In the opening passage of his influential essay “Necropolitics” Achille Mbembe asks “[w]hat place is given to life, death, and the human body… How are they inscribed in the order of power?” Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Winterglass reads as a meditation on this question, translating it into fantastic fiction. The social formation described in the novel is quite literally what Mbembe calls a “death-world”: a realm of endless winter that necessitates an energy economy reliant upon the ghosts of the slain. In order to revitalize that which is killed by snow and frost––to even provide the possibility of warmth––those designated as subjects who can be killed (the criminalized, the marginalized, the possible insurgents) are sacrificed upon machines that transform them into ghostly energy.
Upon the conceptual basis of necropolitics Winterglass develops its themes in a precisely composed, but always beautifully written and viscerally compelling, manner. The most important of these themes, located in the motivations of the principle protagonists, concerns the ways in which the past haunts the present. Hence the world-building concept of the poltergeist energy economy is appropriate: Winterglass is thoroughly defined by haunting. From the ghosts that provide the world with vitality, through the ways that history is akin to Marx’s “weight on the brain of the living”, to dreamscapes in which characters are translated as spectres––hauntings layered over hauntings.
As someone who has been following Sriduangkaew’s literature for years, since I first read her story that was included in the third Apex Book of World Science Fiction, I feel that this complex thematic layering represents the apotheosis of what was always present in her short fiction. Her strength as an author has been in her ability to write, with stunning literary acumen, rich stories that could pack an unexpected amount of political and narrative depth into ten to twenty pages. Unfortunately her first foray into long form, Scale-Bright, felt like an extended short story where the author was attempting to figure out how to write long form: it possessed the same gorgeous prose, it demonstrated the author’s potential, but it still felt like a first attempt. Winterglass, however, reads like the mature work of an author who has mastered her craft––it packs unexpected depth into 120 pages, keeping the narrative tightly controlled––and is thus the perfect novel to be released by Apex, which has not only published a lot of short novels by important authors but has been promoting Sriduangkaew since the aforementioned world fiction anthology.
Winterglass is a tightly written short novel burgeoning with the depth of a complex world. Although the entire story unfolds in one region of a vast Empire, the conquered state of Sirapirat, the characters involved reveal the broader spatial and historical dimensions of the fictional universe. Nuawa has grown to be fighter in arena battles, secretly preparing herself to assassinate the Winter Queen, and is about to compete in a tournament that will place the victor within the imperial military hierarchy. Lussadh, the Winter Queen’s general, has been dispatched to oversee the tournament and brings to Sirapirat her own history: her decision, years earlier, to betray her nation Kemiraj to Winter and put her entire ruling dynasty to the sword. She is haunted by the figure of Ytoba, a Kemiraj assassin presumed dead.
The violence of arena combat, most of which happens in thaumaturgical dreamscapes, forms the narrative arc of the story. This arc unfolds alongside the relationship between Nuawa and Lussadh, both of whom are driven by their own sense of historical necessity. For Nuawa the necessity of placing herself close to the Winter Queen so as to avenge her people––a task that was bestowed upon her the moment she survived the ghost-kiln––has resulted in a life of disassembly of which only her mother is aware. She is largely incapable of an authentic human relationship since she has been raised and trained to subordinate everything to the singular task of assassination. Lussadh, however, is driven by the need to justify the existence of the Empire since she murdered her family for the greater good, at least in her own mind, of her nation’s people.
Beneath the story of Winterglass lurks a nuanced understanding of the imperialism of tributary social formations. Although critiques of modern colonialism and the violence of occupation are prevalent, and these aspects of verisimilitude are important, Sriduangkaew is also aware of the complexities of the pre-modern imperialism that are not identical to the 1492 epoch of colonialism.
In a rather stunning passage where Lussadh justifies her decision to betray the Kemiraj dynasty, she speaks to the shadows where she imagines the assassin Ytoba lurks and declares, “They live more justly. There are no more inheritances of power, of wealth born into. Before winter, all are equal, whether scions of the dynasty or of the enamel. The least labourer’s child is given the same education as the most opulent landlord’s scion. […] Life under the Kemiraj throne was fine enough for you, for me. For most of the country it was a charnel house.” (35) Despite this nuance, however, Lussadh recognizes that “[w]ere Ytoba here, ey would have refuted the argument in any case: that the unnatural frost slaughtered and starved many in the first few years, as it has done in most constituents. That the queen is not the rightful ruler. Any number of retorts and then, finally, a knife in her throat.” (35-36) Like the Roman or Mongol Empires, Winter is no more or less vicious than the competing civilizations it has subordinated and yet it remains the most successful culmination of tributary domination that forces its hegemony upon multiple civilizations.
Moreover, Sriduangkaew recognizes the culturalism that emerges in conquered civilizations is a dead-end for any form of resistance. Although the assassin Ytoba is introduced as a terrifying figure, frightening even Lussadh, their obsession with royal blood and the preservation of the Kemiraj dynasty eventually reduces them to a pathetic figure that even Nuawa, despite an offer of alliance, finds repugnant.
