Torque Control

Immediate Pasts and Soon-to-be Futures: Sinofuturism in Review

By Virginia L. Conn. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

This is an extended version of the essay that first appeared in volume 50 number 3 of the SFRA Review.

Like a snowball picking up speed, the last year has seen a growing aggregate of academic and popular interest in sinofuturism, both in China and abroad. Writing in a special issue of Screen Bodies on queer sinofuturism, scholar and designer Yunying Huang notes that as of 2020, the only results in Chinese for the term were a conversation between artists aaajiao, scholar Gabriele de Seta, and curator Xuefei Cao, and “a workshop on ‘Wudaokou Futurism’ (Space 2019) which convened a discussion of Sinofuturism in the geo-physical location of the Beijing region” (Huang 59). This Wudaokou futurism workshop, in fact, was the impetus behind the SFRA Review’s 2020 sinofuturism special issue, with many of the same speakers who participated in the workshop — including original workshop organizer Dino Ge Zhang — contributing articles that built on their prior presentations.

The Wudaokou alternative futurisms conference itself was held in December 2019, when China was already in the grips of the pandemic that would soon engulf the United States, the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world. I participated from a dark hotel room at 5 am, Skyping in (this was before Zoom became an omnipresent part of our connectivity — a lifetime ago!) to talk about alternative modes of temporalities to an audience that was, themselves, temporally and geographically disparate. Since then, the technology that sweeps us along towards an increasingly interconnected future has also come under the same orientalist scrutiny that informs so much sinofuturist anxiety in the first place: from then US president Donald Trump’s abortive move to ban both TikTok and WeChat in the States, to the widespread conspiracy that Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon deliberately engineered to destabilize Western nations, to the fear of surveillance technologies deployed in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the role technology plays in China’s place in the future is as central to Western perceptions and fears of global power relations as it ever was.

As I wrote in the introduction to the SFRA Review special issue on sinofuturism that grew out of the Wudaokou workshop, the theory itself has largely emerged as a concept applied externally to China by Western observers. By compartmentalizing sociocultural development as a form uniquely tied to the nation-state while also seeking to maintain both distance and otherness, sinofuturism differs from theorizations such as Afrofuturism (to which it is often compared) through its application to, not development from, the subjects it takes as object. As a result, the very label of “sinofuturism” developed out of the same orientalizing impulses that previously relegated China to a space of backwardsness and barbarism (Niu, Huang, Roh 2015) and which now attribute to it a projected futurity. Yet this Western label is one that Chinese authors and artists have appropriated and weaponized for their own creative ends, without necessarily sharing unified goals.

Authors of science fiction in China have uniquely grappled with this impulse, especially insofar as digital technologies — such as the growing e-publishing industry and networked media platforms — allow for the proliferation of new voices historically barred from traditional publishing venues (Xu 2015). What’s more, contemporary science fiction in China functions as a transnational form that centers a technoscientific process or material object as a means of introducing social change, rendering the aim of science fiction inherently future-oriented even when relying on the past or focused on the present. Because potential future ontologies are expected to be relevant to present extrapolations, they fundamentally rely, to some degree, not only on realistic depictions of possible technologies and circumstantial realism, but also the familiar perceptions of the extant material and digital worlds — a central tenet of sinofuturism’s omnivorous inclusion of technology, labor, art, and the visions it makes possible (Lek 2016).

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer , 2017. Poster from CGI Film. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

The globalizing effect of the internet and the subsequent rise in wide-scale digital exchange, in particular, has created a space for production in which Chinese authors are writing for an increasingly global audience and shifting their goals correspondingly. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, authors and public reformers in China (such as Liang Qichao, who, in his 1902 unfinished novel The Future of New China, described a utopian 1962 in which China was the dominant global power) were envisioning sinofutures in which China was preeminent on the world stage. The idea of China as a dominant force in the world yet-to-come continues through much Chinese science fiction today, from standout international sensations such as The Three-Body Problem to anonymously published digital short stories like “Olympic Dream.” For science fiction authors describing the Chinese future (or the future as Chinese), an awareness of the fact that American and Western media largely paints China as a place of repression and censorship is an integral part of the worlds they depict.

Continue reading “Immediate Pasts and Soon-to-be Futures: Sinofuturism in Review”

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

There’s a blurb on my copy of Gnomon where Warren Ellis explains how much he hates Nick Harkaway for having written it. I can relate: the ambition of this book would be enviable even if the execution weren’t very impressive. And the execution is very impressive indeed.

I need to capture Gnomon’s essence in not many more words than it has pages: a daunting challenge in its own right, made harder by my heaping praise on it in my opening paragraph. Readers familiar with my reviews will know I hold no truck with the Spoiler Police, but I’m nonetheless hesitant to reveal too much – not because outlining the plot would spoil your enjoyment of it, but because it’s effectively immune to summary. There’s just too much going on.

