kaigou: Edward, losing it. (1 Edward conniption)
[personal profile] kaigou
From an interview with the author:
Q: I’ve studied Japanese for six years and been to Japan yet still may not have been able to execute a Japanese-inspired world as real and sensational as yours. What was the research involved in bringing the world of Stormdancer to life? Or did you drink some magical sake and try your luck?

A: I’ve had a few people say that, and it’s really flattering, but honestly I think most of my research was done via osmosis. I’ve always had an interest in Japanese cinema and manga, so I absorbed a lot of knowledge through that over the years. Wikipedia was really my go-to source for information, plus a few specialized sites dealing with the Tokugawa age.

The cool thing about writing a setting that’s inspired by Japan, but not actually Japan, is that you can take what you want from history and mythology and leave the rest. Take thunder tigers, for example – there’s nothing close to griffins in Japanese folklore. But without thunder tigers, there would be no Stormdancer.

My theory has been that if you want a place inspired by Japan (or anywhere) that's not actually Japan (or wherever), then you must avoid all non-English words that are not long-standing loan-words, for starters. At the simplest level. Otherwise, you're obviously writing about a certain place because the non-Englishness is going to act as a red flag, and pull people back into the concrete this-place that's the analogue to your wherever. This is why authors make up their own words & phrases in fantasy and science fiction, except in those cases where they specifically want you to be thinking France, Japan, Mozambique, or wherever.

But I'll let other folks do the talking, since that's hardly the only thing wrong with this story. Oh, Goodreads, why do you recommend stuff that just makes my blood boil?

Discounting manga/anime, I can count on two fingers how many Asian-inspired fantasies I know of. Stormdancer gets the middle one.

I'll admit, I was a little leery of Stormdancer from the start - Japanese steampunk sounds cool, but coming from a white western author, the chances of problematic weeaboo fuckery are high. Exoticization. Romanticization. Plain old appropriation. Yet for some reason, I didn't really peg Stormdancer as a weeaboo outing. I don't know why. There was no good reason, and yet, I expected Kristoff to be a scholar of some sort, or at least, to do some very in-depth, scholarly research, borne of a deep interest in, and respect for, Japanese culture. And while even that could have also potentially yielded something problematic, at least it would have been sincere. What I thoroughly did NOT expect to get was a book informed by fucking Wikipedia and anime, set in Japan for the sake of novelty. That came as a genuine shock. And a dramatic rise in blood pressure. WHAT THE FUCKITY FUCK?

The thing is, that Wikipedia part? You can kinda tell. I mean, the first hundred pages or so of Stormdancer, basically until the airship crashes, are a chore to wade through, mostly because of the Wikipedia-esque info dumps. It takes almost exactly half of those pages to make any progress on the plot. The first fifty are just about showing off the world and detailing every little aspect of it, which is why it takes like twelve paragraphs for Yukiko and her father to walk down a street: we have to hear about the architecture, detail the clothing being worn (because we're using Japanese terms here, and not many readers will know offhand what a fucking hakama looks like), and explain the exact geographical setting, right down to which rivers cross where, and the ~exotic smells~ in the air, even though none of it is actually relevant to anything that's going on at the moment. I understand wanting to set the scene and acquaint readers with the world, but Jesus Herbet Christ, get on with it already. Work this stuff in to the action. Make me not want to put the book down out of sheer boredom. I mean, I haven't even gotten the chance to get angry yet.

Making the world-building harder to parse are the Japanese words and terms strewn throughout the descriptions, most of which assume a familiarity with the culture that many readers just won't have. I had to break out the Google more than once to give myself a better mental image of what was going on, and though many of the terms aren't exactly vital to the story, it was still annoying as hell. I want to be able to see this shit in my head, to get what's going on, and it doesn't help when half of the words are in Japanese just for the flavor of it. It's one thing when a word doesn't have an English analog; it's another when you're including easily translatable and even borrowed words, like "sarariman" (seriously? it's "salary-man" or even just "businessman", kthnx), in their romaji form just to make the story seem more ~authentic~. At the very least it's unnecessarily confusing.

