If you’ve been looking for an excellent collection of international speculative fiction—fiction that interrogates humanity’s technological, moral, and, evolutionary trajectory; fiction that doesn’t hesitate to probe our darkest fears and secret desires—if you’ve been looking for something like that, look no further. Such a collection is coming out in April from Rosarium Publishing and it’s called Future Fiction: New Dimensions in International Fiction. Edited by Rosarium’s Bill Campbell and Future Fiction‘s Francesco Verso, this collection brings together speculative fiction that was originally published by Verso’s Italian press. Represented here are India, Greece, Zimbabwe, China, Italy, the US, Canada, the UK, Russia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Cuba. Of these twelve stories, four are translations: “Creative Surgery” by Clelia Farris (translated from the Italian by Jennifer Delare), “The Quantum Mommy” by Michalis Manolios (translated from the Greek by Manolis Vamvounis), “Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu), and “Grey Noise” by Pepe Rojo (translated from the Spanish by Andrea Bell).
There’s speculative fiction, and then there’s speculative fiction that’s been kicked up several levels. You’ll find the latter when you read stories like James Patrick Kelly’s “Bernardo’s House,” Farris’s “Creative Surgery,” Tendai Huchu’s “Hostbods,” and Efe Tokunbo’s absolutely brilliant “Proposition 23.” As with any good collection of speculative fiction, you’ll find a range of stories, from SF and fantasy, to magical realism and horror, and many combinations of those subgenres. That, to me, is what makes “speculative fiction” such a fascinating and elastic label: it encompasses a wide range of literary approaches and encourages us to see these stories in terms of what they say about humanity’s future and its destiny. From Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean, these stories exhibit the breadth and variety of speculative writing across cultures and languages.
Some of the stories, including Kelly’s “Bernardo’s House,” Carlos Hernandez’s “The International Studbook of the Giant Panda,” Manolios’s “The Quantum Mommy,” Huchu’s “Hostbods,” Rojo’s “Grey Noise,” and Tokunbo’s “Proposition 23,” focus on the complex and often troubling intersection of humans and machines. “International Studbook,” “Grey Noise,” and “Proposition 23,” in particular, feature human characters who interface with some sort of AI or network that chips away at their sense of sovereignty and individuality. In the first, a reporter is placed in a complicated virtual-reality-type suit which, in combination with mind-altering medications, allows her to “become” a panda bear, with its whole suite of sensory experiences. Though she is warned about what will happen after she takes off the suit, the reporter experiences a crisis of identity, unclear whether she is still a panda or a human. The technology in “Grey Noise” and “Proposition 23,” on the other hand, is miniscule, embedded in the individual characters’ eyes or brains, turning them into a live news feed ("Grey Noise") or a kind of network interface ("Proposition 23"). These devices transform their human hosts into involuntary members of a loose collective—individuals who have lost the ability to exist “off the grid” in any form … that is, if they want to survive in the violent dystopias that their worlds have become.
The two stories in the collection that explore the future of robotic technology—Kelly’s “Bernardo’s House” and Xia’s “Tongtong’s Summer"—offer dueling perspectives on the purposes for which robots could be used. Kelly’s story features a house that is linked to and run by a “female” robot, who acts as housekeeper, cook, mistress, and gardener. Her purpose—to serve Bernardo—cannot be fulfilled because Bernardo hasn’t come around for quite some time (some unspecified disaster has befallen the country? the world?). Kelly expertly narrates the story from her point of view as she struggles to keep herself busy and useful, suggesting that, in the absence of a human director, the robot is becoming more human herself. When a starving, traumatized girl shows up at the house, the robot befriends her, drawing her into itself (the house, the atmosphere) until it’s unclear who is the human and who isn’t.
"Tongtong’s Summer,” though, approaches robotics from a more utilitarian angle, in which humans literally control the robots that are built to care for elderly relatives. Instead of creating androids, the inventors in Xia’s story fashion non-anthropomorphic robots whose faces are screens, which project the faces of real people who are remotely-operating them. In Xia’s vision, humans maintain control over robots, using them as an enhanced method for helping their fellow human beings. “The Quantum Mommy,” meanwhile, raises the issue of technology that can produce humans. When a malfunctioning teleporter replicates a scientist who is supposed to explore Jupiter’s satellite Europa, it unleashes a whole set of scientific and ethical questions about what makes individual humans unique. If an exact (mental and physiological) copy is made of a person, is that copy in some way less human? And what happens when children and spouses are involved?
Other stories, like Farris’s “Creative Surgery” and Swapna Kishore’s “What Lies Dormant,” straddle sci-fi and magical realism, with characters able to weld together body parts from different species ("Creative Surgery) or gather/transfer “life force” because of modified genes ("What Lies Dormant"). With her characteristic deployment of vivid imagery and wry humor, Farris tells the story of a tormented man whose subcutaneous microprocessors allow him to, for instance, successfully weld a swallow’s wing to a spider (with the spider then flying off quite confused). It’s a story about humans altering themselves and other species in a desperate effort to achieve some unattainable ideal. Kishore, though, explores how humans with unique abilities can rise above discrimination and fear to use their powers to heal. Despite their different settings (Italy and India), both stories offer dystopian visions of a warped near-future in which genetic modifications and adaptations expand the realm of human ability.
Ekaterina Sedia’s “Citizen Komarova Finds Love” is the most magical-realist story of the collection, however: here objects in a consignment store take on a life of their own each night, while Citizen Komarova meets every so often with the only survivor of a regiment fighting in the Russian Revolution. Elsewhere, Nina Munteanu’s “The Way of Water” imagines the tragic consequences of rainwater being controlled by international corporations, and Liz Williams’s “Loose Strife” tells the story of a shattered woman whose love for and care of a “baby” is touching precisely because she refuses to acknowledge the true nature of that baby. Tendai Huchu’s “Hostbods” creatively takes up the transfer-of-consciousness trope (also explored in Martin Felipe Castagnet’s Bodies of Summer, tr. Frances Riddle, 2017) and explores it in a socio-economic context.
These are the kinds of stories that will drive you to seek out more to read from each of these writers. Thank you to Bill and Francesco for selecting and publishing these outstanding works of speculative fiction in one convenient anthology. Like the next volume in the Apex Book of World SF series, scheduled to come out later this year, New Dimensions will encourage Anglophone readers to read the best speculative fiction written both within and beyond our borders. Let’s hope that there’s a New Dimensions Volume 2 in the future.