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This was not the war I had been training for all my life. I suddenly felt hurt, betrayed by my own body. It was going to take another two weeks before I did cry, and in an airplane toilet thousands of feet above the ground my reality finally crashed. But at least I was alone and no-one saw it happen.

When I was sixteen I had a medical scare, one that has left me worried about my health ever since. Men’s health, particularly when it comes to testicular cancer, is something of a public taboo. Many of the issues go undiscussed, often due to attendant fears of a failure of machismo.

As a result I jumped at the opportunity to read this book.

A serving officer in the Australian army, Carr presents as the epitome of the traditional Ocker. As a young man he loved his beer, meeting girls and playing rugby. Having been a somewhat tubby child, Carr grew to become determined to shape his body into a stronger and fitter form. Then at the age of twenty-five, it turned against him. Diagnosed with testicular cancer, Carr’s shock caused him to turn to what he knew: the discipline and training he had gained through the army.

Taking sick leave from the army, Carr underwent a number of different operations to battle the cancer, which had aggressively spread to the rest of his body. Steeling himself mentally, the soldier envisioned the tumorous masses as invading enemy forces. With the doctors as his generals, he agreed to their plan of action and trusted to a positive attitude to get him through the debilitating chemotherapy bombardment of his rebelling body.

In fact, Carr’s humour is a welcome aspect to this book, droll and self-deprecating throughout. To spare the embarassment of some of those he crossed paths with, especially the attending physicians, nicknames are dispensed liberally throughout, such as Dr. Honey, Dr. Chocolate-Love, Dr. Non-Caucasian. That last one represents the start of Carr reassessing a number of assumptions he has made in his life. He even comes to explore alternate methods of treatment following extensive surgery, including meditation, organic foods, Taoism and Qigong exercises.

It is the army that remains Carr’s home, a constant source of discipline and, perhaps most importantly, excellent medical and financial support during the years of his cancer treatment. When he is deployed to military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Carr witnesses a frightening externalisation of the chaos that his body has been fighting against for seven years.

I was concerned that the military jargon and analogies would be overwrought in this book, but in fact Carr’s method of relating his experiences is excellent, interpreting the battle against his cancer in terms he is not only familiar with, but able to use to give genuine insight. One telling moment in the book is when he is given a gift of Lance Armstrong‘s biography of his own fight against cancer. Carr is suddenly forced to face the enormity of what he is up against and is devastated. I have not read Armstrong’s book, but I found the positivity, humour and humanity of this ordinary soldier’s tale inspiring.

This is a gripping and honest book, that is full of hope. An excellent read.

In a couple of hours I am off to Armageddon in Sydney’s Olympic Park. Nerd nivana. Will I ask John Rhys Davies to say ‘bad dates‘? Will I convince Lance Henriksen to do the knife trick from Aliens? Will I manage to stop myself from geeking out when I meet Gail Simone for the first time?

All of these things are doubtful.

So for today’s review I have chosen a comic book – but given the day that is in it, with Armageddon no doubt featuring plenty of promotions of upcoming superhero comics, movies, toys, it occured to me that if I must review a ‘graphic novel’, I see no reason why I should restrict myself to the caped brigade. Comics are a medium just like any other, a method of story-telling that combines text and image.

Why on earth are there so many comics are people punching one another really hard?

While Gene Luen Yang does introduce several fantastical elements into this tale of growing up Asian American, at its heart it is a story about a kid not able to fit in, who chooses to reject and hide from his culture in order to become more ‘normal’.

However, to get back to magic and fantasy, our story begins with a summary of the traditional Chinese myth, Journey to the West. The minor god Monkey wants to join the other deities in Heaven at a lavish banquet, but is rejected because he is just a monkey. In a rage the little god attacks and defeats his social betters. Over the years he becomes even more capricious, inventing new titles for himself and daring to antagonise the Almighty, Tze-Yo-Tzuh. For his hubris, Monkey is punished and buried beneath a mountain.

Jin Wang’s mother told him the tale of Monkey. To him though it is just another story from China, another thing that sets him apart. Bullied by the other children at school, he is desperate to be accepted, even tolerating the ‘friendship’, of a boy who physically abuses him. One day another student, Wei Chen Sun, arrives from Taiwan. Jin seizes his chance to finally become the bullier, raise himself up through the social pyramid by belittling another student. Instead, he finds himself becoming Wei’s best friend. Now if only he could work up the confidence to ask the beautiful and blond Amelia Harris out on a date.

