On the Robot Zombies of Angkor Wat in John Burdett's 'The Bangkok Asset'
The sixth novel in John Burdett's Bangkok detective series is a dispiriting, dismaying mess. Is there still hope for recovery or is the series in a death spiral?
Techno-babble and Zen Koans
Artificial pearls of wisdom. Burdett is fond of creating little nuggets of wisdom, somewhat like Zen koans, that cause the reader to pause and rethink some basic notion of reality. At their best, these instances demonstrate the wide gap between Occidental and Oriental thinking. For example, we are given this play on Descartes: "It would have been smarter to say, I think therefore I am not, since honest thought destroys identity." That’s a nifty encapsulation of Buddhist thought as an inversion of an essential Western notion.
Unfortunately, the techno-babble of much of the subject matter has pushed Burdett out of his comfort zone. For example, we're twice told a variation of "Like any applied science, once it’s seen to work it can't be stopped." Well, that depends on many factors, including cost, efficiency, availability, etc. It also depends on disruption: it's the lesson of Betamax versus VHS. The problem with Zen koans is that once you fracture them, they disintegrate completely, and there are far too many fractured koans here.
Lack of consistency. We're repeatedly told that the Universal Soldier is one of a kind, which is why so many governments are interested in him (Americans, Chinese, Russians; the Thais are mostly middlemen) and why his link to Jitpleecheep is so extraordinary. They share a father which means that Jitpleecheep has the same genes as the Universal Soldier; these are super genes that allowed him to survive the jungle training while all the other cyborgs perished, so Jitpleecheep is more… durable, I guess… than the average human (so the Y chromosome is important here? Specifics are left out).
Then we're told that actually there are many, many more of these super soldiers out there. They even have conventions where they play chess! That's cute, but it totally undercuts any of the stakes raised in the first two acts of the story. If there are more than one of these guys out there, what makes this one so much more special than the rest? If a prototype gets burned, you build more. One senses an author painting himself into a corner then coming up with a quick and dirty solution that destroys the structure of the plot.
On the other side of the painted room is the mysterious father figure. Burdett goes to great lengths to rewrite his backstory from previous novels to better conform to this one, so we should expect a major denouement when son confronts father. We are wrong. When we first meet dad he's in a coma with his face bandaged. When we next meet him, he's in a coma due to excessive LSD use. He never wakes up. So much for all that.
Vague technology and rules. Burdett's cyborgs are never well defined. They are a product of psychological programming using chemicals and Khmer sorcery as well as hardware upgrades and one assumes genetic manipulation so they are stronger, smarter, faster, etc, than regular humans. But regular folks can also get upgrades, so, for example, a blind woman gets powers of echolocation. But she doesn't require the intense psychological training of other cyborgs. Why not? Who knows? We're never told. Accept it or don’t.
How do these upgrades actually function? The author's only explanation is cringe worthy. These human upgrades are, you see, "Apps" (yes, with the capital A). One character mentions without a trace of irony that she's had the "sex App" implanted. What can that mean? Who would devise such technology? How does it help in urban warfare? By the way, Putin is also an upgraded human, but we're not told in what way. One would hope that all this is some sort of satire on Western technology, but alas the tone is too earnest to allow for satire, except of the unintentional variety.
Burdett doesn't call his upgraded humans "cyborgs" (too 1990s?) but instead uses the word "transhumans". I guess "metahuman" was out because DC Comics has already taken it and "mutant" is what X-Men are. In the book, there are also "humanzees" who are more cyborg than the Universal Solider but have less of or more of… something. I don't know, they're just somehow different. It's not very clear. I think that "robot zombie" would have been a cool moniker, but I guess I'll have to write my own sci-fi comic book about that.
Pomposity. Burdett seems aware that his sci-fi is thin bread, so to disguise this, he spreads a thick dollop of philosophical schmear over the whole thing. This is supposed to elevate the material, but instead it just adds further distractions. There are incessant bite-sized lectures that eventually start to grind readers down. At a murder scene, the killer uses music by the Renaissance composer Gesualdo as part of his tableau, which prompts this Tweet-like explanation: "the off-key music he produced was a direct expression of his spiritual death, his private hell." That sounds smart, but it doesn't carry any weight without adding digressive explanations that would detract even further from the scene. Worse, Burdett jumps through a hoop to explain how a Bangkok detective would come to express such a thought.
