Thursday, August 08, 2019

Sriduangkaew, And Shall Machines Surrender (2019)

Benjanun Sriduangkaew, And Shall Machines Surrender. Prime Books, 2019. Pp. 108. ISBN 978-1-607015-34-5. $9.99.

Reviewed by J. Moufawad-Paul

There is a Julius Eastman composition, “EN,” that uses the constraints of four pianos facing each other, with one pianist directing, each playing a sparse set of themes. Through timed disunity and unity—the latter generated by the directing pianist counting down aloud at key moments—EN is one of the most elegant and complex contemporary compositions. Somehow it manages to generate a stunning depth, lacking in longer pieces with less constraints, despite and because of its minimalist boundaries. I first heard this piece played live at the 2015 Venice Biennale, curated by the late Okwui Enwezor, and was floored by its “less is more” structure.

If we think of Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s novella And Shall Machines Surrender as a composition, it is similar to this Eastman piece. A limited number of characters, two points of view, and a short period in which the present action plays out. At the same time, Sriduangkaew strips down her always beautiful prose: it is less ornate and dense than her other works—a kind of velocity and immediacy are imported into her style so that it becomes stream-lined and slightly spartanized—but still sings. Just like Eastman’s minimalism. Within these constraints something dense and complex coalesces. Something entirely cinematic.

When you read this book, you see and hear its imaginary; you feel its depth, its themes, its music. Such music can be felt even in those kinetic action sequences captured by Sriduangkaew’s prose:
He shoots once, twice, in quick succession. Neither shot connects, going wide or perhaps passing through the AI proxy as if it is a ghost. When the proxy lands it is like poetry, a grace of trajectory so exact that it looks preordained: that written into the universe’s fabric and its attendant symmetries was the death of this man, meant to occur at this instant and in this manner. The curved blade shears through meat and fat, through the ropes of tendons and the columns of bones. (53)
Such passages caused me to remember an action sequence in the first episode of the anime Ergo Proxy, where the movement of the characters involved—the weight of the bodies and weapons—were indeed poetic. So imagine the best Julius Eastman composition combined with the most evocative anime sequences or memorable aspects of a Yoko Taro game and you’ll get something that resembles Sriduangkaew’s And Shall Machines Surrender.

And Shall Machines Surrender is probably Sriduangkaew’s most accessible work to date. Gone are the difficult trappings of her ornate fantasy and weird space opera. Absent are the many elaborate conceptual notions rendered oblique by the orientalist imagination. Instead we are given a stripped down sci-fi noir complete with competing intergalactic factions, a space-faring mercenary army, AI singularity, a Dyson Sphere heterotopia “built like complex ribbons wrapping around the red pearl of its star” (1), cyborg ubermenschen (called “haruspices”), and powerful android avatars. The author’s general political concerns are still operating—anti-imperialism, patterns of migration, structures of marginalization and class struggle, a pervasive rejection of orientalism and heteronormativity—but there is something altogether breathless in the way she structures the narrative according to these concerns. What we get is a stripped down and elegant novella.

Despite being just under 100 pages And Shall Machines Surrender possesses a rich fictional universe. The protagonists and antagonists have an historical depth that precedes the novel’s time frame but are revealed within this frame and its fast-paced mystery story. An entire and believable future world is generated organically from these sparse constraints. What is left unsaid imbricates hundreds of years of history, and decades of character engagement with this history. The result is the sense of an ineffable historical weight pressing down upon the novella’s narrative present. The central characters function to reveal this historical depth which simultaneously translates into character depth and development. Not only the principle protagonists—Orfea Leung and Krissana Khongtip—whose alternating points of view frame the narrative, but also the other three significant characters (Seung Ngo, Wonsul, Benzaiten), possess a complexity of unresolved relationship tension that results in fully realized and meaningful characters. And Shall Machines Surrender is the perfect example of how much can possibly be packed into a novella. The equal depth of style, story, characterization, and world-building is quite striking considering that many genre doorstoppers have accomplished far less in ten times the word count.

