The Steamy East for every taste
By William Wetherall
People are people, and fiction is fiction. But as there are different kinds of people, there are different kinds of fiction -- and genres are as controversial as races.
Publishers, like governments with race boxes, label fiction as though the boundaries of the genres were clear. Mostly this is to make life easy for marketing and display -- money being something else that genres and race have in common.
Writers, readers, and critics, though, are not as certain about the distinctions between genres. And there are endless possible combinations, crossovers, and mixtures.
"Steamy East" as super genre
Genres reflect specific interests in theme and exposition. Every genre is typically constrained by subjects and techniques that result in formulae, patterns, structures, and conventions peculiar to the genre.
"Steamy East" is a "super genre" consisting of subsets of other genres. The "Steamy East" subsets of "Crime" and "Historical Romance" and other genres of fiction are defined by settings, characters, and themes having something to do with Asia and/or Asians. Most, but not all, are told through putatively "non-Asian" or "Asian" eyes -- as though the authors believe such viewpoints are possible.
Many genres overlap or cut across each other. Familiar genres change and new genres emerge as publishers determine what labels are most attractive in their niche markets for entertainment, escapist, pot-boiler, popular, mass, or just commercial fiction.
Or "trash", as my mother called them.
"Where did you get that trash?" she would say when catching me reading a pulp pocketbook with a racy cover. In the 1950s all pocketbooks were pulp. Most had covers suggesting things that never happened in the stories, not that I was able to imagine what adults were supposed to imagine.
"From Mr. Mathiesson," I would said. And usually it was true.
Theodore Mathieson (1913) was my 9th grade English teacher in 1955-1956. He was the first teacher to really make an English class come alive. He would show us films like "The Maltese Falcon". And pass out pulp novels to students who got lucky on his quizzes, as I sometimes did.
That year he got a short story published in "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" and quit teaching to write. During the late 1950s and 1960s, quite a few of his stories appeared in EQMM, and a few came out in "Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine" and even "Shell Scott Mystery Magazine".
He also published a few novels and some non-fiction, but by the 1970s he appears to have tappeared off. Some of his stories were anthologized in the 1980s and 1990s. And recently, on the Internet, I discovered a long list of stories that had been translated for Japanese editions of EQMM and related mystery magazines in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I have often wondered if somewhere down the line Mr. Mathiesson didn't have to find another day job. Of course it would have been teaching English. And he would have shown scratchy 16mm Humphrey Bogart flicks and passed out pulp trash.
Here you will find Steamy East titles that do not easily fall into a genre, regardless of whether they will ever be found on MFA program English lit reading lists.
Critics and even publishers commonly differentiate "light fiction" from "serious fiction". The former facilitates escape, sublimataion, and catharsis. The latter lends insight and inspires thought about life and death.
Some people refrain from calling lighter fiction "novels" or even "literature". Light fiction is mostly published as "mass paperbacks" and shelved in bookstores under "Fiction", and unsold copies are destroyed like magazines. Most serious fiction is published in "quality paperbacks" that are shelved under "Literature", and unsold copies can be returned to publishers for resale or remaindering.
In the past, original paperbacks were typically thinner and literally "lighter" than hardcover fiction. Today, many works of light fiction have more pages than literary novels, and even their paperback editions can be quite monstrous and heavy.
The more "general" types of fiction that may be found here include bildungsroman (novel about the growth and development of a fictional individual in a certain society), biographical (a novel about the life of an actual individual), sagas about families or clans or nations, nouveau roman (avant-garde novel that departs from conventions), psychological novel (a novel that reveals character in an introspective manner), roman a clef (a novel which needs a "key" in the form of knowledge about an event or personality to fully understand and appreciate the story) -- among many, many others.
A lot of Steamy East fiction of the "action-adventure" or "adventure romance" genres are of, by, and for closet Indiana Joneses and Rambos. Some titles of the "Action" and/or "Adventure" genres may also be classified as "Thrillers".
"Action" here will mean mostly spying, espionage, insurgency, counterinsurgency, and other kinds of covert operations, and mercenary soldiering and other forms of military adventure. Inevitably, most such stories are of the "men's action" or "men's adventure" sort -- though a few feature macho babes armed to their gills and kicking butt.
"Adventure" stories make up an important genre of Steamy East fiction. The genre overlaps with both "Action" and "Thrillers".
