Reflections on Tentacle by Rita Indiana

I find it comforting to immerse myself in stories that bear some resemblance to the reality we’re living in. I wonder if I might be the type of person who struggles with the inconceivable—which is also why I played a lot of Plague, Inc. in the early days of COVID-19. If you can conceive of something, you give it shape.

That means it you give it limitations. You know just how awful it gets. It won’t be better, but it certainly won’t be worse. This is all in abstract, of course. In truth, things could always be better, and things could always be worse.

But a little bit of quasi-certainty is, at an emotional level, more soothing that a complete lack of certainty. It’s why sometimes journalists at emergency press conferences ask the most ridiculous questions about things no one can predict. And why humans often jump to conclusions without gathering all the facts first. Our psyches are fragile, particularly in stressful circumstances beyond our control. We need that comfort to survive this moment long enough to make it to the next.

So even with a setting as god-awful as an ecologically ravaged Dominican Republic—rife with toxic waters, dystopian technology, and too often a blatant disregard for humanity—I still found some comfort in Tentacle by Rita Indiana (translated by Achy Obejas).

Tentacle is queerpunk sci-fi that at first seems like culturally vivid escapist fiction, but later turns out to be a breathtakingly interwoven non-linear narrative. It centres primarily around Acilde, a trans man who must go back in time to save the ocean with the help of an ancient Yoruba god. It raises questions of desire and destiny, and asks whether humanity really can be saved, or will the darker sides of human nature prevail?

I like it when a book makes me think. And it has taken me a long time to process my feelings about this one enough to be able to reflect on it. I don’t want to live in a world with toxic oceans. I don’t want the power to kill someone in need if they ring my doorbell at the wrong time. I don’t want to hold the future of the world in the palm of my hand. But the more I ponder this story, the more it looks like some bizarre allegory for how things are today.

I mean, okay, it’s probably not the smartest book to pick up right now, while the world is in such a weird place. But then, maybe it also is…?

The problems plaguing us right now aren’t going to disappear on their own. Even if it’s depressing af, there are conversations we need to have about climate and pollution, and how these are ultimately affected by how we behave and regard each other. We are, after all, stuck together in this space and time.

Okay, so that didn’t go as planned

All right, never mind what I said on Tuesday. I have struggled to write much this past week.

Putin’s unjust war in Ukraine, the devastating floods in the Queensland and New South Wales, the disappointing Kumanjayi Walker verdict, and all this talk of Japanese Encephalitis in Australia has my heart in a very heavy way. As if the pandemic, climate change, Afghanistan, pre-existing social injustice, and this country’s asylum seeker situation weren’t already depressing enough.

I keep thinking of something a friend said to me a couple years ago—that we’re already living in the dystopian future. His comment was more to do with the fact that today’s society resembles cyberpunk economies sans the AI revolution, but I think the “life imitating art” sentiment could cover a broad concept of dystopia. (And if I ever turn this blog post into a proper essay, I’ll make more of an effort to qualify that statement.)

Thing is, I don’t think all is lost. But in terms of humanity’s story arc, we’re probably approaching an All Is Lost Moment, which every reader and writer knows will be over once we can shake off our distractions and find a way to work together.

I’ve sought solace in small wins like painting my nails, completing boring life admin tasks, doing a little hobby coding, watering my plants, and working towards my daily 2L water intake. Oh, and donating to relief funds when pay comes in, which is something I think everyone who can afford to should consider doing. Making a contribution, even if it’s not much, can make a person feel less helpless in the face of all this.

Two things I haven’t done are scrolling social media feeds and writing. The former is probably for the best, especially since there are far less incendiary ways to consume news and converse with people. The latter, however, is probably just me developing a bad habit of anxious avoidance and procrastination. I need to do something about that.

Actually, I will do something about that. Tomorrow, I’m starting Camp NaNo early. If the camp counsellors won’t let me in, then I’ll sit in the forest and yell at clouds. Stay tuned for the odd update on Project Clay between now and the end of April.

Reflections on The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Lately, I’ve been thinking about our climate future and it stresses the hell out of me. I blame it partly on starting Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl just before a big heatwave, which was followed by a small heatwave, and now here we are looking forward to a peak of 40°C (104°F) on Wednesday. And did you know that recently one of the towns up north hit 50°C (122°F)? Hnnnnngggggh

Getting into cli-fi at this point in recent history was maybe not the smartest choice. Or is it a necessary choice? Only time will tell.

The Windup Girl is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a futuristic Thai Kingdom that is weathering the storm of climate change, genetic modification, commercial greed, corrupt politics, “colonial” expansion and more. The Kingdom holds fast where other nations have collapsed or capitulated. Its citizens are tenacious.

The world-building was incredible, although maybe I’m biased at how Southeast Asian it was. I saw pieces of my culture in it, which is naturally enticing, though it was kind of weird seeing words I grew up with get italicised as if they should be treated as something other than ordinary. Not grumbling; I understand why it must be so.

I did catch one snippet of Mandarin that struck me as oddly Western influenced, which either speaks to my poor grasp of Mandarin or an intentionally clever hint from the author about the history of the world in his book. The idea of the latter tickles me, as one of the book’s themes is the relationship between East and West.

I couldn’t disagree with some of the less flattering reviews on Goodreads, but strangely the shortcomings they described ended up being things I enjoyed about The Windup Girl. The detached writing style left a lot to the imagination, especially when it came to the characters’ motivations and emotional states. And ironic as it sounds, this just made me get more invested in the characters and the story.

I was going to say something here about how writing romance has taught me that more exposition around thoughts and feelings is needed to guide readers through an emotional journey… but that’s not true, is it? For example, one of the things I love most about Stefanie Simpson’s romance books is that her style has elements of this too. I sense “gaps” when reading her work, and I instinctively want to fill them with my own interpretations and empathy.

The Windup Girl was an uncomfortable and at times stressful read, but it’s also artfully written (if you have a sense for those “gaps”) and features fascinating characters with well-considered flaws. Personally, I also loved the underlying messages and ideas that surfaced at the end. Even with a slightly ugly dystopian finish, they offered a glimmer of hope.

An elephant-like creature and robed people walk the market streets in futuristic Thailand on the cover of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi