The Lovecraft Reread

Bantha Milk and Durian: Ng Yi-Sheng’s “Xingzhou”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

This week, we’re reading Ng Yi-Sheng’s “Xingzhou,” first published in the July 2019 issue of Clarkesworld. Spoilers ahead—but read it yourself first; you won’t be sorry!

The very ground burned him as he set foot in the harbor. He thought of his family, his starving brothers and sisters, and gritted his teeth.

Summary

Unnamed narrator recounts the histories of his grandparents, a diverse lot indeed.

Grandfather leaves China at sixteen, with no way to support himself and his family other than to become a laborer in distant Xingzhou. He and other impoverished youths board a steamer that carries them out of Earth’s friendly atmosphere, through the frigid rigors of space to a radiant new home. Xingzhou, the Continent of Stars, is literally made of “countless bodies of hydrogen and helium, bonded together into a hill of pulsing light.” The ground burns his feet black, but he toughens them with medicated oil and goes to work as a rickshaw coolie.

He grows accustomed to clients ranging from carbon-based bipeds like himself to “glass-encased jellies,” “spidery exoskeletons,” and beings “more shadow and electromagnetic echo than physical form,” tourists from dark matter galaxies. Grandfather does better than many of his peers, for he doesn’t waste his earnings on gambling, intoxicants or prostitutes. Every month he ansibles home money.

Narrator’s grandmother is a demon born in India in the third millenium BCE. At the tender age of 192, she flees a civil war and finds her way to Xingzhou. There she becomes a courtesan in one of the “more hygienic” brothels, assuming whatever forms suits the darkest desires of her clientele. She entrances audiences by dancing entwined in a miniature albino sandworm or playing her homeland’s ragas upon a Vulcan lute. Grandfather, now a private chauffeur, ferries her about and shares with her the occasional glass of chilled Slurm.

But grandmother isn’t fated to escape war for long. Rumors propagate throughout Xingzhou about a mysterious force capable of destroying whole star systems. Then comes the evil day when the heavens fill with bat-winged Mi-Go and still more monstrous beings “with their exposed beating organs, their infinite eyes, their wolf-like jaws that bent time and space.”

The Great Old Ones have arrived!

As they begin devouring the frantic populace, grandfather appears with a ruined rickshaw and gasps to grandmother that there’s a safe house in the jungle. They run like hell.

Narrator’s grandzyther is a hive intelligence born 17 million years after the Big Bang. As the summery background radiation begins to cool, grandzyther’s people see no alternative to uploading their consciousnesses into nanorobots, a “glittering constellation of thought” on a “zillion year journey to nowhere and everywhere.” They marvel at the birth of the first galaxies. They hear the radio heartbeats of early quasars. Where they find life, they sometimes play at evolution. On occasion they disagree with themselves, split into factions and go their separate ways, a process called twinning.

Grandzyther reaches Xingzhou and witnesses the Yog-Sothothian occupation. They decide on a benevolent whim to help the rebels hiding in the jungle. They appear to the group in the form of an angel, hovering on rainbow-hued wings, bearing a sword of coral lightning and a thing alien to Xingzhou: a fish. The rebels aren’t so much impressed by the haloes as grateful for the fish, which grandfather prepares for supper.

With grandzyther’s assistance, the rebels harass the Yog-Sothothian government. But making Xingzhou to costly to keep, they learn, means the occupiers will launch their ultimate reproach: annihilation of Xingzhou and all its peoples. Grandzyther, now part of a threesome with grandfather and grandmother, reaches out to one of their “twins,” a hive-mind faction specializing in extreme warcraft. The twin doesn’t respond; they just act. One morning Xingzhou wakes to rejoicing: A superweapon bigger than a moon has blasted a set of iridescent globes right out of hyperspace. Yog-Sothoth is dead and all its minions in disarray!

Many Xingzhouians are now willing to welcome back their former overlord, the Galactic Empire, but grandzyther whispers that they shouldn’t abandon the quest for autonomy.

Narrator’s grandneither is a white fungus bioengineered on Xingzhou just before the Yog-Sothothian invasion. On display in a museum, e slowly gains sentience and sapience, fashions vocal organs, and begins gathering supporters. Installed as Chief Minister, e appears to collaborate with the Empire, while secretly building arrays of solar sails.

Quakes shake the Star-Continent. In their jungle cavern, grandmother cradles a baby born of three genetic heritages while cursing the disturbance. But grandneither arrives to take credit for the quakes and the concurrent extreme cooling—using eir solar sails, e has propelled Xingzhou away from Empire, back toward grandmother and grandfather’s home planet of Earth.

