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Marking Time in China and the West — A New Year’s Post

“A spectre is haunting the world: 1914.”  So writes Harold James, a professor of history [who is] certainly right that newspapers and learned journals are currently full of articles comparing international politics today with the world of 1914.

— Gideon Rachman, “Does the 1914 Parallel Make Sense?” Financial Times blog

Today’s China is no longer [what it was] 120 years ago.

 — Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference December 31, 2013

You can learn a lot about how globalization has changed the world from thinking about how time was reckoned in different places a century or so ago, at the moments of the past flagged in these two quotes, and how it is marked now.  For example, in 1900, as UCLA doctoral student Maura Dykstra and I note in a chapter we’ve just finished for a forthcoming world history volume on the Fin-de-Siècle, few Chinese thought of themselves as living on the cusp of two centuries. Neither the date “1900” nor the concept of a “century” meant much in a setting where years were still generally described in terms of the reigns of emperors and movement through 60-year cycles that involved combinations of the 12 signs of the zodiac and the five elements. Flash forward to the present, and in China, as in nearly all other places, people think of themselves as living in a year called “2014” that belongs to the second decade of the 21st century.

Holidays tell a similar story, in ways that are interesting to ponder this week, with the biggest American celebratory season just completed and the biggest Chinese one about to begin.  Very few people in the China of 100 or 120 years ago thought of December 25 as a day of any special importance or associated January 1 with the start of the year.  Now, however, while lunar New Year celebrations remain most important, images of Santa Claus proliferate in China’s cities in late December, and Chinese friends who email me on January 1 are sure to wish me a Happy New Year.  Things have reached the point where I’m sure it seemed thoroughly unremarkable when the spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry ended the December 31, 2013 press briefing quoted from above by wishing the journalists who had come a “Happy New Year” and telling them that, after a day off for the next day’s holiday, the first 2014 session would be held on January 2.

All this would seem to fit in with a way of thinking about the cultural aspects of globalization that might be categorized in the Friedman Flattening variety. This approach, which I’ve named in honor of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and his most famous book, The World is Flat, assumes that the dominant trend has been the smoothing out of differences.  One way to symbolize this is to invoke the interchangeability of the Big Macs served up wherever the Golden Arches soar, from Beirut to Boston and from Bristol to Bangalore.

In addition, while the flattening of the world is often seen as going along with Americanization, flows from East to West can also be worked into this Friedman Flattening vision. After all, circa 1900, very few Americans, except those of Chinese ancestry, paid attention to the lunar New Year or the zodiacal animals associated with it; whereas now many people across the U.S. are aware that the Year of the Horse is about to arrive.  As the image above shows, the tie between the animal and the year is even recognized by the U.S. postal service.

There have always been alternative views of contemporary globalization, including one that, turning again to alliteration and the name of a famous author, might be called Pico Proliferation.  This approach, named for Pico Iyer (someone I happen to know, so I don’t think he’ll mind the familiarity of playing off of his first rather than last name), emphasizes how highly differentiated experiences remain even as fads, fashions, films, and goods move ever more rapidly around the world.  To go back to McDonald’s, contra the Friedman Flattening view that a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac, a Pico Proliferating one stresses that ordering and eating this burger can mean something totally different in Tokyo as opposed to Toledo, Managua as opposed to Munich.

Ever since reading Video Night in Kathmandu — And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, Iyer’s seminal 1988 travelogue-cum-analysis of cultural flows in globalizing times, I’ve known that my allegiance in this debate is firmly with Team Pico.  I’ve periodically found ways to illustrate this in my writings, such as a recent memoir-infused commentary on the strange life in global circulation of the song “Hotel California”.  This hit by The Eagles, as I note in my article for BOOM: A Journal of California, is popular in far-flung parts of the world but often understood in distinctive ways.  In Asia, for example, it tends to be thought of as a celebratory rather than cynical take on my home state — in spite of lines likening those residing in the eponymous building to being “prisoners” (who can “check out any time” they like, but “can never leave”) and a menacing reference to a “beast” being stabbed with knives.

