Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Adventure Stories & Orientalism

I'm so pleased that several people have commented on my post concerning dieselpunk and orientalism. I had already decided to write a follow-up post in order to delve more deeply into the question, as I really think it's worth discussing and it's something I mull over a lot. This is that post.

David Mark Brown commented on my original blog post about how he chose to flip character expectations around in order to challenge some of the problems of race relationships, etc., in his dieselpunk fiction. That shook me out of the assumption that the main characters of dieselpunk stories had to be westerners. I still have an issue with that, though, which is as a white westerner myself, I'm not sure how to believably write from the point of view of a nonwesterner or someone belonging to a nonwhite culture. I'm not ruling it out, just saying it would pose a considerable challenge to me. I've actually attempted to write from the pov of a black woman in the past (it was sci fi in a universe I built, so saying African American or Caribbean American doesn't fit). I never felt like I pulled it off, though.

A really big part of what troubles me is the issue of exoticism. Stephen A. Watkins commented on this blog post (which Tiyana Marie White wrote in response to my post), "I think there’s a difference between the aesthetic appreciation of something “exotic” meaning that it’s outside the norms of your experience and the type of problematic “exoticization” that results from fetishizing something that’s different for no reason than that it’s different." Exoticism/exoticization is huge for me. To be clear, the trouble I have is that I would like to write stories where the mc must go to some country foreign to them, to seek out some sort of treasure/have some sort of other adventure, much in the tradition of Indiana Jones. What I can't work out is how to impart all the thrills and fears of such a thing, without painting the culture as exotic and sinister. I'm not talking about describing the people in stereotypical terms (which isn't just offensive, it's also plain tiresome), so much as trying to achieve a tone of menace, etc., for the mcs, who are navigating a land that is foreign to them. Throw in some sort of cursed item(s) or whatever, and you have a recipe for your typical dark and threatening culture as seen in myriad books and films. The problem with that is that when you choose to represent a real Earth culture that way, you other them and contribute to a history of imperialism and oppression, something I don't want to do.

One option is to go ahead and represent some of the culture as sinister. For example, have some creepy big wig in the culture invite the characters to dinner, say, and then the characters proceed to navigate a house full of unnatural shadows and decorated with unsettling objects. The meal would be shocking to them as well due to whatever they're eating... if you've read my previous post, you might recognize this as a reference to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a movie that really beats you about the head with orientalist representations. As you may recall, part of the trouble with Temple is that it's not just portraying a culture in a very negative light, it's also doing so with blatant inaccuracies. Anyway, so let's say I want to have the creepy dinner chapter and I'm going to avoid the blatant inaccuracies. I'm still using items of the culture to create an aura of fear and danger. I could counterbalance that chapter with some sort of positive interaction in another chapter with much more approachable, appealing characters of the foreign culture. I don't mean yet another stereotype (lusty women who fall for the hero, mystical sages who provide guidance, etc.). No, I'm thinking more along the lines of the Colombian drug lord in Romancing the Stone (not a dieselpunk movie, but it operates on the same principal as interwar adventure stories with the mild mannered woman and rough and tumble male guide--think of The Mummy, same principle--who delve into a dangerous foreign land and encounter menacing characters, etc. in the pursuit of treasure). In Romancing the Stone, the audience is led to believe romance writer Joan Wilder and her adventuring guide, Jack I-forget-his-last-name are about to meet a stereotype of a Colombian thug: some backwards, unsophisticated guy who rides a mule. Turns out, the guy has modern ammenities, has read all of Joan's books, and the mule in question is a 4X4. Now, believe me, I'm not here to say that Romancing the Stone somehow avoided racist depictions because of this scene. Sadly, as much as I enjoy that movie, I think it's terribly problematic, too. But I digress. My point is that the scene challenges audience expectations. It does it, no doubt, in order to get laughs. Similar scenes abound in many films--and I think more often than not, they are there to get laughs. It's funny to set up expectations and then turn them on their heads.