Gnomon

But still, let’s give it a go. For the setting, we have a dystopian future UK of the algorithmic-panopticon type: cameras and sensors everywhere, AI running all the things, democracy driven by mandatory online plebiscites covering everything from local disputes to major reforms of the legal apparatus. (It’s like the blockchain-enabled Society Of Tomorrow™ that features in TED talks, which is of course the point.) There are no police any more, only the Witness, one of whom – Meilikki Neith – is our viewpoint character. 

Neith has to investigate a high-profile case: the death in custody of a suspected dissident. Dissidents like Diana Hunter are routinely identified by the System and brought in for questioning; more often than not, their dissidence is diagnosed as some incipient or as-yet-unnoticed mental illness or social dysfunction, and is treated before they’re released to go on with their lives in a happier, more well-adjusted manner. The treatment and diagnosis are performed by the same means: a combination of innovations that make it possible to read human mindstates with an astonishing level of fidelity, and also to edit them. It is during such a questioning that Diana Hunter, minor novelist and luddite recluse, died. The rarity of such deaths merits Neith’s investigation – she’s one of the best – because it’s important that the System be seen to be fair, that due process is followed. 

The procedure is for Neith to review the memories retrieved from Hunter’s mind, so as to check whether she was the dissident that the System considered she might be, and whether her death was thus akin to the suicide of a captured enemy agent – to see if she had something to hide, in other words. Hunter’s memories are duly dumped into Neith’s mind. But while she’s waiting for them to settle, she decides to go gumshoe around in Hunter’s anachronistic house. The place is a Faraday cage, lined with books, devoid of cameras and sensors, and thus effectively off-grid in panopticonic terms. There, Neith meets an oddly-named androgyne who asks her a series of confusing questions, before roughing her up and doing a runner. In the aftermath of this assault, Hunter’s memories begin to surface in Neith’s consciousness… only it seems that they’re not Hunter’s memories at all, but those of a succession of other characters.

These could almost be treated as novellas in their own right: first-person accounts which bring the experiences of their narrators into sharp and immediate (if deliberately foreshortened) focus. Kyriakos the stock-market whizz-kid gains a god-like ability to see where the markets will turn, only to see them – and the rest of the world – turn sharply downwards. The alchemist Athenais is assigned to solve a Byzantine murder mystery that occurred in an occult contraption of her own fraudulent invention and ends up on an inter-planar vision-quest. Berihun, a feted artist in the last years of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, finds his creativity revitalised when invited by his games-designer daughter to contribute to her latest project, a dystopian surveillance-society RPG that presses all the wrong political buttons in a very Brexity contemporary Britain. And in a post-human far future, the book’s eponymous character takes up a tainted offer that might let them bring an end to all things, now, then, and forever more. As we move through these accounts, interspersed with Neith’s attempts to make sense of the mind they tumbled from, we realise that they are not mere nonsense that Hunter had hidden in her head, but something larger and stranger and more interconnected than that.

The central notion isn’t exactly original – it’s rather Strossean, in fact. I doubt I was the only reader who, a third of the way through, had a solid notion of Harkaway’s intended trajectory, not to mention an inkling of why he was going there. Perhaps this is a thing that only a writer would say, but there’s a sense in which the real protagonist of Gnomon was Harkaway himself: much tension came from wondering how, if ever, Harkaway was going to land this thing without tearing off the undercarriage and ploughing into a passenger terminal. I was prepared for (and would have forgiven) a moderately bumpy or abrupt landing, an ending that tried to play the game straight while using a doubled deck of cards. Heck, I’d have probably forgiven a hammer-it-home boot-on-a-face-forever conclusion – though that’s almost the exact opposite of what you get, even if things are far from happily-ever-after. 

But I never imagined Harkaway would have the audacity to have the book itself address me so directly and plainly in its final pages, to state its metafictional purpose while simultaneously claiming its own success… and yet he did, and it does, and it works (at least for me, shameless postmodernist that I am).

There’s so much more I could say, so much more I want to say, so much more I don’t know how to say. So I’ll just say: you should read it, it’s a masterpiece.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven.