Here, though, "Adventure" will mean mostly stories about archaeological exploration, treasure hunting, finding a lost paradise, or surviving on a tropical island after a shipwreck -- but also the occassional work about sailing, hunting, mountain climbing, and other such outdoor adventure.
"Adventure" will also include "backpack fiction" and other "travel adventure" in which tourists from any country encounter the unexpected while traveling to an unfamiliar country. This, in some sense, is what Steamy East fiction really amounts to for most of its writers and readers.
Crime figures hugely even in novels that might not be classified as "Crime" by genre. Any Steamy East or related novel in which a crime and its investigation are central to the plot will be reviewed here.
Crime novels are stories of mystery and detection about crime. Most crime fiction involves detectives and law enforcement. Stories about crimes solved by police detectives are usually police procedurals. Crimes in PI novels are solved by private investigators or private eyes.
In other crime fiction, crimes are investigated by medical examiners, psychological profilers, forensic artists and anthropologists, and other such professionals. Or they are solved by amateurs.
Most crime novels are of the "whodunit" type and involve murder, sometimes disguised as suicide or accident, sometimes coincident with robbery or rape, sometimes serial. A few crime novels, though, are about other kinds of crimes. "Caper stories" are usually about clever bank robberies, jewelry heists, or art thefts and the like.
In "detective" fiction, a police or private detective solves the crime. In "mystery fiction" involving a crime, the protagonist is usually an amateur. Mystery fiction not involving a crime or law enforcement is classifed under "Mystery" in the more general sense of "Suspense".
Novels featuring courtroom dramas involving law enforcement people, such as public prosecutors or defense attorneys in criminal cases, will be covered here. Stories involving attorneys in other situations are treated as "Legal thrillers" under "Thrillers".
While "Steamy East" may suggest ardent, burning, passionate, torrid sex in a humid cauldron of humanity somewhere in Asia -- and while sex is rarely absent in Steamy East fiction (or in any literature, for that matter) -- very few Steamy East novels qualify as "Erotica".
Erotic fiction, as a genre, features stories that focus on sexual encounters. Portrayals of sexual behavior run from non-explicit and sensual to more passionate and pornographic -- but whatever the plot, is is mostly wrapped around sex -- not the other way around.
The sex can be committed, casual, purchased, or coerced. It can be consensually or unilaterally violent. And it can range from boringly normal to shockingly abnormal.
Hardcore "adult" erotic fiction runs the entire gamut of "normal" acts and "deviant" fetishes. There are subgenres for every taste -- heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgender, swingers, and BDSM. The more violent subgenres include rape (sometimes by stalkers or kidnappers) and torture (usually by male captors of female prisoners-of-war). The most deviant themes, in the sense that they violate the strictest taboos or are simply repulsive, are scatology, incest, bestiality, and necrophilia.
A number of Steamy East novels are of the "Historical fantasy" or "Futuristic fantasy" variety. The twain sometimes meet where the line between "Fantasy" and "Science fiction" is fuzzy or where these two genres overlap. "Science fiction" titles that involve more fantasy than science will be found here.
Fiction labeled "Fantasy" is usually just that. There is no attempt to explain "fantastic" phenomena in scientific or even pseudoscientific terms. One simply believes in magic or angels or dragons or whatever.
Attempts to draw a sharp line between "Fantasy" and "Science fiction" require differentiating "fantasy" not only from "science" but also from fiction". This semantic trap becomes all the more difficult to escape when "science" itself is regarded as a foundation for "faith" or "belief".
Both "Fantasy" and "Science fiction" are speculative fiction -- "speculation" meaning something conjectured, supposed, guessed, or imagined as opposed to something known for certain to be real. Here, too, the semantics become convoluted, as ultimately one has to believe in the certainty that some things are real or true.
Writers imagine they know things and believe they can convey what they think they know to readers. In this sense, all fiction -- and perhaps non-fiction as well -- is fantasy.
Different kinds of unfamiliar worlds
"Fantasy" and "Science fiction" transport us into somewhat different kinds of unfamiliar worlds.
"Science fiction" is supposed to be based on the laws of nature that govern science, and account for scientific knowledge and understanding, in the familiar world. Fictional gravity is still gravity. It may work differently, according to an extrapolated, possibly very far-fetched version of present-day gravitational theory. But fictional gravity will still be accountable to scientific thinking, however fictional or pseudo.
