Reading: Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade

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.

Reading: Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957

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.

Reading: Kim Stanley Robinson – 2312

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.

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.

Reading: Joan Slonczewski – The Children Star

Finishing my triumvirate of Elysium Cycle novels, Joan Slonczewski’s The Children Star is the last but two of her books I’ve yet to read, though of those two, one is Microbiology – An Evolving Science for university students and I suspect I would enjoy it in the way a Magpie enjoys shiny things, if I could even afford it.

After Daughter of Elysium, I was desperately hoping for something substantial and compelling in this novel, as the former unfortunately is one of the least memorable science-fiction works I’ve read. As usual, my intent to write this before I begin reading has been thwarted, so I shall reveal that firstly, it’s pretty good, and (without having read The Wall Around Eden to be sure) it marks the beginning of Joan’s delicious weirdness in imagining alien microbial sentience, and secondly, I think I’ve met these microbes before.

Image

Uferstrasse Trees

A few months ago various people in Uferstrasse got together to save some trees that were to be felled in order for water works to be done.

A while ago we thought the trees had been saved. It turns out not.

Today the Berliner Wasserbetriebe began cutting down some the trees in Uferstrasse. This is the ‘compromise’; the old Plane tree was saved in exchange for two not so old trees being cut down. Some compromise.

As always, trees lose to fuckholes. And there’s nothing that can be done.

Gallery

Reading… a 3rd anniversary

Regarding the two-score books of the last year, it is surprising which of the non-fiction – a term I use somewhat lightly given the nature of the fiction I read – I think is the most important. Not to say best, because it is simply not possible to compare G. Whitney Azoy’s Buzkashi – Game and Power in Afghanistan with Hanna Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor – Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, besides perhaps to consider the strong anthropological authorship in each.

I think perhaps I’ve been reading more science-fiction than I should in the past few months though; somewhat akin to my previous chocolate indulgence, put paid to by immanent risk of gaping holes in teeth. Charles Stross is, as in the last year, well-represented, though slogging through all six volumes of The Family Trade series doesn’t exactly count. With three other books devoured this year, he nonetheless pads out the numbers.

Perhaps to start with disappointments. William Gibson and Zero History. It’s curious to find a writer of near-future speculative (science-)fiction (hence my remark about the ambiguity of a fiction/non-fiction division) feeling dated and behind the times even on the day of publication. I’m sure I’ll read him again, but this was unexceptional, in no way saved by the pseudo-MacGuffin. Charles Stross’ Family Trade series also wallowed adrift for the second trio, and many intriguing ideas hinted at in the earlier ones (and outlined on his blog) remained undeveloped or abandoned; instead veering off on an un-engaging Bush-era terrorist spiel.

On the non-fiction side, Christopher I. Beckwith, who is indisputably a formidable scholar on Central Asia and Tibet frustrated me in twice. First in Empires of the Silk Road for his ceaseless tirades agains post-modernism and other failings of scholarship, which is especially jarring when I’m trying to concentrate on the lineage of Mongolian barbarians. The second is for confusing said lineages with history. I was deeply thrilled to receive The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia, anticipating much excitement (and winter fashion) with the Goloks. Instead I was beaten into submission by the feudal slaughter equivalent of biblical begatting. History is not an ad nauseum which man with an army ground which other underfoot.

Lucky The Tibetans, while not so much an an in-depth academic text, manages to avoid this monotony and thus far is the best generalist volume I’ve read on the region. Still, I am searching for more substantial books, be it eastern Tibet, Amdo and the Goloks, or western and the mountain passes into the -stans. I haven’t really begun reading The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan, which I hope might bring a little more enlightenment… I’ll have to wait for next year’s anniversary to discover that.

Many other books I’m very happy to have at least attempted this year. Edward Said’s Orientalism falls into this category. I expect I’ll slowly absorb it by sleeping near than by overthrowing it in a week-long siege. Some out of China also, Voices from the Whirlwind, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China and The Age of Openness: China Before Mao filling out my sino-reading – something I’ll need to do more of in the next year if I wish to get through even a portion of my reading list.

Surprisingly, the non-fiction book of the year isn’t some Sino-Tibetan / Central Asian monograph on horse sport, but one which many people I know have read: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. That it made me question and change my already infrequent meat-eating, as well as dispose of much dairy product consumption through reminding me why I became vegetarian and vegan in the first place is only part of the reason. That it is causing in my friends similar responses is perhaps the greatest achievement. And to think I read it out of boredom in an evening lying on a sofa in Vienna.

To say a little more. It is beholden upon us and our generation to instigate change. The governments, politicians and businesses who nominally are our seniors and act in our interests have categorically failed to act in any meaningful or decisive way on what is unequivocally a great catastrophe facing the planet. To reduce this catastrophe to the term, ‘global warming’, while certainly affording attention to one aspect, fails to include myriad interconnected impending disasters which are the singular result of our lifestyles. When confronted with the reality of the ecological vandalism and destruction eating meat involves – even before raising the issue of the suffering it causes and our complicity therein – it becomes unarguable that the single biggest, immediate difference a person – we – can make to bring about change, to attempt to avert or at least partially ameliorate this coming ruin, is to comprehensively and permanently change how we eat.

