It’s Asian Pacific American Month! Last year, I attempted a review writing challenge that nearly broke me. But I’m going to try again. I’ve been a little smarter about it this time, because I banked some of the reviews already (but not all). In any case, as per usual, I’m hoping to be matched in my challenge by a total of 31 comments (from unique users) by May 31st. We didn’t quite reach that goal last year, but maybe we can this year. An original post by a user will count as “five comments,” so that’s a quick way to get those numbers up.
Challenge tally: me = 18 reviews; “you” = 6 comments (thanks Kai Cheang for his post and to eeoopark for a comment)
AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.
With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail email@example.com with any concerns you may have.
In this post, reviews of Curtis C. Chen’s Waypoint Kangaroo (St. Martin’s Press, 2016); Wesley Chu’s Time Siege (Tor, 2016); Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io (Angry Robot, 2016); Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit (Solaris, 2016); Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon, 2016); Monstress: Volume 1 by Marjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (illustrator) (Image Comics, 2016)
A Review of Curtis C. Chen’s Waypoint Kangaroo (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).
So, admittedly, I started this novel about two or three times. I generally do not have difficulty reading first person fiction, so I was a little bit surprised. I think the false starts have to do more with genre rather than the narrative discourse in this case. I have noticed that I’m having trouble reading science fiction lately due to the world building aspects that seem confusing. Because I tend not to read book descriptions before starting them, I only have a baseline understanding of what I might be getting into based upon a title and a cover. In this case, the opening melded real world referents and places (such as the Kazakhstani border) with fantastic elements (such as space travel and pocket universes). For my small, single planet bound brain, these hybridities were difficult to process. But I digress. Here’s a description for us from B&N: “Kangaroo isn’t your typical spy. Sure, he has extensive agency training, access to bleeding-edge technology, and a ready supply of clever (to him) quips and retorts. But what sets him apart is ‘the pocket.’ It’s a portal that opens into an empty, seemingly infinite, parallel universe, and Kangaroo is the only person in the world who can use it. But he's pretty sure the agency only keeps him around to exploit his superpower. After he bungles yet another mission, Kangaroo gets sent away on a mandatory ‘vacation:’ an interplanetary cruise to Mars. While he tries to make the most of his exile, two passengers are found dead, and Kangaroo has to risk blowing his cover. It turns out he isn’t the only spy on the ship–and he’s just starting to unravel a massive conspiracy which threatens the entire Solar System. Now, Kangaroo has to stop a disaster which would shatter the delicate peace that’s existed between Earth and Mars ever since the brutal Martian Independence War. A new interplanetary conflict would be devastating for both sides. Millions of lives are at stake.” I’m sort of glad I didn’t read this summary because it has a lot of spoilers. You don’t even get to the cruise ship storyline until about page 40 or so, and even then, a dead body doesn’t appear until about page 75, but once that dead body appears, you know the narrative momentum is going to shift because you’re in it to find out what the hell is going on. I appreciate first person detective fiction because you’re restricted to the lens of the storyteller, who is often is as confused as you are. Everybody could be a possible suspect, and on a cruise ship of thousands, there’s a lot of potential suspects. Complicating matters is the fact that so many aboard seem to be ex-military personnel including the ship’s captain and his main advisor, a tough character known as Jemison. Also, Kangaroo likes to make his life complicated by trying to maintain a romance (with another cruise staff member named Ellie) in the middle of murder on the high interplanetary cruise ship seas. The original murder plot itself is confusing: an old man and his wife are found dead. The prime suspect is their son, a man named David, who might have been on anti-psychotic medication at the time. The problem is that David’s medication was swapped out with another, leading everyone to believe that he may have been framed. Additionally, David’s father, one of the deceased, was found to have a unique technology implanted in his body, one constructed from radioactive material that ended up exposing the entire cruise ship to carcinogens. So, the task for Chen as the writer is set: to resolve this mystery and somehow also make sure that all of the cruise ship individuals most exposed to the radiation receive treatment, despite their relative isolation in space. The novel’s definitely a page turner, and a welcome addition to the ever-growing canon of Asian American speculative fiction. Somewhere early on, it’s clear that Kangaroo is of some sort of ethnic background, but I’m not sure which. He does describe himself as “brown” at some point, but we do know that he has a kind of surrogate father figure, so it’s unclear to me whether or not this background will be developed at a later time, perhaps in a future installment. I could have also missed this information entirely, because, as I admitted earlier in the reading process, I had trouble in the initial sections, and I could have glossed over this information during that bumpier road. A take it or leave it element to this novel is Chen’s characterization: Kangaroo is definitely a comic figure, who likes to drop jokes at every opportunity. He’s also unapologetically heterosexual in a way that can get annoying, if you’re not prepared for that kind of constant objectification. But, that being said, I’m absolutely all aboard any other interplanetary fiasco with Kangaroo at the helm. After all, we have to find out what other things he’ll be able to contain in his nifty little pocket universe, a contraption I wouldn’t mind having myself to stow my ever unfortunately growing library. Must. Go. Digital. But. Ijustcant.