Returning to time and holidays, I said above that the information I began with about China circa 1900 and today would seem to fit in with a Friedman Flattening vision, but on closer inspection there are Pico Proliferation dimensions aplenty.  Take Santa Claus, for example: while he is now very well known in China, as journalist Max Fisher and others have noted, the jolly old elf is almost always portrayed there playing a saxophone, for unknown reasons.

There are also differences, as well as convergences, relating to chronology, since in China, while centuries are now noted and seen as significant markers, this has not replaced but rather been added to the idea that 60-year cycles are important.  In 2011, the centenary of the 1911 Revolution was honored, but two years earlier, in 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC was celebrated with the biggest National Day Parade to date.  More recently still, last year saw events commemorating what would have been Xi Jinping’s father’s 100th birthday and also lavish marking of the passage of 120years (a rough equivalent to a bicentennial, as it meant the completion of two cycles) since Mao Zedong was born.

The continuing significance of 60-year cycles as well as centuries in Chinese timekeeping relates to how geopolitical tensions of the present moment are being put into long-term perspective.  In the United States and Europe, as the first quote used to open this post notes, the final weeks of 2013 and opening weeks of 2014, have seen a rash of ruminations on whether we now stand at a juncture similar to that which sent us over the precipice into the horrors of World War I.

In China, though, as the second quote that begins this post indicates, which finds the government spokesperson stressing that her country is very different now than it was 120 years ago, just as there are two kinds of New Years marked, there are two kinds of then and now analogies in play.  Some refer to how 1914 and 2014 parallels work or are foolish, while others see links and contrasts between 1894 and 2014 as more meaningful.

Just as 1914 is no ordinary year in Western memory, 1894 is no ordinary one in the annals of Chinese history, as a war that began then and ended in 1895 was the first in which Japan defeated China in a military conflict.  The war in question is typically referred to in Chinese as the Jiawu War, in honor of it having taken place in a Jiawu year (the term for a Year of the Horse that matches up with the element of wood in the five elements scheme).  When the official spokesperson made her comment about China now being different than it was 120 years ago, she did so in response to being asked to reflect on the meaning of tensions between China and Japan escalating just as an important anniversary of a major conflict between the two countries was set to arrive.

Two days later, a Beijing newspaper known for its nationalist views, The Global Times, elaborated on the significance of the anniversary and relevance and limits of then-and-now analogies.  “Considering the current confrontation between both countries, Japan becomes the biggest challenge facing China.  This anniversary [the 120th of the late 19th-century war] has already become a daunting memory in the minds of many Chinese people.”  It went on to stress, though, that while Japan bested China on the battlefield 120 years ago, 60 years after that saw a year when Chinese and American armies fought “to a standoff” in Korea, and the country has moved even further forward in the world since then.  Other references to echoes and contrasts between the Wood Horse years of 1894 and 2014 have also been appearing on websites and in blog posts.

Harold James, I think, needs to modify his reference to historical specters.  More than one relating to a famous war year is proving its power to haunt just now.

Message From Ukraine

By Yuri Andrukhovych 24.01.2014_Andruchovych_yuri

Dear Friends,

These days I receive from you lots of inquiries requesting to describe the current situation in Kyiv and overall in Ukraine, express my opinion on what is happening, and formulate my vision of at least the nearest future. Since I am simply physically unable to respond separately to each of your publications with an extended analytical essay, I have decided to prepare this brief statement which each of you can use in accordance with your needs. The most important things I must tell you are as follows.

During the less than four years of its rule, Mr. Yanukovych’s regime has brought the country and the society to the utter limit of tensions. Even worse, it has boxed itself into a no-exit situation where it must hold on to power forever—by any means necessary. Otherwise it would have to face criminal justice in its full severity. The scale of what has been stolen and usurped exceeds all imaginination of what human avarice is capable.

The only answer this regime has been proposing in the face of peaceful protests, now in their third month, is violence, violence that escalates and is “hybrid” in its nature: special forces’ attacks at the Maidan are combined with individual harassment and persecution of opposition activists and ordinary participants in protest actions (surveillance, beatings, torching of cars and houses, storming of residences, searches, arrests, rubber-stamp court proceedings). The keyword here is intimidation. And since it is ineffective, and people are protesting on an increasingly massive scale, the powers-that-be make these repressive actions even harsher.

