Futures and dystopias are frequently set in completely fabricated cities and worlds and planets, often but not always rising from the ashes of some war or climate catastrophe on Earth. There is extensive world-building and backgrounds established, and aside from the shared past of ‘Earth’ there is at times little else shared; Earth, and the issues of now translated into the text.
Frequently, though, those new dystopic futures are in New Something. New Beijing, New Singapore, New Istanbul. When they’re written in English and set in New Asian Something, I will bet you all the tea in my house that it is shorthand for an exotic distant (future) other; that the name of that place bears no actual relation to the plot or the world building other than something superficial like chopsticks, or the heat, and could have been set in New New York or New Londontown.
When you give the name of a place, you conjure connotations of that place, images and memories and ideas. When you name a place and there is nothing similar between the place you describe and the place you have named, what connotations exactly are you trying to conjure? In many cases, that image is other, and the exotic.
Exotic as Shorthand and the Place as Other
Exotic is a problematic term all on its own, particularly so when it’s applied to some culture you don’t know; in English-language Science Fiction, that’s almost always a place that isn’t a Western place. Tori Truslow wrote a great post in 2012. It’s got totally racist connotations, especially when we’re talking about beauty, particularly women; it separates us, and it others us. It’s frustrating when it’s applied to your food and your culture (as I wrote about five years ago). These are all different topics, but you see the connection: the exotic as other.
And the exotic in a text assumes an audience; but more importantly, it makes assumptions on who is not considered the audience.
In Australia, the term ‘exotic’ is used to refer to introduced species of plants and animals; primarily, English species. Roses are exotic; as are rabbits. I delight in this usage; particularly in my industry where this is the correct terminology.
The words ‘New Place’ are not required to create this artificial and lazy sense of place as other. Firefly, the Joss Whedon space western, is set 500 years in the future when the USA and China have combined to form one governing body and there’s nary an Asian city or country name in sight. There are swearwords in ear-twitching Mandarin, though, and comments about cooking bao and some kitschy East Asian set dressing. There’s no actual evidence of the alleged Chinese upper class, and despite claiming to be a fusion universe the show features no actual Asians (and indeed, described as Pan-Asian rather than the logical outcome of Pan-Chinese). It creates this great sense of place, of other, of how our dystopic future might turn out without resorting to green skies and triple moons…if you’re not sitting there, foaming at the mouth while someone appropriates your culture for its trappings and none of what it could actually contribute (say, actual Asians. And 100 kuai says terraforming was invented by an Asian scientist. Because have you met the Asian monolith?).
Dystopic future Los Angeles as represented in Blade Runner (you know what’s great about Blade Runner? Edward James Olmos) is like the perfect summing up of my point. It’s so perfect, I found some lecturer’s class notes on the internet that agree. This 2019 LA has lots of East Asian elements and non-English languages, and a whole lot of brown people, which reflected a (1980s but still relevant today!) fear of East Asian growth (Japan then, but China now) and an increase in white flight, which in Blade Runner are used as short hand for dystopia.
My disdain for The Wind-Up Girl remains strong, for many reasons, and in my original review I noted that (sorry, I’m totally quoting myself here):
there is really no point to setting the novel in Thailand. Thailand in this novel is othered just like many of the characters, and at most point it feels like any old made up exotic back drop. There’s very little about the setting that is really clearly a future Thailand, except from some mythology stuff. It could have been any old country, so why make it Thailand? Except I guess to make use of its sex trade issues WHY OH WHY. Some reviewers (okay, one commenter on one review) mentioned that it could be because Thailand is the only country that was never colonised by some white dude, which, okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still totally The Other.
And as Jaymee points out in her review, there is not only no justification for this geographical choice, there is also no explanation for inexplicable changes in neighbouring geography, such as the xenophobic fundamentalism of Malaysia (called Malaya in the book) which is inconsistent with a nuanced understanding of Malaysia’s history and racial politics. This oversight highlights the other issue with the exotic as the other: a necessary understanding not only of that one city, but of all its other interactions in the world.