Cooled now to rock, Xingzhou crashes into the green-and-blue planet. After they clean up the not inconsiderable damage, grandneither founds a new and prosperous nation. Narrator’s father grows up to marry the offspring grandneither planted at their landing, and they in turn produce narrator.

Now that grandneither has died, the remaining three grands sometimes find their tongues enough loosened by rice wine and mahjong to tell narrator truths about themselves. What was it like, narrator asks, to walk on streets of fire?

What was it like to live in Xingzhou, the Continent of Stars?

What’s Cyclopean: Narrator’s grandzyther, taking form as an angel, materializes in chryselephantine splendor!

The Degenerate Dutch: Foreign devils tattoo their tentacles and may eat you in your sleep, but tourists from dark matter galaxies tip well.

Mythos Making: The invasion begins with “beastly perversions: half-fungoid, half-crustacean, half-cephalopodic obscenities, gliding through the ether on batlike wings.” (Yes, that’s three halves; you complain to the Mi-go.) And behind them come the Great Old Ones.

Libronomicon: As proof of loyalty, all citizens under the Yog-sothian occupation are required to chant verses from the Necronomicon on command.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Narrator’s grandmother’s colleagues are driven insane by the sight of the invading Great Old One army.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

The Lovecraft Reread has long been mis-named, since one or both of us is often reading these stories for the first time. That means some weeks are inevitably a disappointment, and others are pleasurable primarily because they allow me to spread the wings of my sarcasm to their fullest extent. But then there are the discoveries that make this whole glorious project worthwhile, that cause me to bounce and shriek and read passages aloud to whoever’s in range. As well as, in this case, to develop an urgent desire for a salamander with a tongue of aloe.

Ng Yi-Sheng is new to me, but apparently well-known as a queer Singaporean poet and playwright. I will happily seek out everything he’s written in English solely on the basis of “Xingzhou,” which perfectly balances cracktastic delight, thematic depth, and the best damn game of Spot the Reference it’s been my pleasure to play in this column. It reminds me of Shaun Tan’s Arrival, another fantastical take on immigration that captures (more gently) the process of making a home in a strange and sometimes painful place.

Our narrator has a remarkable family history that should seem familiar to anyone whose ancestors came together from diverse backgrounds. The pleasure of family-building and the strength of bonds forged in times of misfortune weave through the whole thing, even as one starts to wonder exactly how many grandparents are going to appear in this narrative. I’m particularly fond of Narrator’s grandzyther, because why shouldn’t a billion-plus-years-old hive mind find happiness and love with a couple of humanoids in a rebel camp outside the City of Stars?

There are Great Old Ones and Mi-Go invading the city—but the city itself would have terrified Lovecraft long before their arrival. It’s cosmopolitan and multilingual. It’s full of languages and cuisines and loves, some of which are strange to every new arrival, but the combination of which becomes home for all who survive the strangeness. Some of those “exotic” things will be familiar to the reader—and the story works regardless of which references you get. Whether you speak fluent Indonesian, or are thinking happily about the taste of bantha milk and the potential affordability of a sonic screwdriver that fell off the back of the cart, you’ll find something recognizable on these shining streets. It’s one of the best uses of genre references I’ve ever seen, because it makes it impossible to make any sensible claim about what should count as exotic and what as familiar. And isn’t that true everywhere?

And as people living in times of misfortune, aren’t we also immigrants to the stories that give us somewhere to escape from those times?

I’m particularly fond of the syncretic arts and foods that grow in such communities: corned beef stewed by Irish mamas shopping at Jewish delis, creativity shaped by available ingredients. A Vulcan lute tuned to the chords of a veena, played by a courtesan wearing a miniature albino sandworm. How does durian affect the taste of soylent green? And the mix of all this fantastika and familiarity makes one out of the other: The rebels welcome Grandzyther Angel calmly, and take their symbolic fish for frying, because they’ve already dealt with Tralfamadorians and Vogons.

It’s a cosmic horror universe, but not a universe where that’s the only source of horror or wonder. It’s one where avoidance isn’t the only possible strategy for survival, and where people respond to times of misfortune as they always have: by adapting to change, by rising up against oppression, and by finding a way to get dinner on the table for the lovers and children who’ve joined in their survival. And finally, by telling tales of the past—truths and lies both–to their grandchildren.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Wikipedia informs me that Xingzhou is a name the Chinese sometimes give to Singapore, which is home to none other than Ng Yi-Sheng—the author of “Xingzhou.” Along with the name, the fictional place shares with the real-world one its racial and linguistic diversity, its history of imperial control (Galactic vs. British Empires), its influxes of foreign workers (notably from China and India, original homes of grandfather and grandmother), and perhaps its astrography/geography—while Xingzhou consists of clustered suns, Singapore consists of clustered islands. I can see, too, how Singapore’s central forest of skyscrapers might after dark resemble a “hill of pulsing light.”

