Thursday, September 11, 2008

I've Been Here Before, Part 2

(Part 1 is here)
"of course, vengeance takes me all over the world. I was in Brazil yesterday. They love their soccer."
Jane Espenson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Same Time, Same Place"
At a panel at the most recent WorldCon, participants Charles Brown, Karen Burnham, Cheryl Morgan, Graham Sleight and Gary Wolfe were each asked to compose a list of 20 works of science fiction published during the last twenty years which they consider essential. Morgan has a write-up here, and Niall Harrison discusses the results some more here, both noting that the only book to merit a mention all five lists was Ian McDonald's River of Gods. Excellent novel though it is, I don't think River of Gods was singled out for this honor simply because of its quality, but because of the change it seemed to herald in SF's attitude towards non-white, non-Western cultures. Set in Varanasi several decades into the future, River of Gods follows nine characters over a period of several days, during which they experience personal, national, and global upheavals. It's an unusual SF novel in that it tells its story from a foreign perspective. Though there are white characters in the novel, they are clearly outsiders, and act mainly as observers. The movers and shakers in the novel are all Indian (or, using the Sanskrit name, Bharati, as the novel posits a breakdown of India's component states into sovereign nations) and the events it describes are driven by Indian interests--a water-war between Bharat and its neighbor Awadh, the debate over ratification of the Hamilton Act, a US-based piece of legislation outlawing AIs over a certain level of sophistication which is staunchly opposed in Bharat because its economy depends largely on producing these AIs, a maverick businessman's pie in the sky plan to develop a cheap and limitless source of energy. McDonald describes India as a country fluctuating between tradition and modernity, in which technology makes new ways of life possible even as it reinforces old ones. More importantly, he describes India as taking part in the future, shaping and being shaped by it.

It's a positive, vibrant, and persuasive description, but also one that gives rise to a feeling of unease when one recalls that McDonald is, after all, a white man from Belfast. What right does he have to write about India, much less to pretend to have captured its essence, much much less to imagine its future? When Nic Clarke of Eve's Alexandria reviewed River of Gods, a commenter disdainfully replied that the novel sounded to her like yet another cliché-ridden attempt by a Western writer to fetishize a nation that has become synonymous with exoticism. This was not long after the genre blogosphere became embroiled in what's become known as The Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of Doom, an offshoot of a WisCon panel discussing the depiction of cultures by authors foreign to them, and specifically non-white cultures by white authors, and the combination of these two discussions got me seriously reconsidering River of Gods and my, at that point, uncomplicated affection for it. McDonald's India feels like a real place, but I have no idea whether he's truly captured the country's spirit and described its driving conflicts with fidelity. He may very well have fictionalized a truth more complicated and nuanced than he was interested in depicting. What's kept me feeling positively towards River of Gods in spite of this realization is the fact that, as I noted above, his India is so strong and independent, so clearly its own entity directing its own fate. River of Gods may be a novel about India told by an outsider, but within the novel India is writing its own story.

When I heard that McDonald was going to follow River of Gods with another foray into a foreign culture, I was equal parts apprehensive and hopeful. Though the potential for fetishization and condescension was as great, I felt reasonably certain that the man who pulled off River of Gods could manage the same trick when it came to Brazil. I should stress that I think Brasyl is an excellent novel (and that I agree wholeheartedly with those who were shocked by its absence from the Clarke shortlist, which would have been a great deal stronger for its inclusion and that of The Yiddish Policemen's Union). It is beautifully written, thrilling, engrossing, and a hell of a lot of fun. But I can't say that it passes the test that River of Gods just barely squeaked past. Much as I enjoyed the substance of Brasyl, the experience of reading it was marked by an ever-increasing sense of unease at McDonald's treatment of the real country in which his story is grounded.