The “legal base” for them was created on January 16, when the Members of Parliament fully dependent on the President, in a crude violation of all rules of procedure and voting, indeed of the Constitution itself, in the course of just a couple of minutes (!) with a simple show of hands (!) voted in a whole series of legal changes which effectively introduce dictatorial rule and a state of emergency in the country without formally declaring them. For instance, by writing and disseminating this, I am subject to several new criminal code articles for “defamation,” “inflaming tensions,” etc.

Briefly put, if these “laws” are recognized, one should conclude: in Ukraine, everything that is not expressly permitted by the powers-that-be is forbidden. And the only thing permitted by those in power is to yield to them.

Not agreeing to these “laws,” on January 19 the Ukrainian society rose up, yet again, to defend its future.

Today in television newsreels coming from Kyiv you can see protesters in various kinds of helmets and masks on their faces, sometimes with wooden sticks in their hands. Do not believe that these are “extremists,” “provocateurs,” or “right-wing radicals.” My friends and I also now go out protesting dressed this way. In this sense my wife, my daughter, our friends, and I are also “extremists.” We have no other option: we have to protect our life and health,as well as the life and health of those near and dear to us. Special forces units shoot at us, their snipers kill our friends. The number of protesters killed just on one block in the city’s government quarter is, according to different reports, either 5 or 7. Additionally, dozens of people in Kyiv are missing.

We cannot halt the protests, for this would mean that we agree to live in a country that has been turned into a lifelong prison. The younger generation of Ukrainians, which grew up and matured in the post-Soviet years, organically rejects all forms of dictatorship. If dictatorship wins, Europe must take into account the prospect of a North Korea at its eastern border and, according to various estimates, between 5 and 10 million refugees. I do not want to frighten you.

We now have a revolution of the young. Those in power wage their war first and foremost against them. When darkness falls on Kyiv, unidentified groups of “people in civilian clothes” roam the city, hunting for the young people, especially those who wear the symbols of the Maidan or the European Union. They kidnap them, take them out into forests, where they are stripped and tortured in fiercely cold weather. For some strange reason the victims of such actions are overwhelmingly young artists—actors, painters, poets. One feels that some strange “death squadrons” have been released in the country with an assignment to wipe out all that is best in it.

One more characteristic detail: in Kyiv hospitals the police force entraps the wounded protesters; they are kidnapped and (I repeat, we are talking about wounded persons) taken out for interrogation at undisclosed locations. It has become dangerous to turn to a hospital even for random passersby who were grazed by a shard of a police plastic grenade. The medics only gesture helplessly and release the patients to the so-called “law enforcement.”

To conclude: in Ukraine full-scale crimes against humanity are now being committed, and it is the present government that is responsible for them. If there are any extremists present in this situation, it is the country’s highest leadership that deserves to be labeled as such.

And now turning to your two questions which are traditionally the most difficult for me to answer: I don’t know what will happen next, just as I don’t know what you could now do for us. However, you can disseminate, to the extent your contacts and possibilities allow, this appeal. Also, empathize with us. Think about us. We shall overcome all the same, no matter how hard they rage. The Ukrainian people, without exaggeration, now defend the European values of a free and just society with their own blood. I very much hope that you will appreciate this.

Yuri Andrukhovych is a Ukrainian prose writer, poet, essayist, and translator.
Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky.

Vint_SF

Journal of the Plague Season

ALTHOUGH THIS MAY seem counterintuitive, science fiction is often one of the most realistic of genres. It may set its stories in future times or among weird alien species, but the best science fiction can often express political and social anxieties more openly than can realist drama. Sometimes this is a matter of escaping the notice of censors who don’t take the genre seriously, but it can also be an example of what television critic John Ellis describes as the capacity of the medium to help us “work through” the slings and arrows of contemporary life. Working through, a concept Ellis takes from psychoanalysis, allows us to analyze, repeat, interpret and otherwise engage with difficult experience in the displaced form of fiction, facilitating the process of coming to terms with disturbing thoughts and experiences.