A third story thread mixes the realism of Jin’s adolescent angst and the fantastical excesses of Monkey’s tale, involving an all-American boy named Danny, who is embarrassed when his distant cousin, Chin-Kee, arrives to visit. Followed everywhere by his cousin, who spouts stereotypical racist dialogue, can grow in size and insists on drawing attention to Danny’s relationship with him in a humiliating fashion, any hope he has of being popular quickly vanishes.

Chin-Kee is a monstrous manifestation of the contempt Jin sees directed to him by the other children at his school. As the three stories continue we discover how they are inter-related, how Monkey, Jin and Danny are in fact all connected.

When I was a kid growing up in Co. Dublin, I was obsessed with the Japanese show Monkey Magic which shares the same mythological source material as this book. Emmet at age five just saw it as an entertaining program and used to swing from the bicycle railings outside of school singing the theme song. So I am familiar, albeit in a distant fashion, with some of the fantastical elements Yang employs in American Born Chinese. I also, however, grew up an outsider, bullied in school, not able to fit in and reading this book brought all of that back to me.

I love how Yang links these autobiographical elements of growing up in America with the more supernatural and religious aspects of the story, representing an overall metaphor for the cultural differences thrown up before a young Chinese boy. The story is also wickedly funny, quite sweet at times and well paced.

This is an excellent book, well told by a confident and imaginative story-teller. Fantastic.

Right, now I’m off to geek it up.

She reaches out with a careful finger. The butterfly startles, then allows her to gather it in, to walk it into her cupped palm. It has come a long distance. It must be tired. As tired as she feels. It has travelled continents. Crossed high steppes and emerald jungles to land here, amongst hibiscus and paving stones, so that Kanya can now hold it in her hand and appreciate its beauty. Such a long way to travel.

Kanya makes a fist on its fluttering. Opens her hand and lets its dust drop to the tiles. WIng fragments and pulped body. A manufactured pollinator, wafted from some PurCal laboratory most likely.

Windups have no souls. But they are beautiful.

Five years ago I read Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, an assessment of our society’s chances of surviving ‘Peak Oil’. Resource wars are no longer some grim prophecy of futurists – they are a increasingly likely outcome for first-world nations with a global reach. Speculative fiction can often play a role in navigating such grim portents. With this novel, the notion of a complete collapse of petroleum economies is taken as a given. What is proposed is a radical alternative that equally boxes in the described society of the future into yet more debilitating conflicts and regimes change.  

In the wake of devastating collapse of crops due to genetically engineered diseases, Thailand was one of the few countries left still standing. The young Queen in Bangkok rules over a much enlarged kingdom, with refugees fleeing religious persecution in China pouring over its borders and American company men attempting to curry favour with the regime by setting up new businesses in a country that has survived civil wars and plague. Anderson Lake is one such man, wandering the street markets of Bangkok examining the fruit on sale that speaks to hidden seed farms, secured away from prying eyes. As a farang he is barely tolerated; as a company man possibly connected to the same enclaves that accidentally released genetically engineered viruses years ago, it is a wonder he has not been killed.

His aide Hock Seng is a Chinese refugee who is juggling one too many schemes in order to survive. He tries to keep Lake happy, while also paying bribes to Thai officials, the white shirts, and skimming off the top for himself. He runs a factory for Lake that specialises in growing algae cultures that can be converted into energy. The machinery is prone to breaking down, there is a danger of rampant contamination and the city’s trade unions prevent him from keeping the workers in line. Still he plots and plans to escape Bangkok, even in the face of growing tensions.

Then there is Emiko, a windup, a genetically perfect humanoid, abandoned by her Japanese creators to the slums of Bangkok. Her life is conditioned by instinctual commands she cannot resist. She is programmed to serve, to seek out an authority figure. Unfortunately there are places in Bangkok that specialize in debasement for the purposes of entertaining farang businessmen and corrupt Thai officials. Her master Raleigh has her perform on stage, publically abused and violated sexually to drunken cheers. When she happens to overhear mention of a rogue genetic engineer hiding out in the city, she is introduced to a man who will gladly pay to hear more – Anderson Lake. He looks at her with a mixture of disgust and disinterest, but she thinks she can see a glimmer of pity in his eyes as well.

