Monday, January 26, 2009

Snakes. Why Did It Have To Be Snakes.

Bangkok 8; John Burdett (Vintage; 2003; ISBN 1-4000-3290-3; cover by John Gall).

A lot of science fiction is a form of travelogue. Visit exotic places, meet strange new people. Take a look at William Gibson and his treatment of Japan. Or Neal Stephenson with his treatment of Shanghai and London (in one case failing, in the other, succeeding brilliantly). Most science fiction, alas, strives to give you the feeling of being in a strange place but fails.

Then there are the new cultures and strange beings. Human or not, are we all the same? As Marc Miller (one of the creators of the SF-RPG Traveller) put it to me (and I believe he got it from Larry Niven) too many aliens are people in Kzinti suits.

Taking a break from the fantasy (humorous and dark) and chronicles of naval actions (both during the Napoleonic Wars and out in space), I picked up this book on the recommendation of a friend. Burdett tells the story of Sonchai Jitpleecheep, one of the few honest policemen in Thailand. His partner, one of the other few honest policemen, is killed while they witness the murder of a sergeant from the U.S. Marines.

Burdett succeeds brilliantly in bringing to life not only a different culture, but a different way of thinking. There's plenty of action, plenty of sex, plenty of bad quotations from reviewers on the back cover...but there's plenty of good stuff here as well. Religion, the intersection of life and death, ghosts, fashion, the sex trade as a way of escaping poverty, sexuality and psychology, transformation and let's not forget food and drink. Two more in the series await me, including one where I've heard I'll never look at an elephant the same way again after reading it.

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