Fear of the Unknown
by ALEX CARNEVALE
It is difficult to find the good parts of Edward Said's Orientalism. This is a book so in love with itself that it cites Henry Kissinger as being a man of considerable naivete. Said called himself a "humanist," which was a way of putting aside the perspective you were writing from, a neat rhetorial trick. Orientalism is actually at base a book about why renaming things is a powerful political tool, and if the book influenced any of the political actions in the Arab world that used this transcendent tactic, that might even be a point in the tome's favor.
Then again, it's somewhat charming that Said had the temerity to approach the topic at all. Most of Orientalism, in fact, is about all the slightly more dishonest things that have been written about the non-European world, which in its totality constituted the focus of the Jerusalem-born politician's writing. Said was above all a politician-martyr, and when he died in 2003 he left behind a legacy of us versus them political effluvium that has haunted political science departments across the eastern seaboard. Said wasn't so much a thinker as an advocate for his cause, and in fact Orientalism today would actually be more appropriate as a pamphlet.
For one of the book's epigraphs, Said quoted Disraeli's saying that the Orient was a career. I have always found this to be among the funniest lines in the book, since Said goes to extraordinary trouble to refute Disraeli's contention, while every part of his life embodied it. Said believes that our knowledge of the Orient is "ignorant, but complex" — the kind of observation that wouldn't stand up to the scrutiny of a dinner party if you didn't already want to believe it. The very fact that Westerners were able to make careers of it suggests they understood it far better than Said believed. Said retroactively applied the current political attitude towards the Arab world to its history, with varying results.
Much to Said's probable disgust, we are being assaulted with Western literature and art about the non-European world. Every single newsmagazine did a special issue focused on China, currently the most economically powerful nation in the world. Although our American engagement with the Arab world hasn't been all negative in the wake of attacks by Muslim extremists, it has naturally been the focus of many films and novels. China has begun to receive the same treatment.
Paolo Bacigalupi's novel The Wind-up Girl shared the 2010 Hugo, science fiction's most prestigious award with its more readable, more serious China Mieville counterpart The City & the City. It won the Nebula by itself. The fact that Bacigalupi's book won an award of any kind (it placed 9th on Time's best books of the year for no discernible reason) should be a surprise to enthusiasts of any kind of literature. The City & the City blew The Wind-up Girl away. As Michael Moorcock put it about Mieville's book in The Guardian:
As in no previous novel, the author celebrates and enhances the genre he loves and has never rejected. On many levels this novel is a testament to his admirable integrity. Keeping his grip firmly on an idea which would quickly slip from the hands of a less skilled writer, Miéville again proves himself as intelligent as he is original.
In contrast, The Wind-up Girl is a borderline offensive Vernor Vinge imitation that approaches the genius of its model at no real point. To talk about China, Bacigalupi sets his story in a futuristic Bangkok. He then does us the disservice of filling this city with every science fiction cliche imaginable. Many major cities, including New York, are buried underwater, in a conceit as transparent as Law & Order cases ripped from similar headlines. Levees keep Bangkok dry and tight, and it's probably no coincidence Bacigalupi dedicates his novel to Spike Lee. Well, he should have.
The Wind-up Girl of the book's title is a so-called New Person, which is incidentally where they got the name New Meadowlands from. Emiko spends most of her time being raped onstage for the fun of visiting tourists and businessmen (get it?!?). Emiko is so "creative" that if she gets too wound up — if her systems overheat, and she tries to flee her enslavement — she could die within minutes. In other words, the inventor of an artificial intelligence decided that it was worth the trouble to create this being but not worth the trouble to have simple safeguards to prevent it from being completely destroyed if it ran too far or too fast. Bacigalupi is about as imaginative as the worst science fiction and fantasy we've seen on television, the absurd scenarios of Surrogates or The Event, or the Battlestar Galatica reduxes that posit humans under the control of technology.
All science fiction looks towards the future of our race, but that is a broad brush. But some of science fiction — the part of it that I despise — is really just the simple reiteration of Luddite fears. In Bacigalupi's world, generot has taken hold and famine rocks the world. This is only one of his incredibly boring reversals of what applying technology to the creation of food has actually been able to accomplish in the world. Bacigalupi simplifies things even worse than Said does, and he does it for the same political reason.
In reality, the history of the non-European and European worlds are not so strange to each other. Men like Bacigalupi and Said imagine a great gap between us and them. Bacigalupi's non-European protagonist is a so-called "yellow card"; as if throwing one more Nazi cliche on the rest of his claptrap wouldn't hurt. Hock Seng is former Chinese man who wants to steal Western technology in order to make a better life for himself. In order to not make this toadying, desperate character offensive, Bacigalupi turns him into a hero. His counterpart in the sweatshop business is the American representative of a Michael Moore corporation that's trying to do what Disraeli said was possible. Reducing the world economy to a simplistic black and white for the purposes of fiction is bad for both the world economy and fiction.
Anyway, there was a lot more exciting science fiction and fantasy published in 2010 that didn't necessarily win gaudy honors. Here were a few of my favorites:
Songs of the Dying Earth (eds Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin). This voluminous celebration of Jack Vance is all the more extraordinary because it comes while the now-blind and no longer writing legend is still alive. Most of what isn't some Tolkien-cliche in modern fantasy comes from Vance's Dying Earth series, and he's the ideal vehicle for other writers to inhabit. Stories from the late Kage Baker, Jeff VanderMeer, and Martin himself stand out. One of the best tribute collections in the short history of them.
Dragon Haven (Robin Hobb). The Alaskan-raised Margaret Lindholm had most of her success under the Hobb pen name. Her latest series has been her most engaging, set the in world of her Tawny Man and Liveship Traders trilogies. As sad as it is to say, it's still relatively unique to find exciting female characters in the male-driven world of fantasy, and Hobb's have interesting dilemmas that do more the rehash tired debates. She takes two of fantasy's most dull cliches - dragons, and homosexual love - and makes them seem fresh. This second book in the Rain Wilds chronicles doesn't necessarily imply a third, but the prolific Hobb is working on one anyway.
The Sorcerer's House (Gene Wolfe). The year's most entertaining novel is a midwestern America puzzle that reimagines the world of Faerie in the setting of a modern mystery. Unlike its spiritual twin Pandora by Holly Hollander, Wolfe uses the epistolatory style to create an inventive mystery that requires several re-readings to digest fully. And once you're done with that, the finest American writer today's new novel, Home Fires, hits shelves in January.
Black Hills (Dan Simmons). Simmons' efforts once tended more towards epic space opera and horror. Now his love of historical fiction has allowed him to define a new genre. If you're interested in early America and Orson Scott Card hasn't already ruined it completely for you, Dan's latest is up to his usual par. It's not for everyone in the way that his Hyperion quadrilogy captivated so many readers, but it's still a lot of fun on its own.
2011 promises a much better slate, including Wolfe's Home Fires, Michael Swanwick's Dancing With Bears, Richard K. Morgan's The Cold Commands, Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear, ideally George R.R. Martin's long awaited A Dance with Dragons, Jo Walton's Among Others and Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes.
"Black and Blue" - Miike Snow (mp3)
"Burial" - Miike Snow (mp3)
"Faker" - Miike Snow (mp3)