Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"On Wooden Wings" by Paolo Chikiamco

So once in a while something interesting pops into my inbox, about POC, by POC, and Paolo Chikiamco's short story from the Philippine Speculative Fiction 6 anthology happens to be one of them. Paolo runs Rocket Kapre, a spec fic imprint dedicated to Filipino speculative fiction, and edits Usok, RK's webzine.

"On Wooden Wings" is one of those interesting stories I like to read, because while it has an accessible plot, there are nuances to the story which are best appreciated by local readers. And I'm not a local reader, so there're probably things I'm not picking up, and which are inaccessible to me, and that is cool, too. 

The action takes place not in a landed city per se, but on the ships of the Fleet of Wisdom, a floating academy of sorts that moves from port to port, educating students, providing them with workshop space and allied to the Qudarat Sultanate of Jolo (which I can't suss whether it's a fictional Sultanate based off the Sulu Sultanate or actually real. It's actually a very interesting problem because if you give a shit about historical tidbits at all, you Google and Google to find out and learn other things along the way. Besides which, Chikiamco being Filipino himself has the lateral advantage of representing his people from his perspective, not from the White Gaze, which has the qualitative difference of who controls what the reader is viewing. Given the continued history of colonization the Philippines still deals which, this is pretty significant in terms of power differentials).

The main characters are Clarita Leschot Esteybar, a Moro of mixed descent and the best student in the Fleet, and Domingo Malong, a Tagalog artist. And here we see an interplay of the conflict that comes about from the history of Spanish colonization in the Philippines, made complex with issues of mixed heritage:
It wasn't the fact that Clarita was the best student in the Fleet, or that the Çelebi had turned her into Domingo's personal overseer and tutor. No, it was the simple fact that Domingo was a Filipino, and Clarita was "Spanish"--never mind that she had never seen Spain, or that her father was French, or that her mother came from a Muslim minority that was more persecuted in Spain than Domingo's people were in Luzon. It was obvious to Clarita that as far as Domingo was concerned, she was The Enemy. Considering that many of her fantasies involved using the Tagalog as a test subject for one of Nur's more unstable inventions, maybe he was right.
This sets up the ethnic conflict that we'll see for the rest of the text, with Clarita referring to Domingo as "kafir" and Domingo referring to Clarita as "moro" until their turning point, whereby Clarita finds something to offer Domingo in exchange for his help in building a model of her to use as a test dummy for her flying machine, the wooden wings of the title. Domingo is inexplicably privileged in this story--he's a cantankerous artist, more concerned with his carving than he is about his lessons, and Clarita, as the best student in the Fleet, has to tutor him. Clarita's position in the Fleet is tenuous and dependent on her keeping her status as the best student, but even she suffers the anxiety of being kicked off if she doesn't do as she's told, so she feels resentment in knowing that Domingo, who refuses to attend classes, somehow manages to stay in the academy. 

Domingo's not really a sympathetic character for the rest of the text, and frankly he's kind of a self-centered jerk to Clarita, taking his art more seriously than her, getting angry at her, even though he's clearly concerned for her, in his own way. (What is wrong with dude characters like this? Can someone explain to me what is up with dude characters like this? I see them around quite a bit and I never know why I'm supposed to like them. Or if I'm supposed to like them at all. I mean I get having a ~complicated~ relationship with a character but this kind of dude characters are not actually that worthwhile having ~complicated~ relationships with either that I can tell...) His artistic self-centeredness provides a foil to Clarita's own kind of scientific self-centeredness.

But Clarita is better drawn out: she wants to be free of her family, in particular her father's influence. She's in the Fleet only at his leisure, and she lives in fear of being pulled out, therefore she works under pressure to demonstrate her work in front of the sultanate's elite. She doesn't extend help to Domingo out of generosity, but out of obedience to the Celebi who are her teachers, whose ranks she intends to join. She's a mechanical genius, ambitious, and outwardly self-confident. She's also manipulative, figuring out how to string Domingo into helping her.

I rather like Clarita much better as a character, but that is, I think, a result of Chikiamco doing her character better justice. Clarita has figured out her location within the scheme of things, that places her within the colonizer/colonized binary without necessarily embodying one or the other. Her in-between position (an accident of her birth) allows an in for Domingo to reach across that binary as well. One could argue, of course, that the one is using the other, but I'd argue that that's how give-and-take relationships work. 

The humble beginnings of the Fleet of Wisdom, the flexibility of movement between ports, thus also the diversity of students found within its ships all point to a very ad hoc mode of operations. There is something very neat, something that is both self-sustaining and yet connected, about this idea of a floating academy, that goes from place to place as needed--one of the crises of the story comes when Clarita finds out that the Fleet will dock at Jolo in ten days instead of the three months she thought she had. Very steampunk, if you think about it.

The Fleet heads to Jolo because of an attack by the Spanish, and if one cross-references with general Wikipedia info, there are hints of a radical change from history, whereby Spanish colonization was made easier by the competition between various kingdoms and communities (here I'm back on familiar territory, because British colonization of Malaya occurred much the same way). The Qudarat Sultanate is stronger for the alliance with the Celebi fleet that now runs the Fleet of Wisdom, and everyone benefits from the added strength against the Spanish. This lends a local force against the colonizing power that both remains true to the revolutionary spirit that remained suppressed until 1896 and provides an equal footing of sorts against the colonizers. It doesn't deviate entirely from recorded history: Spanish colonization still remains a reality that affects the Filipinos, especially the Tagalogs like Domingo Malong.

The steampunk elements, the accelerated technology of engines and flight in this setting, with a hint of clockwork and revolution, pave the way for the upcoming events of British Occupation, which Chikiamco's next story, "High Society," explores from a distinctly local position. Which will be another post for another time!

(And before anybody asks, I do not know how to buy Philippine Speculative Fiction 6! It may only be available to Filipino readers for now. Which makes me sad, as the anthology as a whole sounds very neat.)


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the story Jha! Extensive feedback on short stories is rare, and getting it from someone whose views helped shape how I approached steampunk just doubles the pleasure.

    Yes, the Qudarat Sultanate is fictional. Sultan Qudarat was a key ruler of the Sultanate of Magunidanao, and I did unify that nation with the Sultanate of Sulu and throw in the Fleet of Wisdom to create a viable resistance and threat to the Spanish. It's less of a revolutionary force than it is a hostile neighbor at this point.

    And yes, Domingo is a self-centered douche at this point. -_-

  2. Another ofvRocket Kapre's pinoy spec fic collection, "Alternative Alamat" was just released and is available through Kindle and iBooks.

  3. Paolo: A-HA! Good to know my Google-fu wasn't failing me, and that's a very cool tidbit. I did gather that it was supposed to equalize the power balance (something which I forgot to add into my review -_-;;) and I'm looking forward to seeing more of the Fleet of Wisdom and the alliance between the sultanates in future stories!

    Tallgeese: Yes, I know. Looking forward to reading that one as well.