My question is, do those sorts of scenes challenge expectations enough to be an antidote to the sinister scenes that paint a "foreign" culture as dark, dangerous, magical, etc.?

Anyway, to return to what Stephen Watkins wrote, I suppose another way to approach the issue of exoticism to interrogate whether those "sinister" representations fetishize the culture or simply represent it as unfamiliar to readers/viewers. When I wrote the as-yet-unpublished sequel to The River and the Roses I wanted to introduce Daniel Seong's family, and I wanted to do so intelligently. So I went on a Korean American chat board and asked a bunch of questions. The people on the board were super patient with me and helped to dispell some of the stereotypes I had knocking around in my head. They gave me insight into how to represent the family dynamics, the words people use, the way a dinner would play out, etc. It was all very cool and I learned a lot in the bargain. I'm reasonably sure I did a nice job of writing those scenes concerning Daniel's family. It's just a lot easier in the realistic setting of my modern day psychic mystery to not fall into the orientalist trap. In River, I can have Veronica come in as an outsider to a culture she's unfamiliar with, and have her be a bit uncomfortable and nervous about it, but still see it as a real, breathing, normal culture. Then again, she's not meant to be in a threatening situation. It's not an adventure story. Aside from her ability to commune with the dead (which really makes her more exotic than anyone else in the book), there's no magic, no cursed items, no spooky caves, no dungeon crawls, no evil villains (there are bad guys, but they are much more plebean). Is it possible to write adventure stories where there are all those things and not fall into the orientalist trap?

I suppose another option is to take the flipping-the-binary thing even further. Have a nonwhite and/or nonwestern hero who is dealing with a white, western villain. I mean, you do see that, of course. Nazis spring to mind. Is that the only way? Isn't avoiding casting nonwhite and/or nonwestern villains in a story just another form of discrimination?

Well, I've written myself into a corner. Help me out, folks. What's your take?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What is Dieselpunk?

After my recent blog post on Captain America: The First Avenger, I got a couple of questions about the terms "dieselpunk" and "decopunk." There's a pretty nice description of dieselpunk here, but I thought I'd talk a little about what it means to me.

I've come across a forum post where someone described dieselpunk as a scene rather than a genre, mainly, if I understand correctly, because of the dirth of actual dieselpunk fiction out there. I'll grant you that there aren't as many movies and TV shows with the elements that make up dieselpunk than there are capitalizing on the popularity of steampunk, but I think it's incorrect to say there aren't very many. In the last few months I've watched eight movies and two anime tv shows (notably Last Exile, which perhaps due to the fact that I watch it at 3am when I'm giving the baby his bottle and I have the sound turned almost all the way down, has come to a point where it is incomprehensible to me, unfortunately. I still really enjoy the soundtrack, though)--and of those eight movies, none were in the Indiana Jones series. There are also quite a few books that qualify, at least according to my definition.

So I should probably get to that.

To me, dieselpunk is fiction genre (or, more broadly, a scene) that draws on sci fi from the 1920s-1940s. Dieselpunk differs from steampunk in that its machines have internal combustion engines. You don't see airplanes in steampunk--at least, not unless they are some sort of steam-powered clockwork. You do see airplanes in dieselpunk--prominently so. But you also see other, weirder vehicles like the vanships in Last Exile. Also, very often you see robots. The idea with dieselpunk is that the tech is retro-futuristic (a combination that I find delightful). Lots of dials, knobs, gauges, levers, and grease, but I could see a story where these old-fashioned machines allow for (minor) space travel or teleportation--much like Telsa's inventions in The Prestige are steampunk yet futuristic.

The time period encompasses the decades of history I find most interesting to study--the 1920s, especially in the U.S. due to Prohibition, are fascinating because they represent the moment when westerners entered the modern age. Probably because of that, much of the pulp fiction of the time involved exploration of nonwestern parts of the world--the exotic, mysterious places most threatened by extinction in the modern age. More on that in a moment, as it raises a rather thorny problem.

