First off, I’m going to put in my Nice White Lady disclaimer, which is that, as a middle-class white lady, I have shaky standing to speak to how cultural appropriations read to members of the cultures appropriated. While I may be aware that I am the recipient of enormous cultural privilege, by virtue of that very privilege, I am inevitably going to be blind to certain things. Just take a look at the clusterfuck that is Racefail – and actually, other resources here; this whole thing is such an unbelievable googlehole – which starts with a Nice White Lady addressing the issue of how white people might go about writing non-white characters without being a dick about it. (Here is where I complain about the terminology I have at hand. Throughout Racefail, the acceptable nomenclature is Person of Color, which gets abbreviated as PoC, which strikes me as…inelegant. Non-white is used a lot too, but both non-white and people of color are these huge fucking rhetorical catch-alls that lack the crap out of nuance, and have the additional problem of encoding race as a binary, which is obviously bullshit.) Several people point out that her thinking on the matter is somewhat racially tone deaf – you can’t just file the serial numbers off of white characters and make them members of a different culture. We may all be humans and stuff, but our treatment at the hands of other humans due to appearance or accent or cultural membership fundamentally affects how a character thinks and feels. At this point, the whole conversation goes completely insane and people start shouting about how they are not racists, etc.
Rather than get into all the twists and turns of Racefail, the thing I found so demoralizing about it was how quickly the conversation about cultural appropriations and writing cross-culturally – genuinely interesting and important topics – turned into an almost all-white wank about who has standing to comment in the first place, whether classism is more important than racism, and the usual toolbox of derailing tactics. And, I know I like to link to this a lot, but I really like this video about the difference between the What You Did conversation and the What You Are Conversation. White people like to freak out and act like getting called out for saying some racist stuff – and I’m not talking about hardcore obviously KKK level shit, but just the dumb shit we say (and I am including myself here) that displays our cluelessness or ignorance – means that the person calling us out called us a Racist™ – the hardcore obviously KKK level kind. Which is probably my Nice White Lady way of saying that when I enact my own personal racefails in this here essay – which certainly could happen – please just call out my words so I don’t have my feelings hurt, because lord knows, being called a racist when you obviously aren’t – I have several black friends! – is so much worse than actually being racist.
Fantasy, Steampunk, and the Mythic Past
There’s been some chatter about this interview with Jay Kristoff on the bookonets where he cops to the fact that most of his source material for the Japanese-inflected steampunk novel Stormdancer is pop cultural stuff like anime and manga. On a genre level, I don’t really have any problems with this, because steampunk is a pulp genre, not concerned with strict historical or cultural accuracy. Oh, shit, you guys, I feel a huge sermonette about genre coming on, because I have some serious things with that little genre. My Ideas About Steampunk: Let Me Show You Them.
So, steampunk has its roots as an off-shoot of cyberpunk, and at its roots, its concerns are alt-historical and somewhat science fictional. The early stuff I encountered, mostly starting with my man William Gibson, kinda blew my mind by relocating the futurism of the past back into the past, like if the House of the Future actually came to pass like Disney envisioned, or Jules Verne, or whoever. There’s this really great story called “The Gernsback Continuum” collected in Burning Chrome– honestly, that story is somewhere top five for short stories for me – which concerns a photographer sent out to record 30s futurist architecture who starts hallucinating their Aryan efficient future laying out in forgotten buildings and molding cars. Science fiction – and I mean this term at its most expansive – has often been concerned with futures, and folding back old futures and laying them against the present – man does this get me all hot and bothered. But there’s a pulp edge to steampunk too – the pulp-history. Alan Moore punks around with steampunk with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, taking more pulp characters from the Victorian period, but fucking with them. Even though League occurs in a world more or less our own, it’s not so much alt-history as punk-history, because, hello, Martians. It’s the futurism of the past located in the past, and when it works, it makes me giddy.
But steampunk has been around for a while now, and as a genre, seems to be slipping more to cosplay than alt-history. Take something like Soulless or Geared for Pleasure, which are decidedly more about cool trappings than they are about coherent alt-history or even punk-history stuff. And while Soulless‘s alt-history, when it attempts it, are absolute shit, Geared for Pleasure(like Stormdancer, actually) dispenses with the whole idea that we’re even on earth at all – we’re in a fantasy land that looks Victorian-ish, and has some dirigibles and clockwork to settle it within the genre. (And here’s where I plug Meljean Brook‘s steampunk books, because she’s enacting a freaking excellent alt-history under the cover of romance novels, though the referents are more Georgian-Regency than Victorian.) Anyway, point being, I would argue that given the books I see labeled as steampunk as a group, adherence to some kind of alt-history framework that gets everything right is not a requirement of the genre. Pop cultural or pulp cultural sensibilities are more central to the definition of the genre, playing in gadgets and trinkets, playing dress up, having some chase scenes and whatnot. In this vein, I dig Kristoff using Japanese pulp culture to artifact his little world here, especially because the world is understood to be not strictly an alt-historical Japan – the landmass has been reordered and renamed – but a fantasy land that snarky genre readers could characterize as Not!Japan.