A repeated pattern in this year’s science fiction television is plotlines about epidemics, suggesting that we are culturally working through some anxieties about our biological vulnerability. As early as 1995 Laurie Garrett published The Coming Plague, arguing that things such as overuse of antibiotics, lack of access to clean drinking water for much of the world’s population, the overcrowded conditions of urban poverty in the Global South, and massive refugee migration caused by warfare were producing conditions in which viruses and microbes would thrive. She anticipated that in the near future we would see new and devastating disease outbreaks as the microbial world travelled and mutated as never before. Recent outbreaks of diseases such as Sars and H1N1 have made us aware of the looming threat of a viral pandemic, and indeed it now seems as if we are sufficiently educated about such matters that this week’s episode of Helix could drop the term “zoonotic transfer” into the dialogue without even pausing to gloss. Dracula, too, includes an outbreak of sorts – although it is a deliberately caused by those evil oil barons – and even The Walking Dead supplemented their zombie infection with an outbreak of quotidian cholera for part of this season, a hint that contagion anxiety is about more than biological health. In our harsh economic times, zombies emerge more and more as our possible selves, expelled parts of the body politic – just as labor is expendable to global capital and migrant laborers are unwanted by many nation states. Indeed, this pattern is so prevalent that in 2009 Lev Grossman declared zombies “the official monster of the recession” in Time.

Revolution has added a viral contagion to its exploration of the sinister machinations of the Patriots in the post-electricity world. As one might expect, this is not a naturally occurring contagion – although, of course, by this I mean “expect in the conspiracy-thriller narrative,” because of course one might expect reasonably expect biological outbreaks in this frontier setting. The Patriots are using their engineered strain of typhus as a method for culling populations, deliberating infecting those who are physically or mentally ill and thus eliminating their non-productive drain on the community. There are no zombies on Revolution and its infected do not become zombie-like – they merely sicken and die. And yet there is something in this plot of viral eugenics that is reminiscent of the recent zombie theme about lives that matter vs. those that do not.

Helix is premised on a viral outbreak with its CDC characters, remote research station setting, and plotlines that are something of a cross between Steven Soderberg’s Contagion and The Walking Dead. Now in its fourth episode, Helix remains compelling, although not without its frustrations. The mysterious back-story is unfolding at a respectable pace and enough happens within an episode to avoid boredom, and yet the full picture is still only dimly lit and out of focus. Yet, while I understand the need to have secrets and competing agendas to keep some tension in the plot, I am finding the fact that a core CDC team member would hide both her own illness and that another person is infected (to protect this secret) strains credulity, particularly because the series went to so much trouble to make its CDC protocols seems “real” and not science fictional.

While I was initially impressed with the diversity represented by casting in Helix, such diversity is being stripped away as the season unfolds: their non-stereotypically-attractive female character is dead, the Asian scientist is becoming more straightforwardly evil, it seems, and the remaining person of color is an infected, animal-like “vector,” which is basically Helix’s term for the zombie-like dangerous infected. When asked if he is just going to “abandon the sick and the dying” in order to restore order to the facility, the sinister Dr. Hatake says “yes” without pause, but he later also peremptorily executes some inconvenient non-infected, and so I hope that Helix is avoiding the binary logic of “humans” and “infected” that animates the zombie genre.

Despite these quibbles, I still find Helix to be among the best science fiction shows I have seen in a while. I acknowledge the appropriateness of the zombie as the monster of choice to express contemporary anxieties: zombies are hungry, relentless, flesh that we no longer want to consider human, that we see only ever as a threatening mass, and that serve no purpose other than to consume. As many critics have argued, zombies exemplify the poor as seen by the logic of neoliberalism. Yet I’ve become tired of the ubiquity of zombies and the quite literal dead end they seem to offer for thinking about global crisis. Helix promises to transform its vector-zombies into something else, posthumans made by the virus inserting new DNA into their genome, a new species simultaneously human and animal and other. This new strand of DNA, we are told, will force the infected to “express a new trait.” This is an apt metaphor for the hope I hold out for series overall, that it might enable science fiction television to express a new metaphor for anxieties about viral contagion and precarious human health, and thus we finally might escape the ubiquity of zombies.

¤

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

India in China

By Tong Lam

The relative absence of India in Chinese public discourse is an interesting curiosity. Indeed, while there has been a growing public interest in China among the Indian public in recent years, there is no similar level of reciprocal fascination flowing across the Himalayas in the other direction. Instead, most members of the Chinese public seem more eager to learn about and travel to the United States, Japan, and Europe. Similarly, within the Asian context, Chinese often care more about happenings in other parts of East Asia or Southeast Asia than in South Asia.

