Black Star Rising by Frederik Pohl

So, somehow I’ve managed to fit in some reading this year, but I haven’t posted much about it. I figured I’d rectify that by doing a quick post about everything I’ve read, but… well, I started and then found I had a lot to say about several of the books. Here’s the first of them, a book I read this summer, after finding a hardback in a box at my mom’s house.

Frederik Pohl’s Black Star Rising is a 1980s China-in-charge novel. That’s a subgrenre of SF, isn’t it? Some others that depict China on top, or flirt with the idea of China outsurviving other postmodern hegemonic nation-states, include:

  • Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang (one of my all-time favorite novels)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (an alternate history where China and a sort of Islamic collective of states end up being the two superpowers after the plague depopulates Medieval Europe
  • Quebecois author Joël Champetier’s The Dragon’s Eye, which, though it really feels like it’s a thinly-veiled discussion of Quebecois politics, is mystery novel set on a Chinese-run colony planet
  • Several of Robert A. Heinlein’s novels, including Starship Troopers (in which the Anglo-American Alliance faces off with the “Chinese Hegemony”) and the notorious Sixth Column (where the Evil PanAsians conquer most of the planet, including America)
  • David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series (which I’ve never read)
  • Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids presents China as one of the last surviving nation-states—pretty much everything else has by 2065 been eroded or fallen apart under the pressure of ongoing environmental holocaust, and China’s plan is basically to colonize Mars

(I’m sure there are many more examples I don’t know about or which have slipped my mind.)

Black Star Rising is also a book I’m not quite sure tells us how to read it. Normally, books tell us this: they proclaim, insist, and shout it at us. Black Star Rising isn’t quite so forthwith, or else the instructions don’t translate well to 2016, because I was genuinely not sure about parts of what Pohl was doing here. That in itself is, I guess, interesting.  

Black Star RisingThe book’s background looks something like this: China ascends to the top of the global heap because the Cold War ends with the worst-case-scenario outcome: the USA and the USSR bomb the absolute crap out of one another. China survives and picks up the pieces… ultimately going on to establish a hegemonic, Sino-centric world government. In this world, most Americans—even those sent to the collective farms—basically take Chinese rule for granted. And, I’ll note here that in general, everyone takes for granted that native-born Americans are mostly white, or maybe black. There’s a Chinese-American woman who is the standout example… but she’s also an obnoxious pain-in-the-ass character to almost everyone, at least until the end, and this is in part because she’s one of the few characters to openly oppose Chinese hegemony.

The twist is that there’s an alien species among whom American astronauts settled centuries ago, who think of themselves as American and see the Chinese as an “enemy”. Now, it’s worth noting that this book was published in 1986, and that, of course, Fred Pohl had been writing and publishing for decades by that time. This is another way of saying that this book could not be published today. Its treatment of race just would not pass muster. And I don’t mean this in a hypersensitive, politically-correct way: it’s not that the Chinese domination of America is necessarily an expression of Yellow Peril thinking—it can just as easily be an interrogation of it, or an exploration of a future that, at any given time, seems more or less possible. (I’d argue Maureen McHugh’s novel mentioned above do both of the latter.)

It’s just that the story really seems to slide into caricature at points: there’s a fairly Sino-supremacist police inspector whose man use for the main white male character is as a sex toy, and there’s a lot of Chinese political types who are basically racist and Chinese-supremacist. It’s the kind of virulent hatred the Chinese-American character and the Chinese one share… even if, yes, they’re partly fighting over a man. (A white man, of course.)

Or maybe that’s not a creditable reading. I’m not sure. It’d be an easy one to make, but is it fair to the book?

Well, the execution is slightly troubling. I’m not, to rip a stupid phrase from a stupid speech made at WorldCon earlier this year, “clutching my pearls.” I know enough about 1986 to know a certain amount of stereotype passed without comment or notice in mainstream publishing. What’s most directly offensive to me, though, is being asked to suspend my disbelief for what feel a bit like caricatures: there’s a certain amount of moustache-twirling in the book that makes it occasionally difficult to take certain things seriously, and one character kind of seems to combine both the primary stereotypes of Asian women—the Chinese Dragon Lady and the Decadent Asian Sex Kitten—into one figure.

Sort of. And yet, while she’s also an antagonist, she’s a compelling, likeable asshole: I kind of preferred her to her more prudish and ideologically obsessed, if heroic, Chinese-American counterpart.

