What's the Chinese for "fail"?

Sliding Void is the first in a series of hard SF novels by Stephen Hunt, author of a series of steampunk novels that I really enjoyed: The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and The Rise of the Iron Moon. Hunt’s interest in space opera and SF was fairly clear in The Rise of the Iron Moon, so it’s no surprise to learn that he also writes hard SF, and although it’s also weird to read him in a completely new genre, the book was enjoyable and interesting – though not without its flaws.

The basic setting is a universe some thousands of years in the future, with the usual necessities of hard SF: hyperspace has been invented but travel is slow, there are many settled planets and terraforming and expansion is ongoing, the settled universe is divided into the core and the periphery, and the core is ruled by a shifty and sinister organization (in this case called “the Triple Alliance”) that maintains order at the expense of freedom and corruption. Of course, one can stay a step ahead of the alliance by working on the fringes of space, but not everything one does out here on the edge is entirely legal, etc. The outline of the setting probably seems to have a lot in common with Serenity/Firefly or Traveller:2300, including the importance of China in space exploration and the settling of planets on national lines (this is a German planet, that is a Chinese, etc). It’s pretty standard.

The story centres around one Captain Lana Fiveworlds and her oddball crew, who are running a free trader in classic Traveller style, tramp trading on the periphery. They need money in a hurry and get called in by an old contact to whom they owe a favour; he gives them the task of taking on a new crewman to help him escape from his arse-backwards mediaeval ice world, where he was a prince until he got a bit too arrogant and ran a war that got half the world chasing him. Unfortunately, there is something up with this new crewman and things rapidly go pear-shaped. That’s it! We then have to wait for book 2 to start finding out why things went wrong, and what they’re going to do about it.

This book is quite short and well-told, but interestingly a large part of the story is set in a fantasy world. The crewman is from the planet of Hesperus, a failed colony world that slid into an ice age soon after it was colonized. It’s an interesting story: the colonists were refugees rescued from an interplanetary war by a well-meaning aid agency and packed across the galaxy in cryonic sleep, arriving on their colony with nothing but the resources in their ship and nowhere to return to, their world having been destroyed. Soon after they arrived their new planet, which had looked so promising, fell back into an ice age and the colony fell back into the bronze age, so that when we stumble on it the planet is more like a norse kingdom than a sci-fi setting. I really like this idea, I think it’s quite believable and a terraforming outcome I don’t think I’ve read in a long time (perhaps in Ursula le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest? I can’t recall…) Stephen Hunt does this part particularly well, and the way the rest of the universe treats this planet is a sure sign that we aren’t dealing with a particularly well-meaning Alliance. No Culture here, folks.

The rest of the story, though brief, is well-written. It’s got occasional hints of “realism” such as has started to creep into modern genre writing – swearing, “gritty” settings and the like – which is particularly jarring when you’re used to Hunt’s other, gentler, steampunkier works. Hunt’s vision of hyperspace is cute – it’s all mathematical and humans can’t handle it, because they get “addicted to the maths” – and means that humans are dependent on the help of an alien crab species who are religious in their mathematics, and believe that entering hyperspace gets them closer to their mysterious mathematical god. The rest of the SF world is fairly standard, though some of the information technology ideas are cute: the characters refer to a wiki to learn about Hesperus, and when their barbarian crewman needs to be oriented to the modern world he is given full-immersion entertainment packages that give him 6 months of real-time experience of someone else’s life in a couple of hours. This means that two days after he’s arrived on ship he has already lived several years of subjective life in the modern world, and is speaking like a mixture of policeman and starship crew. His adjustment is otherwise not handled so well though: his first experience of eating rice just flicks by without any mention of how he feels about this new experience, and there are a few other moments where we really could get a deeper sense of his disorientation in his new world. Having spent half the book establishing his barbarian credentials, we see them all washed away in a chapter, which is a bit weak. Given that the whole thing is quite short, a few more chapters to have him settle in – perhaps including a moment of craziness – would be nice.

Another thing about this book that really frustrated me and nearly had me give up on it was the massive Orientalism fail in the middle. When we first meet the Chinese engineer, Paopao, he orders Calder (the barbarian) to make his favourite food: Ochatsuke. He has a list of ingredients in his kitchen which includes dashi and jako. Stephen Hunt has carefully researched the recipe for a Japanese traditional food, complete with Japanese names, and had his chinese character act as if this is some Chinese food or spiritual rite of passage: the food labels are all written in Chinese (how do you write jako in Chinese?) and Paopao tells Calder that “A man who steams rice may be trusted with the care of antiproton storage ring.” The implication is that this traditional Japanese food is somehow of cultural significance to this Chinese engineer, who judges his staffs competence on their ability to make it. This is, I think a straight-out orientalism fail: either Hunt doesn’t care about the difference between China and Japan, doesn’t know (despite having careful knowledge of a Japanese food that is quite obscure outside of Japan), or knows nothing about China and figures his readers won’t notice the difference. He obviously couldn’t make the dominant Asian culture in space Japan because that doesn’t fit the current narrative about an ascendant China, but he couldn’t be bothered doing the basic research on China necessary to fit the character to the story. The same applies with the stupid way he writes Paopao’s language: I’ve met enough non-native speakers of English now to know that the way Paopao speaks is not the way it works. On the one hand he says

Only if you submit to them, Mister Fighting Fourth. Sometimes it beholdens man to remember

which is perfect lyrical English and very advanced, including careful omission of an article such as non-native speakers often get wrong. But then he says

Found it inside fortune cookied on station above Kunjing Four

dropping both the subject (which I think is a Japanese, not a Chinese, problem) and all the articles, and mangling a sentence which anyone who can say the former would surely be able to spout very quickly and easily. Now, I don’t think anyone can get language misuse right (it’s extremely hard) but stuffing this up to this extent, while also mangling the character’s cultural origins, is a pretty big level of fail. It’s disappointing, and sloppy. I understand that with the ascendance of Asia, and the recognition that the 21st century is going to be the Asian century, people want to fit Asia into their inter-galactic hegemonies, and not being Asian are likely going to screw it up somehow. But there’s still a minimum level of research that one could do, in this case as simple as buying a Chinese cookbook and visiting a good restaurant.

I think we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of sloppiness in the years to come …

Anyway, aside from the small orientalist unpleasantness, this story is enjoyable and worth giving a go if you like classic hard SF. It’s reasonably well crafted, moves fast, has a smooth and easy narrative style, and has some nice ideas to add to the genre. Stephen Hunt’s writing is sometimes a little jarring, as if he were occasionally slipping into a young adult novel style, and sometimes his genre-bending doesn’t work, but in this case he’s combined a low-tech fantasy world with a hi-tech spacefaring civilization very well. I wouldn’t say it’s ground breaking or stellar in its achievements, and I think Hunt has been more creative in his steampunk work, but I can still recommend it. Read this book if you want to see a small amount of genre-bending in an otherwise classic, easily readable hard SF, but give it a miss if you demand only classic tropes in your SF.