Brasyl unfolds in three alternating plotlines. The first takes place in Rio de Janeiro in 2006, and follows reality TV producer Marcelina Hoffman, who is in the early stages of developing a special about the Fateful Final, the decisive 1950 World Cup match in which Brazil, competing on its own soil against its neighbor Uruguay, lost the game by a single goal. Marcelina's despicable plan to track down the goalie who let the ball in and put him on trial on national TV is derailed when a person who looks exactly like her begins sabotaging her life, sending rude e-mails to her superiors, snubbing her friends, and offending her family. In the second plotline, Edson, a small-time entrepreneur in 2032 São Paolo, falls in love with a shady 'quantumista'--a programmer of quantum computers, which can reach into alternate universes and use their own doubles' processing power. When she's mysteriously murdered, and then reappears in the form of her alternate reality double, Edson scrambles to protect her while they try to work out who's after her. The third plotline takes place in 1732, along the Amazon and its tributaries. Jesuit priest Luis Quinn is dispatched to track down Diego Gonçalves, a member of his order who has set up his own kingdom deep in the jungle. On his journey, Quinn teams up with French scientist Robert Falcon, and encounters a native tribe who possess the secret to seeing into parallel realities. Armed with the knowledge gained from this ability, Quinn and Falcon, along with escaped slaves, establish their own jungle stronghold, and end up at war with Gonçalves.

Given the emphasis on alternate realities, it should come as no surprise that the three plotlines in Brasyl don't seem to belong to the same timeline--the present-day storyline isn't even set in our world, as the real goalie in the Fateful Final, Moacyr Barbosa, died in 2000. As Adam Roberts and Nic Clarke both point out in their reviews of the novel, there are far more than three Brazils in it--each character seems to have their own, slightly different version of the country. Rich and poor, male and female, white and black (actually, far more than that, since as McDonald points out in the glossary at the end of the novel Brazilian society distinguishes between 134 different skin tones, and many ethnic and national groups make up its population)--everyone has their own Brazil, and as Nic goes on to point out this superposition of different identities extends to the characters themselves, many of whom take on different personas in different settings. This is all very well and good, but what's lost in the shuffle is a sense of Brazil as an actual place.

There are many portions that moved and excited me in River of Gods, but the one that's stuck with me is the scene in which the character Parvati, a country girl who, as a result of a trend towards selecting for male children in her generation and the ensuing 'wife shortage,' has married well above her class, goes to a cricket match between Bharat and England.
Parvati Nandha keeps her eye on the ball as it reaches the top of its arc and gravity overcomes velocity and it falls to earth, towards the crowd, a red bindi, a red eye, a red sun. An aerial assault. A missile from Krishan, seeking out the heart. The ball falls and the spectators rise but none before Parvati. She surges up and the ball drops into her upheld right hand. She cries out at the sting, then yells 'Jai Bharat!,' mad on the moment. The crowd cheers, she is marooned in sound. 'Jai Bharat!' The noise redoubles.
There's a lot going on in this scene. Krishan is Parvati's gardener, who has taught her about cricket and with whom she is falling in love, and in a moment she will face the scorn of her fellow wives, who see her actions as confirmation of her uncouthness. But what's driving Parvati in this moment, and what connects her to the thousands of people who cheer at her, is national pride. It's a feeling that cuts across national and cultural barriers. Hell, it even cuts across indifference to sports--I wasn't even born at the time, and I don't give a damn about basketball, but I know what an important moment it was for Israel when Maccabi Tel Aviv beat CSKA Moscow in the European championship semifinal in 1977. In this moment, in River of Gods, India is entirely real, and as important to us as it is to Parvati. It is the place she comes from, the place that made her what she is. There's no corresponding sense of Brazil's reality, or of its importance to any of the characters, in Brasyl. The closest the novel comes to bringing Brazil, the actual country, alive is when it hands over the narrative to Marcelina's cleaner, Dona Bebel, who tells her the story of the Fateful Final:
The whole nation went into shock. We've never recovered from it. Maybe we expected too much; maybe the politicians talked it up until it wasn't just a game of soccer, it was Brazil itself. People who were there in the Maracaña, do you know what they call themselves? 'Survivors.' That's right. But the real pain wasn't that we lost the World Cup; it was the realization that maybe we weren't as great as we believed we were. Even in our shack on Morro de Pavão, listening to a radio wired into the streetlight with an oil drum for an amplifier, we still thought we were part of a great future. Maybe now we weren't the nation of the future, that everyone admired and envied, maybe we were just another South American banana republic strutting around all puffed out like a gamecock in gold braid and plumes that nobody really took seriously.
This is, however, one of only a few instances in the novel in which Brazil is considered as a nation. The question of its future--world leader or banana republic--isn't raised again, nor does it seem to matter to the rest of the characters. If River of Gods imagined India striding into the future, the future segment of Brasyl imagines a nation to which the future has happened. This might still make for a worthy story if there was a sense that Brazil having been left behind is something that McDonald thinks we should be interested in, but national identity, character, and direction are hardly even mentioned in the future strand. There isn't even anything uniquely Brazilian about the 2032 narrative--certainly not in the way that River of Gods immersed itself in Indian culture. It is, instead, a by-the-numbers, albeit impeccably executed, cyberpunk-lite future with a few Latin touches to distinguish it from thousands of others just like it. Brazil seems to have been sprinkled on, a backdrop rather than the point of the novel.