Or again, the background of the whole cyborg adventure is tossed off in a couple of lines that would require several doctoral theses to make sense: "Culturally and psychologically the global situation is almost identical to that of Palestine and the eastern Mediterranean two thousand years ago under the Romans. […] The search for meaning was universal and a powerful political force in itself." If you say so. The fact that these words come from a morally bankrupt CIA agent and not a sophomore philosophy major is strange, but by this point it should be clear that the author is willing to use his characters as mouthpieces for his own highfalutin ramblings.
All this grandstanding utterly drains the story of color. The Universal Soldier fancies himself the return of Jesus Christ, which prompts a thumbnail lecture about The Gospel of Judas, which is followed by this scintillating set-piece of Southeast Asian noir action:
French is basically Italian with a truckload of butter and cream thrown at it. Of course, the word Italian covers a thousand dishes. I don’t mind the poverty cuisines of Sicily and the south, but it doesn't have the finesse or variety of the north. No, it's got to be Tuscan or Piemonte. […] Shall I tell you what you are thinking? You are thinking my, my, what breadth of education and culture they gave him, this Asset? Am I right?
That the speaker of these lines considers himself the Second Coming apparently means that the techno-apocalypse will mostly consist of egotistical, dull and somewhat ditzy dinner dates. Jitpleecheep could dispatch him with a simple Look, Asset, you're a nice guy and last night was fun but I really don't think we should see each other anymore.
The problem with this grandiosity is that one can't have the detective kill the Messiah, no matter how tedious he may be. So by importing all this pseudo-Christian gunk to sheath the limpness of his sci-fi fantasy, Burdett erases any of the emotional stakes of the story. There is no crime to be solved, no mystery or suspense; there is no father figure to confront, no catharsis. Nothing is at stake because the Second Coming already came. He's kind of a jerk but you can't shoot him. At the end, Jitpleecheep decides to slink off and get stoned and forget about the whole thing. After finishing the book, I did, too.
Holiday in Cambodia
Reality is far scarier than fiction. Scientists are now warning that we are on the verge of entering a post-antibiotic age. After decades of hubristic overuse of antibiotics, the microbes have evolved evasive immunity to our drugs. Diseases such as gonorrhea that have for decades been a mere annoyance may soon be untreatable. The bacteria are winning. In such a world, elective surgery may become a thing of the past. Who would risk painful if not fatal infection just to get fuller lips, let alone brain implants? So much for Burdett's "sex App". There will be no cyborg Messiah to punish and save us. The entire sci-fi fantasy premise of Burdett's story disintegrates in the face of the true horrors of our age.
In Thailand, politics are stranger than fiction. Since the coup of 2006, the country has veered from one ruling faction to another, with the recent military coup of 2014 putting a pause on the seesaw at the cost of escalating human rights violations. The past decade has seen chaotic often violent protests as well as sporadic bomb attacks often related to the ongoing civil conflict in the south. Bangkok itself is a major hub of human, drugs, weapons, and exotic species trafficking. Indeed, there's plenty of material here for 50 more noir novels.
Maybe because of Thailand's notoriously draconian lèse-majesté laws and the severe crackdown by the ruling military junta, Burdett felt he had no choice but to concoct this comic plot which shifts attention almost completely from issues that pertain to modern Thailand (he didn't reply to a request for an interview), but even if this is true, it doesn't excuse the other serious problems with the book.
It almost seems like the manuscript wasn't written as a Jitpleecheep novel in the first place and perhaps from contract obligations Burdett grafted his detective into the story. Or perhaps the author is getting bored with his creation? OK, fair play, but end the thing gracefully: this the world he created is not how we want to be remembered. If Burdett is getting too big for his britches and ignoring his editors, then at least there"s hope someone can still reign him in. If he's just getting lazy and arrogant, then he can "shit and fall back in it", as my Bronx-born mom would say.
There's one thing that I learned from reading this book. I now understand how Star Wars fans can feel so disappointed, dismayed and depressed by the second trilogy.