Patrician family scion Marca Nbaro is on the run from “The Orphanage”, a cruel school for those without protectors in The City. She is not only running away from the Orphanage, which she betrayed for good reason, but also towards the merchant marine of the mercantile society of the Directorate of Human Operations (DHC). She is indeed trained as a Midshipper, hurrying to join the company of the greatship Athens before she is caught. The ship is ready to depart on a four-year voyage of trade, culminating in contact with the enigmatic aliens dubbed Starfish. It takes Nbaro some time to adapt to the fact that her crewmates on the Athens aren’t sadistic predators or victims, but mostly courteous and helpful professionals. As she slowly integrates and drops her guard along the voyage, vast conspiracies aimed at destabilising the very DHC begin to unfold.
Explicitly inspired by mercantile Venice of the Middle Ages, and European voyages along the Silk Road, the great adventure of the Athens and her crew paint a gorgeous backdrop for the characters and story. Trade stops are lavishly described in generous tangents without removing the reader from the story. The development of Nbaro’s character is profound and interesting, with the Athens populated by an eclectic and entertaining cast of supporting characters.
The seven short stories in this collection about Westerners in Thailand range from the sordid to the humorous. Several are cautionary tales featuring culture clash, drug use, and girlies bars.
The stories themselves are quirky, with an often interesting take through the viewpoint of both jaded and more innocent visitors to Thailand. Unfortunately, they somewhat lack in hooks to draw the reader in and rely too much on rather unsurprising twists. The prose, structure, and often even the spelling, could have been significantly improved with some professional editing. A vaguely interesting and quick read for those interested in the subject matter, but not much further.
In 1990s Bangkok, thirty-seven-year-old British travel journalist Pete walks into Zombie, a go-go bar in the infamous Nana Plaza red-light district. Dancing naked on the stage is Joy, a twenty-one-year-old girl from Isaan, the poorest region of Thailand. Pete is immediately smitten. He barfines Joy, and from that moment on they are drawn into a passionate relationship which they both misunderstand. Joy sees Pete as someone who can take care of her and her family financially. Pete is attracted to Joy the bar girl, but he also wants Joy the innocent and cute girl he can spend the rest of his life with. Despite being able to act all cutesy, whether Joy can fit into the latter stereotype is an open question. Pete doesn’t like that Joy sleeps with other foreigners for money, but he seems unwilling to commit to the relationship fully, wanting her to wait until he can figure stuff out. Joy does not see the problem with constantly asking for money from Pete, as being well-off confers status, and besides, she has no sense of fiscal responsibility, spending money as soon as she gets it. Under the cynical eye of friends, relatives, and acquaintances on both sides of the cultural divide, Joy and Pete dance around each other, love, argue, fight, and reconcile, in a vicious and tragic cycle.
The novel is a fascinating study of cross-cultural communications and interaction. Despite spending a long time in the country, and speaking some Thai, Pete misunderstands Joy’s point of view from the start. His jaded friends more or less correctly point out that as a bargirl, Joy is only interested in him as a means of financial security, and how can he expect a girl who has sex for money to be trustworthy. On the other hand, Joy does not understand why Pete is being so obtuse and often feels offended about him trying to control her, with his apparent view that he should “save” her from sex work, something that has been extremely lucrative for her. She is clearly fond of him but fondness and love do not mean the same things for her as they do to him. Growing up in abject poverty, and working as a sex worker since she was a teenager, she sees love as a man taking care of her financially, and she in return taking care of him. Romantic emotional attachment is not necessary for her, or perhaps more accurately is not bound to some Western ideal of star-stricken lovers. She seems quite ready to confer her affections to someone who treats her well and brings her security, though it is hinted that Pete is indeed special to her. Pete, a blundering water buffalo by Thai cultural standards, misinterprets Joy’s loving behaviour as that of a Western girl. But in Thai culture, the subtext is supremely important. A person may be smiling and positive, but the real meaning of their behaviour is tucked away in a complex set of cues readily accessible only to those with the background to interpret them.
The tragic core of the story is that Joy and Pete really do love each other, in their own ways, but seem unable to resolve their differences and move on to a future together. This despite the often unexpectedly helpful and understanding advice from Pete’s Greek Chorus of friends, a collection of “old Thailand hands”.
The story deals with a particular subset of Thai society, the dark world of sex work and related crime, and is not necessarily representative of Thai culture as a whole. That being said, it is a case study in cultural misunderstandings, many of which regularly occur in the wider interactions between Thais and Westerners. Some book critics suggested, rather seriously, that this book should be given out for free to young tourists arriving in the country, and it is easy to see why.
The use of multiple narrators with varying backgrounds works extremely well for the narrative. Some old Thailand hands are cynical almost beyond belief about Thailand, but you can see their point of view. Others, especially Joy’s older sister, are also cynical almost beyond belief about foreigners, but again, you can see their point of view. Pete and Joy typically see the same events in completely different ways. The narrators’ understanding of events is often incomplete, jaded, and even perhaps unreliable, but it all weaves a complex web of what, in the end, is a story of two lovers that the reader would love to end up together.
In a not too distant future, Siri Keeton is a synesthesist, a trained observer who neither judges not suggests. His professional aim is to be the chronicler of events, the dispassionate eye of posterity. Years have passed since “Firefall”, a still-mysterious event in which extraterrestrial intelligence interacted with Earth without obvious intent, or even obvious meaning. As part of a small crew, Siri has hibernated for years to arrive at a massive planet in the Oort Cloud. Here, they must confront the mystery of an entity that calls itself Rorschach. On a deeper level, the crew faces questions of what it means to be human, or even sentient. The answers are no longer obvious once faced with this alien life that does not seem to conform to any human-centric norm.
While there is no shortage of action sequences, these are not the central impetus of the narrative. Mr. Watts takes the reader on an exploration of the crew’s personalities; the cranky biologists, the split-personality linguist, the duty-bound soldier, and the calculating leader; all through the eyes of Keeton, and as a backdrop to an exploration of sentience and intelligence. It also becomes increasingly clear that Keeton may not be seeing things in an entirely rational or reliable fashion. Out at the very edge of human exploration, in an environment of uncertainty and danger, the veneer or civilization slowly wears away, revealing truths that are as uncomfortable as they are sincere.
As a first contact scenario, the novel certainly breaks new ground, with a central conceit about life that is both controversial and alarming. The alien is nothing like us, and its mode of existence brings into question the very nature of humanity, and of life.