Of course, it may simply be that Brazil isn't the point of the novel. Both Adam Roberts and Nic Clarke argue that Brasyl isn't about Brazil per se but rather about the idea of Brazil, and through it McDonald's larger point about the multiplicity of identities--many places in the same location, many personas in the same body. This is probably true, but it seems to me like an explanation, not an excuse. Why should it be acceptable for McDonald to use Brazil--and not even the real Brazil but, as Roberts puts it, "a hyperbolically rendered, false-colour, triple-ply Brazil that is kept the right side of caricature only by McDonald's great skill as a writer: a Brazil that is genuinely as sun-soaked, pepped-up, vibrant, sexy, coffee-flavoured, samba-rhythmic and spontaneous as people like to think it is"--as a prop? How is this any better than the ubiquitous wise Native American guide or Magical Negro? That McDonald is, as Roberts notes, a fine writer whose portrait is lively and effortlessly persuasive doesn't change the reductiveness of this portrait. Brasyl ends with an epigraph by De Gaulle: "Brazil is not a serious country," and whether or not we're meant to read it ironically there is definitely a sense that, in Brasyl, Brazil isn't being taken seriously.

It certainly doesn't help that the same dismissiveness with which the novel treats its setting is extended to some of its characters, and that these characters are almost exclusively female and/or non-white. Marcelina is a great character, probably my favorite in the novel--she's a strong, vital person who has no scruples or taste, and has therefore chosen to dedicate her skills to the most odious cause imaginable. She's not even evil, which would at least indicate some moral conviction--just vain, and power-hungry for a specific type of power that means nothing by any realistic yardstick. Her ordeal transforms her, but refreshingly enough that transformation isn't redemptive so much as liberating. Marcelina never feels truly sorry for the things she did or wanted in her life as a reality TV producer, and she isn't humbled by her ordeal. Rather, it makes her stronger, and at the end of the novel she joyfully dedicates herself to a higher purpose.

And that, I'm afraid, is that for the novel's interesting female characters. Edson's love interest, Fia Kishida, is something of a blank, as one might infer from the fact that she appears as two different women in the novel, who are nevertheless treated by both the narrative and by Edson himself as the same person. Her first incarnation is one of the future plotline's most egregious dips into cyberpunk clichés, a mirrorshades-and-attitudes construct we've seen a million times before. Her alternate self is more approachable, but also more subdued--she spends most of the novel doing as she's told by either Edson or her eventual employers, and hardly seems to make a single independent choice throughout the story. Near the beginning of the novel, we learn that Edson is a cross-dresser, whose female aspect is called Efrim. Nic Clarke thinks that it's very refreshing that this proclivity is mentioned as a matter of fact, that Edson, having invited Fia on a date, shows up as Efrim without any trepidation or fear of her reaction, and that Fia herself takes the discovery in stride. In principle, I agree, but Fia is such a non-entity that her bemused reaction to Efrim feels less like her willingness to accept difference (or an expression of the very great likelihood that, in 25 years' time, proclivities and pastimes that we consider risqué will have gained mainstream acceptance) and more like a lack of opinion. Edson's on-again, off-again relationship with a man who has also acted as his mentor for years was also, presumably, introduced as an illustration of the permissiveness of his culture, but the contrast between their palpable affection for one another and the lack of any chemistry between Fia and Edson means that, once again, the device backfires and cheapens her character.