The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Reviewed by Kerry Dodd. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The Strugatsky brothers are often synonymised with their most famous novel Roadside Picnic – which is hardly surprising as it certainly is a breath-taking read. Until fairly recently finding copies of their less well-known works, such as Hard to be a God or Monday Starts on Saturday, has been a veritable challenge. SF Masterworks’ re-publication of these iconic classics is both a joy and a tribute to the rich literary output of the brothers. Particularly timely given last year’s re-release of Stalker, an adaptation of Roadside Picnic directed by Andrei Tchaikovsky, these novels offer a thrilling window into SF written during the Soviet era whose core messages still have an urgency that resonate in the modern day. Indeed, Dmitry Glukhovsky, who himself has become a key figure in Russian SF following the cult success of Metro 2033, writes in his introduction to the new release of The Doomed City that ‘there comes a point at which science fiction is transformed into a means for at least hinting at the true state of affairs.’. Proudly declaring on its front cover that this is a book that was ‘so politically risky that its very existence was kept secret for sixteen years’, The Doomed City evidently is unafraid to challenge systematic hegemony and re-inscribes how SF offers not only poignant messages about the future, but equally the present. 

The Doomed City

The Doomed City centres around ‘The Experiment’ in which people from different countries and time-periods within the twentieth century are separated from their previous lives and forced to co-exist in an artificial new city, where the sun is akin to a giant lightbulb that can be turned off in an instant, and the occupants can mysteriously understand each other, regardless of language barriers. As the title suggests, this social experiment is one which is not marked for success. Each occupant must take part in the job lottery, a system which dictates every person’s function and place within the metropolis. Following the political rise of Andrei Voronin, an astronomer from 1950s Leningrad, who transitions from garbage collector, police investigator, newspaper editor and eventually bureaucrat, The Doomed City interrogates the core conceptualisations of social hierarchy. Each chapter focuses on the challenges that Andrei faces within these roles, from a hoard of baboons that descend upon the city to the Red Building that uncannily appears and abducts people seemingly at random. The novel is overtly one with many questions, few of which are concretely resolved. For although the city’s quirks add a sense of intrigue to the narrative, the Strugatskys’ writing really shines in the realistic conversations that simultaneously affirm and expose the social stratification which the experiment has artificially induced.  As the novel progresses, some of the critiques are evidently closer to the surface than others. The stark contrast in Andrei’s disposition to professions he deems as being ‘lower’, as he rises through society, has overt classist overtones; meanwhile, the apparent lack of any creative industry within the city is mentioned in an almost ephemeral aside that has a chilling parallel to modern anxieties towards arts funding cuts. The concluding expedition to discover what lies beyond the city, as well as the mythical supposition of an anti-city, is one which seeks to push the human to its extreme – to analyse what the term ‘human’ even means. As Andrei reaches the ‘final understanding’ at the novel’s close this is clearly the opening of one small area amongst a much wider vista. Each of the sections has a wistfully vignette style to them, for while at times they may be all too brief, the small allusions have a pervasively haunting nature. The Doomed City is a robust novel that is not just a gateway to Russian SF or Soviet censorship but one whose core ideas will retain a continuing relevance as the human race scrutinises social stratification against the enduring backdrop refrain that ‘the experiment is the experiment’. 

Copyright Kerry Dodd. All rights reserved.

Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature reviewed by Paul Graham Raven

Lisa Garforth, Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature (Polity Press, 2018)

One grows accustomed, as someone working on one facet of the challenge of climate change, to keeping an anxious and wary eye out for one’s opponents. 

I don’t mean climate change deniers—who it seems may always have been a lot rarer than their well-funded PR campaigns made them appear, and in any case were always fairly scarce in academia. We are now into a different and more difficult struggle, namely the struggle over what to do and how to do it. 

To put it another way, while there is broad unity on the challenge itself, there is prodigious disunity on the matter of the response. This has arguably been brewing for a while—ever since the splintering (around the time of the UN’s Brundtland report of 1987) of “sustainable development” (SD) into two conceptual camps, ‘strong’ and ‘weak.’ The camp that elected to hollow out the “sustainability” bit while firmly emphasising the “development” part, predictably enough, has proven far more popular with the worsted-clad elves of the policy machine and the Davosean clades of Business Thought Leadership. Strong SD demanded hard limits on development. Weak SD implied soft limits, so soft that they, along with the evacuated and increasingly unqualified concept of sustainability itself—“sustainable” for exactly how long, and with exactly what consequences, to exactly whose benefit, one might well ask—might be stretched like warm caramel in the hands of a dextrous accountant. (For a more thoroughgoing look at the Strong / Weak split, still very much a live conflict, this briefing paper toward the UN’s 2015 Global Sustainable Development Report sets it out fairly concisely from the perspective of the Strong camp).