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A Review of Wesley Chu’s Time Siege (Tor, 2016)
I’m here to review Wesley Chu’s Time Siege. So, I was super duper excited for this sequel to Wesley Chu’s Time Salvager, but because it’s a sequel, I need to say right off the bat that there will be a zillion spoilers. I saved it for a night after a lot of revisions, and I was duly rewarded. For whatever reason, I always have a little bit of trouble getting into Chu’s third person narrative perspectives. He tends to use a shifting third, often without much warning that we’re moving to a different focalizer. One chapter might begin with a character’s viewpoint that hasn’t yet been introduced in the novel, so you’re a little bit confused, but once you remember that Chu writes in this way, you begin to settle in. The other problem with sequels is that you have to sort of remember what happened in the first book: Elise Kim and James, our protagonist rogue ChronMan, are now on the run, hiding out with the Elfreth, a tribe, who have subsisted on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Two corporation-like entities (Valta and ChronoCom) are working in tandem to get rid of them because Elise Kim is now what is considered a “temporal anomaly,” and must be stamped out because the longer she is in existence, the longer she permanently alters existing timelines. Elise Kim was saved in the previous novel by James on one of his time jump missions for ChronoCom. Once he engages in this activity, he is considered expendable. In any case, the problems for Elise, James, and the Elfreth are numerous. They are running out of supplies and resources. Most critical is that James’s sister Sasha seems to be dying of something that looks like consumption. Recall that James’s sister was supposed to be dead, but James saves her as well, since if he’s going to be violating Time Laws, why not violate a couple more in order to do other things like alter the course of his personal history. But after a certain point: because James has jumped so many times on salvaging missions, he cannot jump any more in time due to the possibility that he will die. So James, along with the Mother of Time, Grace Priestly, hatch a plan to recruit another ChronMan and use that ChronMan to kidnap a doctor. This plan is elaborate and filled with many obstacles. While Grace and James flounder on this particular mission, Elise is back on Earth herding the Elfreth to the Mist Isle, once known as Manhattan. The problem is that the Co-op team (uniting the forces of Valta and ChronoCom) are still hunting them, so they are constantly moving, constantly tired, and constantly losing more of their battles. Elise begins to realize that they need to stand their ground somewhere, and no other location seems better than with a tribe called the Flatirons, who inhabit a large, disintegrating skyscraper. Elise fortunately is making alliances, as she leads the Elfreth to a possible and more sustainable future, but the leading entity behind the Co-op team is merciless. This character, Secretariate Kuo, is merciless and probably Chu’s best creation in this novel precisely because Kuo has just enough of a background to make you understand why she is so rigid in her philosophy. She truly believes in neoliberal capitalism as a kind of religious ideology and finds any socialist type community formation to be ill-destined. It’s easy to hate Kuo, and therefore, it’s far easier to root for Elise, making this novel’s good vs. bad paradigm a comfortable prospect. Sure, there are times when you think Elise is just too good to be true. Even James, who begins to succumb to drinking habits we’d thought he’d kicked, seems to think Elise is something above him. There’s a sequence involving Elise saving some young children that cements her hagiographic status, so you might blanch a little bit at this kind of saintly characterological figure, but this world is so particularly dark, you occasionally want to believe Elise could exist. And, more to the point, Chu’s plotting is effective: Elise shouldn’t exist in that time and place anyway because she is a temporal anomaly. In some ways, then, it makes sense that her values are so different: she hasn’t had to live in a time and place in which one is just scraping by to survive. You can’t help but wonder if the solution to some of our problems could only occur if we transported someone hundreds of years from a different era to look at the issues anew and to consider other approaches. But I digress. James, in this novel, is more of a broken man. It’s hard to see the anti-hero from the previous novel have such a retrogressive arc, but Chu is obviously playing the long game. As with any second book in what is likely a trilogy: we end on a maddening cliffhanger. Currently, there is no listing for the third book, so let’s hope that it comes sooner rather than later!