There are few other female characters of note, and most of them are playing a type--Dona Bebel and Marcelina's mother in the present-day strand are standard Ethnic Matrons, and in the 1732 storyline Falcon takes a native lover who is also a type, though admittedly the slightly more positive one of the spirited, uncomplicated native woman whose matter-of-fact attitude is a welcome balm to a cerebral, civilized white man. Though ostensibly dealing with Brazil's dark history and the enslavement of its native population, this plot strand is really about the two white men, Quinn and Falcon, who lead the slaves to salvation. When they arrive at their destination, a leader emerges from within the population, Quinn's servant Zemba, an escaped slave. Though the narrative regards him positively while he is in Quinn's service and loyal to him, remarking several times on his courage and burning desire for freedom, as soon as he's placed in charge of the 'City of Marvels,' Zemba is described as a tyrant. Falcon in particular resents him, considers him bloodthirsty and even, when Zemba tries to prevent him from leaving the city on a research expedition, sniffily replies that "I am not your slave." This transformation, from victim of exploitation to its perpetrator, is sadly not an unexpected one, and had the novel carried it through I might have less to complain about, but Zemba dies heroically for the City of Marvels, his previous excesses forgotten as he hands over the responsibility for his people to... Falcon, the white man. It's a story that might have been more palatable if the past storyline had had more room to breathe--if we'd gotten a chance to know Zemba as a complicated person, or to fully feel Falcon's dedication to the city--but this plotline is truncated, almost the highlights of a longer historical novel (such as Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger), and as a result doesn't seem to be aware of the skeevy statements it's making about the place of non-whites in the social hierarchy.

And that, I think, is what's most upsetting about Brasyl's treatment of both gender and race--that it leaves so much unexamined, reporting rather than commenting. When we first meet Edson, he's recruiting a new talent for his stable of entertainers, a young female football player. Edson tells the girl that she has promise, but that she needs to perform in a thong, and perhaps get a boob job, if she wants a future in show business. Later on he sells his contract for a women's volleyball team, tempting his buyer by noting that they play topless. It's impossible not to compare Brasyl with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which like it described a South American society mired in misogyny and racism, but whereas in Junot Díaz's novel it seemed obvious that the ugliness of such prejudices, of an outlook on life that sees women as nothing more than ornaments and accessories, was being thrown in our faces in a deliberate assault on our senses, I can't help but feel that in Brasyl McDonald is simply throwing in some local color, or worse, playing the misogyny for a joke. As I noted when I reviewed Oscar Wao, one the reasons that Díaz can get away with such sharp criticism is that he is a member of the society he's portraying. It may be that McDonald, as an outsider, didn't feel comfortable advancing that same critique--which, in a way, is an extension of the novel's reductive attitude towards the country.

By any technical standard, Brasyl is a much better novel than Spook Country, and I enjoyed reading it a great deal more. It has also, however, left a very bad taste in my mouth. The promise made by River of Gods, of a new science fiction landscape in which other cultures and other ethnicities were given their fair share of the future, has since been lived up to by other authors--Geoff Ryman's Air, some of Paolo Bacigalupi's short stories--but McDonald himself seems to have backslid. Once again, it's possible that I came to Brasyl with the wrong expectations. I wanted McDonald to do for Brazil what he had done for India, to consider it seriously and respectfully. I won't, however, apologize for this expectation--not when the result of its not having been met is so distasteful.

17 comments:

Nic said...