We might see this as a struggle between two paradigms of response to anthropogenic climate change—though as with most such binaries, it’s probably better thought of as a spectrum strung out between two extreme positions that almost no one holds as such. Their difference might be illustrated by the current spat over carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Are CCS technologies a necessary and shovel-ready slab in the path to successful mitigation, or a vaporware accounting fudge from the business-as-usual (BAU) crowd that very deliberately leaves the door open for continued fossil fuel usage? From my phrasing, the reader may well be able to deduce which side of that particular fence I am positioned, though how far from the fence I’m stood is more a matter of perspective, as well as of time: the fence has moved many times. Indeed, if somewhat paradoxically, BAU seldom wears the same outfit twice, and corporations today are feverishly at work implementing their novel Net Zero strategies, no doubt innovating exciting new forms of heel-dragging, buck-passing, subterfuge, and slipshod dei ex machina as they go. For BAU has never really been a synonym for “do nothing”; doing nothing is anathema to the busyness of business. Rather, BAU refers to a tacit refusal to consider that the fundamental rules of the game are the problem, rather than the fouls of any particular player(s): new approaches to extraction and production in light of the reality of anthropogenic climate change are more than welcome, so long as opportunities for the accumulation of surplus value are left intact.

To reiterate: the struggle between two different paradigms of social and environmental transformation is an old one, with the role of CCS being only one of its latest battlefields. Yet though venerable, it is not timeless. The stakes have been ever-changing, as emissions pump out and temperatures rise. The upper hand has changed many times, and so too have the terms of engagement. And it is this dialectic of green hope that Garforth so thoroughly delineates in Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature in policy, in philosophy, in climate science, and in science fiction. 

It’s not a struggle unique to academia, by any means—and for all the accusations of tribalist spats within the ivory tower, I doubt it’s any worse in here than it is elsewhere (particularly given that the remunerative stakes are far higher outside). Besides, the obligatory interface of climate change academia with “policy”—which the more cynical among us might define as the escheresque process that has come to replace governance in the neoliberal era—means that many researchers are far closer to the political machinery than they might prefer, particularly the hard-science types (who are justifiably somewhat leery of being dragged out into the kangaroo court of public scrutiny, thanks to underhanded exploits such as Climategate, way back in 2009). As Bruno Latour has so elegantly argued, the sciences were somewhat themselves to blame for this, having enjoyed and profited from a closeness to policy during an earlier period when policymakers were glad to encourage a deliberately distorted perception of science as a process by which “truth” (and thus policy itself) might be rubberstamped with an inarguable sense of impartial authority. That relationship started to sour when scientific “truths” began to misalign with policy goals already chosen for other reasons. Climate change is perhaps the most significant and obvious arena in which this ugly public break-up played out.

Continue reading Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature reviewed by Paul Graham Raven”

Dan Byrne-Smith in conversation with Gordon Cheung

Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Born in London to Chinese parents, Gordon Cheung is an artist who will, whenever possible, talk to people who want to know more about his work. I’m very grateful for all of the occasions when he has given his time to discuss his work with me, conversations which often turn to the topic of science fiction. This interview took place on 4th March 2020, as the impact of COVID-19 was beginning to be recognised in the UK, as the streets of central London started to look very quiet, and elbow bumps had replaced handshakes as the acceptable greeting among friends. Before the interview, we discussed COVID-19 and the strange sense of fear that was taking hold. We talked about whether perhaps there was a sense of xenophobia attached to it, relating specifically to China.

The context of the interview was his exhibition ‘Tears of Paradise,’ held at Edel Assanti Gallery in London from 17th January to 18th March 2020. The interview was a chance to explore Cheung’s fascination with science fiction, the ways in which his practice becomes a lens through which to view some extreme conditions of modernity, and the nature of his work as a series of speculative forms. It was also a chance to talk about these interests in the context of an exhibition that very much looked towards China. The show was presented as a reflection on the continuing emergence of China as a global superpower, an act of witnessing which looks towards futurity as well as to historical narratives, such as the Opium Wars. The five paintings in the exhibition offered aerial views of landscapes, equal part actual and prophetic. These relate to sites of infrastructure projects on an enormous scale. Using a combination of methods, including paint and hardened sand, floating cities coexist with the proposed outlines of new urban realities. These paintings shared the gallery with Home, a sculptural installation made using bamboo and paper from the Financial Times. These sculptures, suspended from the gallery ceiling, were recreated forms of traditional Chinese windows, evoking homes demolished as part of the ongoing process of rapid urbanisation. 

Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2001, Gordon Cheung has built a practice around painting, while sometimes making use of sculpture, video and elements of installation. He is best known for his paintings, often large in scale, created on a paper laminate surface made up from stock listings cut from the Financial Times. His 2009 exhibition ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ brought together these elements to create a hallucinatory overview of the present, through evocations of both histories and futures. The exhibition demonstrated the extent to which Cheung’s work had become a visual practice of cognitive estrangement. There is not just a demonstration of an interest in science fiction but rather the construction of a science fictional set of operations manifested in a body of extraordinarily rendered imagery, offering a contested arrangement of the future in a form that demands engagement. 

