Saturday, November 6, 2010

"The Water Weapon" by Brenda W. Clough

You find very surprising nifty things in places you don't expect, you know?

One of the first books I bought for my Kobo eReader was the Dragon and the Stars anthology, edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi. It's a collection of stories from all over the Chinese diaspora, by authors who are Chinese or have Chinese roots. I don't dig all of them, obviously, having my own taste. A few stories have links between Asian-Americans/Canadians and Native/First Nations, which was neat to read about.

But this is a steampunk blog, and I just read a short which pretty much qualifies as steampunk, on many levels.

"The Water Weapon" is set in the Great Exposition of England, 1851. It follows Mrs. Grace Stulting, a missionary woman who has been recruited by a local inspector, Mr. Bucket, for her proficiency in understanding and speaking Mandarin, in order to listen to the Chinese delegation at the Great Exhibition because there have been rumours of magic in Regent Park. And obviously the Chinese are at the bottom of it.
The Chinese delegation have on display a giant bamboo, steam-powered dragon. 
"Purely mechanical," Mr. Bucket wagged his head tolerantly. "You can see the metal gars, moving the neck. And the stokers for the steam."
Since this is a short story, Brenda W. Clough doesn't have much time to get into epic descriptions of this dragon, but she doesn't need to. This fantastic sentence, after the lovely phrase "steam-hot wood," within the first paragraph tells us all we need to know of this marvel: "Its sinuous neck, cunningly jointed and riveted, flexed with a creak of bamboo against bamboo."

Not only is there a giant bamboopunk dragon on display, but the Chinese delegation has two other awesome draws: Lady Mei, a granddaughter of the Chinese emperor, and the paper dragons that the Chinese workers are giving out for free. 

Within the first few pages, we've got a few things established: OMG steam-powered awesomeness! and OMG magic! All in a very everyday tone, punctuated with the excitableness that would of course come with being able to attend the Great Exposition on someone else's dime. Grace's giddiness and English-y manners remind me a bit of Ivy Hisselpenny of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate, complete with the whole "don't underestimate this woman even though she looks silly" aura, as Mr. Bucket is "trapped in monolingual ignorance" (I'm sorry, there's just something about this phrase which made me burst out laughing). 

Also, the dragon talks. You should go get the book, of course, but I'll try to talk about it without any spoilers. 

There's a bunch of things going on here: Mr. Bucket patronizing Grace (calling her "Mrs. S.," telling her not to "waste energy on commentary" and "ears sharp") in his brusque, business tone of information-gathering using whatever means possible. Even Grace herself has that British "oooh, look, how exotic!" sense in face of what she's seeing.

There's also the disdain that the Chinese delegation have for the English - the dragon calls her "little foreign-devil lady" and Lady Mei calls England "this barbarous land". (What?) However, Lady Mei has also been educated in a missionary school, creating a bond between herself and Grace upon which they can meet on common ground. Lady Mei and her wizard exchange cryptic (well, not really) conversation about magic and how China will undermine England. Grace is obviously a supporter of the monarchy, believing in the cause and means of governments to control their people by violence ("Soldiers and armies kept the world in order") and doesn't quite get all this talk about water seeping into the ground.

It's so interesting, then, when Lady Mei shrugs her shoulders at the talk of the Opium War, and despite being a scion of the Imperial family, states, "In a hundred years there will be no more Chinese Empire. It would be only fair if there were no British Empire either." And this is, of course, of great interest to us, because this is an entirely truthful statement. It's then only a matter of how, which this story is predicated upon. By appealing to the masses' love for cutesy things to consume, the Chinese in this story have been at work for several months, as the inspector and his missionary compatriot are to discover, and the counter-undermining of each other is set in motion. The issue of class is addressed within these machinations (hello, specter of Marx!).

If I had one major nitpick with this story, it would be the name Lady Mei calls the giant bamboo dragon: Lung. 

I mean, honestly. Calling a dragon "Lung" is like one of the most banal things ever. Ever. Good grief. I mean, the woman is a member of the Imperial family with the wherewithal to build a giant-ass dragon and not a care goes into his name? Give me a break. When I used to pick kittens up and take them one I'd invariably call them Ming, because that was how my Filipino maid used to say "meow", because my family has zero imagination like that. This is like the equivalent of me taking a pedigreed cat and grooming it for cat shows and having it win several prizes and when people ask me what it's called I say "Cat." That's just wrong, and stupid. OK I'm done being petty now. 

Anyways, it's a good story. Track it down, if you can. I know it's available from the Kobo eReader store. 


  1. That 1820s map is interesting. I wonder where the distinction between "savage" and "barbarian" is made. Looking in my area, I see that the Australian Koori are "savages" and the New Zealand Māori are "barbarians". Race relations were certainly worse with the Koori than with the Māori (though things were still bad there, leading to the Land Wars in the 19th Century and reparations since).

    Regarding the naming of dragons, "Lung" is banal indeed. While just an off-the-cuff suggestion, I'd be tempted to go with something like The Horn of Huanglong (角黃龍), since that has a surface meaning/basic translation as a herald of the Emperor, but also a subtext as a projection of Chinese imperial power and strategy. I'd want to do some proper research on the linguistics/mythology (including talking to native speakers) before I used such a name, of course.

  2. I'm not sure what the distinction is myself. Or rather, I have an idea, but I have difficulty articulating it. I think a barbarian at least shows some semblance of recognizable human relations while savages are complete animals? Something like that.

    See, I would go with a grandiose name as well. Now, it could be that giant talking steam-powered bamboo dragons are normal in this universe so Lung is perfectly okay but that thought rubs me wrong, somehow.