Friday, December 23, 2011

The Implications of Less Devastated Empires

So let's talk about Scott Westerfeld's Goliath, ya'll. Did you like it? I liked it, just like I liked Leviathan, and I liked Behemoth, and I thought Goliath was very well done indeed. The slow dawning realization of Aleks that his best friend is, after all, a girl and the OMG AWKWARD chapters afterwards and the EVEN MORE AWKWARD chapters when he realizes Deryn is in love with him was indeed super-awkward and I enjoyed that, possibly to an unwholesome degree.

I was a bit iffy with the visit to Japan, but ehh, it's Japan, weird shit happens there all the time, I guess, and I thought it was nice that we took a trip down to Mexico and met General Francisco Villa. The little rivalry between the journalists was fun, and I, too, wished to punch Eddie Malone when he also discovers Deryn's secret and gets to writing all about it. And I love how Aleks puts himself out there to protect Deryn, because you know, that is what best friends do! 

And yes, I laughed out loud at that middle-of-the-book chapter where Aleks is really really really realizing that Deryn is, indeed! for realsies! a girl! And then Deryn takes advantage of it! And I was like, yea Deryn, you go for it girl, life's too short to spend it not kissing boys. Also, Dr. Barlow / Count Volger -- I WILL GO DOWN WITH THIS SHIP, understand? 

And Lilit! My revolutionary anti-patriarchy homegirl! I knew in Behemoth that she was going to get sent away. If possible, get your hands on Marilyn French's From Eve to Dawn series; it's a history of women from as much recorded history as possible, and is French's ten-year opus. In it, French points to how so many times, women become involved in movements that will help everyone, and they get with them specifically because they see potential, and are told, all the time, "wait your turn, let us get rights for the men first" and when the men get the rights they want, they set the women aside, telling them, "you're asking for too much." Women constantly contribute to political movements led by men only to get shafted as soon as the men's goals have been achieved, and women's needs are ignored in due course. I was sad to see this happen to Lilit, but it still made sense to me, and isn't it sad that it made sense to me that this was the logical way her patriarchal movement would play out?

Fine, yeah, okay, Deryn isn't a princess by the end of it, and Aleks goes into obscurity instead of taking up the throne, that's cool (although I sometimes have misgivings about this; I'd rather thought Aleks had proven himself as a good leader and could've found some way of returning to his people while still abdicating, but, whatever, I'm the kind of person who still believes in huge honking scapegoats ultimate martyrs vain and useless things symbolic functions of royalty.

And of course Westerfeld, whenever we exchange tweets, is a cool dude, and it's nice to have him out at #steampunkchat, and I teethgnash at having missed meeting him earlier this year in New York City (where he ruined his feet walking at BEA and thus missed the Steampunk Bible signing as a result), bla bla obligatory this-white-dude-is-cool-by-me disclaimer bla-di-bla.

Now that that's out of the way, I can move on to talking about what I really want to talk about. Also, spoilers.

"Zoology," Dr. Barlow reminds Deryn, "is the backbone of our empire" (395). And for all the larking in the sky, the text makes it clear that the stakes of Aleks' mission--to save the world, poor sod--are stakes that everyone in Europe, and the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, partake of. General Villa's fight is tied to American business; the Japanese are still slightly beholden to Western technologies (notice how the British Leviathan heads towards Japan just to show up and show off, indicating that Japan still looks to the West for imperial inspiration in this iteration, and the hierarchy of European superiority still remains firmly entrenched). There's no mention of Japan's imperial ambitions in Manchuria (that I remember, anyway). 

So, all the great European powers are fighting, and because of the way the war plays out, with all the advanced technology, everyone gets their boom-bangs in much faster, too. I remember in Belgarath the Sorcerer, by David Eddings, Belgarath complains, in an internal aside to the reader, "all these wars always ends up at conference tables anyway! Why can't they just start there??" (paraphrased, of course) 

There's always an assumption of a specific trajectory on how such conflict begins: everybody wants to get a bigger piece of pie, everybody gets mad at everybody else for impinging on said pieces of pie, everybody gets into a big ol' pie fight, the pie gets ruined, someone or more gets hurt from pie in the eye, everybody stops in horror at what has happened to the pie, they gruffly say sorry, attempt some cleanup and make some solemn promises about how to divide up the next pie. (Nobody stops to question the existence or the necessity of the pie.)

And sometimes, there is an assumption that accelerated technology also means accelerated trajectories of this sort. I think Cherie Priest got it right that accelerated technology actually prolongs trajectories of conflict. I don't believe in one second that people with so much power--and there is so much power in a Clanker machine! We saw Clankers use their machines to murder Deryn's squad in Behemoth! And there is so much power in Darwinist tech! The flechette bats are pretty much tiny little living machine guns!--I don't believe these people would actually give up fighting so easily. World leaders have never truly recognized the costs of their stupid wars, all through history, even in our fucking present. There IS a reason why Afghani and Iraqi casualties far outnumber the 3000 deaths that supposedly precipitated the Iraqi War. 