Cheung’s work beguiles and seduces, alluding to the terror of the sublime while exploiting the seductive potential of images and surfaces. He is captivated by the ongoing history of the twenty-first century. Earlier work was preoccupied with his own memories of the promise of a technological revolution, a future that was never to arrive. The hopeful things to come, both social and technological, that Cheung was once led to believe in have been superseded by wave after wave of catastrophe, played out as forces of global capitalism, perpetual conflict, and environmental destruction. Within Cheung’s work, the apocalypse is happening right now. 

The thematic and symbolic territory has moved on since Cheung’s ‘Four Horsemen’ exhibition over a decade ago. For some time he developed something of an obsession with tulips, both as a trope of Western painting and as the embodiment of the first speculative economic bubble. As evidenced in the exhibition ‘Tears of Paradise,’ his practice in recent years has increasingly looked at imagery and narratives derived from his fascination with China as global superpower. 

Gordon Cheung, String of Pearls, courtesy of Edel Assanti gallery, 2020   
Continue reading “Dan Byrne-Smith in conversation with Gordon Cheung”

The Djinn Falls in Love (and other short stories) ed. by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

Reviewed by Dan Hartland. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In the introduction to their excellent anthology The Djinn Falls In Love, Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin write that “every culture, every author, has their own djinn, jinn or genie”. This is another way of saying not just that all cultures have fairies, but that jinn have long been bowdlerised by other cultures; the anthology’s great strength, and occasionally its only weakness, is that it appears unconcerned by this thorny inheritance of tradition.

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories

In Helene Wecker’s “Majnun”, for instance, jinn are far from existentially hidebound, perfectly able to convert to precisely the faith whose verses also exorcise them. In Kuzhali Manickavel’s menacing “How We Remember You”, it is the jinni who is tortured and beset, the humans who are the sadistic tricksters. In Kirsty Logan’s “The Spite House”, the djinn have been emancipated, but remain only half-admitted to wider society.

The tricky ghost of appropriation is sometimes present in all this garrulous invention. There’s a queasy Orientalism in Claire North’s rollicking “Hurrem and the Djinn” – sultans and harems, evil viziers and powerful sorcerers – which seems not to reinvent the jinn so much as rehash Agrabah. Maria Dahvana Headley’s atmospheric “Black Powder”, on the other hand, transplants the jinn to the Western, reconfiguring them as bullets in a mystical gun; but it’s not clear what we gain from this, other than a tightly and evocatively written story.

I sound more equivocal than I mean to. In Amal El-Mohtar’s elegiac “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” alone, this collection earns its keep: as the jinn shapeshift from one avian form to another, desperately seeking one which can survive first a thriving and then a collapsing human society, the reader experiences in a few brief pages all the magic that one might expect to flow from a realm of smoke and flame. In EJ Swift’s science fiction “The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice”, meanwhile, the jinn have made it to the stars – and cause as much havoc and horror onboard a spaceship as any Giger-ish nightmare.

Indeed, the anthology is often on safer ground when looking towards one future or another. In Saad Z. Hossain’s memorable “Bring Your Own Spoon”, for example, the jinn awake after a long sleep to find a post-collapse human civilisation made habitable only by air-cleaning nanotechnology with which they feel an odd kinship. In “Duende 2077” by Jamal Mahjoub, meanwhile, capitalism has “spiralled into social anarchy, chaos and moral bankruptcy” (p. 207), and an Islamic Great Britain has emerged from the wreckage; here, too, the jinn appear as a sort of meme, a symbol of rebellion and refusal (jinn don’t feature in KJ Parker’s high fantasy “Message In A Bottle”, either – except as a Schrodinger’s mist).

Where the jinn are made contemporary, too, these stories shine. In the claustrophobic horror of “Reap”, US military drone operators encounter a force beyond them; Sophia Al-Maria pointedly makes domestic violence the consequence of her protagonist’s belief in a jinni’s capacity to possess and corrupt his wife; JY Yang’s bittersweet “Glass Lights” focuses on a woman descended from jinn who perceives desires and enables others to fulfil them, but is powerless to achieve her own. These are all powerful statements and exceptional stories. It is a sign of their quality that they eclipse arguably more minor contributions from names like Gaiman, Smythe and Okorafor.

One of the most exciting developments in SF of recent years is its opening-out to global perspectives and traditions. Murad and Shurin’s collection is at the vanguard of this movement, its polyphony testament to the refreshing power of diversity. In Kamila Shamsie’s “The Congregation”, the narrator is half-human, half-jinn. “All he’s ever wanted is to be possessed,” an exorcist remarks of him, “There is no evil here, only love” (p. 22). In its most creative and thoughtful recreations of the jinn, this collection of very high literary merit also brings us closer together in understanding and endeavour.