"Fantasy", though, can behave according to its own laws of nature. Divination, supernatural forces, and even divine intervention are possible. Paranormal and occult phenomena abound. Scientific explanations are eschewed if not unwelcome. Survival in the world of fantasy requires suspension or even rejection of scientific thinking. The currency of pure fantasy are romantic faith and belief.
There is some tendency, especially among people disenchanted with science and technology, to embrace beliefs in paranormal phenomena and other elements of fantasy as having a scientific basis. Consequenty, some categorical "Science fiction" has more fantasy than science.
See "Science fiction" for further comments about distinctions between "Fantasy" and "Science fiction".
While every genre could have historical, contemporary, and future sub-categories, under "Historical" fiction we will include any general fiction set in the past.
Most fiction set in the future will be under "Fantasy" or "Science fiction". Speculative historical fiction, involving alternative outcomes of war, is under "War". General fiction set in the future is under "General fiction".
"Historical romance" is under "Romance". And any fiction with a "Western" feel to it, including "Western Romance", will be under "Western".
Historical fiction related to a particular country will be classified under the country by period. In Japan this will be Jomon, Heian, Edo and the like. In China this will be Qin, Han, Tang, Ming, Qing and the like. China, Korea, and Japan all have "warring states" periods. Labels like "ancient" and "medieval" also cut across geographical classifications.
"Victorian" as a metaphor
"Victorian" fiction is set in roughly the time of Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901. This period is roughly contemporaenous with the last three decades of the Edo (1600-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods.
British Victorian society had an impact on life in other parts of the world, including India, Hong Kong, and Japan in the late 19th century. Hence "Victorian" might also serve as a metaphor for works of Steamy East fiction set in such places in late 19th century.
"Plantation" fiction dealing with interracial romance in the slave states of the United States will be under "Romance". Fiction involve live on plantations in Asia, including Hawaii, will be found here.
Not many Steamy East titles are of the "Horror" or "Horror fantasy" variety. Horror stories are meant to keep readers constantly on edge with fear of encountering ghosts, the walking dead, vampires, and all manner of monsters associated with a place or occassion.
The terrifying creature could be a human incarnate of evil itself. Or might be just a passive host of an evil spirit that requires exorcising. Haunted houses, graveyards full of restless and revengeful souls, and supernatural forces that possess and destroy, are a must.
Not many Steamy East novels will qualify for review here. A few, though, have plots that are heavily inspired by Buddhist, Christian, New Age, or other views of life of a religious or quasi-religious nature.
Martial arts series, and standalone works in which martial arts figure in the plot as opposed to being merely instrumental in action, will be reviewed here. The proximity of this genre to "Inspirational" is not to be taken lightly, as martial arts are often presented as philosophies and ways of life.
Mysteries involving crimes, whether solved by police or private investigators or by amateurs, are under "Crime". All other mysteries are here.
"Romance" probably leads the pack of popular fiction genres in terms of new titles if not total sales -- judging from catalogs of new paperback releases and the shelves of bookshops that sell and exchange used paperbacks. There are many subgenres, and most have one or two Steamy East titles, but the steamiest are probably those with "Historical romance" on the spine.
Steamy East "Western Romance" novels, though "Romance" in the sense that they are written mostly about women, by and for women, have been put under "Western" because they. All other "Romance" subgenres, however, will be found here.
Romance no longer romantic
"Romance" has come a long way since medieval tales like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an unknown author during the 14th century, or Le Morte D'Arthur, another work of Arthurian literature, by Sir Thomas Malory (c1405-1471). Luo Guanzhong's saga Sanguo yinyi (14th century) is also appropriately translated as Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Ivanhoe (1819) by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) is an early modern classic romance. Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) recevied the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for Gone With the Wind (1936), which also qualifies as a "romance" in the earlier sense of the word -- in reference to stories that are quixotic and sentimental in the way they narrate history and portray the human condition -- particularly chivalrous heroes who rescue women in distress.
Definitions of "relationship"
During the 20th century, the term "romance" was hijacked by publishers of fiction that focused on female relationships, mostly with men, sometimes with other women. The shortest definition of "relationship" is "sex". A somewhat longer defition is "what one has to endure before, during, and after sex".