Such cinematic elegance is what makes this novella the most accessible work by Sriduangkaew. There is an obliqueness to her previous work that, while unavoidable and/or meaningful in those stories, has been stripped away in this novella. Perhaps this has something to do with the space opera and noir conventions upon which she constructs this book as opposed to her previous fantasy novella, Winterglass. With fantasy, especially second world fantasy, the readers are asked to accept new mythologies and obscure magical systems. Such a demand becomes more difficult for readers the further the fantasy deviates from European norms.

Since the fantasy genre is largely dominated by settings and tropes lifted from stereotypes of medieval Europe—many of which are also filtered through Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons conventions—when a writer from outside of the so-called West presents a fantasy world inspired by non-Western mythologies and settings their work is rendered inaccessible by the Eurocentric occupation of fantasy imagination. Even in its familiar Eurocentric form, though, fantasy as a whole generates less interest than science fiction. In an essay discussing the genre distinctions that literary critic Darko Suvin made in regards to fantasy and science fiction, China Miéville talks about the “embedded condescension and even despite towards fantasy” (“Afterword: Cognition as Ideology,” in Red Planets, ed. Bould & Miéville, Wesleyan UP, 2009, p. 232) that functions so as to render science fiction more accessible and acceptable. Hence, fantasy that is driven by an approach that rejects the acceptable westernized tropes of fantasy is even more worthy of condescension because it lies further outside of acceptable cognition.

But with a space opera fictional universe that is a projection of our current existence into the far future the author can speak in a more universal language. The elaboration of a familiar physics and biology is only rendered partially alien by centuries of further technological development. Authors still describe, even if partially, these future modes of production according to a known language. Quentin Meillassoux puts it like this:
science fiction appears to permit the construction of a storyline, of a narration that is certainly fanciful but coherent. In fact, in science fiction we generally inhabit a world where physics (theoretical, natural) differs from ours, but in which laws are not purely and simply abolished—i.e. in which everything and anything cannot happen in an arbitrary way or at any moment. Stories can thus be told because we are still dealing with worlds, with ordered totalities, although they are governed by another order. Individuals can act within them… because they can always foresee the consequences of their actions within these worlds. (Meillassoux, Quentin. Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction. Univocal, 2013, p. 23)
Meillassoux contrasts what he calls “extro-science fiction” with the above definition of “science fiction,” arguing for a genre intervention that breaks from such a coherence in physics that is not fantasy. As I discussed in the introduction to Methods Devour Themselves, a dialogical book I co-authored with Sriduangkaew, it is clear that Meillassoux wasn’t familiar enough with SFF to realize that such a break from coherent science fiction already existed, and that writers like Sriduangkaew were at the forefront of such a rupture, with even space operas that were “extro-science fiction,” i.e. her Hegemony and Cotillion stories. But And Shall Machines Surrender is the kind of space opera that belongs precisely within the boundaries Meillassoux describes and is thus, much more than fantasy, easily cognizable. Things might be stranger and more distant from our own scientific categories, but the laws to understand them have not been abolished. The causality of physics is preserved, the universal language of science is projected into the future, and we already have a series of tropes that are part of this projection upon which Sriduangkaew draws: AI, Dyson spheres, cyborgs, space ship armadas.

This is not to say that Sriduangkaew has compromised in her representation of what is generally not represented. Although larger categories of representation are not deconstructed, there remains a rejection of the Eurocentric, the patriarchal, and the heteronormative.

Therefore, as formally accessible as this novella is regarding what Meillassoux calls “ordered totalities,” it is intentionally less so regarding its content. Readers comfortable with heteronormative stories might find the normalization of queer desire unsettling. Or readers who love the innumerable books with casts of characters that are predominantly white, as well as Westernized settings, might find it off-putting to discover that there is no character that looks like them, that the cultural norms are not European. This is not to say that heterosexism, misogyny, and racism are absent in this book’s fictional universe—they are indeed present in the intergalactic faction “Pax Americana,” a projection of contemporary USAmerica and its settler-colonial/imperialist values—only that they function peripherally. These revanchist norms are not central to the ideological assumptions inherent to the world in which the novella’s narrative manifests.