The 1930s provides the concept of noir--film noir, detective stories, and the rise of fascism in several locations around the world.

And the 1940s gave us World War II--a terrible time, of course, but also a time people remember as a golden age of victory gardens, radio programs, and shared purpose. In our memories, everyone was in agreement in the 1940s--the Allies were working together to oppose the evils of the Axis Powers, who in turn were working together to destroy everything good in the world. Through a simple lens, World War II is the most ethically accessible war, because there are such clear bad guys, especially in Europe. (Please understand, I'm saying this as a writer, not as a historian. As a historian, this sort of thing does not fly.)

So dieselpunk has a rich playground to run around in. Add to that all of the bright optimism and faith in science that preceded the dropping of the atomic bombs and the discovery of the death camps. Think of the excitement of the World's Fairs. And to top it off, dieselpunk has its own artistic style: art deco. In fact, a subgenre of dieselpunk (itself a subgenre of steampunk, of course) is decopunk--basically everything dieselpunk is without such an interest in the machines.

But back to the exotic lands, for a moment, and the problem they pose.

I may eventually devote an entire post to this minefield, because it's a doozy, and it's one I'm particularly concerned with because I'm liable to get caught in the middle of it one of these days. Orientalism.

What, you ask, is orientalism, and what does it have to do with dieselpunk?

In a nutshell, orientalism is the representation of nonwestern cultures (most often Middle Eastern, but it's just as valid for various Asian areas as well as any other part of the world where people are predominantly brown, in my opinion) through the filter of western ideas, desires, opinions, prejudices, etc. It's a form of racism with a long history in fiction. Probably one of the best examples of a movie that is both dieselpunk and orientalist: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. One of the big problems with orientalism is that writers who fall prey to it often misrepresent cultures or conflate two or more cultures. In the case of Temple, for instance, the goddess Kali is depicted as evil and ruling the underworld, which is inaccurate. Much of the cuisine is probably closer to Chinese than Hindu, as well. The attitude in days gone by among writers and fans of orientalist fiction was to shrug and say something along the lines of, "It's all the same anyway." (In case that's your attitude, try turning it around and imagining what it would be like for a Hindu or Chinese film to depict your culture as the same or at least jumbled with some other culture--usually belonging to a historical enemy. Now imagine that happening over and over in every book and movie that depicts your culture for hundreds of years.) For more on Temple's issues specifically, go here.

Nowadays I see a deep uneasiness in movies like Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow--they so desperately want to be able to depict grand adventures like those of Allan Quatermain (a character who was originally more steampunk than dieselpunk) but they don't want to come under fire for racism. It's a pickle. I love stories of treasure hunts, dungeon crawls, scary jungles and survival in ice storms. But how do you write about exotic lands without othering those people the main characters, who by nature of being dieselpunk characters will be westerners, will encounter there? How do you portray a culture respectfully while simultaneously making it mysterious, sinister, and, in many cases, somehow mystical? What's a white writer in love with the retro-futuristic fiction of the1920s-1940s to do?

The best I've come up with is to take the story off of planet Earth altogether, and set the dungeon crawls, barroom brawls, and mystical encounters on other planets entirely (Firefly, anyone?). And don't even think about basing the alien cultures on specific (stereotyped and misrepresented) Earth cultures. Lucas did that and it's painful to watch. Of course, the real problem with that solution is that you've pretty much left dieselpunk behind once you leave Earth or at least an Earth-like setting. Yes, it's sci fi, but it's limited sci fi. Dieselpunk is not atomicpunk, and I can't see diesel engines powering even the most fun retro-futuristic space ships farther than a trip to the moon, maybe.

What do you think about dieselpunk? Do you like stories set in the 1920s-1940s?
How would you handle the orientalism problem?