Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

I'd been excited to read Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain for a while, for several reasons: 1) It's got a pretty bitchin' cover, with a dark-skinned man with a hook for a left hand and a flying ship; 2) it's a POC-centric novel, and I was curious to see how it worked out; 3) Tobias Buckell identifies strongly as POC, as Caribbean, despite passing as a generic white American dude.

I did not get around to reading Crystal Rain for several reasons: 1) grad school; 2) I somehow couldn't find a way to get my mitts on it on Amazon (Buckell's store only offers a hardcover); and 3) grad school (seriously, moving to a new city and getting used to grad school sucks up your time. Things nobody tells you). Also, priorities and all that meant that I had to pick other texts to read that more strongly coded as steampunk, and I wasn't sure whether Crystal Rain did.

Well, it kinda does and doesn't.

The way it does is this: Nanagada, where pretty much 90% of the action is set, is mostly a pre-industrial society. However, at the Capitol city, the new Prime Minister Dihana is working closely with a group of Preservationists, who are basically restoring and re-discovering old-father technology. Thus, Dihana is working to bring about a kind of Industrial Revolution, but it doesn't have the same basis nor timeline as it did in our world.

Thus, there are trains and airships, telegraph wires and some marine travel. Buckell kind of glosses over what powers them, or else I just missed it on my first reading.

On the other side of the Wicked High Mountains are the Azteca, who are a people with a cultural based on what little we know about Aztecs, complete with most notably the human sacrifices. They've apparently spent the last hundred years digging a tunnel through the mountains, because they want to invade Nanagada. Conflict ensues.

I subscribe to the notion that steampunk invokes some form of history. Crystal Rain does and doesn't... it invokes a past that believes and lives alongside gods. Except the gods are, predictably, aliens. So you get that long-ago-fantasy-feel through a very distant-future-science-fiction device. Because there are so many markers of futuristic advanced technology within the text, I have trouble classifying the "past-ness," especially towards the ending, where we get a whole exposition on the interstellar travel that humans have managed to accomplish.

But I'm still going to review it here, because I think it does a lot of really cool, very culturally-specific work that I feel postcolonial steampunk ought to be doing.

The first thing it does is establish that brown is the default in this world, with the introduction of Pepper, an ambivalent character in the book:
"He wore a top hat, a long trench coat, and black boots. His eyes were gray, his dreadlocks black, and his face ashen. It was as if this man had no seen sun in all his life, but was born brown once." (2)
This guy, found sitting on a "steaming metal boulder" is clearly a spaceman. The villagers who find him take him back and feed him back to health, and when he leaves, "his skin looked like earth now; a proper and healthy color for a man" (3).

The Aztecs consider the Nanagadans "black," while their skin is more "red." There is also a group of "Frenchi" people, who are "very white," which is very uncommon. Yes, skin colour is important while trying to de-center Eurocentrism. It really matters that John DeBrun is a black man, and that most of the major characters are not white. There is a certain kind of work being done here that actively uses skin colour to mark cultural groups without demonizing any of them. Combined with the language used throughout the story, that contrasts John DeBrun's language (which is a kind of standard English) against the speech of the Nanagadans (which is an English dialect that is no less comprehensible), the world setting makes clear that wherever we are, we are not in a white space. This is a place that is marked with cultural specificities all over, from the mango tree in front of John's house, to the description of both the sea and inland, to the very people themselves.

The characters are all nuanced, with motivations of their own; although John DeBrun is the obvious protagonist, so many of the other characters undergo their own transformations in their own arcs, changing as a result of the conflict that is inflicted on them through aliens who pass as their gods: the Teotl for the Aztec, the Loa for the Nanagadans.

A few things are going on here with the aliens-as-gods trope: one, it demonstrates that the human diaspora are not all high-tech people who move and bring tech with them wherever they go: as mentioned above, most of the Azteca and Nanagadans live in rather pre-industrial living conditions. The aliens take advantage of this to make themselves gods, or just take advantage of the local mythology that these humans have brought with them. There is a flavour of hands-off colonization on the side of the Loa aliens, and outright colonialism on the other side of the mountains with the Teotl attending and demanding human sacrifices on a regular basis. In comparison, the humans are infantile, in need of guidance.