The relationship of Lussadh and Nuawa, however, is overdetermined by their proximity and distance to the Winter Queen, the supernatural force behind this imperial death world of frost. This figure is, by Sriduangkaew’s own admission, inspired by Anderson’s “Snow Queen” although the novel is about as much of a modern retelling of this fairy tale as Joyce’s Ulysses is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. There are borrowed themes, proverbial “easter eggs” provided for the canny reader, but they are due to an archaeological appreciation of the Anderson text––that is, mined from discursive formations.
The existence of the Winter Queen, the personification of an imperial nomos, serves to define the narrative arcs of Lussadh and Nuawa. For Lussadh, as aforementioned, she represents a civilizational ethos that brings order to a terrain once claimed by other expansionist empires that lacked the power or fortitude to consummate social peace: the singular order of winter brings a sameness that irons out violent differences. For Nuawa, the Winter Queen and her imperial order represent a prison house of nations, a suffocation of numerous cultures under the oppressive sameness of snow and frost.
Ghosts upon ghosts, hauntings upon hauntings. Nuawa represents the past’s haunting of the present, the spectral return of the repressed, and she has become this very haunting through the ghost-kilns that are used to power the poltergeist energy economy. As I implied at the outset of this review, the poltergeist energy economy is deeply central to the topoi of Winterglass; it is thus worth examining in some detail. It would not be difficult to read this poltergeist economy as a metaphor for the current cancerous stage of capitalism; for example, it fits Marx’s discussion of “dead labour”. Considering how close we’re living to an environmental collapse brought on by the ravages of capitalism, that fossil fuels are literally extracted from millennia dead corpses, and that every aspect of the economy is sustained by the lives of billions of workers, the economy is already a death-world. Capitalist existence is energized by the dead.
Although such readings reveal the richness of the text, Winterglass cannot be reduced to modern allegory, nor is the fantastic social formation Sriduangkaew describes analogous to capitalism.
The Empire of Winter is the kind of social-historical order that predated capitalism, an ur-imperialism or “Urstaat” (to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari) of the expansionist empires of Egypt, Alexander’s Macedonia, the Maurya Dynasty, Rome, Mongolia, Mexica, and others. Sriduangkaew does not make the mistake, as some writers of fantastic fiction do, of distorting the verisimilitude of her fictional social formation by reducing it to the level of pithy allegory: this is how we end up with the countless Middle Earths and their incoherent economies, or baffling stories about feudal kingdoms where there are strikes and princes who talk about labour rights. Winter is not a shoddy reflection of the current order, though its author might make references to political problematics that influence her everyday life, but a truly pre-capitalist imperial order. And pre-capitalist imperial orders also sustained themselves on mass graves and slavery.
The reason why it is important to not treat the world of Winterglass as merely an allegory of the modern world, despite whatever allegorical moments necessarily exist, is because it could lead to a misreading of this narrative’s characters and their motivations, along with the meaning of the world-building within which these characters reside. If the world of Winterglass was a stand-in for capitalism then it would also have to enunciate social categories that are only known after capitalism’s emergence––commodity exchange, social classes, demystification and economic alienation––all of which are absent in this novel. To be clear, it is not as if social classes and other categories theorized after capitalism demystified the social do not operate in Winterglass, it is simply that, like our own history, they would not be ways of seeing the world for people living prior to the epiphanies produced by capitalism and its critique. Marx and Engels consistently argued that, while class struggle determined social reality since the emergence of the first political order, it was not until the bourgeois order, in its obsession to profane all of the “holy” relations in its pursuit of profit, that reality was demystified so that the tension of social classes could be revealed as fundamental. Samir Amin refers to this shift as a passage from metaphysical to economic alienation: “all that is sacred is profaned,” the ancient regimes are stripped of their magical aura.
Hence, the characters of Winterglass think their world according to categories that have nothing to do with the modern concept of class struggle even if, underneath their thinking, class struggle writ large is in operation. Sriduangkaew grounds her narrative in the viewpoint of her characters, allows them to think according to the ideological boundaries drawn by their political order, and thankfully does not allow them to think according to the mores of subjects that only emerged after capitalism. Nobody in the social formation described by Winterglass would be capable of coherently conceiving class struggle, even though some form of class struggle is still implicitly in operation. Rather they would think according to their position of exclusion/inclusion in the imperial order. Their basic unit of analysis would be ethnic and national, their loyalties would be defined by appeals to various culturalisms and elements of class struggle, but a class struggle that cannot be conscious of itself as such.
There is already a small buzz surrounding Winterglass regarding its status as a queer SFF novel; queer and trans readers are rightly celebrating the novel’s unabashed rejection of heteronormativity. Women and people of colour, whether or not their identities intersect as queer and/or trans, also have reason to celebrate the subjectivities that Sriduangkaew has valorized: a decidedly non-male, non-white, and non-heteronormative fictional terrain. These aspects of the novel demonstrate yet again that works from marginalized writers, representing the experience of marginalized communities, will remain necessary as long as oppression exists. To write against power requires more than placing random antagonists against a cookie cutter Empire, a la Star Wars, just to tell the same old story of the underdog surmounting long odds; it demands the centering of oppressed and exploited subjectivities. Hence, it is important that these anti-systemic fictions communicate with those whose experiences in the real world place them in the position of the subject of revolt, a position completely alien from those pseudo-rebel narratives where saviour individuals often resemble the icon of a Nazi poster for Aryan pride.
