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The Apex Book of World SF 3 cover

So much depends on two words: "world SF." It would be so very tempting to treat The Apex Book of World SF 3 as some sort of primer for the condition of SF writing beyond the UK-US hegemonic axis. Tempting but also deeply inappropriate. What can one story tell us about the shape of publishing in a particular region, or about the SF output from a given country? The answer is, of course, very little. To treat World SF 3 in that fashion is to place a huge and unreasonable burden on the sixteen writers whose work is included in this collection. Better, instead, to think of these as sixteen stories by writers "whose voices deserve to be heard" (p. ix), as Lavie Tidhar points out in his introduction. It may be that at various points their literary concerns will mesh with events in the quotidian world, but this is by no means a given, and nor should it be. Authors have no particular duty to discuss issues pertinent to their countries just because a certain group of readers insists that they become spokespeople.

The very first story in the collection, Benjanun Sriduangkaew's "Courtship in the Country of Machine Gods," serves to underline this point with its very title, which reminds me of the title of an ethnographic text, the kind in which western researchers unapologetically use others' lives as a background for their own dramas of understanding. Ethnography, like history, is generally written by the colonisers. This, though, is a story told from the point of view of the intended victims of the colonial venture. Set in an unspecified future, in an unspecified place, the story is told by Jidri, who witnesses the arrival of the Intharachit, and their attempts to gather information about her people, before participating in the battle to repel their invasion. I read it in part as analogous to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in Central and South America, and their failure to understand that they were dealing with sophisticated cultures. Here, though, the Intharachit do not have the lucky breaks that aided the Spanish. This is not to say that Jidri's people are gentle, peaceful, and uncomprehending, in the way the familiar narrative would demand: they have the measure of the Intharachit from the start and are uncompromising in their efforts to repel the invasion.

But even that description is too simplistic. Sriduangkaew's story is complex and nuanced, setting personal relationships against a greater national need. It poses questions too about the nature of storytelling, questions that will resurface throughout World SF 3. The story she tells fascinates Jidri's listeners, "for they've never known us for anything but peace" (p. 1). At the same time, something is amiss. The listeners object that "[t]he figures of our enemies do not seem real." (p. 2)

"My great-grandmother told of them so," I say and shrug. "Perhaps she was senile." With a motion, I turn the figures into shapes more familiar, shapes more like ours. (p. 2)

That "shapes more familiar, more like ours" stands as a reminder, too, of the perceived pressures on so many writers to write "shapes more like ours"; that is, stories with tropes and images that are familiar to readers in the dominant markets.

The presence of the machine-gods in this story—people work with them by means of Bodhva implants, which allow them to interface directly with the machines—sets up a theme that surfaces time and again throughout the stories in this collection: the relationship between human and machine, and how this shapes identity. This is perhaps most explicit in Fadzlishah Johanabas's "Act of Faith," in which Jamil, who works on the moon, buys his father "an advanced household android," to take care of him while Jamil is away. Daud, or "Abah"—father—as he insists the android call him, sets about humanising the android, now called Sallehuddin.

One might argue that this is a trope that has already been done to death in U.S. golden-age SF—what does it take for a machine to become human? Here Johanabas updates it, using affective computing; that is, the development of systems and devices that can process and simulate human affects. Or, as Sallehuddin puts it, "I am equipped with emotional reaction software. So yes, I can feel." (p. 50) But Johanabas pushes this further, as Daud teaches Sallehuddin to read Arabic, and to read the Quran: "The Quran will enrich you, give you knowledge. You can never have too much of that, you hear." (p. 51) After this, Sallehuddin begins to attend the mosque with Daud, to the consternation of the other worshippers.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a sentimental story about an old man's loneliness transforming an android into a substitute human, but I think that would be to misunderstand what is happening here. Indeed, from Sallehuddin's point of view, it is Jamil who tries to turn him into a substitute son. Instead, this is a story that addresses a sophisticated philosophical point: is there any reason why an android can't be a Muslim? In this respect, Daud is more farsighted than his son in realising that such possibilities must be considered.

It is an interesting story, too, in that, clearly, like most robot stories, it engages with Asimov's Laws of Robotics—"I cannot disobey my owners if the command doesn't endanger their lives" (p. 49)—but it broadens the discussion as to what constitutes "humanity" in ways that I strongly suspect Asimov himself, as an atheist, would have eschewed.

Those Laws of Robotics are tacitly acknowledged again in "A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight" by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu. This reads like a Gaimanesque fantasy—a child raised among ghosts, or in this case, seemingly among the androids and automata of an abandoned tourist attraction. The narrator, abandoned there as a baby, believes himself to be human, as do the other ghosts, but there is always a niggling doubt in his mind: "Pretending that the fake is real only makes the real seem fake." (p. 40) His existential dilemma is set against the gradual decay of the Ghost Street, which has so long outlived its original purposes, but which the narrator cannot as yet bring himself to leave.