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A Review of Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io (Angry Robot, 2016).
This book is one of the ones I read over the course of several weeks. Usually, I read a novel in one or two sittings, but because the last month has been one of the busiest of my work life ever, I haven’t been able to read at all. The sad thing is that I try to read about three new works a week, just because I usually just enjoy that as a kind of hobby, but there has been absolutely no time, with grading, some family complications, and traveling all thrown in there. Fortunately, this novel has a lot interesting plot elements, the primary of which is related to the world building aspects of this more hard core sci-work. I didn’t actually realize that The Rise of Io is a spin-off of Chu’s earlier Tao series, which I haven’t read due to the fact that it’s only come out in mass market paperback stock paper. Later, I saw that the series was reissued by Turtleback in hardcover, but this reissue actually retained the mass market paper stock, of the high acidic variety (despite the fact that the cover was indeed in hardback but without the traditional dust cover). In any case, that series outlines the basis of the world-building for The Rise of Io, in which there is an alien war being waged between a species of beings that have crash landed on Earth. These beings, called the Quasing, have split into two factions: the Prophus and the Genjix. The Quasing are a race of beings that are sort of like the Trill (of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine variety), as they require a host and unify their consciousness with a separate being. The Rise of Io takes on this basic premise and follows the titular Io, a Quasing, who has to shift her consciousness into a new host body, when her current host, Emily, is killed during combat. This new host, Ella Patel, who lives in a sort of glorified slum (called Crate Town) in the remains of what is the country of India—we are sort of in a post-apocalyptic environment—is not exactly down with being unified with a Quasing. She reluctantly starts training, so she can better serve the Prophus, as they fight their battles against the Genjix. Much of the entertainment value comes from the constant bickering between Ella and Io, but Chu has a more complex plotting that also involves a Genjix figure named Shura. Shura’s been sent to India to help plot out the destruction of the Prophus, partly through the development of specific political connections. Shura’s a fantastic antagonist precisely because she’s so brutal, and we know eventually that Shura and Ella/ Io are going to meet at the diegetic level. As Chu moves us toward this inevitable clash, other characters start to emerge as central figures, including the Quasing known as Tao, who was the center of Chu’s original series. Apparently, The Rise of Io is the first in a new trilogy, and I’ll be delighted to see where it goes. Chu does leave a major surprise revelation in the latter arc of the story, one that I should have seen coming, but didn’t, and was ultimately floored by, especially because it created a type of narrative problem that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. If that tantalizing line doesn’t get you to pick up the work, then not much else will.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t cut into the schedule for Chu’s Time Salvager series, as I am totally dying for the next installment there, as well. To change course a little bit, I’ve been so impressed by the recent sci-fi-ish works that I’ve been reading by Asian American writers and works such as this one are encouraging me to expand my course offerings beyond titles like Stories of Your Life and Others/ How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which have become some of my more common mainstays.
