for via these metonymic ‘hints’. The reveal is a plot device which comes with all manner of ‘trapped in the wrong body’ exegesis, more tears, more big hands flapping, while fulfilling some surprise plot twist the author evidently felt only a chick with a dick could accomplish. Yeah, Gibson, Hartmann, Tricia Sullivan, I’m giving you the side-eye (and all you cis writers who suddenly have always been all about Teh Tranz). Please, just stop, you’re fucking embarrassing.
I noticed as I was writing this that I find it difficult to remember one fantasy work from another. It’s all the same, magic and dragons and shit, and curiously white-ish generic western European ‘mediæval’. Even Breed, The Castle Omnibus, Shadow Scale, Archivist Wasp rely heavily on this for some aspect of the world, and as much as they surmount this narrow world in other aspects, it’s tiresome. Being heavily critical here, I’m not sure many Euro-Anglo-American writers can write outside this. It’s not enough to shift the setting to Generic Africa or Generic Asia, or have characters who are otherwise indistinguishable from inner city heteroboys be muslim or have a checklist of exotic defining attributes. This is where I think authors like Saladin Ahmed and Ayize Jama-Everett get it right (and conversely G. Willow Wilson doesn’t). To be clear, it’s not about the ‘authenticity’ or not of the writer. I think it’s more of a question of misjudgement, that the author thinks it’s sufficient to attach a set of attributes to a character or location, and fails to realise that each attribute is an entire world. To be a muslim or a transsexual person (I’m currently using that latter word because trans, trans*, transgender are all seriously shitting me) is to experience the world in a fundamentally different way; for all the quantitative differences there might be, these do not in themselves add up to the qualitative difference I’m talking about.
Moving on, non-fiction:
I’m still on my Caroline Walker Bynum bender, though close to finishing her œvre. I threw Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages across the room once. I forget why. It’s not often that happens, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t something she said, but a quote which made me want to burn a thousand years of Europe to ashes and salt the ruins. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women escaped damage, as did Mechthild Of Magdeburg’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anna Kuhlmann’s (eds.) Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914 deserved such a beating, but at 60€ I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s definitely an inverse ration between scholarship and price in academic publishing, and sure, there were a few bits and pieces I’m glad I read, but nothing was substantially above the extended inquiry into the subject I’ve read around the internet, and quite a bit I would fail if I was marking undergraduate-level essays. The other stuff though, I think part of the difficulty in reading is extricating the valid ideas from the misogynistic, religious, social structures and limitations of the time. It’s not always pleasant work. Conversely, persuading contemporaries of its value butts up against equally frustrating limitations. It’s safe to say that the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment ages all did a hatchet job on the mediæval era which remains to this day.
Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts is useful in exhuming this, coming as it does from the peak of continental superiority (geographic and temporal), and I am enjoying it, paragraphical asides on Dürer and the Reformation lead to hours following the migration of ideas across Europe, getting lost in the Beeldenstorm iconoclasm, following the Hanseatic League (again). I wonder to myself, for what? At times I feel on the edge of understanding—broadly, generally, continent- and era-sized brush stroke kinds of understanding—What Happened and What It Means, and then … nope, gone.
And on that, non-fiction book of the year does exist: David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, and Karen C. C. Dalton’s massive and glorious Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood. It’s an odd choice for me, being in the coffee-table realm of printed matter, but the essays are significant and valuable; as is the project in itself, beginning in the ’70s, to document the history of people of colour in European art. Look, you can gawk at art from the past millennia in these ten volumes and see not only changing attitudes to people outside and on the margins of Europe—and those people within the many Europes that we somehow continue to convince ourselves is and has always been homogeneous—changing ideas of representation, for religion, for gender, for social status, for ethnicity; you can also see the change in what constitutes European self or subjecthood, and following from that what is Other. The history of European art documents extraordinarily clearly over hundreds of years the emergence and ascendency of colonialism, racism, ideas of superiority—of ethnicity, gender, class—as well as resistance to this, all inextricably interwoven with religion. And for all our pretence that things are different now, what’s remarkable is how familiar a thousand years ago is.
Ok, there’s a few fiction and non-fiction I have to mention: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos’ The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series, Book 1: Air because fukkin’ #korrasami and being one of the best series animated or otherwise this millennia. Howard W. French’s China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, which really deserved better paper stock, and despite its shortcomings is one of the current required texts on the very-much hot subject. Udo Kittelmann and Britta Schmitz’s (eds.) Gottfried Lindauer: Die Māori-Portraits, from the exhibition at the Alte-Nationalgalerie, made me miss Aotearoa something fierce. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, not as good as the first one, but having just finished the third, and planning a binge of the trilogy, can say it’s crucial reading. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction, who occasionally shows the brilliance of his first novel, and worth it just for that. Charles Stross’ The Annihilation Score, a dependable early-summer arrival, didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as some of his other stuff though. Jo Walton’s The Just City, the first of a trilogy, I think. Not sure if it’s excellent (compared to say, her Among Others), but enjoyed very much. And I cannot not mention Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod Poems, as it’s the last thing Banks will publish and that guts me beyond words.