On, then, to science-fiction.

Charles Stross has provided many hours enjoyment this last year; The Fuller Memorandum was consumed twice in quick succession, but it was Saturn’s Children that came closest to fiction book of the year. He, like Iain Banks attracts my attention because he writes strong female characters (even if the females are sexbots from after the demise of humans) and like Banks and Miéville has an obvious social and political agenda in his work that I find an affinity for.

Iain (M.) Banks provided similar pleasure with re-readings of many old favourites and the new Transitions and (just finished) Surface Detail. Both are very good but don’t quite get up to the level of wild brilliance of earlier novels. Yet, they do seem to – along with The Algebraist and Matter – point to a new period in his writing and I’m already looking forward to his next.

Further on the unambiguously fiction side, by which I mean science-fiction or science-bloody-horror-no-near-future-speculative-fiction-here-fiction, the book of the year though is the quite brilliant, verging on genius for the two most terrifying thugs in London – far better than The City and The City which won a Hugo this year – China Miéville’s Kraken. If I’ve managed to persuade you to read Iain (M.) Banks, this isn’t quite Feersum Endjinn, my book to take if I can only take one book, but it’s close.

Finally adding a Reading category, almost all the books I’ve read in the last couple of years can be found there. Otherwise, some of the many books I’ve enjoyed this year…

(Oh, I started the ‘Reading … ” thing here in October, 2007 (with William Gibson’s Spook Country), which is why ‘Book of the Year’ arrives in October (the 16th or so) instead of on some other temporarily significant yet nonetheless arbitrary date such as the end of the year.)

(Some) Stuff I Read This Week

For some reason I decided to start using Twitter again — I suspect iPhone — and without any clear purpose thought to keep track of (some of) what I trawl through every day from the various news feeds I subscribe to. Certainly not a complete list… I wouldn’t even bore myself with that. (For those of you who like Twitter, I am here: francesdath)

Hannah Arendt And The Challenge Of Modernity: A Phenomenology Of Human Rights http://bit.ly/al0fTY

Publishing Bigotry: What Obligations Do We Have? http://bit.ly/ap8JfM

The Banksoniain #16 http://www.banksoniain.netfirms.com/banksoniain_16.pdf

From the Feuilletons (10/09/2010) http://www.signandsight.com/intodaysfeuilletons/2067.html

Insights From The Afghan Field http://www.currentintelligence.net/reviews/2010/9/6/insights-from-the-afghan-field.html

What Books on Afghanistan? http://easterncampaign.wordpress.com/2010/09/10/what-books-on-afghanistan/

Can we really say Wen is insincere? http://cmp.hku.hk/2010/09/10/7524/

You have failed us, Mr. Wen http://cmp.hku.hk/2010/09/09/7483/

William S. Burroughs’ Lost Graphic Novel Ah Pook Is Here Gets Exhumed http://bit.ly/99IVYd

Corruption in Afghanistan, Part DLXXII: Kabul Bank in Crisis http://bit.ly/bzJYzu

On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules http://nyti.ms/crIV9P

If We Only Had Twelve Fingers http://cabinet-of-wonders.blogspot.com/2010/09/if-we-only-had-twelve-fingers.html

Obama: I mean it — tax the rich http://bit.ly/d8mJZR

China’s Other Billion: Mud Houses in China’s Powerhouse http://bit.ly/aghJ9U

Being Jewish in Shanghai http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/being-jewish-in-shanghai-photos/62574/

Racist patriarchy in Israel, updated http://leninology.blogspot.com/2010/09/racist-patriarchy-in-israel-updated.html

‘Livelihood Issues’ http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/mirsky_09_10.html

Shenzhen Special Economic Zone celebrates 30 years
http://www.danwei.org/front_page_of_the_day/shenzhen_special_economic_zone.php

Hungary: Heterosexual Pride March http://globalvoicesonline.org/2010/09/06/hungary-heterosexual-pride-march/

Thesis: That’s why they go to war http://www.antropologi.info/blog/anthropology/2010/war

Book review: Goodbye to London – Radical Art and Politics in the Seventies http://bit.ly/9fBkhH

Awesome death spiral of a bizarre star http://bit.ly/crFrQH

Readin: GYP. http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003982.php

Thoughts on Inner Mongolia (內蒙古回顧) http://www.portraitofanlbx.com/2010/09/thoughts-on-inner-mongolia-內蒙古回顧/

Hu’s Shenzhen speech: the numbers http://cmp.hku.hk/2010/09/06/7383/

Israel: “Rape by deception” turns out to be brutal rape of a vulnerable and abused woman http://bit.ly/9tYI9q

Assigning a gender to be appealed
http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/09/06/3004047.htm

Restrepo http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2010/09/05/restrepo/

die bäume bleiben

(Just before cycling back to rehearsal…)

Our beautiful tree of Uferstrasse will remain for the moment. The Berliner Wasserbetriebe has said it will consider all possibilities to preserve the Plane tree. Thank you to everyone who showed up and helped on the 21st. A video from RBB (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg — in German), for you to enjoy.