Which brings us to fantasy. I’ve spilled some ink about fantasy – and here I mean mostly high-fantasy, the stuff in Not!Medieval!Europe! – but I’ll try to hit the high notes. I often get my back up about high fantasy because it’s this lamely nostalgic playset about Simpler Times, with regressive gender roles and a bunch of heraldic folderol about honor and quests and whatever. And when you go to criticize it on those terms, some basement-bound virgin always pops in with, “But that’s how things were in the medieval period! Don’t blame the writer for creating a Not!Medieval!Europe without interrogating all the fucking horrible shit that went down in what even scholars refer to as the Dark Ages! Look! Crossbows are sweet! Luke Skywalker has a really great time!” Which cheeses me the fuck right off, because this Not!Medieval!Europe! was created by a modern storyteller, for a modern audience, and if the writer thought it was just fine to throw in a bunch of regressive cultural shit in there “for historical authenticity,” often while positing dragons and Dark Lords and a bunch of other frankly inauthentic shit, then…I don’t know what then. But then, fuck you. You can’t have your medieval cake and eat it too. When you create a mythic past-ish place which is understood to be sweet as fuck, and then make that place a hellhole, just casually, for huge swaths of characters so your little hero can be heroic, what you’re doing is bunk-ass historical self-insert which justifies current shitty injustice. Casually. Which may be the thing I hate so much about it.
But before I go off the ledge of frothing at the mouth about high fantasy, I have enjoyed the occasional Not!Asian setting – the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham being the gold standard, imho. The Khai are sorta khans, the ornament and texture of the world is more medieval Asia than medieval Europe. The key difference may be that Abraham does not inject real world terms and language into his story, just letting the lack of primogeniture and tea drinking and scroll writing set a scene that feels less medieval European and more medieval Mongolia (though, I get the impression, more genteel than both). Kristoff goes to freaking town with a ton of Japanese words, especially in the beginning, which is problematic on a couple of levels, not the least of them being readability. For any fantasy world, not even just the ones that use real, if unusual, words, you have to lower your readers into the pot slowly. Much as I complained about the staging of the first of the Long Price books – and that first one is stagey – the staging here is too much, too soon, with even the infodumps using dozens of terms and concepts that confused. Fantasy, putting aside all the cultural appropriation stuff, should not take nearly a hundred pages to get into.
But then speaking of Not!Europes, much as I enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire, I have read some really great critical analyses that unpack Martin’s sometimes hinky use of racial and cultural stereotypes. I mean, the Dothraki are Not!Mongolians, but the rapedy-rapeness of their culture, and the ways Daenerys’s story turns into your typical WhiteSavior™ narrative – Oh, You People™ do not understand the horrors of slavery! – this is actually pretty badly done. (And I’m not going to entertain arguments that just because the people are bunch of raping asshats in Westeros too, this makes it okay. For one, rape culture isn’t a zero sum game, and for two, in Westeros rape is understood as rape, even while it is justified and tolerated, while in Dothraki culture, no one thinks it’s a Bad Thing until the Nice White Lady points it out. Because brown people rape and slave like handshakes. We’re here to serve, us Nice White Ladies. You’re welcome.)
I guess what I’m saying is that I can understand criticisms that come at Stormdanceras not being authentically Japanese. Even though this world is avowedly Not!Japan, the door was opened for these criticisms by using so, so much Japanese terminology, language, and sort of half-assed pulp Japanese culture, but then occasionally mixing it in with stuff like lotuses and pandas into this Asian-fusion slurry that just isn’t a good idea. I said before you can’t just file the serial numbers off of culture and make all characters a-historical a-cultural humans – tralala, can’t we all get along – but here the serial numbers are sill showing point of origin so strongly that this Not!Japan is still pretty much Japan. And you can’t rightly call this an alt-history or punk-history – this does not have a deep enough understanding of Japanese culture to be such – so it could probably be successfully argued that use of Japanese culture is an example of our old friend, Orientalism. I’m going to duck out of these criticisms of Stormdancerthough, even while I set up the conceptual framework for them, because I lack an understanding of Japanese history and culture myself. Most likely it’s a subtle thing, best explained by my Nice White Lady counterparts Subservient Asian Lady in Need of Rescue or her mother, Tiger Mom. Hold on; I’ll send them a text message.