Maybe I’m just a grumpy, entitled cunt, cos from right here that looks like a pretty fucking sweet year of reading.
Books! Just like vinyl, they’ll never die. I unashamedly love books and reading. I love the weight of them, the resistance in their spines, the smell and feel of the paper and ink. I adore when the typeface and setting has been done with love, and adore also the works of art that are the covers. I love seeing a pile or stack or shelf of read books (as much as I cringe with embarrassment at the spilt and splashed food, drink, dirty fingers, smudges, I inflict—seem to have retired from marking pages by folding the corner though, so some progress made). A book is as much a work of art for how it is made as for what it contains; and for what it signifies and stands for, fiction or non-fiction: literacy, ideas, the love of knowledge, philosophy, these things that cannot be reduced to an economic sum. To read—to be able to read—is one of the greatest luxuries and privileges.
And that necessitates obligation. Reading in itself is not a human right. Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
The title’s sensationalist. The cover I quite like; it looks better somehow attached to a book than on a screen. Black for Africa and red for China is crude when I think about it; does fit the title though. The paper is atrocious, not much better than newsprint, grey, joyless, and floppy.
Howard French I’ve been reading as a blogger for nearly ten years (bloody hell how did that happen), since he was based in Shanghai as the New York Times bureau chief. He doesn’t blog so much anymore, and hasn’t been based in China for most of the time since I added him to my feed reader. I seem to be reading more Africa stuff lately, possibly arriving at that from one side via mediæval art and my interest in representation in the artworks, and from the other via China. Gordon Matthew’s Ghetto at the Center of the World, exploring the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong and the international trade with Africa by Africans run through there, as well as the large African community in Guangzhou are probably the most significant prior connections. Germany’s colonial history would be a third.
I was hoping for a substantial book, along the lines of Frank Dikotter say, rather than Susan Mann, and it is investigative journalism of a type. French spent a lot of time travelling back and forth across Africa, met and talked with a lot of people, both African and Chinese, but it’s more like a very long piece of journalism than a book, each chapter and section repeating the same structure, the same meetings of individuals, the same driving, the same observations. It tends towards a homogeneous and not so meaningful view of Chinese presence in Africa, despite that being not French’s aim.
Anyone who follows China or Africa even in passing in the usual sources like the NY Times will have their opinions and prejudices confirmed: corruption all over, racism, colonialism, environmental destruction, lack of legal transparency, fragile democracies or crypto-oligarchies, war and horror never too far. Even with the occasional positive or bright moments, the implicit future for most of sub-saharan Africa with China moving in isn’t a hopeful one. His discussion of China using migration to Africa and elsewhere as a means of dealing with its own population explosion and accompanying social and environmental issues is the one thing I’d read more of.
Ah, I’m not supposed to be reviewing here: why I’m reading it rather than what I thought afterwards. Maybe to say the subject of China in Africa—if it is indeed substantial—is one deserving solid works. This book is ok for a light Saturday afternoon read after finishing the weekend paper, but like newspapers it carries implicit bias, and whether it was in French’s preparation or writing it is limited in the diversity of subjects—either interviewed or discussed—the story builds itself on.
I have a friend who hates all the theorising going on in academia around black metal. She sees it as something like appropriation or colonisation and it “almost makes me puke” their “speak[ing] about us, not with us”. In reply to my friend, I said many of the writers are coming from within themselves, and think they have something useful to say, and is probably not so horrible.
The first in this collection edited by Scott Wilson is by Drew Daniel. I loved The Soft Pink Truth and the album, Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want … has been a long-time favourite. I hated the cover of Venom’s Black Metal on Why Do the Heathen Rage? It seemed to me to embody everything vacuous, appropriating, bullshit ‘ironic’ that has sprung up around black metal in the past couple of years. Even in ImPulsTanz there was a performance with ‘corpsepaint’. It’s like the safe blackface, which you can’t really even get away with in Germany anymore, but taking the piss out of too-serious metalheads by the cool kids is completely open season.
Seeing my own work has been soaking in metal of one kind or another since the beginning—almost a chronological progression: Yardbirds, Black Sabbath, Motörhead, Slayer, Sunn O))), Agoraphobic Nosebleed, then going off the temporal tracks: Throbbing Gristle, Mayhem, Gorgoroth … reading theory on the subject is probably one of the closest reading relationships I have with thinking on my work. It’s not quite an obligation to read it, but there is something like professional interest.
