When I tweeted this a few weeks ago, I didn’t expect that so many of you would actually be interested in the rest of the claim I was making. But given the interest in reading more of what I had to say, your wish is my command! While I don’t think I can go posting my final paper online, I can certainly summarize all the important points and the ones the bookish community will find most interesting.
Techno-orientalism is fascinating. If you haven’t heard about this concept before, it’s the “phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.” Most prominently, this appears in near future sci-fi: think Blade Runner or this music video, where vast, advanced cities are presented as Asian. But it also doesn’t have to be that obvious. It can be as simple as the equating of Asians with advanced technology, like naming a mega-corp that destroys the universe BeiTech.
Techno-orientalism isn’t inherently racist or xenophobic. Just because its tropes are present in a work of art doesn’t mean its usage has been problematic: there are long academic debates about the extent to which Asian-American texts are techno-orientalist if they engage with techno-orientalist tropes and then turn them on their head. (That’s what most of my final paper was about!) The function of techno-orientalism is easiest to understand by going back to orientalism, which—duh, Chloe—is where the name comes from.
As a crash course into orientalism for those who may not know, Edward Said popularized this concept in 1978 as a huge call-out to ye olde writers of the 19th century. The 19th century was the era where Europeans were writing long pieces about the glorious Orient, collecting Oriental treasures, calling their friends over like “Oh, Fitzherbert, you must absolutely see how divine this painting of the Orient I have placed over my fireplace is.” (Was the telephone in common use yet? I don’t know, I write 1920s historical fiction, this isn’t my area of expertise, just imagine it was.) Sounds like a good thing right? It’s ~cultural appreciation~! Lmao no, because Edward Said was banging his pots and pans together hollering, “THE ORIENT ISN’T AN ACTUAL PLACE, YOU ABSOLUTE BUMBLING FOOLS.” He wrote: “The Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action…European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.” In non-academic speak, the Orient was a made-up concept by Europeans, a mish-mash of different Asiatic and Middle Eastern cultures, all in an attempt to create a place that was different, so that Europe could very clearly define itself. If the Orient was mystical, then Europe was proper and refined in comparison. If the Orient was backward, then Europe was progressive and forward looking. And most importantly, if the Orient was a place that required conquering and aid from greater, mightier powers, then Europe was perfectly poised and justified to extend out into the world and conquer it.
Techno-orientalism operates on the same principles. 19th century Europe crafted an imaginary place called the Orient to justify Europe’s place in the world. The 21st century Western world continues to pump out imagery and aesthetics of an imaginary Asia to assuage its fears of a Asianized future. (Like…sorry to have to reveal the horrible truth, but people in Asia…actually live very much alike people in America. *gasp*) And just like orientalism was not some big mass movement, techno-orientalism is not a conscious effort either. I’m not accusing every sci-fi writer of sitting in a big room and stroking their chins while plotting how Asia can be depicted as the big bad in the next blockbuster hit. Falling victim to these tropes goes much, much deeper, on the level which we consume global affairs at large. While 19th century Europe sipped tea and spoke of the “savages” out in the unconquered world, 21st century America consumes news article after news article about Chinese takeovers of American factories and jobs, Japanese technology light years ahead, North Korean missiles within range for firing. Techno-orientalist tropes bloom from anxieties and fears of a dying American dominance, and in a world where America struggles to understand its place in the world (especially with the US-China trade war going on), the futures being written into fiction equate bleak with Asian. Only then is the present day West assured: yes, it is correct that we hold dominance over world order. Yes, it is correct that we remain in power, so this Asianized future does not come to fruition.
As I said before, techno-orientalism is not an inherently xenophonic concept because the envisioning of a bleak Asian future can be just that—a future that is Asian (where, for example, perhaps one might see as many signs in Chinese in the United States of America as one would English)—and also, bleak, for various reasons. But when done by most writers today, especially white Western writers, these tropes are fear-mongering, and effectively: xenophobic. Science-fiction, and specifically cyberpunk (which, as a sub-genre was specifically modeled off extremely technologized, Asianized world-building), had its commercial boom at a time when the US was flapping its wings about and shrieking that Japan would soon be the next hegemonic great power. (This didn’t happen, just FYI.) But out came novels with cyborgs that were clear stand-ins for Asian machines. Out came films set in societies bustling with Asian imagery, equating Asianness with a fallen and terrible future. Now, if science fiction and cyberpunk is going to make a comeback, in the time where China owns trillions in US debt, China holds vast foreign reserves that can influence the US dollar value, and Chinese acquisitions are swallowing formerly iconic American companies, we’re not going to keep spouting the same tired xenophobic narrative from the 80s. The internet exists now, writers can educate themselves on the fact that the Chinese economy is just as entwined with the US economy, and ruining one means ruining the other. If the near future is Asian, it is not because the West has not been ravaged by that foreign unfeeling race, and now humanity is doomed; if the near future is Asian, then cultures have integrated with agency and differing perspectives on both sides.
