Book Reviews and Highlights

New Waves

Kevin Nguyen

  • Asian American
  • Fiction
  • Humorous
  • Literary
  • Satire
  • “It is dangerous to go alone. Take this!”—THE LEGEND OF ZELDA
  • Epigraph | Page: vii
  • I’d known her for a while and she was often angry, but it was the good kind: usually a vivid, infectious sort of fury— smart, spirited, just the right amount of snarky— aimed at institutions, structures, oppressors.
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 4
  • No person should ever trust that their personal information is going to be protected by a company. The place was managed by a mixture of twentysomethings with little work experience and a handful of computer- illiterate adults brought in to babysit them.
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 7
  • The office happy hours and the posture that this wasn’t a workplace, but a family— just ways the company could trick me into thinking I was valuable, instead of actually treating me like a person with any worth.
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 8
  • “Fuck every single person that’s disrespected us. Like, fuck every man that did not take my opinion seriously because I’m a woman. And especially fuck every white dude who has tried to talk to me about hip- hop.”
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 8
  • “Fuck everyone that assumed I was an engineer because I’m Asian. But really, fuck all the Asian engineers who treated me like I was worth less than garbage because I’m not an engineer, like that’s all we’re supposed to be.”
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 9
  • “Fuck every person who came to me to ask if something was racist, as if my job was to be the racism barometer.”
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 9
  • We like to point the finger at computers because they are incapable of feeling shame.
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 11
  • Because what do we value more: a thing done quickly, or a thing done well?
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 11
  • At the end of the day, though, we never ask about the person who wrote the algorithm. We never ask who they are, or what perspective they bring to it, because we want to believe technology is neutral. No biases or fallibility should be allowed to infiltrate it, even if the authors themselves are biased and fallible (and they always are). An algorithm is just a set of rules that works in a system. A system that works quickly and without prejudice.
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 12
  • It is their duty, he says, to have a family, to continue the existence of the human race. They have a responsibility. Father and mother to a new generation. The woman laughs. Duty? Responsibility? This is what people believed on the old planet. This, here, is a new planet. This is an opportunity, not a do-over. The man doesn’t understand. And the woman leaves the man behind. She sets off toward the jungle to live her own damn life.
  • Chapter I: New York 2009 | Page: 17
  • A memorialized Facebook account was preserved in stasis, frozen in time like a caveman in ice. Deletion was, on the other hand, a complete erasure.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 18
  • New York usually smelled like lukewarm garbage, but the cemetery was fresh.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 21
  • The leather couch, situated in front of an ancient TV set, had deep, deep creases—imprints from decades of asses.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 22
  • Your worth in the PORK community was determined by what you said and how you acted, not how you appeared to your peers. Online, I was not the chubby, acne-covered Chinese Vietnamese kid who moved through the halls unnoticed, invisible. On PORK, I had a voice.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 27
  • You quickly learned the ropes or you were toast. It turns out all communities—whether in real life or on the internet—function mostly the same. There were rules and hierarchies.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 28
  • Sure, a lot of people used anonymity on the internet to be assholes. For Margo, it was the opposite: the opportunity not to be burdened by the real-life things that weighed her down.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 31
  • I suppose that’s all databases are: cells of information, organized into rows and columns. So much of the world’s information—from bank accounts to Social Security numbers, all the ways we define people’s lives—is collected in two-dimensional grids that can be opened by the free spreadsheet software that comes with your college computer.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 31
  • PEOPLE SOMETIMES CALL THE subway system the arteries of New York, but that would presume the city had a heart.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 32
  • We were encouraged to answer as many emails as we could as quickly as possible, but also to add “personal touches” to our communications wherever we could, to make the customer feel cared for. This meant pasting a robotic response from a script, then making it human by adding a ;) to the end. Basically, do things as efficiently as possible but also, please, have a heart about it.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 33
  • White people often took pride in identifying which kind of Asian I was. On more than one occasion, people have tried to tell me I looked Korean, as if this was something I could be convinced of. When I told Margo how often this happened, she explained that white people spent an exorbitant amount of their energy saying racist things to prove they weren’t racist.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 36
  • (Later, when I described this exchange to Margo, she would ask me why men were so inspired by their ex-girlfriends, the women they had treated like shit.)