Changes in the "before" and "after" over the years possibly account for the tendency of titles of "Regency" and "Historical" and "Western" romance to be longer than "Contemporary" titles. Elaborate 18th, 19th, and even early 20th century courting rituals have been simplified to lines like -- "Hey, what are you doing tonight?" -- she said.
"Contemporary" romance blossomed with the popularity of Harlequin romances of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, many publishing companies put out series in which a new title is released every month or bi-weekly, even weekly. Series titles are generally on the thin side, usually fewer than 200 pages -- whereas general "Historical" and "Western" romance titles run twice as long and are less likely to be parts of numbered series.
The roots of darker "Gothic romance" go back to the 17th century. "Gothic romance" is really an oxymoron, as writers of "gothic" fiction set out to replace the brighter hope of "romance" with a darker more macabre vision of life.
A good mid-19th century example is Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Written in 1846 and first published in 1847 under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, its drama unfolds in an old castle in northern England in the early 19th century, and the castle ends in ruins.
Regency romance traces its ancestry to early 19th century novels like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, written between 1796 and 1813 and first completely published in 1813. The story in set in England around the time of the English Regency -- politically 1811-1820, though in present-day parlance "Regency" alludes to the social and cultural conventions of the period from the 1790s to the 1820s.
The bolder more adventuristic sort of early 20th century historical romance descended from 18th and 19th century "bodice rippers" in which plump women were ravished by lovers at least once between the covers, sometimes in a chair or under a tree, or on a pirate ship in the Caribbean. All concerned parties, especially the reader, were too impatient to wait for the petticoats and corsets to come off.
Most early romances of this kind seem to have been written by men, and were probably read as much by men as by women -- as the hero could just as well be a surrogate for the male reader with fantasies of conquest. From the middle of the 20th century, however, the genre was revived as a form of fiction of, by, and for women -- in which the heroine was clearly a surrogate for readers with fantasies of surrending to muscular hunks with passionate eyes only for them.
As some students of romance fiction have pointed out, the most conspicuous difference between the stories then and now, is that then readers got a little sex between all the swash, whereas now they get a little swash between all the sex. The writing today is probably no worse, if one takes into account changes in the standards of editing and reading.
Whatever the merits of "Romance" as a category of "women's fiction", publishers make it easy for fans to find in bookstores. Booksellers have no trouble recognizing such fiction, in order to keep it at least an aisle away from real "Literature" or "Fiction" or "Novels".
Genji as a prototype Steamy East romance
The Tale of Genji, written in the 11th century, may qualify as a "romance" in both the classical and present-day sense of the word. It is an epic generational saga, full of relationships, laughter and tears, love sweet and bitter.
The swash and sex in Genji are suggested, sensual, and seamless. The encounters between Genji and his lovers, and the rivalries between Genji's son and grandson, were narrated by Murasaki Shikubu -- possibly inspired by personal or rumored encounters in her own life. And the prose and poetry that flowed in cursive script from the tip of her brush told stories she imagined other women would like to read.
"Science fiction" and "Fantasy" overlap as genres of imaginative or speculative fiction. Some people are fans of both, and some writers cross or mix the genres. Some Hugo and Nebula awards for sci-fi have gone to fantasy works. Some people even prefer to say "SF" to "sci-fi" since it can mean "science and fantasy" fiction or "speculative fiction".
Science fiction usually features imaginary advances of science and technology in the future, though some stories are set in the present or past, or the action moves between one and another time zone. Since stories typically portrary the condition of human life in their fictional times and settings, the genre has been popular as a vehicle for political and social criticism.
Novels that involve speculative science and technology and their effects on the human condition, or the imagined effects of actual science or technology on a real or imagined society, will be treated here. Stories with plots in which paranormal abilities like mind-reading or transporting are attributed to science or quasiscience will also be included here.
However, stories with plots which depend too heavily on the reader simply believing in paraphenomena like miracles or angels or fabulous beasts, or esp, remote viewing, channelling or other psychic powers, will be found under "Fantasy". See "Fantasy" for further comments about distinctions between "Fantasy" and "Science fiction".
Any fictional work that presents page after suspenseful page of fast-paced action could be called a "Thriller" regardless of whether its characters lack development. Some thrillers are called simply "Suspense" -- but all literature -- all writing -- is supposed to induce sufficient tension and anticipation to compel readers to read until the end.
Many works with other genre names, or simply "Fiction" or "Novel" on their spine, are also "Thrillers". All works here, though, present thrills not specifically related to "Crime" or "War" or "Romance" or other such genres.