There’s also scepticism. I do like the idea of black metal theory, yet as a philosophical discipline or however you want to define it, I find it somewhat out of touch with where much of the rest of comparable fields are at. Metal is sadly far too full of white, hetero dudes, and the recent years of theorising on it has been likewise dominated by this one particular viewpoint. If I were to apply my normal criteria to buying an anthology, at least 30% and preferably 50% female authors, this book wouldn’t even get a look in, with only two of the fourteen essays, a bit over 14%. I’m aware I’m not even addressing the content of the book and essays, yet this imbalance directly shapes the thinking behind the content.
As my blogging about reading is more about why I decided to read a book rather than a review, it’s unlikely I’ll write anything on this book unless it turns out to be so good it makes it to my Best of list next year. Even then it would be with reservations: imbalance in representation in published works is part of pervasive structural imbalance across academia and culture generally, and I find it much easier to give my euros to people who recognise this and do something about it.
I’ve been reading Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond for the past few weeks. It’s slow, heavy going, an absolute joy. I often think the subject matter—medieval Christian blood cults—is incredibly metal, and the writing, thinking, debates at the time and after on theology are highly applicable to a black metal theory, more so than more recent, post-enlightenment european religion. I doubt Bynum is a headbanger, so soliciting an essay for the next collection is probably unlikely. Maybe that’s just to say there is a far broader world already existing than I currently find in black metal theory.
It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
Because I’d never seen a photo of him, I imagined Shanghai-based scrap blogger Adam Minter was one of those gruff, 40- or 50-something American expats who manages to keep a blog of his life in China, like not a few others I’ve read over the years. How I came to be reading him … I have no idea, though possibly a connection to Shanghai Street Stories – in a different, older incarnation. Anyway, writing about trash, recycling, junk, waste, rubbish, the burning pits of Mordor, occasionally venturing to Guangdong and the cities I’d been through, of course I’d be reading him.
I’d been waiting for this book for quite some time, one of the many such that have coincidently all been published in the same couple of months. Partly because I have a curiosity for those desolate factories I sped past on the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, or the ones I drove through or spent time in, Qingyuan, Shaoguan, Dongguan, anonymous cities of millions that sprouted from nothing in the space of a pair of decades.
Also it occurred to me as Adam described his own family history of the junkyard that I seem to have one somewhat similar. My father, mechanic until it ruined his back (or at least, that’s the limit of what I know of him), had a factory in Scarborough dealing in waste paper. Not recycling it, just that intermediate step of gathering together all the sources and compressing it into massive bales. The old compactor was like a wire-frame elevator, going only down one floor. Paper went in and down; compressed and wrapped bales came up and out. There was also a freshly-concreted long pit, where the new, automated compactor was to go. And a forklift, which he tried to teach me how to drive at age 4. Almost ended in the pit. Though I did get enough of a hang of it for him to slap a pallet on the forks and me to take him all the way up so he could work on the roller door. Perhaps then a more accurate description of him is former mechanic in the scrap trade.
Minter’s book is a surprisingly light and fast read compared to his blog; it’s a different audience of course. A blog assumes a readership which allows for a shorthand when discussing its topics, giving more space for detailed remarks. A book on the other hand, especially one with a particular readership in mind, one that is unlikely to consistently enjoy reading about the Chinese recycling trade for years on end, keeps things much simpler and moving along. And he does move. Across the United States, across China, back to America, back to China, all the time meeting people from across the Americas, Asia, Middle East, Africa, pretty much anywhere people throw stuff out and other people see a way to make a living from that.
When I was in China, it because swiftly apparent to me the dominant narrative on many issues circulating around consumerism were highly problematic. To be stridently against sweatshops while living a first-world life, for example entirely misses the reality that doesn’t fit neatly into a slogan. Even the next level of narrative, that people in Guangdong, the manufacturing capital of the world, would choose to work in such factories simply because it was better than any other available option is an oversimplification. While it’s not David Graeber’s Debt, Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade does go a long way beyond these simplifications, showing how recycling actually works on a global scale, and for anyone with only a passing familiarity of the topic it’s definitely worth a read. Oh, and Adam is actually a cherub-faced young one.
Like Japan in the ’90s or Afghanistan until Bush Jr. was ousted and the ‘current affairs’ readers stopped caring, China has been for at least the last decade the subject of endless mountains of books, each anticipated, packed, and sold as the last word, the real truth on the Middle Kingdom, most heading quickly for the forgotten bargain bins and pulping. It’s really difficult to find better-publicised works that are of substance, that aren’t simply a rehashing of secondary sources, that are written by people who fundamentally know what they’re talking about and have devoted their lives to their field.
I’ve already finished Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, a work I’d been waiting for, and I could probably dispense with the post-reading praise as it’s not really possible at the moment for him to write something not worth reading. I’d previously read The Age of Openness: China Before Mao – the only disappointment there being lack of pages – and Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, written before this one but chronologically coming directly after. There is one more to complete this trilogy, covering the Cultural Revolution, which will probably arrive in three years.