Singapore is hot, though not nearly as hot as Xingzhou. Whereas Singapore is humid and Xingzhou is anything but. Fish, we are told, are unknown there, what with fish having this thing about water, and in Xingzhou even the brine of sweat sizzles away when it hits the ground. Or, more likely, before it exits the pores, except that we can’t have our protagonists’ faces boiling away the second they step off the star-steamers. Fantastic allowances must be made for a concept as alluring as a “Continent of Stars”!

Or starlets, since the components of Xingzhou can’t really be full-sized stars, can they? Wait, starlets cluster in Hollywood, not space. How about starlings? Nope, birds. Microsuns, then. Otherwise how could grandfather ever hope to jog his rickshaw from one to the other in time to get a Dark Matterite to the electromagnetic-echo salon? That’s factoring in how fast he must have to jog to keep from melting his feet on the solar photospheres. Okay, let’s stop trying to make science-fictional sense of this story, even though it does have some pointedly realistic details, like the ailments to which overcrowded and overworked laborers are prone (consumption, tetanus, venereal disease) as well as such overarching socioeconomic realities as poverty- and war-driven emigration and the choices it can force on emigrants. Narrator’s grandfather has to toil like a drayhorse; his grandmother turns to prostitution, albeit under the glorified title of “courtesan.”

So Ng gives us delightfully florid and hence humorous fantasy (humans can live on stellar surfaces with reasonably manageable discomfort!) along with bracing dashes of realism. He also gives us a veritable Emigrant’s Guide to the Galaxy—the pop galaxy, that is, SFF edition. I challenge readers to a game of “Name Those References,” because “Xingzhou” has as many as there are microstars in its magical milieu. Nods to our own Howard dominate, but Ng merely starts there. Star Wars comes in second by my count, both in quick drops like the bantha milk grandfather comes to savor to the through-plot echo of Rebels Versus Evil Galactic Empire, complete with Deathstar analogs and near-verbatim Leia quips. One near-verbatim Leia quip, anyhow. You guys know the one I mean, and may I quibble (at Her Highnessness) that it was a terrible thing to say to Peter Cushing.

I’ll mention just a few other choice refs before leaving the rest of the feast to you guys. Mini albino sandworms, the preferred striptease prop on Arrakis! Slurm, everyone’s first choice in highly addictive soft drinks! The presence of Trisolarans in Xingzhou—I’m glad some of them survived the calamities in Cixin Liu’s great trilogy!

Back to Howard. “Xingzhou” headlines Yog-Sothoth, shoggoths, and the Mi-Go. It also features Grandzyther’s race, with the cosmic-temporal reach and grandeur of the Yith. For me, though, the Lovecraft work “Xingzhou” most closely parallels is The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Both the Dreamlands and the Continent of Stars are imaginatively lush and expertly interweave the awe-inspiring with the terrifying; both liberally white-pepper their darkness with the tongue-in-cheek humor only a reteller-of-tales can afford. Even assuming Randolph Carter relates his dream-journey himself, in third-person guise, he does it from the safe distance of the waking world. Ng’s narrator retells the tales of his grandparents, which he evidently wants to be true, but they have arisen out of wine and mahjong, after all.

One major parallel detail is that the vessels used to transit outer space appear to have been designed for ocean-sailing. Carter flies to the moon on a ship that was equally happy on the Dreamlands seas; grandfather takes a steamer with decks open to the void. Grandfather and his fellows travel as contracted laborers little better than slaves. Carter goes as a prisoner among actual slaves, the black men of Parg, and he has reason to fear the Pargians are on the menu of their inhuman captors. For grandfather, rumor has it the “foreign devil” of a captain may snack on the weakest of his passengers.

A strong point in both Kadath and “Xingzhou” is how exotic places and persons, creatures and things, are mentioned briefly but provocatively, so the reader can exercise her own imagination on them. What cryptic beast drains Carter’s zebra to the last drop of blood under Mount Ngranak? Extrapolate a Xingzhou jungle from its burning bushes harboring shrieking firebirds.

Here’s what piques my imagination most: What can “Xingzhou’s” narrator look like, be like? His father combines the genetic material of a human, a demon and a nanorobotic hive-mind born in their original form shortly after the big bang. His mother is the fruit of a sapient fungus.

Talk about the potential hybrid vigor! Or do we dare?

 

Next week, we’ll cover the elusive Nadelmann’s God by T.E.D. Klein.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. She has several stories, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, available on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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