30 May 2016

A-Z: 26 Curiosities from Kuan's Wonderland

Here is an A-Z selection of some of the allusions and references in Kuan’s Wonderland that may interest you (before you read on, beware of spoilers):

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: There are echoes of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books throughout the novel. Wu-yin, the white cat morphing into an Alice-like girl is one such moment. A deeper homage is to be found in the closing poem – a variation of the melancholic acrostic at the end of Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Batya’s pebble: Batya, the orangutan-like outsider asks Kuan to return the emerald pebble to his son, a memento about a father-son relationship the meaning of which only becomes clear when it is no longer in Kuan’s possession.

Camus, Albert (1913-1960): The Rebel and The Plague are major influences on Kuan’s Wonderland; the Clinic for Potokans is named ‘Oran’ after the city where the story of The Plague is set.

Dante’s Vision of Hell (from The Divine Comedy): The 9 Circles of Challenge mirror Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell (hence the use of names such as Minos, Asterion, and Antaeus). What for the Mauveans merits the highest honour is therefore the most unforgivable.

Elephantium: Comparable to any substantial energy-producing substance which has many harmful side-effects, and which enables those who have control over it to enrich themselves and dominate others.

Father: The psychological motif of the novel is the transition from asking, “will father save me?” to “can I save father?”

Guantanamo: A hint to the final destination is given with Kuan, and the two characters who have been steadfast in helping him get to where he will find the truth: Tan and Amo (Note: the ‘K’ in ‘Kuan’ is pronounced ‘G’ in Chinese). A former British resident, Shaker Aamer, was held at the US Guantanamo Bay facilities for over ten years before he was eventually released without ever having been charged with, let alone convicted of, any wrongdoing.

Hades: hell is where the mind is imprisoned with no hope of being released.

• ‘I’m About To Die’: Amadeus’ most heinous retribution is to trap his victim in the inescapable moment before death, so that one is consumed by ever-lasting despair. It captures the state of mind of arbitrarily held and tortured political prisoners.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (1505-1580): this classic Chinese novel (also known as The Monkey King), often available in comic book versions (like the one Kuan was reading), uses the format of a fantasy adventure to tell the story of someone struggling through a long and trying journey to discover vital truths kept in an inaccessible place.

Kafka, Franz (1883-1924): The Trial is an important influence on Kuan’s Wonderland, but it is from the title of another Kafka novel (with its theme of being inescapably thwarted) that a recurring symbol in our novel is derived – The Castle. Kuan’s predicament follows him on the submarine, FSS Castle; the place known as Schloss 22 (‘schloss’ - German for ‘castle’); Rook Mansion (‘rook’ is another name for ‘castle’ in chess); the city of Bastille (‘bastille’ - French for ‘castle’); and with Dr Erica Lee in jeopardy on Chengbao Island (‘chengbao’ - Chinese for ‘castle’).

Long March (1934-1935): The chapter heading ‘Long March’ (referring to the difficult journey for Dr Lee and the Potokans to escape to Chengbao Island) alludes to the historical Long March when the Communists in China, being hunted down by their enemy, escaped on foot over some 12,500 kilometers (8,000 miles) over 370 days. Around 7,000 of the 100,000 soldiers who began the march made it to the end.

Moon: a recurring motif about painful separations. The poem by Su Shi (1037-1011), referred to by Dao in the novel, contains this final stanza,
“人有悲歡離合,
月有陰晴圓缺,
此事古難全。
但願人長久,
千里共嬋娟”
“People may be joyful or sad, together or kept apart,
The moon may be bright or dim, full or hidden from view,
This unavoidably is how it has always been.
Let us hope we endure,
And though far from each other, we can in unison admire the lunar beauty.”

New Beginning: The prophecy of Amadeus demands for its own fulfilment the cleansing of all impure elements in Shiyan so that an imagined past can commence again. It is a staple of religious and ideological charlatans.

Orwell, George (1903-1950): Animal Farm as a political fable in part inspires Kuan’s Wonderland, but it is 1984 which is most strongly echoed. Can you spot where ‘1984’ is displayed in the novel?

Peterloo Massacre: when Dao mentions the name of his uncle, ‘Peter Lu’, to Kuan, the latter is reminded of the Peterloo Massacre, a historical incident that took place at St Peter's Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a crowd estimated to be around 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation (15 civilians were killed and 500-600 were injured).

Quantum Level Nebula: Amo’s home turns out not to be in some far off nebula, but in a tiny space far closer than Kuan could have expected.

Reflectors: This ubiquitous technology, embedded in every reflective surface in Shiyan to transmit and receive all forms of signal, is a reminder of how communications are widely monitored and manipulated in contemporary society.

Shiyan: The name of our dystopian world means ‘experiment’ in Chinese. At one level it represents the plutocratic experiment initiated by Dao (serving as a warning to countries such as China which in embracing it, risks creating oppressive divisions). At a deeper level, it is an experiment for Kuan to see if turning his back on the world he has left behind is a feasible way to cope with the tragedy in his life.

Typewriter: The typewriter motif points to the reason why an innocent person is wrongfully imprisoned in the story. It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, and a downside of that is that anyone typing out unwelcome words can end up being locked up without charge for years.

• “Underground spirits and their reflected sound”: This phrase comes from Terry Pratchett’s word play on ‘economics’ in The Colour of Magic (1983). In our novel, Kuan asked if it was true that such spirits were responsible for bringing Potokans into the world. In fact, it is precisely the economic system that is the cause.

Vortex of Charybdis: The vortex signifies the danger of death by drowning, and is part of the series of incidents throughout the novel which eventually led Kuan to the realisation of what the eerie splashing sound he heard was about.

Wuchang Tearoom: The Tearoom where Kuan met up with Agent Tan to talk about the “mission” gets its name from the Wuchang Uprising of 1911, which heralded the Xinhai Revolution to end the Qing Dynasty and replace it by the Republic of China.

Xian: The character of Chief Engineer Xian (the one with the leopard head atop her human body) shows how dedication to a patriotic or environmental cause can be manipulated into serving the opposite if one does not question what one is being asked to do by those in more powerful positions.

Yearning: Kuan’s and Amo’s yearning to regain the life they have lost provides the emotional engine for our story, propelling us to the shock revelation of what has in truth been lost.

Zamenhof particles: The name given to the particles, which supposedly enable diverse beings to communicate with each other in Shiyan, is derived from Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), the inventor of Esperanto (the international language).

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