Sunday, May 15, 2011

Briefly, Stirling's Peshawar Lancers

I'm writing up a brief thing for SPWF on this book, but I just wanted to say, as fun as it is in being a direct tribute to old pulp fiction and adventure stories, and as interesting as the construction of English identity is, this was a terrible book. I literally cringed at more passages in the novel than I should have been. It's alienating because it was just so clearly written for a straight, white, male audience and just glossed over so many problematic racist and sexist tropes, accepting them as part of the setting without truly interrogating them. If you wanted fluff, if you wanted a light read (and you can deal with a fuckton of problematic colonialism), then sure, this is the book for you, but I do expect more from my entertainment. So while I'm getting a lot out of this book in terms Shit To Get Angry About and Analyse To fuckin' Death, I think the world would be better off without books like this that perpetuate racist discourse in the guise of entertainment. 
I say this not because the book is badly constructed (in all fairness, it's very well-written, if somewhat predictable, but I suppose some people would find the predictability comforting) but because within the first eight chapters, I identified the following problems:

- the loyal brown sidekick (who also inexplicably speaks in thee and thou when translated into English. I understand that this is probably derivative of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, Kipling also being one of the writers who inspired this, but seriously, in a book that's supposed to be modern, and be an alternate 21st century, this was jarring, and annoying, and Other-ing) (and don't get me started on the constant translation of Hindi phrases)

- No, actually, let's DO get into the language issues. Besides the constant translation of Hindi phrases, which was really fucking annoying already (and much later on, Yasmini's Russian doesn't get translated, which was just fine, because Athelstane's responses pretty much told me what the gist of the conversation was), there was also the ridiculous swearing using a Christian-ish syntax AND invoking Hindu gods. What is this bullshit? I know this is like a never un-colonized British India ("!!! WTF HOW IS THIS OKAY" was my reaction when I realized this) but if the new Angrezi caste is supposed to be so influenced by local Hindu norms, then why does this not extend to religious expression? Instead, it just came across as this stilted, and really disrespectful, co-option of Hindu forms onto Christian expressions. 

- the violent Muslim (how the fuck did this get published after 9/11? .... wait, never mind)

- the brown lover who dies (in the first few chapters, so that's not a spoiler)

- the white-lookin' slave girl, abused and oppressed by the religious fanatic (and you know what her role is for the hero at the end!) (and I was right) (goddammit)

- the bluestocking Western woman (she either dies or gets married, and this is a happy book, well)

AND, wow as if the earlier problems weren't bad enough,

- cannibal Russians. 

Again, this book? Shouldn't have been the trainwreck that it is. Could have refused the problematic discourses and could have rejected to play right into tropes. Could have been fun and challenging in discussing identity and the fluidity of culture. I didn't go into it expecting much, because I have run into Stirling on the Interwebz and let me say, the first impression was terrible. But after finishing it, this text could have been so much more, but it wasn't, and that makes me sad. I went in expecting it to fail, and it did, but it could have not, and that's just as bad.

I've got a better analysis of this book coming, but I just wanted this out there for my reference.


  1. You have the nomenclature to identify what I was only suspicious of, and a few I missed. Thanks for the post, Jha!

  2. Actually, this is pretty much par-the-course for Stirling. He prefers to write in the unreconstructed pulp-sf context, usually with some alternate history elements and gratuitous war-tech. I did kinda like him back in the day, but I butted up against his limitations fairly quickly.

    Still, Peshawar is pretty mild compared to the Domination pentology from the 1990s, what with an alternate-universe super South Africa slowly forcing the entire human race into plantation slavery over the course of two centuries.

  3. Wow. I can't even begin to process THAT.

    I prefer to leave the author out of the process (although his biases are well-known to me), since my work isn't about the authors per se but what the work does, and this is terrible work.