Science is a tool. And for much of history, science, particularly in the hands of Western powers, has been used to conquer and destroy. For all that people tout about the potential of science for world peace and somesuch, all too often, technology that can actually aid people? Exploited for greatest commercial wealth. Technology that aids destruction? Co-opted by militaries all over the world, for "self-defense", and we all know what I think about that.

At the end of the book, Westerfeld very nicely writes to his YA readers about the differences between his book and recorded history, which I think is also really important, because YA audiences are keen to learn. Young people want to learn. That is how they grow. And growing is what young things do. But Westerfeld also writes this:
"At the end of Goliath, however, my fictional Great War would seem to be drawing to a close. ... Europe may well emerge from this war less devastated than in our world, and therefore less vulnerable to worse tragedies to come." (underline mine)
At this point, I gotta pull out my cluebat, because this? This is some naive shit going on here. 

Consider, then, what is part of this Empire that Dr. Barlow refers to? 

Africa. South, Central, and Southeast Asia. They were colonized by the British and various other Western powers at this time. OK, fine, maybe with all this technology and this new trajectory, they wouldn't have fought in Europe, because, dudes, stop trashing the houses and shit, those giant things would have laid waste to Europe really quickly, and they might have recognized this. Don't you think they would have started outsourcing their conflicts? We've already been battlegrounds for empirical conflict; do you really think we would have escaped it this time?

While I get that this is a YA novel, why is there an assumption, an implication that there are no worse tragedies already? I think it does is a disservice when we teach children to ignore the capacity human beings have for abject cruelty. Consider: the Tuskagee experiments. Consider: Mengele's human experimentation projects. Consider the fact that up until today, those of us who are not white are considered less-than-human, abuse that worsens the darker your skin is. Who thinks that this great British Empire, with its grand experiments on lifethreads, would refrain from human experimentation on any level, when it is so often part of history of dehumanizing abuse? 

Do any of us, with full knowledge of the heinous crimes of the past, believe that is not a possibility in such a trajectory? Because I fucking well don't. And who do you think are those inferior beings who would have become part of Darwinist Britain's grand designs to re-fabricate life itself? 

And since Europe would not have been as devastated, do we honest to God believe that they would have naturally started to recognize and acknowledge the humanity of the people they colonize? These people whose colonialism they justify through generations of objectification and infantalization and exploitation and dehumanization? Are we thinking about this when we consider a timeline in which the Great War would have played out more kindly for European powers? What about us in Africa and Asia? 

Come on, nobody really believes Europe would have eventually realized that colonizing other people's lands is not a cool thing, exoticizing other people's cultures isn't a good thing, exploiting other human beings is a heinous thing to do, fucking look at the American Civil War where people actually fucking fought to maintain the right to keep slaves. And only people invested in whiteness, in the absolute goodness of white people, actually believe that slaves were saved through this; no, slaves had to fight to be recognized as human beings, and their descendants still fight to be recognized as equal human beings today. Nobody eventually recognizes that horrible exploitation of fellow human beings for profit is a bad thing through any kind of natural process of progressive evolution; people fight for this, usually the exploited people.

Less. Devastated. Empire

(Damn, I am getting so fucking angry writing this post I am slamming my fists on the table, and I ain't even mad at Scott personally.) 

Do I think a less devastated Europe would have been a unilaterally, inherently bad thing? Not really, no. Any trajectory that could help alleviate human suffering is good in my books. But let's not forget that there are some fucked-up measures of humanity that these people employed.

And now this book is going out into the world with an observation for kids to think about how the Great War has been shortened, which means things for Europe will be better than in recorded history! It's still not great, but at least some of the upcoming tragedies that we know will happen may possibly be side-stepped!  Yes let's completely not mention at all the ongoing tragedy that is still occurring as a result of racism and European imperialism, that's not important to the story at all. Let's have the kids read this and consider what's really more important to think about in the context of this story. Whose history are we talking about anyway?

I gotta ask, did any editor reading this just not think about this? Anybody involved in the publishing process? For all I know, Scott did mention it and it got edited out. 

I know for a fact that kids are taking up the Leviathan trilogy as the beginnings for their foray into historical research. If you're a teacher, and you're using this text? Talk to your students about colonialism, remind them that imperialism was an actual thing, and many of us still live with the effects of it, now transformed into neocolonialism. Tell them about our stories too, because we also suffered the effects of the World Wars. Teach them that all the glory of the war heroes rested on their ability to take human lives. And if they start talking about how all this awesome Clanker and Darwinist tech would have showed up in our parts of the world? Don't gloss over the possibility that, you know, maybe they would have made life tougher for us. Maybe the tech would have been used to further replace and displace us. And I beg demand you never gloss over the idea that such tech would definitely have been used to keep the colonized in line, even at the cost of our lives. 

Technology, in the hands of the powerful, has always had devastating consequences. And the powerless are always the ones who feel the brunt of it. A lot of us into steampunk think that steampunk's great because it puts technology in the hands of the less-powerful, in the hands of the underdog. I don't think we dwell enough on the fact that, given power, any of us could repeat the same abusive patterns, of violence, of cruelty, of devastation, that we have witnessed happen continually in the length and breadth of our known histories. 

No comments:

Post a Comment