Finally there is the Tiger, Jaidee, the famously incorruptible white shirt on the hunt for conspirators within the houses of government itself. He trusts his partner Kanya with his life, but when he confiscates precious carg, he discovers who his true allies are.

There is so much going on in this book, so many overlapping plots, that at first it might appear quite dense. The Windup Girl, however, builds into an epic tragedy, a truly astonishing debut from Paolo Bacigalupi that fascinates in its description of neo-colonialism. At times it resembles an inversion of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which showed audiences a vision of a future-America dominated by Chinese culture. Then there’s this article from io9 describing how Rian Johnson’s next sf film has received funding for depicting another Sino-futuristic setting.

I found the scenes of Emiko being raped horribly disturbing, but as a whole the book is undoubtedly an astonishing creation.

As the Olympics descend upon China, the critiques have begun. Already we are hearing stories of more than 1.5 million “displacements” to clear space for Olympic facilities, reports of human rights abuses, sweatshop labor, and Olympics-related graft. The spotlight will naturally be on China, but China is only part of the story. The modern Olympic Movement itself has been highly controversial – and far from the ‘above politics’ Olympian level that some would have us believe.

If you follow the British press, you may have caught mope-rock singer Morrissey’s latest controversial outburst against the treatment of animals in China. Simon Armitage’s interview can be found here and further comment on the accusation of the Chinese being a ‘subspecies’, here. While Morrissey’s statement is reprehensible, racism at its most dismissive and insidious, it also brings to mind the inherent problems in criticising China itself. The former singer of The Smiths probably knows the only way he can draw attention to his cause – animal welfare – is to be deliberately provocative, because the international community is quite aware of the many civil liberties abuses that occur within China, from forced detention of political subversives, to internet censorship and widespread poverty.

None of that matters though, because China is the future world superpower on the rise. Its story of a massive economic recovery following military incursions by Japan and the disastrous Maoist experiment with industrialisation in the twentieth century would be no less remarkable had the eventual result not been China becoming a major world player. Their position within the international community is consequently very important to the Chinese government and so hosting the Olympic Games represented a major opportunity to woo popular opinion in their favour. In short, the potential profits earned by investment in China outweigh any moral outrage that may be occasioned by foreign criticism.

This book contains a series of essays on different aspects relating to China’s bid to host the Olympics in 2008. The writers include foreign journalists, from sports, economics and political writing, as well as former Chinese political detainees. There is even a photo-essay displaying the hardship faced by construction workers who live and work in Beijing, often having travelled away from far-off provinces to provide for their families.

The quote above is taken from an illuminating essay by Dave Zirin on the dubious history of the Olympic Games. One of the complaints of Chinese government officials in the face of calls for a boycott of the Games (similar to the efforts made to hobble the Soviet Union’s hosting following their invasion of Afghanistan) was that critics were unfairly mixing politics with sports. Zirin shows how political manoeuvring is an essential element of hosting the Games, as the display of competitive prowess is not only inevitably bound up with nationalism, but also provides a platform for host nations. International Olympics Committee president Avery Brundage for example, who supported Adolf Hitler, which he never apologised for, and turned a blind eye to the sins of participating Apartheid nations. He also fervently objected to female athletes entering the games.

The financial cost of hosting the Games is repeatedly stressed. Host cities Montreal and Athens are cited as examples of how crippling debt can often result, with the attendant civil disruption adding salt to the wounds. The welfare of inadequately protected construction workers was also put at risk in the building of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium, as well as other Olympic structures erected just for the purposes of capturing the lens of foreign cameras. Homes were demolished to make way for much of this development, such as the aging hutong residences, whose owners were turfed out with little compensation.

For China the Games represented an opportunity to erase the spectre of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Arguments in favour of their bid included citations of the positive social changes that followed the Seoul Games in South Korea. However, this conciliatory move on the part of the international community only served to give China exactly what it wanted. Mia Farrow’s ‘Genocide Olympics’, op-ed piece caused a domino effect that increased pressure on China to review its policy of investment in Darfur, but a broader social change was always unlikely.

There are two Chinas, the one we are allowed to see and the one the Chinese live with. This is a fascinating and very readable collection of essays on that schism.

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