Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson (review #2)

I decided to do a reread of Orphan Master’s Son, which I read a few years back. It’s pretty rare that I reread a book, but I recommended the book to a student, and I realized that though I raved about how good the book was, I couldn’t really remember why I’d liked it that much. When my local library serendipitously had the book in stock, I checked it out--and nearly finished the entire thing in one weekend. Even though I already know much of the story (though it’s also shocking how much I’d forgotten), Orphan Master’s Son remains an entirely engrossing reread. On the other hand, I don’t know if it’s as good a book as I originally felt.

There’s no need to retread old ground in a follow-up review, so I thought instead I’d cover some stray thoughts, inelegantly organized.

First, though the book is about North Korea, I’m reminded how much of an American story it is. Because, above all else, the story is about the triumph of the individual, the power of individual choice and sacrifice. In that way it’s implicitly also anti-Communist and directly challenges bleak tales like 1984. The book suggests that one’s identity--given and assumed--matters, and that we have power even in a world determined to strip away that strength. Though these qualities and messages are not uniquely American, they are the hallmark values of our national mythos. For this reason, though the book takes place almost entirely in North Korea, with Korean characters, names, and even words, it doesn’t feel nearly as foreign as one might imagine.

There’s also some interesting questions about sacrifice. Jun Do sacrifices everything, including his own life, to rescue his love (Sun Moon) and her two children. But in doing so, he also sacrifices the lives of others, such as Commander Buc and his family. His action is undoubtedly noble, and presented that way, but there’s also something wrong about seeing the most privileged members of North Korean society escape while others suffer. I do suppose learning about Sun Moon’s tragic upbringing makes her less elite and more “worthy” of saving, though, of course, the idea of who’s “worthy” to live is repulsive in itself.

And I also wonder if the novel doesn’t over-glorify pain (or the endurance of horrific levels of pain). Jun Do has had “pain training” that allows him to withstand even the most hideous forms of torture, and there seems something perverse in that “strength” being used as a measure of his worthiness. In this way, perhaps 1984 is a better way to go, in a similar way as I prefer Slaughterhouse-Five’s take on war to traditional war stories. By praising enduring pain, aren’t we, in some way, praising the infliction of pain itself? As if torture is a test of fortitude to determine the fittest, rather than simply a reflection of humanity’s capacity for cruelty and inhumanity.

You could go even farther and criticize the enormous amounts of violence in the book as a (more sophisticated) genre of the pervasive “torture porn,” which uses violence to entertain. The question makes me a little uncomfortable with my enjoyment of the novel.

And is there even an element of “culture porn,” the voyeuristic enjoyment of seeing a “backwards” culture? It’s obviously a good thing to learn about other cultures, but in this case does our enjoyment come from snickering at how blind they are? Of course, North Korea is batshit crazy, so maybe that whole “cultural appreciation” isn’t so significant.

And finally, I have some conflicting thoughts about the evils of the real Commander Ga. He’s cruel and sadistic, and the most potent evidence of this (from the point of view of the book) is his gleeful rape of men. On the one hand, rape is an absolutely despicable act, but on the other hand, this is the only mention (other than another man in charge who molested boys) of same-sex sexual acts. Now, I would argue that Commander Ga (and the child molester) are not “gay” in the sense of being attracted to men. They’re rapists and sadists, out for domination and control either in the most challenging way possible (Ga) or the most convenient/vulnerable way possible. But, again, with this being the novel’s only reference to same-sex sexuality in any form, does the book, indirectly, suggest homosexuality is deviant and cruel? I guess perhaps I wanted more emphasis on their desire for control rather than the same-sex angle.

Anyway, as noted, some unorganized thoughts. Still a book I’d recommend, but maybe a little less enthusiastically.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is a book that I'm of two minds about. On the one hand, it exposes an important and overlooked element of American history. I think, even today, the image of a "black woman scientist" feels foreign, despite the undoubtedly many black women working today (and in the past) in scientific fields. Hidden Figures effectively brings to light the work of a variety of black women in one particular arena: NASA (and its predecessor, NACA). The women worked largely as "computers," a term that reads oddly to us today, but that originally referred simply to "people who do computations." Though today we imagine any math job as high-level, the position was entry-level at the time, below that of the male engineers and scientists. Nevertheless, many of the women rose to become engineers and join engineering teams, making significant contributions to our nation's history.

On the other hand, Shetterly's detailed attention to chronicling this overlooked aspect of history means the book itself often reads like a history book. She eliminates much of the personal narrative style you tend to see in especially engrossing nonfiction (an issue the movie seems to go the exact opposite direction in, for better or for worse). Undoubtedly this makes her book more accurate, but it also makes it more of a slog, the slew of names and dates and scientific terms creating confusion and glazed eyes.

But, to the history: what's surprising about the history of the black women scientists is just how little overt discrimination they faced. They faced discrimination, for sure--segregated work spaces, lunch tables, and bathrooms; unequal pay and job titles; a lack of upward mobility--and those injustices are incredibly important. However, they also were welcomed at NACA/NASA in a way they often weren't in other fields. First, the demand for employees with scientific backgrounds during WW2 and later the space race was so high that ability and experience often trumped racial prejudice. Within the organization, other employees were more concerned with output--are the numbers correct?--than who was doing the work. And despite Langley being located in heavily segregated Virginia, many of its employees were from elsewhere, including the North, where their prejudice was less strong (though obviously still present). For this reason, the book features few (or really any) of the dramatic showdowns you might imagine. Instead, the women work incredibly hard and are incredibly dedicated to their work; they earn their peers' respect and over time are siphoned off from the large computing pool to join individual engineering teams, where many go on to become engineers and computer programmers.

The dramatic showdowns tend to take place outside NACA/NASA. The black women are working alongside white co-workers, calculating the path to the moon, while outside Langley black high school students are physically barred from integrating schools. That juxtaposition had to be incredibly difficult--seeing simultaneously the possibility and the barriers.

Ultimately, Hidden Figures is a valuable contribution to scientific and American history, though not packaged in the most accessible manner.