In addition to the perceived cultural and historical differences, a major reason for the absence of enthusiasm about India is China’s relentless desire to catch up with nations that are thought of as more advanced — and India is not one of those.  In addition, whereas Pakistan is a longtime ally, India is not widely viewed as either a “friend of China” or a significant threat, something that can also inspire intense interest, in spite of the fact that the two nations fought a brief war in 1962 over a still unresolved border dispute. China is more preoccupied at present with the challenges from neighboring countries that line the Pacific coast.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

Meanwhile, the Indian public is keenly aware that China’s economic development has significantly outpaced that of India in the past two decades, and that China’s rise could pose a threat to their country. At the same time, Indian elite commentators and officials alike have been awed by China’s vast investment in infrastructure, and there has been a swirling debate among them about the pros and cons of the so-called “Chinese model” of governance, which prioritizes state-guided economic growth rather than political liberalization and social justice.

Still, in spite of their asymmetrical interests in each other, as well as their historical enmity, the world’s two most populous nations have a long history of economic and cultural contacts. Furthermore, both China and India are highly conscious of their long civilizations, and both are imbued with a strong sense of cultural and national pride. Significantly as well, their senses of history are still very much shaped by their shared experience of colonialism and imperialism, and by something less often noted by Westerners as a common trait: the fact that both were heavily influenced by the Soviet Union in their immediately post-WWII modernizing projects. Likewise, the two Asian giants are both nuclear powers and now have ambitious space programs. The list of commonalities goes on and on. One way or another, these two ethnically and linguistically diverse nations are going through rapid economic development and urbanization, as they are also grappling with serious disparities and widespread corruptions. And their actions today will have important consequences, within Asia and in every corner of the planet.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

mcconnaissance

The McConnaissance: An Alternate Reading

Dear Television,

IN EPISODE TWO of HBO’s stunning new series True Detective, the laconic Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, spends a significant amount of car time with his partner, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), trading quips and offer the audience veiled truths about themselves. It’s a trope of the procedural: cops, even female ones, are aspiring towards a masculine ideal of hard laconicism. The only time it’s safe to talk about feelings, therefore, is within the bounds of the car, heads faced forward, and even then, those feelings are hidden beneath a heavy layer of insult.

But in True Detective, the trope gets revised: you have one traditional cop who doesn’t like asking or answering personal questions and another who not only speaks freely about himself, but the area, the universe, our fates as man, etc. etc. He’s like a one-man Cormac McCarthy novel, dropping poetic, sparse observations the way most of us talk about the traffic or the weather. It’s a hypnotic performance, and anything Rust Cohle lacks in realism he makes up for in gravitas… [READ MORE]

Revolution

The Future, As Seen on TV

In 1982, cultural critic Fredric Jameson published “Progress verses Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future” which argued against the commonplace belief that science fiction was about the future. Instead, he suggested, the role of science fiction is “not to give us ‘images’ of the future” but “rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present.” Moreover, he suggested, what science fiction frequently demonstrated was “our incapacity to imagine the future,” or rather, a future that was very different from the present, a future of radical alternatives and utopian promise. So how do we see this dialectic between future and present play out in this week’s science fiction television?

Fox’s new cop drama Almost Human opens with a voiceover explaining its premise (all humans cops are now teamed with a MRX android cop) and announces that this is because “evolving technologies can no longer be regulated.” Hence, they can only be policed. Hence, a science fiction police drama. The technologies investigated in each episode are futuristic (this week it is bullets that can target you by the tracking devices we all carry around with us), but they are also obviously clear extensions of existing social practices and the crimes that go with them.

SyFy’s new Helix introduces its key characters not in the Biosystems Arctic research base but rather in the CDC, taking great pains to establish continuity between business-as-usual for the CDC and the world of this series, in which research on a pan-viral vaccine has resulted in a medical catastrophe with hints of posthuman genome manipulation. Such care with establishing plausible premises is reminiscent of publicity surrounding Ron Moore’s acclaimed Battlestar Galactica and claims that it was more political drama than science fiction.

