Lavie Tidhar remains the series editor providing "continuity" for the Apex Book of World SF series, but readers need not worry about the choices made by the new hand at the wheel. Mahvesh Murad knows the art of compiling a truly unforgettable collection, showcasing the best of speculative fiction that the world has to offer. Not only that, but her choices make it clear that top speculative magazines remain not only the best venues to look for excellent SF—but also World SF.
Murad lives in Pakistan, reviews books, and hosts a popular podcast series, Midnight in Karachi, on Tor. She doesn't exaggerate when she describes this fourth installment in the Apex series as "a book of really great stories from all over the world, by writers who bring a new perspective that doesn't fit in with the mainstream western status quo." Diversity is inherent in the world around us. "It has a story to tell you," she writes in the introduction. "The world is always bigger and better than we know." After reading the book, I couldn't agree more with her assessment.
The first story in the collection is Usman T. Malik's Bram Stoker-winning "The Vaporization Enthalpy Of a Peculiar Pakistani Family." I've read it many times here and elsewhere. This time I was struck by the author's note: "For the 145 innocents of the 12/16 Peshawar terrorist attack and countless known & unknown before." In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, this story achieves greater significance and delivers tender insight as well as the solace we have come to expect from the work of artists. Tara Khan, the protagonist, represents millions of Muslim women who have lost their loved ones to religious fanatics, wars, and terrorism:
"Salam," she said. "Peace be upon you, brother."
The nuktah that was him twitched. His fried vocal cords were not capable of producing words anymore.
"I used to think," she continued, licking her dry lips, watching the infinitesimal shifting of matter and emptiness inside him, "that love was all that mattered. That the bonds that pull us all together are of timeless love. But it is not true. It has never been true, has it?"
He shimmered and said nothing. (p.14)
One of Malik's earliest stories, "Vitriol" (Papercuts, 2012), featured a woman whose body had been disfigured as the result of an acid attack. In "Vaporization," both male and female bodies melt in a drone attack. In "Vitriol," the cause of the protagonist's suffering—the acid attack—is a taboo subject. The narrator respects her seeming unwillingness to talk about the public and private nature of her shame, and limits himself to the exploration of the social mores of her time and culture without trying to rationalize, analyze, or examine the "soul" of the characters and the world they inhabit. After reading "Vitriol," I felt that perhaps there is no way we could fully grasp the "truth" or "reality" of the horrors of our world even if we tried. "Vaporization," however, is preoccupied with an attempt to understand, rationalize and examine even the most horrendous of human encounters, experiences and crimes through faith and science. While Malik's earlier attempt is less concerned with the norms of the horror genre and more interested in building character and suspense, "Vaporization" is an elegant proof of superior craftsmanship and the scope of speculative fiction and poetry.
Malik's prose turns into poetry in the story's final act, and it manages to stay appealing and enigmatic even after multiple readings. The author's journey from "Vitriol" to "Vaporization" is a triumphant one. It shows why new writers from around the world are abandoning the mode of exhausted realism and embracing the conventions of contemporary SF in order to entertain, shock or heal people in the age of cyber warfare, widespread terrorism and unmanned bombers. Malik provides a robust model for writers from both his own part of the globe and beyond.
This is true for most of the twenty-eight writers from twenty-four countries featured in the new anthology, including Zen Cho (Malaysia), Vajra Chandrasekera (Sri Lanka), Haralambi Markov (Bulgaria), Natalia Theodoridou (Greece), Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Netherlands), Julie Novakova (Czech Republic), Samuel Marolla (Italy), Dilman Dila (Uganda), Isabel Yap (Philippines), Yukimi Ogawa (Japan), and Bernardo Fernández (Mexico). Together with authors featured in the previous anthologies, they represent the best of international SF today.
Originally published on Tor, Haralambi Markov's "The Language of Knives," for instance, is a poignant story about challenges faced by the living—in this case a gay parent and his adopted daughter coming to terms with a death in the family. The story opens with the best line in the whole book: "A long, silent day awaits you and your daughter as you prepare to cut your husband's body" (p.39). They are making a cake—"the heavy price of admission for an afterlife you pay your gods" (p.39). The grotesquery and uncanny setting of the story magnify the loss of thepair, related to each other by love for a man who will soon be consumed by gods. The act of cutting down the dead body to feed the creatures of god isn't a fantasy: sky burial is a practice dating back thousands of years. The bizarre initiation ritual, the weird science of baking "round cakes" from "the dough of blood, fat, and bone flour," is described in such vivid, intimate, and poignant detail that the author achieves his goal of choking the reader on that lump in her throat. Markov is a queer writer of weird fiction; this is a terrific example of the power of the new weird.
Thomas Olde Heuvelt's "The Boy Who Cast No Shadow" also deals with a queer theme. A boy without a shadow named Look runs away from home with a boy made of glass, Splinter. Theirs is a coming-of-age tale about escaping from the clutch of bullies and parents, facing the world and becoming "real men." JY Yang's "Tiger Baby," meanwhile, is a story about a woman who refuses to accept her true self and sexuality until the very end. The protagonist is in her 30s, single and still living with her parents. The universe conspires to put her in a difficult situation and give her the necessary excuses, if not the strength, to make a leap of faith. The Indian writer Kuzhali Manickavel's "Six Things We Found During the Autopsy" also plays on a similar theme.
Four Clarkesworld originals and translations appear in the anthology. Vajra Chandrasekera's first contact story, "Pocket Full of Stones," is a brilliant re-imagination of what conscious alien life could be like. Natalia Theodoridou's "The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul" is a fitting and excellent tribute to the Dutch artist and AI engineer, Theo Jansen. Julie Novakova's "The Symphony of Ice and Dust" is Europa Report with a twist and fun to read. Completing the Clarkesworld quartet, and translated by John Chu, the Chinese Tang Fei's "Pepe" is about two mechanical children who are in constant danger of execution for making up and telling stories: "They asked us questions. / They killed those who couldn't speak. / They killed those who told stories. / Those kids were exactly like us" (p. 223).
