Archives in Fiction: The Descent of Monsters
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
[Update 8/20/21: The article has been updated to reflect the author's name change.]
Neon Yang's Tensorate series has quickly become one of my go-to literary recommendations to any friends, family, or strangers who want - nay - desire to know what I've been reading in the finite amount of free time I have. Yang's novellas are bittersweet pleasures in that they're short enough to read quickly, but their brevity makes me want to know more about the brutal silkpunk world of the Protectorate. Thankfully, Yang wastes nothing where their narrative is concerned. The novellas are impactful and to the point, but given the nature of this website my attention is quickly drawn to Yang's use of records and the characters most invested in their authenticity and immortality.
I previously wrote about the brief mention of records in the second novella of the series, The Red Threads of Fortune. Rider, a Quarterlander capable of manipulating the slack - elemental magic - in ways previously unseen, explains their tattoos to the reader's point-of-view character, Mokoya. The tattoos are designed to burn into Rider's bones upon their death, the script a record of Rider's life that cannot be erased by the likes of the Protectorate. It adds another layer of world-building, a brief glimpse into the relationship between marginalized communities, government, and the records that give those communities legitimacy. In The Descent of Monsters, records are at the center of the narrative. They are a tool of power capable of revealing greater truths while simultaneously burying the deepest secrets regardless of who is destroyed in the process.
The Descent of Monsters is primarily an epistolary novella. Where the previous two books were told through the first-person perspectives of Akeha and Mokoya, Descent jumps between documents concerning the investigation of the Rewar Teng Institute, personal letters and journals of Tensor Sariman Chuwan, and the writings of Rider to their twin. All of these pieces weave a tale of experiments gone wrong and a government conspiracy to cover up said experiments by blaming it on the two "terrorists" who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
While the government of the Protectorate has been central to the conflict at the heart of the Tensorate series, Descent of Monsters reveals the more insidious ways those in power manipulate the system in their favor. Chuwan notes this early on when she receives the assignment. What should be a big deal where horrific terrorist attacks are concerned is passed on to a low-level investigator who's never led her own case in the sixteen years she's been working for the Justice Ministry. Any leads Chuwan might have regarding witnesses are dismissed or denied and the one piece of solid testimony obtained is redacted to the point of uselessness. In short, the message is clear: come to the conclusion the Protectorate wants. Sign off on a narrative that doesn't make sense because we won't allow you to go any further.
Rider's presence in the book places a greater focus on legitimacy and truth via records. Caught and accused of being involved in the massacre at the Institute, Rider is repeatedly misgendered in official documents and communications. When initially introduced in Red Threads of Fortune, Rider is referred to as "they," indicating their pronoun of choice as communicated by Mokoya. As a prisoner of the Protectorate, Rider is denied their pronouns, likely by design, which can be interpreted as government and law enforcement purposefully delegitimizing Rider as a person within official documents. Given Rider's origin in the Quarterlands, their status as the lesser - the Other - in comparison to those who live within the Protectorate makes them vulnerable to attack in person and on paper.
This is particularly grating since Rider puts so much emphasis on records as a means of visibility. Records are an indication that a person lived and died. That they were there. And as with the implications made in Red Threads of Fortune, Descent of Monsters doubles down on the ways government officials, and those who consider themselves the custodians of records, are complicit in maintaining a system of oppression.
Rider is also the only character to provide the full visual of their journey into the Institute and what they found in the wake of the massacre. They describe, in great detail, the carnage left behind not only in the full transcript of their interrogation but also in their personal writing. It's a means of sorting through the overwhelming scene that, as the danger appears to grow, becomes "a record of my last hours, in my own words." Rider is fully aware that their body could be obliterated, but their words have the potential to survive beyond the short span of their life. It makes the Protectorate's attempts to silence them all the more infuriating because those truths would be suppressed and Rider's words would be destroyed if delivered into the wrong hands. They merely want to exist in a system that cares nothing for that existence.