CBS’s Person of Interest has only gradually moved into clear science fiction territory in this, its third season, with the open discussion of The Machine as artificial intelligence, building on previous seasons whose plots seemed closer to the thriller genre. Since the Patriot Act, Wikileaks and more, you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to believe that the government is spying on you all the time, or to accept the fantasies of ubiquitous information via surveillance technology. The network’s short-lived Hostages (2013) had a similar computer system lurking in the background, and its conspiracy to kill the president was in part motivated by the military’s desire to unleash more of this machine’s potential.

And finally ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reorients this super-hero universe away from otherworldly heroes and toward the ordinary agents trained in special ops and high tech that are able to battle threats to national security, natural and supernatural. This week’s “Seeds” featured a visit to the science division of SHIELD’s training academy, which has its roots in the post-WWI Strategic Scientific Reserve, in which science and technology are imagined as key weapons in the fight against evil.

What all of these series seem to have in common is a vision of the power of science and technology in daily life, its ability to change the world we live in, and even ourselves, and a clear sense that the future – as once presented in the ‘images’ of science fiction – is already here. Do these shows defamiliarize and restructure our experience of the present? I suspect they no longer do so in the ways that Jameson had in mind, in which science fiction encouraged us to experience our present as the history of a possible future and thus perhaps to think more critically about what this future might be as we actively make it.

Yet the new temporality of the science-fiction-present seems more likely to familiarize than defamiliarize our experience of technoscientific modernity. Almost Human concedes that new and sinister technologies will inevitably emerge and the best we can do is react to them. Person of Interest and Hostages barely seem science fictional at all, and instead ask us to question the very real fact that information technology monitors and shapes us in often invisible ways.

Partway through watching “Seeds” I had the excited anticipation that now, finally, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was finding its stride, that it had quelled network exec anxieties sufficiently that an authentic Joss Whedon vision – suspicious of centralized authority – was about to emerge. Following revelations that Coulson was revived despite begging SHIELD doctors to let him die, and that at least one of these doctors felt medical ethics were violated in this resurrection, the institutions of SHIELD began to look more like those of its enemies this week. For example, a lecture at the Academy by Agents Fitz and Simmons to the next crop of scientific geniuses – about how important it is to use their intellectual powers for good, since others were using them for bad and putting untested biology and technology in the wrong hands – was interrupted by an attack emerging from within these hallowed halls. Later, when details of Skye’s past emerge (spoiler: she is a 0-8-4, more to follow), Coulson decides to tell her the bloody history of the village destroyed to protect her rather than continue lying to her about her connection to SHIELD. Commenting on the venture capitalist who funded the technology used to attack the Academy, Coulson observes, “Quinn is not the only one who’s been manipulating people. We do it all the time. … We teach it at the Academy.”

Yet the conclusion of the episode was disappointing. Despite these hints that even those with “good” agendas manipulate and mislead, that SHIELD perhaps has no more right to be creating and controlling these technologies than do their antagonists, the episode’s conclusion shies away from these insights and returns to a reiteration of SHIELD as family and their vision of the future of technology as both non-democratic but also just. Praising Skye’s response to his revelations, Coulson insists she showed strength of character by refusing to be devastated by the knowledge that many people died to protect her, and instead to feel embraced by and fully a part of SHIELD, the family that was “always there” even when she thought she had none. John Reece’s recent return to the fold on Person of Interest – after a couple of episodes of cynicism during which he held The Machine did as much harm as good – follows a similar logic.

Jameson’s essay was written from a Marxist perspective, and a lot of social and political thinkers recently have noted the difficulty of imagining a future, any future, in these harsh economic times. No more for us the wondrous visions of World’s Fairs and Disney’s Tomorrowland. Our version of Tomorrowland would be a theme part of ecological crisis, absolute gaps between the rich and the poor along the lines of Elysium (Blomkamp 2013), and drone warfare over dwindling resources.

So, has the future become a thing of the past? Can we dream of a better tomorrow or do we simply imagine better technology to stave off the inevitable collapse of the present, but only for some?

One answer, it seems to me, is NBC’s Revolution. Revolution begins with the end of technology as we know it when the electricity goes out. Yet it quickly turns to the reinvention of technology, but a new and unanticipated kind of technology, the nanobots who are programmed but also have minds of their own. Like the rebels resisting the Patriot’s vision of faux democracy, a privileged elite, and programmed child-soldiers, the nanobots suggest the open possibilities of another future, a world that could be made completely otherwise.