Both of the first two in this trilogy are masterworks, drawing on recently opened Communist Party archives across China, and pieced together from the often partial and incomplete information available. That this is even possible at all is remarkable, as it is the same party that committed these crimes which remains in power, and it is the descendants of those criminals who sit as rulers.
I find it strange and disturbing when I walk into my favourite bookshop and there’s a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, or for example the Elizabeth Bear collection I’m now reading she whimsically names a synthetic cat Chairman Miaow. It feels to me as if there’s a disjuncture in understanding Mao’s place in the pantheon of 20th Century despots, an understanding that for most Europeans, Anglo-Americans and the general English-speaking part of the world would be self-evident if they walked into said bookshop and it was Hitler’s Mein Kampf, or the cat was named Führer Adolph. Even Stalin suffers (or perhaps gains) from an ambivalence or even disinterest in recognising his place in the history of terror, possibly because however close to Europe Russia is, there is a sense it is still Other and so the suffering he inflicted upon the Soviet Union was not necessarily part of the history of Europe and not quite as worthy.
Mao then – and the Chinese Communists – being even further east and perceived as entirely un-European (despite whatever basis his brand of Year Zero communism had in Marx, or that China had been a quasi-colony of Britain for quite some time) seems to be more a subject of patronising carelessness than a person and political party that did to China – and Tibet, and the other peripheral countries that became provinces after Liberation – ten times over what Hitler and the Nazis did in Europe, as well being directly responsible for what happened in Cambodia, Vietnam, much of South-East Asia, and North Korea. Unsurprisingly, it was Euro-American racism and post-colonial political meddling that in no small way abetted his rise to power.
The Tragedy of Liberation fills in the ten-year period from Liberation in 1949 to the end of the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the start of the Great Leap Forward, additionally covering the period of the Japanese occupation, and civil war. It is entirely grim, horrific reading. There is no pleasure to be found in the documenting of a country being ransacked and ground into the dirt, its people destroyed by the tens of millions, especially that this decade was just the beginning of a horror that did not begin to abate until the end of the ’70s. Even today the political decision-making and ruling frame remains substantially unchanged, merely a policy that resulted in the country being driven into the dark ages has been replaced by unmitigated capitalism. A history of China post-Mao I suspect will eventually show these most recent three decades to have been as destructive in their own way as the previous three.
My book for Antwerpen, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is up for a Hugo this year, and needing something sci-fi to read I thought it might appeal. I also have Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon sitting here, which is the only other one I think it’s possible to read without getting lost mid-way in a series.
It’s a curious book – obviously I’ve finished it – and the similarities to Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children are uncanny, notably the Terminator rail city on Mercury and the Smalls; the dismantling of moons in turn, as well as the name given to the technological era also recalls a work of Stross, one of the first I read: Accelerando. The former work is perhaps a good comparison, being one of my favourites in the genre, and having a humour that sits well with the imagining of a near-ish future solar system and the feats of engineering and technology that are required.
Stanley, like so many sci-fi writers these days gets all the details correct. I think of this somewhat as wiki-writing. It’s a particular feeling I get when I know the writer has done their research, but doesn’t really conceptually grasp it. Neal Stephenson and William Gibson both suffer from this. I’m thinking here of descriptions of southern China cities and inner-city Melbourne that were accurate yet missing something. Perhaps it’s a bit like how Germans in Berlin make croissants, as if they’ve heard and seen everything about them, but never tasted one.
Another problem of writers both recent and not so, which often combines with the above, is the imagining of a future in which what is now speculative technology has become real, yet with scant extra in the universe; imagining a future 200 years from now from the perspective of the ’70s where video is still being saved to VHS. This also was a evident in the US-centricism of his writing, despite populating Venus with Chinese (who seemed to have all adopted Native American names and culture) and other multi-culturalism dressing. Particularly so in how he handled gender, which of course is a quick way to piss me off. Really, naming one type of post-human genders ‘Wombmen’ smacks either of complete ignorance of second-wave feminism and all the essentialist genital-centric crap that went with it and the subsequent refutation of that corporeral nationalism, or simply a not caring because it sounds so clever, or worst of all, somehow thinking the likes of Daly have something to offer a near-future understanding of identity. And that’s before I spent a good fifteen minutes frowning at the physiological unlikeliness of the dual-genitaled coupling scene, wondering how he might explain such erogenous zones.
The ending, a post-human marriage of two such complimentary genders (a wombman and the protagonist, with genitals going the other way, so to speak), was insipid, unsatisfactory, and substantially reifying current-day gender identities and roles, whatever the configuration of genitals might be. That, along with plodding denouements that didn’t really make sense left me yearning for a good Stross or Banks or Mieville, people who actually understand this stuff. At least it gave me something to read for a few days.