As with "Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods," there is a sense that the seemingly magical qualities of the cybernetic are allowed to come to the fore. The sense of wonder to which I can never quite permit myself to admit when I set up an electronic device and it actually works seems here to be an integral part of the story. The fantastical and the scientific intertwine in deeply complex ways.

Other stories, however, show a more familiar post-cyberpunk world. Myra Çakan's "Spider's Nest" is a high-octane story of cybernetic addiction, well-written but a mood piece rather than a full-blown narrative, and as such it didn't really seem to go anywhere. Conversely, Uko Bendi Udo's "The Foreigner" has a deeply ingenious plot but seems rather slight once the puzzle is revealed. That Edikan is struggling to recover his late father's estate while his uncle attempts to stymie these efforts because of a jealousy framed as rejection of Edikan for being part-Nigerian, part-alien, is interesting so far as it goes, but in truth, the story is all about the puzzle.

Ma Boyong's "The City of Silence," again translated by Ken Liu, is another matter altogether. At the time I read this story, China had just banned wordplay for breaching the rules on standard spoken and written Chinese. Ma takes such activities to their most extreme conclusion, with a society that bans words that are not regarded as being healthy. Arvardan marks the passing of days by the "shielding" of words, one per day. He longs to be able to speak freely but even speech is carefully monitored, people being, obliged, to, pause, after, each, word to allow their speech to be properly monitored. Resistance does exist, in the form of the Talking Club that Arvardan one day discovers. Anyone familiar with Orwell's 1984 and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 can see exactly where this story is coming from, and Ma indeed acknowledges this quite openly. However, for Ma, the interest seems to lie in Arvardan's ability to maintain some sort of inner life, no matter how fragile, and to keep hope of some sort alive in even the most dire circumstances. The reproach to 1984's dystopic vision is subtle but undeniable.

One thing that does strike me about this collection is how very little of it can be called "hard SF." Berit Ellingsen's story is set on Mars, as the first manned mission makes planetfall, or in this instance insists on dancing out of the spaceship, to the horror of the mission's leader, Vasilev. But elsewhere the mechanical is generally mixed with something else; there is very little evidence that these stories regard hardware as a thing to be fêted. I take this as an indication of a lack of interest in fetishizing science and a greater concern with thinking about how it is subsumed in daily life. "Regressions" by Swapna Kishore might be regarded as a story about time-travel and overlapping timelines, but what is primarily at stake is the use of Indian folk stories as a means to encourage Indian women to follow their own paths. Athena Andreadis's "Planetfall," with its time-hopping structure, traces the hopes and failures of planetary colonists, over many hundreds of years. It's not to my personal taste, I admit, but I do admire the economy of the storytelling.

Perhaps the most anarchic of these stories is Biram Mboob's "The Rare Earth." Set somewhere in central Africa, it is narrated from the point of view of Gideon, leader of a ragtag army. It is understood that Gideon has mysterious powers but it is never made clear what his aims might be. Through a series of incomplete encounters, the reader sees the various groups working in the area, and the impossibility of reconciling their conflicting demands. There is no resolution to this; indeed, the situation is such that there never can be. By the end of the story we're no further forward than we were at the beginning, but there is no sense of frustration, only acceptance that this is how things are.

Other stories draw on local settings and folklore, as in "Jungle Fever" by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzar, and, rather more veiled, Karin Tidbeck's "Brita's Holiday Village," while Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas' "Ahuiztol," translated by Silvia Garcia-Moreno, turns to Lovecraft for inspiration. There seems to be a great fascination with ghosts throughout the collection—Crystal Koo's "Waiting With Mortals" combines noirish sensibilities with ghosts able to pass from body to body. Amal El-Mohtar's "To Follow the Waves" is a beautifully studied fantasy concerned with the dangers of creativity and appropriating material from elsewhere.

In the introduction to World SF 3, Lavie Tidhar talks about the collection showcasing "the vitality and diversity that can be found in the field" (p. ix), and in this I think he has succeeded. We are on perhaps slightly shakier ground with his observation that "[t]hey are a conversation" (p. ix) in that it isn't clear who is involved in this conversation. There is no doubt that the majority, if not all, of the writers are in dialogue with US and UK SF, inasmuch as they frequently draw ideas from western sources and then transform them. Tidhar's key point remains, however, that these are "voices that should be heard," and that is borne out by the quality of the stories in this collection.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic, freelance copyeditor, and graduate student. She is currently working on a PhD focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is now an assistant editor of Foundation.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and freelance copyeditor. She reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and was assistant editor of Foundation. She was senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons when she died in September of 2022. You can read a 30 January 2023 special issue devoted to Maureen.
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