Essentially: techno-orientalist tropes may come into play when writing about the near future. The hope is that writers will refuse to fall victim to techno-orientalism as a concept and rather engage with the tropes. The hope is to overrule the very core xenophobia that centers the Western fear instead of the Asian body. Give Asians a sense of humanity again, and cyberpunk might get a second life that actually respects all its readers.
Trope 1: Cyborgs
When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was being debated in the US, it was argued that the Chinese male body was different to the American male body for being able to withstand more physical deprivations. Asian peoples in the United States were valued for their labor, but weren’t given the same rights for safety, sustenance, and shelter that European bodies received because Asians were constructed in the Western mind as expendable technology in an effort to preserve Western righteousness for their laws and exclusion acts. The idea of expendable technology evolved; it did not go away. The Western world may have equal laws now but there is no shortage of remarks in Western media and society about how workers in Asian factories are “machines.” Effectively, fears today in the West of jobs being stolen by Asians are not just an economic fear but also one of humanistic integrity: how could they let their livelihood be taken by an inorganic, technologically infused person, who couldn’t put the same heart in as they do?
Sometimes the cyborgs in cyberpunk movies are specifically casted as Asian. Sometimes they’re not. Either way, fiction is entwined with the politics of real life, and when we consistently uphold the narrative of Asian factory workers as not fully human, then cyborgs are their representatives in fiction. Every time a cyborg appears in piece of work and is represented as cold and unfeeling, as someone who loses more humanity with the more robotic parts they receive and become more efficient (paralleling workers who acquire more technological upgrades and become even more efficient in their daily, rote tasks), we are pushed to believe that relying on technology makes someone sub-human. We are pushed to consider Asians who resemble technology in their work as sub-human, different.
The simplest solution to this is to stop equating technology with sub-human. There are so many ways to include cyborgs in your narrative in ways that aren’t techno-orientalist: by not centering the humans who look on them in pity, by delving into the nuances of what it means to have different parts that don’t necessarily negate one’s greater humanity. This isn’t just me being the Stop-Being-Racist Police (with a small helping of my Stop-Being-Ableist whistle). This is just ways to make your writing better: by not taking shortcuts.
Trope 2: Asian-coded Cities and Worldbuilding
I’ll say less on this because I feel like the majority of what I stated above covers what I mean when I say Asian world-building, but I want to clarify that it’s not bad to be envisioning the near future as shitty and also Asian. Especially for Asian diaspora writers, this is absolutely something that requires exploring. Climate change is getting really bad! Capitalism is killing us all! Genocides and massacres are still happening today! The horizon is kinda grim!
It’s hard for me to verbalize how exactly one can try to not be xenophobic when writing the near future because, well, there are a lot of ways people can write the near future, and I can’t predict them all. All I can do is highly recommend reading Ling Ma’s Severance, which I dissected in my final paper to find that yes, it’s using techno-orientalist tropes to incite fear in the West—showing that the West’s future decay will be a result of trade and neoliberal practices with Asians—but it’s not techno-orientalist because it’s letting readers see its Asian characters as human; it shows Asia as a place bursting with humanity, not just an unfeeling society that seeks to take over the West and rob the West of its way of life. Science fiction has always been incredibly nuanced and important: now more than ever, all it takes to not be a lump of coal is to engage with Asian-coded characters as if they are people.
In short, I didn’t write this post to put anyone off from writing cyberpunk! Despite its murky legacy, I love cyberpunk and I’m definitely going to dip my foot into it one day. All I want is for writers today to be more aware of what they might be falling victim to without realizing, so the genre can change for the better. None of us are perfect—we’re all capable of producing art that adheres to problematic narratives. But with so much information available, especially from actual academics and not just me, that random college student on the internet, we can think more deeply about our narratives and avoid problematic shortcuts that are norms in certain subgenres. If anything, I think doing so will help make us all better writers.
Highly recommended further reading:
Li, Stephanie. “Techno-Orientalism and the End of History in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.” Dis-Orienting Planets: Racial Representations of Asia in Science Fiction, edited by Isiah Lavender, University Press of Mississippi, 2017, pp. 102–116.
McKay, Daniel. “Camera Men: Techno-Orientalism in Two Acts.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 51, no. 3, 2017, pp. 939–964., doi:10.1017/S0021875817000548.
Rivera, Takeo. “Do Asians Dream of Electric Shrieks?: Techno-Orientalism and Erotohistoriographic Masochism in Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution.” Amerasia Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2014, pp. 67–87., doi:10.17953/amer.40.2.j012284wu6230604.
Roh, David S., et al. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Rutgers University Press, 2015.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, 1978.