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 37
  • “I like all arcade games. I enjoy how cynical these machines are. The incentive behind making them is to suck as many quarters out of a player as quickly as possible. So there’s an adversarial relationship between the software and the user, but you have to design it in such a way that the player never notices.”
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 43
  • “What does it mean that the world’s most popular devices have been designed by and for the elite white men in Silicon Valley? Is this the new colonialism, a modern form of oppression that imposes the values and perspective of white men on the world?”
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 45
  • In the office, I am assumed to be industrious, efficient, quiet—like the engine of a Prius, humming along.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 51
  • The strangest part of being Asian in America is that you never have to prove how hardworking you are. People just assume you were born with a great work ethic, or that your stoic, disciplinarian parents beat it into you at a young age.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 51
  • “It’s a difficult time to find a job, but you’ll always be rewarded if you’re persistent. Many students think that just because they’ve earned a bachelor’s degree they’re entitled to a job.” Little did she know, I hadn’t even earned the right to feel entitled.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 61
  • “Success comes to those who are confident and organized.”
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 63
  • That’s what racism in the workplace looked like. You could feel it everywhere—in your brain, in your heart, in your bones—but you could never prove it.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 66
  • The message read: “You were always kind of a bitch, but I’ll miss you.” What the hell? What comfort did this person get from calling Margo a bitch after she had died? I thought about replying and telling him that he was an asshole. That would be a wake-up call, having a ghost tell you to go fuck yourself.
  • Chapter II: M4v15B34c0n | Page: 70
  • Listen, I don’t need someone to confirm I ran twenty-six miles. I’ll just go the distance myself.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 80
  • My feelings and sentiments were represented through files, through things made by others on the internet: links, mp3s, JPEGs. Employing the work of others to get around having to convey it yourself was a huge crutch of communicating on the internet.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 85
  • GROWING UP, A PACKAGE would arrive in the mail for my father every three months. It was notable just as mail—he rarely received anything by post—and notable for its contents: always a pair of VHS tapes, bundled together, the packaging emblazoned with the soft photography and swirly type announcing Paris by Night.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 93
  • Like everyone else in the office, I was pretending to work, headphones on but playing no music, listening to the argument but staying out of it.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 97
  • Like all arguments between angry men in a workplace, the disagreement became circular, then personal, then unresolvable.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 98
  • It reminded me of an online avatar, a small square picture meant to represent an entire person.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 100
  • The bartender did not love that I was paying for our next drinks in quarters, partly because, by this point of drunkenness, it took me forever to count them. But she was patient, if annoyed, and I appreciated that. I tipped her twelve quarters.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 107
  • But when she’d look at the world more broadly you could see her trying to piece it all together, but it was just too much at times. Systems of sexism, systems of racism, systems of social class, all interlocking and tugging at each other in different directions. And the engineer part of her brain couldn’t stop trying to understand and solve those things. Too much for one person.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 109
  • “Margo was too brilliant to be happy.”
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 109
  • There is an expression people make when they realize you are less educated than them. It’s not a disappointed or judgmental face—just surprise. They often think they have to realign the way they talk. They want to speak on your level (as if anyone who didn’t go to a four-year college is on a different level), but they’re also aware enough of how they sound that they don’t want to come across as condescending. Which they inevitably do, because they just end up making small talk.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 112
  • This is what investors loved: people who solve problems. It didn’t matter what the problem was, or who might have created that problem in the first place. The basis of all technology was founded around the idea of solving for X, regardless of what X was.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 114
  • Sometimes I wondered if I hung on to my music library because it meant something to me, or if it was just because I’d put so much work into it.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 118
  • Grief isn’t just the act of coping with a loss. It’s reckoning with the realization that you’ll never discover something new about a person ever again. Here it was, though. Something new.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 134
  • Because in the end, Mars is just like any other planet: a giant mass of garbage that orbits through space, barely able to sustain human life.