There is something bothersome about a narrative that refuses to cater to ruling norms, especially for those non-marginalized readers accustomed to reading protagonists who look and desire like them, imbibing in the same monoculture. Such a narrative is often opaque for those of us who find it difficult to escape the hegemony of our identity. But such a narrative should serve as a reminder that what is normatively comfortable is not at all comfortable for readers who have largely been excluded from seeing themselves reflected in popular literature. These readers are usually expected to adapt, to find ways to locate a universality of humanity in characters that do not look or love like them, and they have long done so because of the ways in which these stories have presented themselves as absolute, constructed as central to meaningful story-telling. The fictional reversal, where the normative is made marginal, is a jarring but necessary dislocation.

When those of us who are used to seeing our normativity reflected in fiction encounter narratives that trouble these norms—when we find them difficult to access because the characters do not look or desire like us—we are actually being invited into the same kind of universality that is usually demanded of marginalized readers. Such an invitation echoes John Berger’s popular exhortation that has been referenced by Arundhati Roy and others: “never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.” We should take this demand seriously if we are to make common cause with a shared humanity. Sriduangkaew has always demanded that we write and read those stories that do not masquerade as if they are “the only one.”

Expanding the sphere of representation, however, does not mean that Sriduangkaew coddles the reader. She is not interested in producing a work free from confrontation, even within the non-normative universes she imagines. Although And Shall Machines Surrender is far from her most bleak and cruel work—it ends with resolution, with hope that feels a bit jarring in regards to the story as a whole—it does not capitulate to the desire to render all tension non-existent, to generate saccharine stories where no conflict transpires simply because the current norms have been subjected to a radical alterity. The world in which this book’s dramatic arc unfolds, Shenzhen Sphere, might be one that is free from an entire host of chauvinist ideologies and practices but it is not as if the trauma resulting from these ideologies and practices is completely absent. There are other worlds that impinge on Shenzhen Sphere; the migrants who have moved from the former to the latter transpose the memories of traumatization either as its bearers or perpetuators. The refugee bears their trauma as emotional luggage; other migrants, whose admittance to this heterotopia was due to political intrigue, cannot easily abandon their backwards views.

Moreover, simply because some structures of oppression and exploitation are non-normative in the world of Shenzhen Sphere does not mean that others do not function: the new class stratification of machine sentience, the state form that produces a different but no less harsh control over borders, the archaeology of ability and belonging. Indeed, the collision between the horrors in worlds distant from Shenzhen and the struggles within this Dyson sphere construct the many tensions of the narrative. Such tensions result in violent confrontations even within a world that has been quite successful in making other structures of violence non-existent. There is still governance and control in Shenzhen; its AI mandate echoes the role of “Sibyl” in Psycho-Pass.

Sriduankgaew has long maintained, in interviews and conversations, a general pessimism about human existence: that there will always be structures of oppression; that existence is bleak even when the current norms are upended and subjected to an alternate historical trajectory. But she has never been able to completely capitulate to the nihilism she often projects; she cannot help but seek lines of flight from her versions of cruel reality. This is why the two protagonists of And Shall Machines Surrender, despite the governance and control to which they are subjected, find each other and also a way out of subjection: “The distance bridged. The wasteland crossed.” (104)

Due to the strength of And Shall Machines Surrender––its clarity and intricacy, its ability to compress complexity into a minimalist structure––it is almost criminal that Sriduangkaew is not a household name but, let’s be honest, the best literature is always criminal and fugitive. Even if Sriduangkaew’s work gains the popularity it deserves there will always be something that remains fugitive, like those moments in the Eastman composition where unity is achieved only to falter, but this is what makes her work fascinating.

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