Copyright Dan Hartland. All rights reserved.

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The House of Binding Thorns follows on from the BSFA Best Novel winner of 2015, The House of Shattered Wings but both is and isn’t a sequel to that earlier book. While key characters, such as the addicted alchemist, Madeleine, and weak-willed immortal, Philippe, are still central to the proceedings, they are joined by a range of new protagonists, such as the heavily-pregnant Françoise, who lives with the dying ‘Fallen’ (magical returned angel), Berith, outside the big ‘House’ system through which the Fallen exert their power over this alternate Paris, and Thuan, a nephew of Ngoc Bich, the ruler of the Dragon kingdom under the Seine. While the first novel concerned the fortunes of House Silverspires, the action in the second is centred – as its title suggests – on House Hawthorn, headed by the enigmatic and deliciously evil Asmodeus. 

The House of Binding Thorns

The advantage of unabashed genre fiction over mainstream realist fiction is that it enables a much clearer depiction of how power relations, both at individual and societal level, function. In a modern society with the ideological veneer of the political equality of citizens, Asmodeus would no doubt be the epitome of the manipulative centrist politician who is truly monstrous. However, as de Bodard gradually reveals to us, the seemingly absolute power of the House system actually forces him to take responsibility for his actions. By the end of the novel, his relationship with his dependant, Madeleine, who is initially terrified of him, has been transformed into something mutually meaningful in subtle and complex ways. 

Of course, the idea that relationships in a feudal system might be both richer and more human than those in a capitalist democracy has been a mainstay of genre since Walter Scott’s historical novels of the early nineteenth century. But while this understanding is central to The Lord of the Rings and the subsequent works it influenced, this doesn’t mean that all fantasy writers employing feudal elements share the politics of Tolkien. De Bodard takes pains to show us the difficulties but also the possibilities of building a community outside the Houses in the poor dockside region of La Goute d’Or, where Françoise, Berith and Philippe are trying to make their lives amongst the Vietnamese Community. More significantly, however, the world she depicts is devoid of the patriarchal and compulsory-heterosexual logic that once upon a time was taken for granted as the natural mechanism of fantasy.

A queer feudal society in which power relationships are openly visible and consent proves central to meaningful relationships turns out to be highly seductive. It is not fear alone that maintains the loyalty of House Hawthorn dependants to Asmodeus. Indeed, in perhaps the most important political dimension to the novel, de Bodard shows how fear corrupts the potential for dynamic consensual relationships in her society. Fear is shown to be self-perpetuating and immune even to attempts to begin with a clean sheet, as the revolutionary terror at the beginning of Asmodeus’s reign as Head is retrospectively revealed to have been. Instead, we are offered the prospect of a future with no promises other than the opportunity to live in it and see what happens.

The House of Binding Thorns blends the power plays and magical exchanges of classic fantasy with intriguing mystery, queer romance, Parisian settings, Vietnamese legends, and the sensibility of the nineteenth-century gothic novel into an intoxicating potion. While the plot is skilfully constructed to move the protagonists through a series of interlocking climaxes, the overall effect is not so much resolution as a delirious feeling of sensory overload. The reader is left with that kind of hangover in which dizziness and pain are experienced as sensual pleasures; still able to feel the burn of angel essence at the back of their throat and in thrall to the orange-blossom-and-bergamot scent of desire.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved

History-informed futures

Angela Chan interviews Beatrice Glow. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Artist-researcher Beatrice Glow’s extensive commitment to public history shapes her work across social-botanical history, dispossession, enslavement, migrations and extractive economies. Building long term projects directly with communities, Beatrice maps complexly interconnected colonial histories through grounded investigations and emerging technologies. Currently on a residency, Beatrice chats from Singapore with Angela Chan in the UK about her work and science fiction’s capacity to tell truthful histories and envision just futures together. 

Clay Pipe, Smoke Trails Series, 2021, Beatrice Glow, VR Sculpture. The reference image is from an obsolete 2 dollar bank note from the Timber Cutter’s Bank, Savannah, Georgia, United States, and features a smiling Black woman carrying a child and carrying tobacco leaves in her apron.

AC: Hello Beatrice, thank you for calling with me. Given the array of your practice, how would you like to describe yourself as a practitioner and what are the key themes that guide your outlook and activities? 

BG: It’s constantly going through evolutions, and at the moment, I think of myself as a multidisciplinary artist-researcher in service of public history. I activate many different mediums across art, from sculptural installations to video, to emerging technologies, and all of that with the intent to meet my audience where they are. Public engagement is an important factor in my practice, and for the art, to shift a dominant narrative.