  • Chapter III: Personal Effects | Page: 138
  • The phenomena—the waves—come as sudden and unexpected symptoms: shortness of breath, tightness of muscles, choking, weakness.
  • Chapter V: Mavis Beacon | Page: 156
  • “But isn’t affordable housing for actual poor people?” And maybe not intended for a well-educated white girl from a middle-class family in the suburbs? I didn’t say it.
  • Chapter V: Mavis Beacon | Page: 167
  • We work in tech, an industry that fetishizes failure. We celebrate men who start companies and fail spectacularly. People who run startups that don’t work out—they are lauded as men who have come out smarter and more confident for it. It’s not even failing upwards. It’s failing…omnidirectionally.
  • Chapter V: Mavis Beacon | Page: 170
  • It’s the privilege of being the most intimidating engineer in the office. Who is going to mess with me if I’m obviously the best programmer here?
  • Chapter V: Mavis Beacon | Page: 171
  • I resented the way Emil described his algorithm as needing to be fed, as if it were hungry, as if it were a person—more a person than the people downstairs who were literally hungry and using our meager pay for actual food.
  • Chapter V: Mavis Beacon | Page: 172
  • “Humans will never commit to something forever. But they will do a dumb thing as long as you keep stringing them along,” Jill said. “Like my exes.”
  • Chapter V: Mavis Beacon | Page: 183
  • People always talk about romantic relationships as being more than friends. What if friendship is actually the greater form of connection? What if being close to someone doesn’t require being physical? What if, actually, it’s better if it isn’t? What if there are people more important than the ones you sleep with?
  • Chapter V: Mavis Beacon | Page: 186
  • But while disease was not a man-made problem, everything else was. In fact, it seemed like the eras of prosperity bred the most inequality. Wealth created poverty; inequity instigated war. People loved killing one another to further themselves. It was the only thing that human beings could do efficiently.
  • Chapter V: Mavis Beacon | Page: 194
  • Ah, “pollution”—such a great euphemism when really what we mean is the consequence of humanity.
  • Chapter V: Mavis Beacon | Page: 195
  • Ethnic food, especially at the time, was considered gross by Americans. It was inferior cuisine made by inferior people, so it could at least be cheap. But having been born in Tokyo, the wrestler realized he could wield that foreignness if it was exoticized. Impress diners with the outlandish, otherworldly appeal of the East, and customers would pay up.
  • Chapter VI: Human Resources | Page: 198
  • Unlike any other kind of Asian food, be it Chinese or Korean or Vietnamese, Japanese food was seen as a high-end cuisine. It was respected, revered. You could charge real money for it too. And what was more American than that?
  • Chapter VI: Human Resources | Page: 200
  • We’d created an environment that rewarded people for being as efficient as possible, rather than thoughtful.
  • Chapter VI: Human Resources | Page: 211
  • “I did everything I was supposed to do. I studied hard. I got good grades. I graduated with fucking honors. And still, not a single job I applied for even bothered to call me back.”
  • Chapter VI: Human Resources | Page: 211
  • “—Most of these were subjective, though, on top of being near-impossible to gauge in the first place, so advisors’ reports always showed progress—”
  • Chapter VI: Human Resources | Page: 212
  • “We take no responsibility for users on Phantom anymore. We produce the platform, the technology that people use. We’re not accountable for how people use it.”
  • Chapter VI: Human Resources | Page: 224
  • “Plus, I can’t go out and raise money from investors and tell them that half of the people I just hired are on the customer support team.”“Why not?”“Because a tech company is supposed to be making technology, not apologizing for it.”
  • Chapter VI: Human Resources | Page: 225
  • Decades pass and the situation on Earth doesn’t improve. In fact, things only get worse, and after witnessing years of violent, cruel, and selfish human behavior from space, the tribunal comes to the conclusion that man’s only achievement is the ability to inflict pain and suffering upon itself. People are irredeemable. The planet is doomed. The smartest thing the tribunal can do, it decides, is to put the human race out of its misery.