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A Review of Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit (Solaris, 2016)
So, first off: I tend to want to write up a short review of everything I read, which always involves a bit of a plot summary (as those who have been following Asianamlitfans have obviously seen). I always let some website give us the basics and then move from there. The B&N summary gives us this description: “To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general. Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris's career isn't the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next. Cheris's best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress. The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao—because she might be his next victim.” What this plot summary doesn’t do for us is to give us some of the world building rules. Yoon Ha Lee has already done some writing on this fictional world; stories such as “Ghostweight” and “The Battle of Candle Arc” from his earlier collection show us how integral mathematics, geometries, and gaming are to this particular fictional terrain. Also, Kel Cheris’s use of Shuos Jedao as the “secret weapon” involves a kind of ghost anchoring in which his “undead character” is attached to Cheris as a kind of shadow. Thus, much of the narrative would seem as though Cheris is talking to herself. I had some trouble actually getting through the first 25 to 50 pages due to the massive amount of unique world building terms that Lee employs, but once you get dialed into the language and the vocabulary, things start to move along quite well. It becomes clear the further the narrative moves along that Cheris and Jedao don’t know the rules of this particular “game” if we might call warfare and siege a game. Part of the problem is that the hexarchate has given Cheris and Jedao very little information in terms of what is going on with the rebellion within the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Second, Jedao himself may have ulterior motives for his own approach to take back the Fortress. Another key detail relates to the fact that the rebellion is trying to shift the hexarchate’s geometries to a seven-faction system instead of six. They are trying to revive the Liosz faction, which was part of an early heretical rebellion that was suppressed. What readers eventually discover is that the Liosz faction is actually trying to implement a new ruling system based upon democracy rather than the current form, which is based on a rough oligarchy. In any case, I should probably stop here because I’ll be giving away too many spoilers. There is one especially interesting narrative device that occurs in the final hundred pages that makes this a very compelling read for me, especially as someone interested in form and aesthetics. Other than that, I don’t get the opportunity to read many space operas by Asian America writers, so I had a lot of fun reading this work. To be sure, I think it does take time to get into the vocabulary of this particular fictional world, but once you’re in, you have no problem following this rabbit hole all the way down. Fortunately, for fans of Yoon Ha Lee, a sequel is in the works (in a series called The Machineries of Empire) and is slated to appear later this year.
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A Review of Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon, 2016).
So, as always, I am excited to review any graphic narrative. Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye definitely surprised me because it didn’t conform to any standard storyline or plot. We’ll let B&N provide us with our requisite plot summary and overview: “Meet Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Now in his early 70s, Chan has been making comics in his native Singapore since 1954, when he was a boy of 16. As he looks back on his career over five decades, we see his stories unfold before us in a dazzling array of art styles and forms, their development mirroring the evolution in the political and social landscape of his homeland and of the comic book medium itself. With The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye Sonny Liew has drawn together a myriad of genres to create a thoroughly ingenious and engaging work, where the line between truth and construct may sometimes be blurred, but where the story told is always enthralling, bringing us on a uniquely moving, funny, and thought-provoking journey through the life of an artist and the history of a nation.” What Liew has done is create a sort of fictionalized auto/biography of the titular Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Through Chye’s career, Liew is able to weave in key events in Singaporean and Malaysian histories, especially showing us how these events compounded and complicated Chye’s development as an artist and as a writer. There is thus a high meta-graphic impulse, as the production of cartoons and comics are understood alongside the construction and creation of an independent, postcolonial nation-state. Most important for Liew, then, is the ways that comics, cartoons, and graphic narratives can present political critiques of particular nation-state policies and discourses. I kept thinking about why Liew would have wanted to create this kind of graphic narrative, instead of another that would, say, simply detail the construction of the Singaporean nation-state without recourse to a meta-artistic point-of-view, but what Liew’s work effectively reminds us is that superheroes, speculative registers and artifacts are often merely different tools that an artist and writer might use for political purposes, especially in cultural contexts in which free speech can be policed or even suppressed. The complexity of Liew’s work make this particular graphic narrative perhaps a little bit more challenging to read, but certainly also marks it as one that I will adopt in future courses. The art, as always (and as shown in Liew’s other work such as Malinky Robot) is first rate, and the story of the friendship between the titular Charlie Chan Hock Chye and Bertrand Wong firmly grounds this cultural production.
