Review of still-unread book

From Ars Technica, the strange world of North Korean science fiction

“Political messages in every North Korean sci-fi can be hardly missed,” historian of science Dong-Won Kim, who taught at Harvard University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, told me.

The genre grew under the wings of the supreme leaders. Late dictator Kim Jong-il referenced science fiction books in his speeches and set guidelines for authors, encouraging them to write about optimistic futures for their country.

Stories often touch on topics like space travel, benevolent robots, disease-curing nanobots, and deep-sea exploration. They lack aliens and beings with superpowers. Instead, the real superheroes are the exceptional North Korean scientists and technologists who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.

…”Science fiction is about anticipation, and this is a big problem,” said Antoine Coppola, a filmmaker who has studied cinema in both North and South Korea. “Society is perfect in North Korea; the hierarchy is perfect, so why dream about the future? How to imagine the future when society is perfect?”

To show the North Koreans how it should be done, an apocalyptic vision from France 24…

Cattle wander between the concrete shells of half-finished mansions in northeastern China, some of the only occupants of a luxury complex whose crumbling verandas and overgrown arches are stark symbols of a housing market crippled by its own excess.

…Interest in the ghost towns is thriving as intrepid urban explorers visit derelict districts and post their findings online.

“This place is great for exploring, so I like to hang around here… and film a few clips,” said a black-clad drone flier as he rested on the marble floor beneath a vast, tarnished chandelier.

Around him, gloomy alcoves stored haphazard stacks of dust-caked furniture in styles that evoked France’s Palace of Versailles.

Speaking of fiction, I’ve flicked through some of Lawrence Osborne’s On Java Road. I shouldn’t comment without reading the whole thing, but it’ll be months before I get around to doing that, so I’ll get it out of the way. One commenter here said

…there are pockets of real HK experience in there, but overall it’s really prurient old-gweilo fantasy dreck, superimposed on the protests. The central young character is nothing like a real HK protestor, just an old gweilo’s yellow-fevered magic pixie fap-fest. 

Slightly harsh? There’s nothing wrong with fiction about ‘expats’ – read The Quiet American and The Honorary Consul. And Osborne’s Macau novel, Ballad of a Small Player, combined an impressively realistic portrayal of the city with a semi-surreal fantasy of a loser who keeps on winning in the casino.

On Java Road suggests that he knows Hong Kong less well (though he’s tried to do his homework). But the characters (seedy Brit journo, rich local buddy, exotic/gutsy lady) seem formulaic rather than funny or bizarre. Graham Green meets Lulu Wang. Seems a wasted opportunity. Maybe, when I finally read it properly, the backdrop of the 2019 protests will redeem things. 

Which reminds me – it’s 8-31.

I’ve never read anything of the ‘Hong Kong expat’ genre better than Hong Kong on Air by Muhammad Cohen and The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes.

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7 Responses to Review of still-unread book

  1. Nite Lyfe says:

    The Quiet American isn’t about expats. It’s about America and liberalism and imperialism and Roman Catholicism and betrayal. And about sad sad Englishman Graham Greene, last of all. If you want to read an awful novel about expats read Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong, especially awful as he hated Hong Kong and never lived there. But he was bang on about the place: full of Philistines he said. The thing about Theroux is that he is always surprised by how people behave towards him when he travels. If you listen to him and look at him you know he is and was an impenetrably over-intellectualised American dweeb. I defy anyone to watch him speak for five minutes and know even vaguely what he is talking about. Now there is a true hermetically sealed expat lost abroad. But he made his living describing it.

  2. seedy Brit journo Tim Ommelet says:

    Will we ever find out how many perished inside Prince Edward Station?

  3. Memories says:

    oops i had some white flowers and dropped them at Prince Edward station.

  4. Chinese Netizen says:

    Came across an interesting article today about the Chinese artist who painted CCP political slogans and caused a reactionary backlash at Brick Lane in The Guardian’s Art section today.

    Actually the lad had a few very valid points. I’d say his biggest mistake, however, was doing it all clandestinely and wiping out several meters of the wall in order to show his “piece”.

    @Nite Lyfe: Yes I get the feeling Paul Theroux dislikes a LOT of the people he comes across in his travels. I wonder if they’re portrayed that way because of him or if they’re just truly unlikable?

  5. Toph says:

    Nothing wrong with fiction about expats per se, but as a local, I have a rather limited desire to read about the hell we’re living through as a backdrop to some British journo’s midlife crisis.

    Sadly, with the censorship in place, a large proportion of published fiction about Hong Kong is going to be stuff in this vein for the foreseeable future.

  6. Henry says:

    I had fond memories of ‘Hong Kong Belongers’ until I went back and reread it. About living on Lamma decades ago. You could see what the writer was trying to do but it fell short. George Adams’ masterpiece deserves a mention.

  7. Justsayin says:

    Who needs fiction about living in HK… the truth of it is exciting enough in some sense…

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