Hilariously, I discovered this review of The Wind-Up Girl (which includes a review for River of Gods, which is a book I really want to read to see how terribly it uses India as a dystopic future setting) which completely disagrees with me, on the grounds that a good future dystopia based on an existing city should be totally different due to science and technology and in fact let me quote from this review, because this bit I agree with:
The right way is to recognize the historical fact that no country reaches the tech frontier without undergoing serious social changes. The faint echoes of samurai and cowboys in the Panasonics and Googles of today are just that – faint echoes. Writers who realize this will try to preserve some element of the spirit of the old in the form of the (imagined) new, rather than trying to cut-and-paste.
True! I will buy this theory, or some of it. However I disagree that The Wind-Up Girl has done so, primarily because I ask this: who are you to make the decision that it is sufficiently echoey? The biggest problem with this theory is that we are writing in the today. As an author not from these cities (as every author I am talking about in this blog post is), can they ever truly be trusted to make these sorts of judgements on a city? Instead, they pick and choose and turn up a city that is never quite right, precisely because it could just as easily have been set anywhere and it has brought nothing to the story other than the exotic as dystopic and different, particularly as the stories are written today, in our actual current world politics. (Thanks once again for making Thailand a stereotype of poverty and sexual slavery, Paolo! It’s not like every Western produced text that features Thailand makes the same statement!)
The Accidental Exotic is My Backyard
There is a flip side to this: the unintended Exotic. Elizabeth Knox suggests that non-USA/English in English writers may do this by accident or even consciously, where one’s normal is in fact the “audience”‘s exotic and different. This again makes assumptions about audiences, and asks what we can expect a reader to know and to understand. Famously Avatar: The Last Airbender was considered by some viewers to be entirely fantasy, including some elements taken directly from Japanese, Chinese and Korean myths and traditions. How much of this is because readers (and viewers) are used to the completely familiar, and the exotic as other?
New Beijing, Imagined (No, Seriously, Imagined) in Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (spoilers included)
Despite its capital of New Beijing, the Eastern Commonwealth is not a China. It can’t be, not with far-flung provinces such as Mumbai, an Emperor named Kaito, and kimonos as formal wear. The emperor eats with chopsticks at one point, and Cinder’s sisters are named Pearl and Peony, and family names before personal names. In the market is a sweet bun baker named Chang Sacha, which I guess could potentially be a pan-Chinese name. There is a moon calendar celebration.
Some reviews mentioned how Chinese it all sounded but it is so not Chinese sounding that I cannot even. It is not even very pan-Asian, which I wouldn’t forgive but would at least be something.
Pearl and Peony are Western stereotypes well before they’re actual Chinese names, especially in a text that’s Linh and Chang and Kaito. Their mother, Adri, makes no sense in this context as a name. Indeed their names even translated, with no naming schema, confuse rather than clarify. There is an Emperor, and with that Japanese name and the Changs and the Linhs (Vietnamese, by the way, if you’re wondering, and also usually a personal name) we’re moving solidly into pan-Asian territory.
The likelihood of China entering an alliance with Japan is as always slim to none for varied historical reasons; I would believe a China-Korea alliance before a China-Japan alliance, though the Singapore I’ll grant, especially if it were a one commonwealth two systems deal.
It’s a lot for me to say that it can’t be New Beijing because the names are broken, but it’s basically all we’re given. This New Beijing could be any North American city that I’ve seen on a tv screen (but surely even then the USA, with its history, is unlikely to accept a hereditary ruler so perhaps not even then). The chances of it being even pan Asian, let alone Chinese, are unlikely. There is nothing in Cinder that gives a sense of place, let alone a sense of a sprawling Chinese city. There is no ridiculous architecture, no noisy press, no constant flux. There is a cluster of apartments rising high into the sky, kids playing in corridors and in my head I imagined Chungking Mansion, the Hong Kong monstrosity, but that was more me than the text.
Awkwardly for me this New Beijing is in a far-flung renumbered distant future, so a defence of this book could be that Earth politics has changed so much that Emperor Kaito (Japanese) could indeed peacefully rule the Eastern Commonwealth of (unnamed) China and Singapore and Mumbai at least, living in New Beijing, and it’s all good.