However, the aliens-as-gods trope also serve to show how humans retain their culture, even in far-flung planets, changing with the times, but still recognizable. It doesn't feel like the religion has remained static, but rather, has adapted to incorporate these weird otherworldly beings who do, for all intents and purposes, function somewhat like gods. There is no such thing as a homogeneous religion as a result of migration, even interstellar migration. This, Buckell's text demonstrates cultural heterogeneity between a single race, something that most other texts (I'm eyein' you, Star Trek) wouldn't think of. And it is a cultural heterogeneity between non-white cultures, rather than a single white culture, and a single non-white culture (who are usually aliens).

So, back to the characters, who are all awesome. The cool thing about ensemble casts, which I personally have never managed, is writing each perspective as fully as possible, from their own subject positions, and keeping them separate. There are groups of characters who never meet each other (also something I've never quite managed: I always want people meet up and intersect together at some point), yet their existences depend on their differing roles in the conflict:

1) Haidan and Dihana- Haidan as the gruff general with firm hand and a loyal heart provides a defense for the Nanagadans and the Capitol City, which Dihana rules over as the young female Prime Minister who has to fill her father's shoes, and her father is an old-father, one of the first-generation migrants with enhanced biology. Dihana has to make extremely difficult decisions, which makes her relationship with Haidan even more necessary. Dihana's in charge of a city that has its own hierarchy and schisms, its own spies turning it inside out.

2) Jerome and Troy: Jerome as John DeBrun's son provides John with an anchor and a reason to go on, although Shanta, Jerome's mother and John's wife, dies about a third-way into the text. Jerome's arc is painful, as Troy reveals to him, very slowly, John's natures as old-fathers, which Jerome has to digest alongside dealing with his mother's death and his father's uncertain absence. While Troy doesn't have a developmental arc, he has an arc intertwined with Jerome's that explains the intergenerational link between old-fathers and the people of Nanagada.

3) Pepper: the ghost from John DeBrun's past, here with his own agenda, which he can't accomplish without John. There's not much that's really nice about Pepper, but he's pretty fucking badass: he knows what he wants to see happening, and is efficient at what he does (killing, mostly). He rolls with the punches the best he can, and there's little vulnerability to the man aside from the fact that he's a real asshole about everything. Well, not everything. He has a sad scene with sewer urchins that demonstrates how lives are still valued differently, despite migration to other worlds: "The price of one boy, some boy you know nothing about, acceptable. You just like anyone else, we nothing to you," an urchin accuses, to which Pepper can only say, "I'm sorry for everything" (188). The bond he has with John is very palpable, and explained only towards the end that still pulls in the cultural specificity of the setting: "They were both islanders. ... Both from Earth. .... Two native sons on an alien planet, far from home" (318).

4) Oaxyctl and Aztecas represent the bad guys, but Oaxyctl is a beautifully portraited man, working a job as a spy he doesn't really care to do, but has to because of tradition. He doesn't believe in gods until he meets one face-to-face, and part of his character that gets briefly mentioned here and there involves missing an old life that was very domestic, very everyday and very, er, normal. His interactions with John DeBrun, I think, bring out the most of the complexities of being human: warmth in the love left behind, and coldness in the purpose of war. There is a lovely page where the two men speak about their wives, and another challenging passage that demands the reader take into account, and sympathize with, the practice of human sacrifice:
"What would you offer your god?" Oaxyctl asked. "The mud from he bottom of a river? Or the holiest gift of all? I have seen verse that say the gift of human life is a holy deed. Is not that one of the tenets of the christians who live on this side of the mountains?  ... What religion doesn't have a strong connection to blood? The Vodun and christian faiths ask for blood in one way or another. You have others as well. What god do you worship? I am sure you will find some strange, if not horrific, practice there." (221) 
And ya'll, the pacing of the story is tight. There're some lulls, but they make sense to the characters, you can see them coming and the moments are appropriate. Nothing gets cut off, nothing feels forced, and the lulls are used for some very important exposition that helps the plot make sense further on.

So, anyway, I'm just going to finish with my favourite line from the book, said after Jerome's done explaining what's happened the night before, exciting events that involve a small airship landing on John DeBrun and his family's mango trees and a man dying in the kitchen. I'm possibly very taken with this macabre event because growing up, my family had two mango trees growing up the front of our house.
"Man, everything cool happen to you. ... You father have a hook, you mom cook well, and someone fall into you garden last night." (55)
Everything cool happening in this book.

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