This is going to be a rather boring comment, since I basically agree with you. I'm pleased to see someone else shares my Marcellina love; I too felt that the 2032 strand was generic and the 18thc. one never given room to spread its wings.

Interesting comments on Fia; I suppose the fact that I came away from the novel with no real thoughts about her at all rather backs up your points. But yes. She's the super-cool-kickass-hacker-girlfriend type, a bit like the recurring girl in XKCD, only somehow less well-rounded. :-)

I'm more willing than you are to forgive the multiplicity of Brazils/no real Brazil thing, mostly because it fits the SF theme so neatly; but you're right, it isn't an excuse.

Raz Greenberg said...

"It's a positive, vibrant, and persuasive description, but also one that gives rise to a feeling of unease when one recalls that McDonald is, after all, a white man from Belfast. What right does he have to write about India, much less to pretend to have captured its essence, much much less to imagine its future?"

I don't understand the questions. McDonald is a writer. The ability to immerse oneself in a culture that is totally different from his or her own could be considered as a writer's greatest achievement. This is especially true of genre writers - by very definition, their job is to go beyond their immidiate surroundings. For years there were complaints about western genre writer's inablity to describe the future through a perspective that is different than their own. So now, when they choose a different perspective, they are suddenly told to stop patronizing over other cultures, and go back to play in their own sandbox?

A.R.Yngve said...

What if McDonald had written BRASYL under a Brazilian pseudonym, posing as an "authentic" native writing about his country?

Would he have passed the test then?

I enjoyed BRASYL, but I did feel that hacker-girl romance was underdeveloped, and ultimately I thought the novel was less than the sum of its parts.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Nic:

She's the super-cool-kickass-hacker-girlfriend type, a bit like the recurring girl in XKCD, only somehow less well-rounded

Oooh, burn!

Raz:

I think you should read some of the links in the cultural appropriation roundup I linked to, because they explored this issue - which is thorny and complicated - much more intelligently than I could in this little comment box. You're overstating my view, though, if you think that I don't believe Western writers should ever write about non-Western cultures. What I'm doing - what the entire discussion about cultural appropriation is about - is asking when and how such an act is acceptable and when it isn't, and there really aren't any hard and fast answers. As you can see from this post, I thought McDonald did a good job of depicting a foreign culture in River of Gods, and a poor one in Brasyl.

A.R.:

What if McDonald had written BRASYL under a Brazilian pseudonym, posing as an "authentic" native writing about his country?

Then he would be a liar.

Foxessa said...

I'd thought perhaps my negative reaction to Brasyl was because I know so many Brasileros and have spent some time in a three parts of it.

I'd thought my more favorable judgment of River of Gods was due to knowing less about India, never having been to India, and though I know some Indians, they are either from the Caribbean, or were born here, or arrived here early, and are academics.

In any case I tended to react to the same things you did in Brasyl.

As far as writing about a culture you maybe are not born into: John Sayles does it brilliantly with the short story he wrote, on which he based his film, Honeydripper. Mostly it has to do with how very well you know something and how you care about it, as opposed to using it as a prop, or for a bit of flava.

Love, C.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I have a minor connection to Brazil myself, as my cousin is married to a Brazilian woman, and I visited the country last year for their wedding. I wouldn't say that I have a meaningful understanding of the country because of this, though. (I'd be interested, however, to see what my cousin's family, who spent several years in Sao Paolo when my uncle was stationed there by the State Department, would have to say about the book.)

I think the difference between River of Gods and Brasyl has a lot less to do with how well McDonald can or does write about a culture he's an outsider to, and more to do with whether he is, as you say, interested in it for itself or as a prop. In RoG, he does the former, in Brasyl, the latter.

Mike Taylor said...

I don't get it. You seem to be criticising this novel for what it's not, rather than for what it is -- which is rather like having a down on Pride and Prejudice because its male characters are (at most) two-dimensional.

Given that you liked River of the Gods until people explained to you why shouldn't, it seems that you've allowed yourself to be argued out of enjoying a good novel here.

ianras said...