AC: I first experienced your work through your solo exhibition Forts and Flowers (2019) at Taipei Contemporary Art Center, which is part of the larger community-centred project Rhunhattan: A Tale of Two Islands (2016 – ongoing). That was my entry point into the many extended investigations you sensitively spend time with. They often focus on everyday elements of migration, extraction and globalisation, such as etymology, perfumes, tableware, nutmeg, architecture. How did you begin mapping these complex and multiple histories of colonisations, and as aligned with indigenous land sovereignty and climate justice?

BG: I’m glad you got something out of that exhibition, because it was a small attempt at trying to bring that story to my ancestral homeland in terms of the larger history that ties together the different migration flows, the circulation of people, goods, cultures between Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Great Ocean in between. 

Place is very important to me in how we shape ourselves and reflect on who we are through lived experiences. Growing up in North America, with family in South America, and parents from Taiwan, I’ve always had in mind how my family’s experiences are different by place. After university I had an amazing opportunity in receiving a Fulbright grant, and I moved to Peru, where there is the largest Asian Latin American population. The year before that, I had been to Argentina for a few months to meet my family, and that really piqued my interest in the different ways in which we experience belonging and feeling safe as racialised people in this world. My uncle, whom I met there, seemed very much not to have been in a safe place for most of his experience; he slept with a pistol under his pillow. They went through the saqueo in the early 2000s in Argentina so they had a very different idea of what it means to be a racialised minority. It made me interested in this side of history, and I was also surprised about the way I was treated as a romanticised ethnic Other. Experiencing humorous yet strange questions/encounters or microaggressions, I guess, led into my early development as an artist: just trying to poke fun but ask questions around identity and perception, and how we show up as racialised bodies. 

So in Peru, I wanted to look at the longer history of Asian presence in South America, and that brought me to so many homes of people with diasporic histories. I visited many cemeteries, for records of Japanese and Chinese labourers, which uncovered difficult histories. I also traced the railroads from Lima city all the way up to the Andes. I finally took a boat ride in Iquitos, which is a city in a jungle in the Amazonian river basin, looking for the village called Chino, which on a basic level means Chinese. But really the word Chino is an imaginary word to me: it has many definitions in Spanish, the colloquial language and its slang. Meaning orange in Puerto Rico, it can also mean an indigenous person in Central America, 50 cents in Peru, or cannabis, in reference to squinty eyes one has after smoking. So I was looking for Chino in its plethora of meanings. When I finally arrived, they said I was the first chinita to arrive, but I don’t identify as Chinese. I was placed under that umbrella, and I was placed to think about how we are read. 

That experience also allowed me as a young person to visit the Guano Islands where Chinese ‘coolies’ were forced to do labour, and where the first railroads in Latin America were built to transport the guano on these islands. These horrific places that inflicted violence on these people, and trying to understand that history, also allowed me to see the complexities of where my privileges were, and where my disadvantages were. I met teachers who were of indigenous and mixed race ancestry, white Peruvians, and Afro-Peruvians who also have Chinese ancestry that’s not so much documented, which informed what it means for me to be a visibly racialised settler in South America.   

That set the scene for me, regarding how we tell important stories, and what the artist’s role is in recovering stories that are not told. A lot of people had entrusted me with the responsibility, telling me I’m the first person to ask them these questions and allowed me to do their interviews and they shared their family photos. It was a gift that I could stay for two years doing this work with people. When I travelled back to the US, I thought about the stories that slip through the gaps in the archives, and one of the main ones was the pre-Columbian connection between Asia and the Americas, which signaled to me the Great Ocean, known also as the Pacific. There’s one founding myth in the northern coastal region of Peru, of Señor del Naylamp who arrived on a boat, and he had almond-shaped eyes, and many concubines and ‘brought civilisation.’ There are many archaeological references to this character, and people were wanting to tell me that our ancestral heritages are related, like in these stories. Such folklore and artwork allow for more speculative understandings of history than the archives of history books. It made me think about the Great Ocean, and growing up in California, my mother’s brother would say if you look out to the west, you’ll see Taiwan. This sparked my imagination that despite geographical differences, you’re always connected to a place. 

I’m presently on a residency, and I’m in the Malay archipelago that’s a homeland of many Austronesian peoples, and their history is under-discussed in the world. The general consensus in linguistic research, which some contest, is that Austronesian peoples set sail from Taiwan around five to six thousand years ago, and people speak Austronesian languages across Taiwan, Aotearoa, Madagascar, Hawaii, Indonesia, Philippines, Rapa Nui, just to name a few. So it’s a very beautiful story about human connection that’s also seen in certain foods of the Pacific that are found in the Andes. Those are the stories I’m interested in about Asia and the Americas, in which history doesn’t begin with Columbus; it’s an anti-colonial narrative I began following then, even if I didn’t realise this at my younger age. So you see, I’m mapping a very big map! 