  • Chapter VI: Human Resources | Page: 226
  • But I knew exactly where Brandon had gotten those email addresses. I hadn’t a single doubt where they came from.
  • Chapter VI: Human Resources | Page: 234
  • ACCORDING TO MEN, MEN need to be heard. This is why they approach women at bars. They think they’re making conversation, but really, they want to do most of the talking. It’s not so much about getting in your pants—well, they want to sleep with you too, but their needs don’t stop there. They need to be listened to, validated. This is why they will tell you stories at a bar. Men want not just your affection, but your approval. They will buy you drinks in hopes of getting one of those things, or both. It’s transactional. And on some nights, it’s even a fair trade. I’ll take that free drink and I’ll listen to your sad story because I am broke as hell. People say they “need” a drink. Nobody needs a drink.
  • Chapter VII: Six Weeks at the Crystal Palm | Page: 245
  • We kept arguing. Michael made technology; he wasn’t responsible for what people did with it. I told him he did if he profited.
  • Chapter VII: Six Weeks at the Crystal Palm | Page: 268
  • The white girl that Kevin spent the show attempting to woo was named Winnie.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 276
  • “It was a nickname,” he said, noting that our Vietnamese last name was sometimes pronounced “win” after it was bastardized into English.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 277
  • Perhaps that was the greatest fiction of TV, that hearts could be won over with enough hard work, that romance followed the same ideals as capitalism.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 277
  • But I knew I couldn’t let it go. Which was worse: The Vietnam War, an atrocity that killed three million people, boiled down to a stupid plot device on a mediocre TV show? Or that we were watching a mediocre TV show that encouraged boys to take advantage of vulnerable girls? I got up from the couch and exited the room, fully aware that I was no longer the sort of person capable of letting anything go.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 278
  • I’d hoped leaving behind all my material possessions would mean leaving behind all the things I’d become: a cruel friend, a workplace creep, an alcoholic. Or maybe I was all those things to begin with.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 279
  • “I thought I was building something meaningful, but I’d sold out my ideals from the beginning.”
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 282
  • A company with incredible ambitions to catalog the world’s information in all its forms—hiring and exploiting some of the world’s greatest minds with innovative ways to do so—couldn’t come up with a more creative way to use that information than sell ads.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 282
  • always found that image funny, that a piece of software could be given some kind of sailor’s funeral, its remains placed in a boat, pushed into the sea to drift toward a setting sun.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 284
  • Digging through those containers of old gadgets felt like excavating years of consumer technology, each layer of goods representing an era of human progress in the way sedimentary rock formations show their age by strata.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 284
  • Technology has improved human life in every capacity—if you are a person of certain means. And from the rise of enhanced human beings emerges a new kind of caste system, one that favors, if not reinforces, the wealthy and the elite.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 294
  • With the organics in power, the country has been riddled with corruption and fraud. Leaders have come and gone, betrayed by their own staff in the selfish pursuit of power.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 298
  • In the half century that M4V15 has spent reestablishing her rule, making careful moves toward reclaiming Japan, the original M4V15 has settled into a simple life as a cook in a small restaurant. It is confusing. With all the computing power in her head, M4V15 cannot make sense of it.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 300
  • The boy is there, as he always is. But he is no longer a boy. He is an old man, graying and wrinkled. He has scars from years of working farmland to raise money for M4V15’s cause; wounds from years of fighting at her side. His unwavering loyalty has led him to this moment, quietly drinking sake at a small diner.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 300
  • “Not everything is necessary. Some things are meant to be enjoyed,” the original M4V15 says.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 300
  • Science fiction attempts to do the opposite—create an oppressive world that is incongruous with the humans that move through it.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 301
  • There’s an optimism here that you don’t see from Margo, the idea that people can become more than who they are.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 301
  • I’ve realized that it is a very human thing to try and solve things, even when we know they can’t be solved. We try so hard to fix things, to do everything in our power to make things better, when in reality, all we need to do is trust that time and space sort everything out.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 302
  • But that didn’t stop me from refreshing my inbox for the millionth time, awaiting her reply.
  • Chapter VIII: Tokyo 2011 | Page: 303