Steamy East novels involving economic or industrial espionage, or political intrigue, are found here -- as are those featuring lawyers (legal thrillers), doctors (medical thrillers), or scientists in some sort of suspenseful, action-packed plots.
Techno-thrillers are found here. Forensic and serial killer thrillers are found under "Crime". Intellectual spy and espionage novels are found here, but the "male action" variety of such stories are under "Action", as are most "military thrillers". Romantic thrillers of the "Romantic Suspense" and "Historical romance" variety are under "Romance".
Steamy East novels related to actual or fictive wars on Earth, involving only human nations, will be found here. Novels about wars involving invasions of Earth by aliens, or wars between planets or galaxies, will be found under "Science fiction".
Actual wars not having their own section are under "Other wars". Novels set in POW camps are under "Prisoners of war". Novels speculating what would have happened "if" an actual war had ended differently are under "Alternative history". Novels about World War III and other imaginary wars, most of which are set in the future, are under "Fictive wars".
Here is a short list of the civil wars, revolutionary wars, regional wars, and world wars that been stages for Steamy East fiction.
Taiwan Expedition -- 1874
Sino-Japanese War -- 1894-1895
Spanish-American War -- February-December (April-June) 1898.
Russo-Japanese War -- 1904-1905
The Great War -- 1914-1918
-- Later called "World War I"
East Asian War -- 1931-1945
-- Also called "Second Sino-Japanese War"
-- Also called "Greater East Asian War"
-- Also called "Fifteen-year War
World War II -- 1939-1935
Chinese Revolutionary War -- 1945-1949
Pacific War -- 1941-1945
Korean War -- 1950-1952
Vietnam War -- 1964-1972
Most "Westerns" are set in territories that are now part of the western United States, though some are partly staged in western Canada or in parts of Mexico along the border with the United States.
"Westerns" have never been only about "cowboys and Indians". Many feature conflicts involving other settlers, including Orientals, in western North America.
The peopling of the Americas
All humans, in all countries, are settlers. The only issue is who came first, and the politicization of this issue has effected the "political correctness" of "Westerns", including "Western Romance".
It is clear that "Indians" represent the people who first came to, and settled in, the Americans, from Asia and the Pacific. However, this does not explain how the Americas came to be occupied as they were when "discovered" by Europeans.
Calling Indians "Native Americans" does not explain how, over several millennia, numerous peoples already settled in the Americas continued to migrate, and clash with the elements and each other, until -- by the time Europeans came to stay in the late 15th century -- they consisted of thousands of tribes, territorially niched, speaking a few hundred languages, and engaged in intermittent if not continual conflict with neighboring tribes.
There is substantial evidence of transatlantic migration to the Americas before Columbus, though the political, religious, and demographic invasion of the New World by Europeans didn't really begin until after his "discovery". While some Africans freely migrated to the New World, most were brought as slaves.
There is more speculation than incontrovertible proof that some Jomon people, from what is today Japan, made early crossings to North America. And many books have argued, again with not a great deal of unequivocal evidence, that a number of Chinese made pre-Columbian crossings to the Americas.
Historically, though, the first Orientals in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and Westcoast of the Americas were fishermen and others brought by the European or American ships which had rescued them at sea. Later, especially during and after the Gold Rush in California, Chinese and Japanese steamed into San Francisco and other North American ports, from which they migrated and settled throughout the United States and Canada.
Chinese migration to the Americans begins much early than this, however. Chinese and Filipinos apparently reached Mexico on ships of the Manila galleon in the 1600s. And in the 1830s, there were Chinese "sugar masters" in Hawaii and Chinese sailors and peddlers in New York.
Orientals in westerns
Steamy East "Westerns" typically involve Chinatown in San Francisco, or railroad towns, mining camps, and other settlements where Chinese immigrants or migrants worked and lived. The few Japanese who appear in "Westerns" are mostly samarai inspired by the role Mifune Toshio played in "Red Sun" (1972), or a geisha who has somehow strayed into a western town.
Classic "Westerns" are about the romance of life on a western frontier, through the eyes of a man who possessed little more a saddle, spurs, and a six-shooter or two, and who mostly slept with his horse. Not a few titles in the genre today are full of sexual romance, not just suggested but graphically related in ways that would have made most real cowboys blush.