The near-future sensibility of all these programs suggests a widely shared sensibility that America in its current configuration does not offer much of a future for many of its citizens. Whether science fiction can help us imagine better ones – as well as help us see more clearly the dystopian trends of our science-fictional present – remains to be seen.

¤

LARB-FictionCVR-PRINTREADY-1

The LARB Fiction Issue is Here!

The Los Angeles Review of Books presents a collection of original fiction from some of the most exciting contemporary authors working today. From short stories to excerpts of upcoming novels, the LARB Special Edition: Fiction Issue features pieces from Hawa Allan, Nick Antosca, Steph Cha, g c cunningham, Jim Gavin, Etgar Keret, Grace Krilanovich, Ben Loory, TaraShea Nesbit, Mary Otis, Mark Haskell Smith, Matthew Specktor, and Alejandro Zambra.

This latest issue of the magazine represents our first foray into original fiction — a unique issue with all previously unpublished, original fiction from some of the most talented fiction writers in letters today. While “source fiction” is a departure from the content that you are accustomed to finding in LARB, we hope that you will consider it a little year-end gift — a thank you for your continued support. Keeping our broad audience in mind, we tried to provide a diverse array of stories and voices. The theme of the issue, “Multiple Choice,” should come as no surprise. Constructing a narrative and creating character is all about making choices from an infinite amount of possibilities. It is also what makes this issue so remarkable: the scope of the pieces is wide-ranging, with contributions coming from leading writers in Chile, Israel, and all over the United States.

– Olivia Taylor Smith and C.P. Heiser, Fiction Issue Editors

Get the Fiction Issue in print when you join our sustaining membership program. Look for it in fine bookstores and cafes throughout Los Angeles. And check back for the eBook version, available shortly from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Natalia

Your Urine-Soaked Life

Dear Television,

DEAR TV superfans may remember that I really liked the Natalia arc from last season. I liked the actress — Shiri Appleby — who played Natalia. I liked the challenge this apparently “together” character posed to the group, and I liked that this challenge felt organic and real. (Given the show’s aspiration to some kind of realism, it never felt like Natalia was a contrivance.) I liked the way Natalia challenged Adam’s grody proclivities and potentially even represented a generative splintering of the tunnel vision that is this show’s subject. I liked how her plotline brought the show to a really genuinely engaged discussion of sexual assault, aesthetics, and television in the critical sphere. It was a good move, I thought. But she got left behind.

One of the possible trajectories of this show — and one still alive to some extent or another — is the slow or catastrophic dissolution of the hermetic core that has so frequently been criticized as too insular, too privileged, too much… [READ MORE]

IMG_4886

Missing the Harmony Express

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

“There is NOTHING,” I typed, “that makes me miss China more than dealing with @Amtrak. Our rail system is ridiculous.” A quick click on “Tweet” and I sat back in my chair in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, content that I had fully conveyed my frustration with American mass transit — at least, to the thousand or so people who follow me on Twitter.

Like all tweets written in a fit of anger, this is one that I probably shouldn’t have sent, or that I should at least have thought about more carefully before posting. No one from Amtrak responded to my whining, so I had done nothing more than scream into a void. But having traveled the length of the Northeast Corridor (Boston to D.C.) in the past two weeks, my patience for rattling old Amtrak trains has been exhausted, and I long for the quiet, even glide of Chinese high-speed rail. I miss trains that run on time, clear announcements at each station arrival, inexpensive tickets, and free hot water for my instant coffee (though Amtrak’s $2 brew is surprisingly good, I’ve found). Amtrak definitely has the advantage in seat size (roomy in every dimension) and ease of ticket purchase (done online in only a few minutes, a move that China hasn’t been able to make), but otherwise — God, do I miss Chinese trains.

And who would have ever thought that I’d say that?

I certainly wouldn’t have predicted it nine years ago, when I stepped onto a sleeper train to travel from Beijing to Xi’an, my first time riding the Chinese rails. I had a vague idea of what to expect, but was still taken aback by the thin beds and poorly maintained bathrooms, to say nothing of the trash that seemed to bloom on the floor of the car as soon as passengers settled in with snacks whose wrappings they discarded freely. I slept poorly and spent much of the 12-hour trip trying to deter curious fellow passengers from starting conversations that my introverted self cowered at (I’ve mostly gotten past that — a freckled redhead in China can’t also be an introvert).