It might be my opacity but I don't see what McDonald's whiteness has to do with Brasyl's failures as you argue them. He failed to evoke the country itself. Is it because you see it as part of a tradition of white writers using non-Western cultures for colour that you mention it?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Mike:

You seem to be criticising this novel for what it's not, rather than for what it is

Whereas my way of looking at it is that I liked River of Gods for what it wasn't - yet another instance of a Western writer thoughtlessly repeating cliches about non-Western countries as a way of infusing his writing with color and interest - and hoped that Brasyl would do the same thing. As I say, clearly McDonald made a choice not to do so, but the fact that this was a conscious decision on his part doesn't make the end result any less disappointing.

Given that you liked River of the Gods until people explained to you why shouldn't, it seems that you've allowed yourself to be argued out of enjoying a good novel here.

*Deep breath*

May I recommend that this sentence be rephrased into something less condescending? Possibly to the point of non-existence?

(Also, the male characters in Pride and Prejudice are two-dimensional? En garde, sir!)

ianras:

I don't see what McDonald's whiteness has to do with Brasyl's failures as you argue them

That's because I never argued that it does. I mentioned that McDonald is 'a white guy from Belfast' as a way of stressing how much of an outsider he was to Indian culture and society.

McDuff said...


Then he would be a liar.


Given as he's a fiction writer, isn't that more or less the definition of his job?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

No.

McDuff said...

So what's the difference between someone who makes up stories about imaginary people and claiming authorship of the work, and someone who makes up stories about imaginary people while making up another imaginary person and pretending that they are the author in order to adjust how people read the book?

For example, Lemony Snicket, George Eliot, countless others.

This is a serious question. If the name on the front cover affects how people will read what's inside, it's surely part of the whole literary work. Why would new imaginary creations only be "lies" if they are on the cover?

ianras said...

> That's because I never argued that it does. I mentioned that McDonald is 'a white guy from Belfast' as a way of stressing how much of an outsider he was to Indian culture and society.

Right. I thought the mention of his whiteness was a gesture in a wider direction because while there's undoubtedly a connection between depicting a culture faithfully and being immersed in it from the get-go here, it's not a necesary connection. And since your problems with the novel have to do with the former, I was just a bit confused as to why the latter was mentioned, then left at that.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

what's the difference between someone who makes up stories about imaginary people and claiming authorship of the work, and someone who makes up stories about imaginary people while making up another imaginary person and pretending that they are the author in order to adjust how people read the book?

There is a difference, but neither of those are the scenario posited by A.R. Yngve, in which a person makes up stories about imaginary people, then makes up an imaginary person who they pretend is real and wrote these stories. (Or, alternatively, make up imaginary facts about themselves which they pretend are real.)

Neither of your examples fit this description. Lemony Snicket is not only the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books but a character within them - the fictionality of the series extends beyond the books' covers, but everyone knows that in the real world, the books' author is Daniel Handler. Similarly, by the end of her career, everyone knew that George Eliot was a pseudonym. It was no more a lie than LJ usernames. That said, when George Eliot started publishing under that name, she was pretending to be a man (and, if my memory serves, not to be the Mary Ann Evans who had run off with a married man). She was lying. The fact that we understand and condone that lie doesn't make it less so.

A better example would be Laura Albert.

gv said...

James Tiptree, Jr.?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Also lying.

McDuff said...

But there are two issues at hand here. The first, by Yngwe, is whether a hypothetical pseudonym would have altered your reading of the book - and since your review made much mention of your preconceptions it would indeed of done so, although I would not presume to guess manner or direction of that alteration (indeed, the alteration may well have simply been that a sub-par book by an unknown author may have remained unread entirely).

The second, raised by me, is in the supposed moral distinction between a fiction and a lie, or indeed if it was your purpose to make a moral distinction or just one of category. When Baron Munchausen tells the enrapt audience of his adventures with giant crocodiles and ropes to the moon, is he a liar or a storyteller, and which is preferable?

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