I was quite overjoyed, however, to find a story originally published not in Clarkesworld but Mascara Literary Review included here. Zen Cho's "The Four Generations of Chang E" first appeared way back in 2011. It is a moving tale about exile and the inability of the children of exiles to truly belong anywhere once removed from their native homeland and cut off from their original roots. Both conversely and complementarily, the Emirates' Deepak Unnikrishnan's "Sarama" is a fascinating retelling of Ramayan and a critique of the patriarchal values of the time from the perspective of a female prisoner of war. Unnikrishnan challenges the victor's tale and subverts the idea that the other is always a devil, the enemy.
The contemporary commentary remains sharp throughout. Johann Thorsson's "First, Bite a Finger," for example, is a grisly Icelandic story about the horror of bad employment—a pressing social evil. Farmers in India and workers in Chinese factories are both prone to committing suicide. Migrant workers in Qatar struggle to survive in slave-like conditions as they lay the foundation of the empire's post-oil economy: tourist attractions, office buildings, and Olympic stadiums. During a conference as far back as the 1970s, Bucky Fuller said, "We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest." Thorsson's story captures the absurd necessity and brutality of such forced and voluntary drudgery, which takes humanity only backward.
Fittingly, Ugandan writer and filmmaker Dilman Dila's fantastic tale, "How My Father Became a God," is a parable for storytelling and the triumph of reason and science over tradition and superstitious beliefs in an African society. A "mad" scientist, already banished from home for his failure to invent anything that actually works, finally gets his act together while trying to save his little daughter from the curse of child marriage. It is one of the most delightful stories in the collection, apart from the Sri Lankan Sathya Stone's "Jinki and the Paradox," which first appeared here on Strange Horizons, Virgin Islander Celeste Rita Baker's "Single Entry" from Moko Magazine and Bangladeshi Saad Z. Hossain's Lovecraftian tale "Djinns Live by the Sea" from Six Seasons Review.
As that varied list of outlets attests, many established and emerging publishing houses and magazines are embracing the idea of seeking and publishing quality SF from around the world. The Book Smugglers is one of them. Yukimi Ogawa's "In Her Head, In Her Eyes," which first appeared there, is a fantastic retelling of a Japanese folktale. The Hugo-nominated sister magazine of this collection's publisher, meanwhile, was the first venue for the Swedish writer Nene Ormes's "The Good Matter," a clever mood piece with the tone of a detective novel. And it's not only magazines: Murad collects Chinelo Onwualu's "The Gift of Touch," a space opera from Nigeria originally published in Afro SF, the first ever anthology of SF exlusively by African writers that was open to submissions of original material.
Not every story in the collection is a total success. Where Bernardo Fernández's apocalyptic tale, "The Last Hours of the Final Days," might be a page-turner, Samuel Marolla's horror story, "Black Tea," is a gripping tale without a satisfying resolution of any kind—like most horror movies hungry for a sequel, its evil impossible to destroy, and left merely defeated for the time being. Likewise, Elana Gomel's "The Farm" (Israel) and Sabrina Huang's "Setting Up Home" (Taiwan) have interesting premises but their final revelations or gratifications leave the reader startled but unsatisfied.
Finally, Rocío Rincón's "The Lady of the Soler Colony" (Spain) is an allegory for the survivors of a dystopian rule, their inability to fully let go of the society’s past and embrace the present with childlike innocence. Similarly, the child protagonist of Swabir Silayi's "Colour Me Grey" (Kenya) is able to liberate himself from the ghetto of a colorless dominant worldview after making tragic mistakes. Silayi sets the allegory of Plato’s cave in a contemporary world, where armed men from high towers issue fatwas and orders to brutally suppress diverse or opposing voices. Shimon Adaf’s ‘Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith’ (Israel) is imbued with mythology and religious metaphors, which make it both appealing and challenging for a non-Jewish reader to connect with.
The final story in the collection, Isabel Yap's "A Cup of Salt Tears" is as striking as the opening story, "The Vaporization Enthalpy Of a Peculiar Pakistani Family." Yap portrays the emotional trauma of a woman who is about to lose her husband. A heinous river creature wants the helpless woman to be his lover—a plaything?—in exchange for "sparing" her husband's life. On a psychological level, the woman seems to be bracing herself to accept his inevitable death by seducing and making herself available to another man, the "monster" who has always craved her affection and body. When her husband then returns to her, the woman can't seem to forgive herself for letting the monster trespass on the sacred vow of her marriage. She can no longer reciprocaqte his love the way she used to in the past. This Tor original is a fitting conclusion to the eclectic collection; "A Cup of Salt Tears" is an excellent reminder of why we read and write SF around the world.
In the years following Tidhar's publication of the first anthology in the World SF series, the speculative community has become more open, diverse, and inclusive. Yet there are many who choose not to embrace the world within and outside the community. They cling to the idea of the "golden era" of the genre, where new writers are expected to mimic the old masters. They insisted until late 2015 on retaining a World Fantasy Award trophy which blatantly ignored the dangers of turning a racist and xenophobic idol, his likeness parceled out to every winner, into the epitome of craft. In this context, a collection such as this is an important artifact. The stories in this collection aren't political, but not to read stories from around the globe is definitely a political act—one that passively condones and leads to ethnic conflicts, police shootings, state-sponsored pogroms, terrorism, and world wars.
Salik Shah is a world citizen who grew up in Kathmandu and New Delhi. He likes to read, write and film. You can find him on Twitter at @salik.
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