Another qualm I have with this book is the lack of research. It's not that the author has no idea about Japanese culture, or historical authenticity. We're not looking for that, of course. Stephen King once rightly said that research should be firmly in the back of the story, because nobody wants to read a dissertation on the New York sewer system for the sake of authenticity if your characters have to pass through those murky waters. (Paraphrased from On Writing, Mr. King's excellent memoir.)

However, Kristoff really fell foul of this rule. In the first part of the book, we are subjected to very, very lengthy passages about Shinto mythology. Raijin, Susano-ou, Lady Izanami, Amaterasu, etc. It's nice to see that the author knows the legends and mythology, but I soon dreaded every moment where a character would sit down and pretty much say: "Let me tell you a story…" Telling stories around a fire or holding an impromptu history lesson may seem like a good way to get weave exposition into the story from a screenwriting point of view, but it just doesn't work nine times out of ten. Nor does it work when characters bounce these stories back and forth between each other, mostly in the first act of this novel.

Despite the lengthy narratives on description of a person belongings, or colour of the hair or dress or house, there’s actually barely decent conversations in this book which is quite off-putting.

Why cant the dialogues be like a normal conversation without these streotyped Asianized-movie-talking-english-trying-to-sound-asian thing. I speak asian english which make sense because I’m 100% Asian. But do you speak in stunted phrases while discussing inane things? Its a story where everyone speak japanese to each other. The dialogues shouldn’t be this weird hybrid of bad Asian dubbed movies. Marisa Meyer’s Cinder (Beijing-setting YA steampunk) is possibly a good example of an author who doesn’t try so hard to make their characters sounded Asian but ARE Asians. Just write normally in English because its a pain to read even for a non-native English user like me.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing to take inspiration from a particular culture/time/place. Writers do so with non-Asian influences, too, setting their stories in fantasy versions of Renaissance Italy, Medieval France, or Victorian Britain. But in most cases when a fantasy world doesn't correspond to one specific era or place in history, everyone's automatically white, because that's how it goes in generic fantasyland. Which makes me think the main hint for readers that the characters in a fantasy could possibly look similar to East Asians in our world is if the story takes place in a world recognizable as fantasy Japan/China/Korea. Another case of white = generic/normal, PoC = specific/exotic.

Which kind of sucks. I wonder if I could pull off writing Asian-looking characters that aren't set in a fantasy version of ancient China or Japan or Korea. That's my goal, because I love fantasy and would like to read something that includes representations of Asian-Americans. I mean, I'm Taiwanese-American and grew up in the States with first-generation immigrant parents, and I still occasionally get culture shock living in Taiwan. I don't want to write a fantasy set in Ancient China just so I can have Asian characters — many of the values and worldviews and traditions of that period would feel largely foreign and unfamiliar to me, not to mention rather bothersome for the kind of protagonists and plots I like. I want setting and characters that appeal to my imagination, which has been influenced by both Western and Eastern cultures.

Parts 2 and 3, continuing on the Part1:

And some useful posts, for you guys and also for me:

Date: 13 Sep 2012 12:47 am (UTC)
dharma_slut: Oscar Wilde, smirking through his long hair (Oscar)
From: [personal profile] dharma_slut
I am so fucking sorry that the Internet even exists sometimes, allows so many people to parade about with no pants.

On the other hand, requiemforbooks suggested "Marisa Meyer’s Cinder (Beijing-setting YA steampunk)" which might be worth looking into...

Date: 13 Sep 2012 03:19 am (UTC)
dharma_slut: They call me Mister CottonTail (Default)
From: [personal profile] dharma_slut
It's surely pants-down-ness. And not in any good way.

The cover for Cinder is totally awesome, did you see it?

Date: 13 Sep 2012 02:13 am (UTC)
ext_141054: (Default)
From: [identity profile] christeos-pir.livejournal.com
So much fail, so few shanks.

Date: 13 Sep 2012 02:56 am (UTC)
tiercel: (Yomiko)
From: [personal profile] tiercel
I read a couple more reviews and just... the author used "sama" by itself? Consistently?

