Hello, friends! It’s another crazy week over here at the Gladstone House, as I rev up on the next Choice of Game. (More details about that in the near future.) In the interests of pressing on with game writing, I can’t take the afternoon I usually would devote to blog composition—so, instead, here are a couple reviews. I’ve been reading more this last month, and I’ve returned to Goodreads to track my books. Hit me up over there if you’re interested in seeing what I’m up to. I try to keep my comments on books short and sweet, but these got away from me a bit, so… here I am.
Julia Lovell’s THE OPIUM WAR
Lovell’s well-written and masterfully researched THE OPIUM WAR undercuts much received wisdom about the War, its causes, and its effects.
For example: Lin Zexu, the Qing official celebrated for seizing and burning illegal shipments of British opium in Guangdong in 1839, is commonly described as an anti-opium crusader; Lovell makes a good case from contemporary sources that Lin was in fact a driven Qing official hoping a successful resolution of the opium problem would lead to his being promoted to a position from which he could achieve his final goal of improving grain shipments to the capitol.
Or: the standard line on the financial situation underpinning the Opium War is that the British were running a heavy trade deficit with China (England needed tea and silk, and wasn’t offering much in trade except silver), and so started shipping opium from India. This turned the deficit in the other direction, and China started losing immense quantities of silver on the opium trade, thus destabilizing the national economy—so the Qing government outlawed opium and dispatched Lin Zexu to break up the import market. But, Lovell points out, opium imports rose dramatically after the war, and yet the Qing economy remained stable. Turns out the silver pinch the Qing felt in the 1830s was brought on by a contraction in global silver supply due in part to revolutions and unrest in South America and Mexico, which produced something like 80% of the world’s silver at the time.
The book’s full of little turns like this, opening the standard narrative of the war like a dreamcatcher to reveal new sides and perspectives to the history in question. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite so much if I didn’t have a reasonable background in the “received history” of the struggle, from books like Jack Beaching’s The Opium War and (for more general information about Western trading and missionary activities) Jonathan Spence’s To Change China.
Lovell’s account is strongest in its primary focus on the First Opium War. She covers the Second Opium War in a bit of a rush—focusing on a few highlights like the sacking of the Summer Palace, in comparison to her archival depth on the First War—and her chapters on reactions to the Wars jump around a great deal in time. I don’t think this is a problem, exactly, but it may be confusing to readers unfamiliar with 19th century Chinese history. That said, her final chapter, tracing the evolution of modern China’s history / propaganda industry post-June 1989, is a brilliant summary of her book’s themes.
The Opium Wars were important and weird. A handful of expats, missionaries, and drug smugglers cheated, shot, and conned their way to conquest. The technological disparities between the British and Qing war machines in 1840 were so great that many of the military conflicts in this book read like Independence Day. If you want a terrifying vision of what contact with technologically advanced aliens who think of themselves as “the good guys” would look like, this is your book. (Another of Lovell’s compelling inversions: her argument that the Yellow Peril narrative is at root fueled by British / Western anxiety and guilt over the one-sided indefensibility of the Opium Wars.)
Midway through reading this book, I decided to look up what happened to Jardine & Matheson, the import-export business formed by the two arch-warmongering drug smugglers of 1840s Guangdong who were prime instigators of the Opium Wars. Turns out their firm still exists. There’s a website. Its Board of Directors includes a man named “Lord Leach of Kildare.”
Reality is a strange and terrifying place.
G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, Ms. Marvel: vol. 1
A proposal: stories (or, generally, texts) can be represented as three-dimensional, even four-dimensional, shapes in the noosphere. Critical perspectives are two-dimensional planes intersecting these texts. A critical perspective’s reading of a text is the outline formed by the intersection of text and critical plane.
Let’s imagine a text that is, in three-dimensional form, a round teakettle. Some critical perspectives on that text are the equivalent of a plane cutting straight through the teakettle’s base: their reading on the teakettle is that it’s a circle. Some perspectives / projections are closer to a plane bisecting the teakettle along a line of lateral symmetry through handle and spout—in which case anyone who’s seen a teakettle will recognize the kettle’s side-on silhouette.
Some critical perspectives produce readings that are more—let’s say, informative?—about certain texts than others. Readers with the kind of critical perspective that reads a teakettle as a circle may think “this is just a circle, like all other circles. We’ve seen circles before! Why are people so excited about this one? Why, this other text over here is a complicated labyrinth! And that one’s a star!” While readers with the critical perspective that reads a teakettle as a teakettle may think “A teakettle! Thank God! I’ve wanted one of those for decades!”
I think Ms. Marvel is a teakettle.
By which I mean: comparing nothing but its use of superhero genre tropes and language to other uses of superhero tropes and language, much of what’s being done here has been done before. (As a tale of a nerdy working-class teen random-chanced into the superhero life who fights local supervillains, Ms. Marvel vol. 1 is telling something close to The Spider-man Story.) But that critical perspective is like the perspective that reads the teakettle as a circle. It doesn’t remotely capture what’s going on.
Other critical perspectives reveal dimensions to which few mainstream superhero comics aspire. Kamala Khan is a working class first generation immigrant girl from a Muslim family in Jersey City, in a far more realistic social milieu than Peter Parker’s, including frankly but compassionately drawn fault lines of race and class and faith. Ms. Marvel vol. 1’s domestic relationships also move in directions that shouldn’t feel fresh, but do: both Kamala Khan’s parents are alive! Neither of them understands her, but they both mean well! Her brother’s a complicated guy trying to figure out his own faith and place in the world! In fact, all her friends and family are struggling with their own identity issues! Who cares if the story’s similar to Spider-man’s from a pure genre-language angle? In fact, the straightforwardness of the story’s use of superhero genre language lets all these other fascinating elements hang together. “Round” turns out to be a great shape for a teakettle!
This circle-teakettle issue pops up again and again in critiques of books and stories that take the genre as a foundation to explore topics under-explored by traditional genre narratives. The standard protest goes something like, “this story doesn’t use the language (or tools, if you want) of this genre in new ways—it’s not reading the genre back to itself—therefore it’s doing nothing new.” When in fact, the work in question is doing new things. Many new things! And it *is* reading the genre language back to itself, in ways that may not be visible from a genre expert’s critical perspective.
(Sidebar: this same complaint is often leveled against, e.g., literary writers who deploy genre tropes, and a similar response applies. The book may operate in dimensions for which the “how is this using genre language in new ways” critical perspective is poor or irrelevant.)
As of its first volume, Wilson’s Ms. Marvel builds fresh and well-told stories off a strong foundation of genre language. Also, the art in this book is beautiful.