But uh we live here, in the real politics of the world, and to imply that there is a Japanese ruler of a combined China and Singapore and India is there are no words, imagine me lying on the floor making choking noises as I bury my head in my arm and laugh and laugh and laugh.
The Book Smugglers in a review note that the story is set in New Beijing but really fails to capitalise on that and in addition the story goes out of its way to make Cinder first assumed European, and then Lunar (and we assume, caucasian) – what even is the point? they ask. The point is to use the city as shorthand for characterisation and move on, and this is why representation and research and every thing else is so important. We are not making a needlessly big deal! We are making an actual facts big deal.
Our dystopic future is very scientifically unlikely to be white, because of genetics, and science, and look white people are a minority already, you know? And climate change and the sun and recessive genes, and a lot of our scientific breakthroughs are coming out of Asia and Africa. Do you know how advanced Chinese alternative energy research is? And the fact that authors continue to write our dystopic future as white, or as white hero in a pretend brown world, simply proves the point that we’re used as a backdrop and there’s no actual real reflection of our dystopic future (or our current) in these texts.
(It’s funny how easy it is to misread a thing. Another review claimed that for the ‘sensitive readers’, there was nothing to worry about, unless you were offended by cyborgs. Oh sure, nothing, except the explicit medical trauma where Cinders is offered up for medical experimentation by her step mother, and then we are treated to pages and pages of her tied to a lab table, panicking, having her blood drawn by med robots, her protesting and saying she was not a volunteer, having a disembodied voice telling her too bad. Sure. Nothing to worry about for anyone.)
Imagined World Politics and Their Implications in 2013
New Beijing is in the Eastern Commonwealth, which is ruled by the hereditary ruler Emperor Kaito. An emperor of any Chinese-something alliance is unlikely, given China’s history with hereditary rulers and though the Emperor was such for nearly 2000 years, it will take much to move him back again. The Emperor lives in a palace in New Beijing, so we can assume that New Beijing is the capital of the Eastern Commonwealth. This book was published in 2012, so we can assume that New Beijing implies something about the original power of China moving into this commonwealth, particularly in light of page 28, at which point I gasped out loud: “Subjects had been carted in from provinces as far-reaching as Mumbai and Singapore.”
The provinces of Mumbai and Singapore. The author’s website implies that the ‘Eastern Commonwealth’ is basically Asia, and that there are other similar conglomerates (Africa, Europe and Australia, ruled by a Governor-General).
Speaking of Africa, one of the key components of Cinder is the deadly plague which found its first outbreak in a small village in the African Union. This is revealed to be a disease brought to Earth by refugee Lunars, who have fled to the African Union’s unpopulated areas. It’s problematic that ‘unpopulated Africa’ is the location selected for runaway Lunars (and not, say, unpopulated Europe or unpopulated North America), due to its implications of a continuing ’empty’ or backwards Africa.* It’s problematic that this feeds into the concept of dirty brown people.
In the previous section I talk about why implying the Japanese-China alliance or commonwealth or whatever is a completely ridiculous notion given our real world politics. This conglomeration of the Eastern Commonwealth which I cannot even take seriously because it then refers to the province of Singapore (as opposed to the country of Singapore, which surely is the point of a commonwealth) just continues to give rise to the idea of pan-Asianism, a particularly vexing problem when we are talking about the representation of Asian people in Western texts; that is, we are interchangeable.
I could really do without authors choosing to set stories in my exotic different cities and then choosing to make the city some random Western smush, with no real need to be set in that city and no real understanding of how my city works.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not all up on my rant horse because she’s ruining my city or my feelings or whatever. But this is definitely a personal issue as well as an intellectual one. It assumes that a non-western audience is not your audience; it assumes unfamiliarity with the setting, because it’s a short-hand; it assumes that my city is short-hand for cool and exotic. And it is lazy and unnecessary and occasionally it makes me very angry.
*a footnote! I’m trying to avoid footnotes but this one is important and definitely a foot: I hate ‘#firstworldproblems’. you know what African countries have? commutes to work that are so short you can’t listen to a whole song, the movie you pirated being only available in poor quality so looking bad on your tv screen, and really expensive socks (all items I have taken from the hashtag right at this moment).