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A Review of Monstress: Volume 1 by Marjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (illustrator) (Image Comics, 2016)
So I ended up teaching this comic-based work, which has been compiled into a first volume, for my fall course on Trauma Theory. I’ve been interested in the relative lack of consideration between trauma theory and speculative-type fictions. Part of the obvious issue is that trauma theory is referential. That is, it deals with things that actually do occur to actual human beings. Speculative fiction, as we know, can be strongly disarticulated from our “reality.” In this sense, Monstress by Marjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (illustrator) (Image Comics, 2016) presents a great test case concerning whether or not trauma theory or psychoanalytic theory can be put together in any productive way. Why use our brains to consider whether or not a fictional world that is based upon a completely different typology of humanoid species would be something we should consider as a site of inquiry for a study of trauma or the unconscious? Monstress is a fictional world based upon five different groupings: humans, arcanics, the ancients, the gods, and the cat-peoples. Over time, the ancients and humans somehow crossbred creating arcanics. Arcanics and humans eventually did not get along, which leads us to the current incendiary situation that opens up the graphic novel. Humans have a suborder, a community of witches, that seems to be part of the ruling class. The ancients also have their own ruling community known as the Dark Court. When the graphic novel opens, our protagonist, an Arcanic named Maika Halfwolf has been collared; she’s basically become some sort of human slave. She’s been brought into the human-populated capital and into a residence housing some witches. What we don’t know is why she allowed herself to be captured, but eventually we discover that these witches have information she desires: she wants to know more about what happened to her mother, who had been on a mission of her own when Maika was just a young child. The opening arc generates more questions than answers: it seems as though Maika has some sort of “god” living inside of her, one that comes out of the portion of her amputated arm. This “god” basically sucks the life force out of other individuals, turning them into husks. The basis of the plot is essentially Maika’s search to figure out what exactly she is, how her mother and others were involved in the development of mystical arts, and how Maika will manage to survive given the fact that she’s killed a number of humans. Maika does develop some key allies, including a very young Arcanic, who seems to be a hybrid mixture of human and fox (named Kippa), and then, a cat-being, who reminds us of the equivocating ways of the feline figure from Alice in Wonderland. Why I find this work compelling enough to teach is the question of racializing metaphors here: the enslavement and oppression of the Arcanics allows us an opportunity to consider what happens when social difference emerges in the context of a speculative fiction. How do we understand trauma, violence, and brutality in these imaginary registers? The figure of Maika is an intriguing one: she seems to function as an anti-hero. As the figure the readers are supposedly most connected with, she nevertheless does some questionable things: for instance, “accidentally” eating another young Arcanic due to the fact that she does not yet understand what being she is harboring inside of her. She also ends up killing a number of guards and other figures in order to carry out her mission: do the ends justify the means in her case, especially given the fact that she seems to advocating more largely for the Arcanics, who have been oppressed as a people? Should we consider this book as an analogy for racial oppression in our world? These are the questions I engaged in my class. I also wanted students to consider the import of the “visual” in this work: how does it function to help or to complicate our understandings of trauma and of the unconscious that might be at work? What is especially interesting this regard is that the “god” who seems to exist inside of Maika sometimes acts as a kind of conscience, however conflicted in its appearance. Does the visual realm allow us into a typology of the “psyche,” so to speak? An intriguing work and one I hope will continue to provoke a deep discussion.
(here is Kippa, the adorbs)
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