My favorite review was the one where someone wrote some sample paragraphs where every other phrase was French, just to show up how annoying that shit is.

*knows next to nothing about Japanese*

Date: 13 Sep 2012 11:11 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] swordqueen
For some reason I thought 'hai' was one of those deliberately misspelled words, like pr0n. I blame my ignorance on the fact that I've mostly given up on keeping up with the current internet slang.
Edited Date: 13 Sep 2012 11:17 am (UTC)

Re: *knows next to nothing about Japanese*

Date: 13 Sep 2012 08:47 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
It is both how you spell the japanese word *and* how you say hi in LOLspeak.

Date: 13 Sep 2012 12:56 pm (UTC)
tiercel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] tiercel
After The Da Vinci Code, I just sort of... gave up hoping. I'm no longer surprised at all that badly written, poorly researched nonsense gets praised to the heavens. I'm just sad.

Date: 13 Sep 2012 04:00 am (UTC)
isana: a purple butterfly (purple butterfly)
From: [personal profile] isana
Ugh. I just can't even. I translate Japanese for a living, and this author kind of just...well, no. (And I have to toss in a vote against Cinder: as a Taiwanese-American, the cultural backdrop is thinly and poorly sketched).

I honestly don't know if there's really any good YA out there with Asian settings. I've heard Silver Phoenix being thrown about, but I found it incredibly disappointing.

Date: 13 Sep 2012 04:31 pm (UTC)
isana: the little mermaid turning into foam (little mermaid)
From: [personal profile] isana
Yeah, same here. I figured I'd give it a chance earlier this summer, but to me, the book fails both culturally and with its gender issues. The heroine has potential, but it's never really touched upon, so in the end it feels like a story told from the MacGuffin Girl's point of view. And that's not even getting into the heaps of internalized misogyny (along with the love interest being a straight-up asshole.)

The cultural screwups pissed me off a lot--I'm trying to write my own wuxia/fantasy story, and I figured that hey, Cindy Pon's got a similar background to me! This'll be amazing! Except it didn't really feel so much like Chinese people in a Chinese fantasy counterpart country. More like Chinese people acting like Westerners and/or Western concepts of Chinese people. There is a lot wrong when you have a phrase like "you said 'he'" when the third-person pronoun is gender-neutral in spoken Mandarin, and when the heroine considers scallions and ginger to be exotic scents, when in fact, those two ingredients are essentials in a Chinese kitchen.

Actually, the usage of the word "exotic" really rubbed me the wrong way, mainly because it was used toward people/things in that country, and not toward the one character who was half-foreign.



Date: 13 Sep 2012 06:40 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] swordqueen
I wanted to avoid having a sense of righteousness while I do real research for my futuristic conculture, is it wrong this is feeding in to my own ego? Anyway, thanks, your post is a good reminder for me to check out books on the cultures of Eastern Europe soon, I've been too lazy looking at Wiki when I should be reading real peer reviewed stuff and visit cultural centers like I've planning to do. This is a great How Not To.

-Otherwise Known As TheJeopardyMaze :P
Edited Date: 13 Sep 2012 06:46 am (UTC)

Re: Ack!

Date: 13 Sep 2012 06:51 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] swordqueen
Granted, I can understand the desire not to make a carbon copy of a culture, but you really need to know your stuff first if you want to get the feel for it. Despite a lot of problems I have with the Kushiel books at least something in Carey's alternative France felt natural despite how ludicrous it really was (maybe it was the fact I was in my early 20's that made me enthralled with first book).
Edited Date: 13 Sep 2012 06:53 am (UTC)

It's a Mary Sue society

Date: 13 Sep 2012 07:08 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] swordqueen
No way could I ever write one unless its a parody. But the consistency was great, and I think the positives shouldn't be ignored despite the Mighty Whiteyness I've heard about in her last trilogy (I refuse to read that, I don't have the patience anymore).

My current idea is more for a future society tens of thousands of years later on a very distant planet, so I think there is a limit of how much of the past hundred years to apply, but I want to avoid being a presumptuous ego maniac and learn some things first.
Edited Date: 13 Sep 2012 07:25 am (UTC)