And yet, Pohl was also the editor who helped bring Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold into the world. (But then, I don’t know what the short version looked like, though I imagine it was no prettier.)

The thing about these stereotypes is that Pohl seems smarter than to actually take them seriously, and the book (kind of) seems to be playing with and subverting those caricatures. Seems to be. For example, guess who’s the most patriotic American of the bunch? Yes, of course, it’s that Chinese-American woman. (The white dude basically takes Chinese hegemonic rule for granted, as do most of the mainland Chinese characters.) This isn’t a minor point: the aliens assume she’s lying about her loyalties because of her race (because the astronauts who taught them about Earth insisted the world’s biggest conflict was America vs. China), until they figure out, that, no, she’s really, actually an American and the only person they’ve got that’s actually anti-Chinese hegemony… and she’s the closest thing the story has to a hero, ultimately.  The reason the Chinese police inspector uses the white guy as a boytoy is because white Americans—as the subaltern in this world—are essentially powerless and disposable nobodies, not out of lust for his white masculinity. (If she wanted a proper relationship, she’d find a proper Chinese man.) That’s also why he’s put forth as a potential US President: he’s the perfect puppet figurehead: sound much like US foreign policy abroad, anyone?

This is the funny thing about the book: it’s not overt satire, but it never feels clear just how seriously it wants to be taken. The science-fictional elements are bananas, the stereotyped elements in the characters feel like they’re that way on purpose. I’s not quite camp, and yet it borders on it so closely, it’s hard to say. I want to think it’s subverting, but maybe I just hope it is? I can’t say for sure.

Another of the mainland Chinese characters—and he’s a major one—is a scientist with the components of many different people’s brains in his skull—which makes him in some ways literally transracial in a weird, science-fictional way, since some of the people living in his head and contributing to his aggregate/composite personality are non-Chinese, and have experienced a whole lifetime as members of some other race. That, to me, seems like a weird, radically interesting idea, and it does seem to be played out seriously in the character, if not too deeply explored.

It’s impossible for me to read this in the context of 1986, because I was twelve years old at the time and don’t have a good handle on what the social climate was like… except I feel like maybe some of this was really quite unusual for back then, and in a positive way. Pohl seems to have been reaching out past the stereotypes, far enough to mock the sillier ones… the cop’s attitude toward her “American” lover feels like more it goes beyond mere inversion of how US soldiers in the 60s and 70s looked upon “local girls” in places like Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea; it’s particularized. Likewise, the way things play out for the main Chinese-American character suggest Pohl wanted to drive home the fact that American ≠ white right from the start. And, I mean, this is a book that imagines America having destroyed itself and then left the doors so wide open than China showed up, patched it back together, and kind of took over administration. For the 1980s, that feels almost like a radical idea, even if the Chinese empire isn’t perfectly nice and perfectly egalitarian. (Neither is the American one we live with, after all.)

Sure, that reading is jeopardized by the ending Pohl chooses: the (sorta triumphal) reinstatement of America as a political entity. In SF, I find I’m always dubious about a too-cheery “Shakespearean comedy” ending. (By which I mean, the happy ending that’s happy because it involves a reinstatement of the known, familiar, established world order valorized by the readers.) In the context of this book, without the kind of absolute hail-mary Pohl provides, America would never stand a chance of being refounded any more than the Ming Dynasty did in 1850… and so it kind of feels like a letdown that, yeah, such a predictable happy ending is offered up. The move smacks of nostalgia and never quite feels convincing or honest to me.

(No matter how many Roman centurions attempted via time travel to colonize 2016, we’d never see another Roman Empire that they would find recognizable, would we? That’s what I find a little off about this ending, though of course one could argue the America reestablished in the novel won’t be like the America we know today.)

Still, I found it a quick and entertaining enough read, and the book clearly isn’t meant to be a tour de force so much as a brief entertainment. I’m curious to hear how Chinese-American science fiction fans feel about it, but if any such person has reviewed it, I haven’t seen it. I’m sure some things are invisible to me that would stand out to them, and which would be considered today but wouldn’t have been in 1986. The world has changed a lot since then. The book’s treatment of gender and sex isn’t something you’d expect from a more recent novel, either, but that’s hardly news if you regularly read anything more than a few decades old.