At the same time, however, it would be disastrous to relegate Winterglass to some SFF sub-genre of queer (or even non-white) niche interest. The very fact that it is literary speculative fiction already places this book in a difficult position since many readers of “literary fiction” do not think that “genre fiction” can possess literary merit, and can point to the best-selling works of SFF to justify this claim.
Meanwhile, the fandom that is responsible for making these genre works best-selling tend to disdain literary quality, preferring the novel equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster (especially if it is 700 pages, the prose isn’t “difficult”, and there are ten sequels). Sriduangkaew and others (Sofia Samatar, Catherynne Valente, Jeff Vander Meer), however, are emerging at a conjunctural moment of speculative fiction where more works of “genre” are being written by authors who possess the writing abilities of an Angela Carter or a Roberto Bolaño. It is at such a moment that genre can be taken seriously by literary criticism, though unfortunately the very fandom that craves to be taken seriously are largely disinterested in literary quality because they imagine that Robert Jordan is equivalent to Proust. Since this is a conjunctural moment (and I discuss this in more detail in an upcoming book) the work of Sriduangkaew and others like her occupy a tenuous position.
Such a position becomes more tenuous if and when we look at Winterglass as simply a queer text, or non-white text, placing it within an even narrower niche spectrum. Already authors with marginalized identities in literary fiction struggle to be taken seriously by their non-marginalized counterparts and avoid having their work sequestered into special interest categories. Within the multiple communities that comprise SFF, this struggle might in fact be harder as the reactionary backlash against women of colour authors winning awards has demonstrated: the “Puppies” campaign to game the Hugo Awards was an attempt to prevent “Social Justice Warrior” SFF from being taken seriously as well as, and this is quite telling, an opposition to SFF work that possessed literary merit.
In opposition to these vectors of marginalization, then, we should treat Winterglass as more than genre and niche fiction. Not only do its formal qualities demonstrate that it possesses literary acumen, its themes are universal. The vast majority of fiction is not primarily defined as “heterosexual” even when its characters are by-and-large heteronormative; Winterglass normalizes queer characters just as straight characters are usually normalized. That is, Winterglass does not wax eloquent about queer politics, its narrative is not about queer characters in resistance to heterosexual hegemony, but instead tells a story with queer characters who simply are and there is no question that their expressions of identity are normative.
Similarly, Sriduangkaew’s focus on setting does not resemble the common world building habit of basing fantasy on a Western European imaginary. The fictional setting flows naturally from the fact that the author’s lived experience (which includes her queerness) is not European. The Winter Queen’s empire extends across regions that resemble East Asia, particularly Siripat where the story takes place, to the so-called “near East”, the former kingdom of Kemiraj that was betrayed to the Winter Queen by its prince, Lussadh. Everything distantly west from this hegemony of snow, in a clear reversal of orientalist tropes, is othered, classified as barbarian, and designated with the pejorative of “occidental”. More than simply a reversal, though, this approach to the Empire’s other reveals something truly universal about expansionist empires, those hegemonies that can lay claim to knowledge production: imperialism always renders its periphery alien. The fact that, in the real world, this othering was performed upon everything outside of the so-called “west” is partially a matter of happenstance, the result of an aleatory process where Western Europe invented itself as both the “West” and “Europe” across centuries of conquest. In those fantasy worlds uncritically copied from this history of domination the “East” is always othered, made insensible according to orientalist discourse, and thus the European myth of cultural superiority is transposed throughout multiple fantasy registers. To reverse this approach to fantasy fiction isto also indicate what is truly universal: not the culturalism of eternal Easts and Wests––which are, in fact, Eurocentric particularities––but the fact that every culture outside of the imperialist centre, not pre-ordained to be an eternal copy of Europe, will be othered. Hence the “occidentals” disparaged in the fictional world of Winterglass possess more verisimilitude than the hackneyed tropes of “orientals” that show up in innumerable Game of Thrones clones.
We are told that writers should “write what they know” despite the fact that, when writers from the margins follow this axiom (because who doesn’t transpose what they know into their fiction?), they are often informed that what they know is niche since it doesn’t line up with what is supposed to be known by the normative imagination.
But following the late John Berger’s exhortation that Arundhati Roy declared axiomatic: “never again shall a single story be told as if it the only one.” Sriduangkaew’s Winterglass is based upon this axiom so that the queer, the trans, the non-male, and the non-European other is rendered as normative. Even still, we are presented with a story of imperial oppression that is universal.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a Thai author of science fiction and fantasy, who is also known for controversial online criticism. She was a finalist for the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the 2014 BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction, for Scale-Bright.
J. Moufawad-Paul lives in Toronto and works as casualized contract faculty at York University where he received his PhD in philosophy. He is the author of The Communist Necessity, Continuity and Rupture, and Austerity Apparatus. @MLM_Mayhem