Oh, and, one last thing. Just because I’m ragging on A Song of Ice and Firea little, I’m doing that because I love it and I want it to be better. Not to get too far down this rabbit hole, but people seem to get their panties in a bunch when beloved properties are criticized, which strikes me as wrongheaded. Or overly touchy? One of the problems of talking about cultural appropriations is everyone gets all “I’m not a racist!” which is fine, but calm the heck down for a minute and listen – this is not about you. There are many many good things in A Song of Ice and Fire, if you like soapy bloodbaths and the descriptions of food, which I avowedly do, and my criticisms of the Dothraki storyline aren’t meant to negate the whole thing. I criticize because I love, because if I didn’t love, I wouldn’t have fucking bothered with several thousand pages that, at this point, don’t look like they’re going to wrap up anytime soon. At its most interesting, the critical enterprise seeks to understand and comment on why things bring us narrative pleasure, and sometimes those reasons are a little fucked up and weird, because we are all a little fucked up and weird, and we can always be better. The end.
In Which I Actually Talk About the Book
As I’ve hinted before, this story takes place in a Not!Japan which is a generation or three into an industrial revolution. There are SFF elements, in that there is an agricultural product not dissimilar from spice melange in Dune– speaking of your cultural appropriations, because you guys see how much Herbert ripped from Mideastern religion and politics, yo? – which both gets the populace hiiiigh and powers all of the fantastic technology. The lotus, as this is called, is also a huge ecological nightmare, a sort of super-cotton which drains the soil of nutrients, or a super-coal belching filth into the air. As I also noted before, the opening is tough sledding, far too jargony and with too much term salad and infodumps – which on some level is funny, because the prologue, which I normally turn my nose up at, is clean and full of stakes and action.
So we settle down with Yikiko, daughter of the Imperial Huntsman or whatever he’s actually called, and they are sent on a mission most likely to end in failure by the Emperor or Shogun or whatever he’s called. The Shogun (I think Shogun) who is possibly the Character Most Likely To Be An Orientalist Stereotype has had a dream that the griffin – or thunder tiger or whatever – is still extant despite the fact that, like, everything is extinct. So off we go! Yukiko has some unfortunate daddy issues, and there are some boys (two of them, in fact, making something of a triangle, you see) and some other stuff. Which is when I put the book down maybe a month ago, not feeling all that good about this.
The prose is probably love it or hate it, which is a stupid thing to say now that I’ve typed it. I did neither one nor the other. I guess what I mean that it is very florid and descriptive of sensation, so if that is not your bag, steer clear. There’s some tendency to repetition that I found somewhat annoying – we get the lotus is bad – but I’m willing to give this a pass a little given the YA format. Heads up, kids, we’ve got the one planet and all. But Kristoff writes really excellent fight scenes – which is much harder than it looks, I say – and the way he deals with the dreaded love triangle is brutal and awesome. And the way he dealt with sex in general was pretty refreshing. Though all fade to black, like YA does, Yikiko deals with her sexuality very matter of factly, without a bunch of purity terror and the like. There could probably be more mention of um, certain biological realities, but this isn’t Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., so that is just fine.
The latter half of the book is more fun to read, once Yukiko stops bitching and infodumping on the airship. Her relationship with Buruu – he’s the thunder tiger, in a sort of Dragonflightscenario – turns on a dime it doesn’t deserve, to mangle a metaphor, as do several of Yikiko’s revelations, where she’s all YOU GUYS ARE THE WORST one minute and ALL IN WOOO the next. I did like dad’s ninja-girlfriend a lot, and felt like it was unusual to see the sexual partners of parents – other than the other parent, of course – dealt with with anything other than evil stop-mom writing, so that was cool. But, also, sadface on some things that are spoilers.
Anyway, I feel like as usual with my three-star outings, I’m struggling with something to say about the text itself, and obviously I’ve already blathered like crazy about a thousand concerns that might be a bit more peripheral. I did like this story, in the end, and I did enjoy the less simple than usual political/economic sensibility of the book, but I admit this is pretty much grading on a curve with other deeply politically stupid young adult dystopias. (Cough, Divergent, cough.) (And I’m not talking about partisanship – I’m talking about a complex sense of the polis and how it functions, which is something often sorely lacking in books aimed at teens.)
Plus, whatever, chainsaw kitanas are freaking sweet, and don’t let anyone tell you different.