For several years following that initial journey, I regarded train travel in China as something to be endured in the service of getting from one cool destination to the next. But around 2007 or so, I realized something: the trains between Nanjing, where I lived, and Shanghai, where I liked to be, were getting faster. The interiors were getting nicer. People were cleaning up their trash and spending most of their time listening to iPods or texting on their cell phones, not asking me questions about my life in China. (The bathrooms were still kind of gross, but so are Amtrak’s.) Absorbed in the drama of my mid-twenties life, I had barely noticed the arrival of high-speed rail, one of the most important developments in Chinese infrastructure over the past decade.

China has finally accomplished what Mao Zedong set out to do in the Great Leap Forward of 1958 — surpassed the United States in something big and ambitious. High-speed rail lines spiderweb across the country, from Harbin in the north to Guangzhou in the south. New lines are being built to reach Kunming in the southwest and Urumqi in the northwest. In the U.S., on the other hand, plans for a high-speed line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and another one in the Northeast Corridor, have repeatedly gotten tangled up in political maneuverings and concerns about building costs — two things that China’s Railway Ministry hasn’t had to worry about as it has embarked on its massive construction spree. We might eventually get a few lines built here, but it will be a long, slow project, measured in terms of decades, not years. Speaking at a panel titled “Will China Rule the World?” at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, which I attended in D.C. the first weekend in January, Yale professor Peter Perdue joked that “China’s GDP will surpass [that of] the U.S. before America has high-speed rail.”

Of course, China-watchers know that the country’s switch from the “Iron Rooster,” as older trains are known, to the sleek new Hexie Hao, or “Harmony Express,” hasn’t gone completely smoothly by any means. The July 2011 collision between two high-speed trains outside the city of Wenzhou, which killed 40 people, sounded a note of alarm, and many Chinese asked whether the country needed to slow down as it surged ahead. The arrest and conviction of Liu Zhijun, former Minister of Railways, for bribery and abuse of power signaled that the days of unbridled rail growth with no questions asked were over, though the leadership still plans to double the current high-speed network. Amtrak has a long way to go before it catches up.

The high-speed rail lines that radiate out from Shanghai enable me to travel easily and frequently — even Beijing is only five hours away — and I’ll trade a ride on the Harmony Express for a trip on Amtrak pretty much any day of the week. But as much as I wish that the U.S. were a little more like China in its rail infrastructure, I have to admit that China is also losing something in its switch to high-speed trains. Overnight trips on the “Iron Rooster” were once the quintessential getting-to-know-China experience for foreign students and backpackers, and though I always had to steel myself for those trips before they began, they also comprise some of my most vivid early memories of China. Journeys on the Harmony Express, on the other hand, tend to be so quiet and routine that one blurs into the next, as indistinguishable as the landscape rushing past the window at 300 kilometers an hour.

For a glimpse into China’s railway past, check out Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China, Paul Theroux’s account of his travels across the country in the 1980s. 

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Space Invaders

THE THIRD SEASON of Girls opens with Hannah and Ray discussing the aftermath of a breakup in the show’s version of New York. At stake in their chat, which is partly about pessimism, optimism, and what constitutes (to use Ray’s phrase), “real life,” is what kind of fictional NYC is. Hannah says it’s inevitable that Ray will run into Shoshanna again. Ray counters that it isn’t: New York is big, there’s no reason for their paths to cross. When Adam walks in, it’s clear this conversation about exes was a setup for Adam to run into his ex (and possible rape victim), Natalia, and her pal played by Amy Schumer. In an exchange laced with hypothetical babies (“she’s pregnant!” Schumer says of Natalia, who admits she isn’t but casts aspersions on Hannah’s ability to feed a baby), Natalia excoriates Adam while Schumer (who’d been egging her on) says “you’re better than this.” Adam may not like confrontation, but it turns out the show’s Big Apple is exactly as small as Hannah says it is.

It’s fitting, then, that almost every shot in the first two episodes of Girls feels slightly overcrowded… [READ MORE]