Oh, and last thing: I wonder whether book was inspired in part by Pohl’s reading of the Chinese SF stories collected in Science Fiction from China, a 1989 book to which he wrote the introduction? The translation collection was published three years after his novel, of course, but it’s possible he was shown the stories much earlier. Either that, or was he perhaps approached for the task because of his interest in China? The timing is near enough to get me wondering, in any case. I haven’t had a chance to look out the anthology and see if he has anything to say about it in the foreword, though.

And yeah, this is the first time I’ve read Pohl, so if his work in general shows an abiding interest in China, I wouldn’t know about that. The fascinating ambiguity about what fictional mode he’s actually working in here (if he’s not just shifting back and forth strategically, which he might be), along with his skill at lampooning everyone and his ability to write antagonists I authentically liked, all make me curious to see more of his work, though.

Any recommended titles? I guess HeeChee is where a lot of people would point me, right?

5 thoughts on “Black Star Rising by Frederik Pohl

  1. I read “Black Star Rising” back when I was 14, when I was stuck in a small town in the Australian desert. As you can imagine, the SF section of the library was pretty limited, so I ended up reading it many times. I’ve often wondered about–well, questioned–various implausible elements of it since–the US astronaut on the alien planet immediately identifying an ethnic Chinese person as a “Chink” and an enemy for instance–but for some reason I thought the book was called “RED Star Rising” instead, and so never found it and pursued those questions further. Thanks for clearing that up then, and for an interesting review.

    But no recommendation for alternative titles sorry–it turns out it’s the only work of Pohl’s I’ve read too. I’m surprised, in both our cases, because he’s such a big name.

    Update) My mistake: turns out I’ve read “The Cool War” too, probably at the same time (I think you’d find that more interesting), and I also have a collection of his short stories–“Survival Kit”–that I liberated from my Dad’s library.

    1. Ha, I was more of a fantasy reader as a kid, and more of a horror/weird fiction fanin high school. It wasn’t till university that I really got into SF, and by that point I wasn’t using the library so much as picking up second-hand copies of stuff. Somehow very little Pohl was around.

      There was some rationale for the US astronauts’ descendants on the other world identifying Chinese people as enemies, since mainland China was “red” in the novel, and an antagonist, but I don’t remember the racial slur “chink” being used in the book, not that it would surprise me for the people offworld to use it, given how obsessive and weirdly ethnonationalist they were. I was a bit jetlagged when I read it, and I only read it the once, though, so maybe I just missed it.

      I think I tried to read Pohl’s Eschaton Sequence books, which are very recent—they were in part inspired by the ravings of Physics of Immortality loon Frank J. Tipler—but I never got past the first fifty pages of the first novel in the trilogy. That said, I’ve seen a range of reactions to his work: some people, including friends of mine, love it, and others say it’s inconsequential and not worth attention. *shrug*

  2. I had a similar response to Alfred Bester’s “The Deceivers”, written in much the same time period (1981) and… uh. I’m almost POSITIVE, especially given Bester’s earlier work, that the racial stuff was parody. I… genuinely can’t figure out what to make of the homosexual content. It’s hard to put it in context because I was one in 1981, and most of the science fiction from the time period didn’t, uh, have gay people. They just didn’t exist.

    As a science fiction book published by one of SF’s great masters at the age of 68, it’s… kind of fascinating. And it’s Bester. It’s brilliantly funny in places. But uh. UH.

    I haven’t read much Pohl, so I’ll have to check this one out sometime…

    1. Kat,

      Interesting. Bester’s another I haven’t read enough of to say anything about. Racial suff being parody by 1981 sounds likely, though who knows. Homosexuality is another story in early 80s SF, I suppose. I’ve seen stuff about group marriages and so on, but yeah, actual homosexuality seems not to have been too common. (Though, then again, Stapledon does go in that direction in parts of Odd John, right? And Stapledon even hints heavily at bestiality (and even more heavily in drafts prior to publication) in Sirius.)

      Though of course all these books, I know by reputation. My copy of Sirius/Odd John (two books in one!) was lost before I could get around to it.

      So much to read… so little time.

    2. Oh, by the way: did you ever recover any old Stellar Region emails?

      I think I may have retrieved the email archive from some floppy discs my mother gave me this summer (!!!) but I will need to get them onto my work computer and figure out the conversion process (I think I was using Eudora Light back then) to get them into some modern email app. Would love to push them through to Gmail and have my archive go all the way back. Then again, that’s enormous amounts of old Brin-L mail too. I shudder at the thought of seeing some of that stuff.

      Anyway, just thought I’d ask.

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