Continue reading “History-informed futures”

Lost Gods by Micha Yongo

Reviewed by David Lascelles. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

It is sometimes weird how coincidence works. I went to the launch of Lost Gods in Manchester, Micah’s home city, on a mission to take some photos of the event and decided on the strength of the reading to buy a copy and get the man himself to scribble in it. The next morning, I get the list of BSFA books to review and prominent on that list was Lost Gods.

Naturally, I leapt on the chance to review it. After all, I’d already read the first chapter so I was already ahead of the game.

Lost Gods by Micah Yongo

Lost Gods is set in a fantasy realm that is based on stories that Micah loved as a child. This means a mix of Middle Eastern and East African mythology mixed in with a number of typical fantasy ideas. The novel introduces us to a ‘Sovereignty’ of different countries. Each of them, apart from one, conquered and brought under the aegis of one Sharif or Sovereign hundreds of years ago. The exception, Dumea, maintains an uneasy independence thanks mostly to it being the location of a famous library and the clever diplomacy of a succession of Stewards. There is no religion in the Sovereignty. The first Sharif banned worship of the gods and killed all the priests.

Our story follows Neythan, a teenage assassin. He is a member of a secret order of assassins based vaguely on the real world Hashashin, called the Shedaim. This brotherhood has been used by the Sovereign for centuries to prevent rebellion and unrest and to basically keep the Sovereignty together. We join Neythan as he completes his training and is about to embark on his first ‘decree’ (assassination) along with his fellow recent trainees – Arianna, Yannick, Josef and Daneel. However, things do not go exactly as planned and Neythan ends up on the run, accused of murdering one of his friends.

What follows is a richly written political thriller set in a fantasy kingdom. Imagine the Bourne films only set in a fantasy Persia rather than modern day Europe and with Bourne replaced by a teenage boy looking for the answers to why people are trying to kill him. Initially, I found some of the political sections a little tedious as they seemed to bear no real relevance to Neythan’s plight, which is the exciting central plot and I was keen to see how that progressed. However, as the layers of the deeper background built and the relevance of those scenes began to emerge, you start to see the full story develop. Some of this I was able to predict. However, there were still surprises and twists to be seen. 

Neythan himself is a relatable character. Far more mature and competent than many teenagers put in similar situations but that is testament to the training he has endured, which has turned him into an independent person. This isn’t Hogworts for assassins, no trustworthy tutors to help out, just Neythan and some people he meets and never fully trusts. He still manages to have some naivete. In fact, you see him develop through the story from loyal assassin to rogue operative reacting to what others are doing to him but not really knowing what is going on and finally to a character who takes control of their own fate. The other characters are also well written and have solid personalities and backgrounds.

Overall, this is an entertaining debut novel and shows much promise for the sequels and is part of an exciting and long overdue recent trend for the stories of Africa and the Middle East in fantasy.

Copyright David Lascelles. All rights reserved

Maggie Shen King and Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan) in conversation

Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

In this cross-interview, we have two prominent writers interview each other about their respective debut novels. Maggie Shen King is the author of An Excess Male, one of The Washington Post’s 5 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels of 2017, a James Tiptree Jr. and Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) is the author of Waste Tide, which has been praised by Liu Cixin, China’s most prominent science fiction author, as “the pinnacle of near-future SF writing.”

Maggie interviews Stanley

Maggie: For those of us who recycle diligently, it’s easy to become complacent and forget about the magnitude and consequences of our consumption. I really appreciate that Waste Tide brings to the fore the sheer volume of the Western world’s electronic usage and creates in the process a twenty-first century waste land in its electronic recycling center. I understand that you grew up near Guiyu, the town that inspired your novel. What do you hope to accomplish in elevating this issue to center stage? As China becomes a superpower and increasingly begins to turn away this sort of work, what are your thoughts and hopes for the emerging nations of the world? 

Stanley: I try to stir up the awareness of the truth that all of us are equally as responsible for the grave consequence of mass pollution happening across the globe. In China, the issue escalated during the last four decades along with the high speed of economic growth. We try to live life as Americans, but we have 1.4 billion people. China has already replaced the USA as the largest producer of e-waste simply because we are so after the consumerism ideology. All the trash that China fails to recycle will be transferred to a new trash yard, perhaps somewhere in Southeast Asia, Africa or South America. If we continue to fall into the trap of consumerism and blindly indulge in newer, faster, more expensive industrial products, one day we may face trash that is untransferrable, unavoidable, and unrecyclable. By then, we would all become waste people.  Technology might be the cure but fundamentally it’s all about the lifestyle, the philosophy and the values we believe in. 

Continue reading “Maggie Shen King and Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan) in conversation”