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Apex Book of World SF cover

What do we mean by "world SF"? A number of recent anthologies have set out to showcase science fiction which speaks from outside the Anglo-American hegemony, including Sheree Tomas's Dark Matter anthologies (2000 and 2004), Uppinder Mehan and Nalo Hopkinson's So Long Been Dreaming (2004), James and Kathryn Morrow's SFWA European Hall of Fame (2007), and Andrea Bell's Cosmos Latinos (2003). Each has taken a different stance, and used different selection processes. Here we have sixteen stories by writers from ten or eleven countries. Or more: how do we count, for instance, an Australian national reside in Fiji, like Kaaron Warren? Some writers here, including the Chicago-born/Palestine-raised Jamil Nasir and the Thai writer/composer S. P. Somtow (Somtow Sucharitkul) have achieved notable success in the USA. Others are well-known and resident in their countries of birth, others belong to a worldwide diaspora. Most of these stories were published in English-language venues (including Strange Horizons). Others have been translated. Some are by authors I am familiar with at least by reputation; one or two I have read before: most are by authors I have not come across before. One or two I have read in their original publication. (One, Anil Menon's "Into the Night," I shamefully overlooked on its original publication in Interzone: it is by far the best story I have read all year.) All are by writers who on the evidence of the stories here I would love read more of.

This is not one of those anthologies which neatly tick off boxes: there are two authors from France, China, Israel, and the Philippines, but none from, for example, Russia or Japan. Lavie Tidhar's introduction, indeed, flags the book's omissions, noting that there are no contributions from South America or Africa, and offers an intriguing hint that "Speculative fictions from the Arab world . . . are enjoying a new popularity." (Tell us more!) The back cover adds Pakistan to the list, which seems to be an error. The mixture here, unbalanced though it may seem to a cursory view, allows the anthology to avoid the obvious failing of "showcase" anthologies: we cannot, having finished this selection, ever delude ourselves that we have "heard" the voices of the science fiction of China, say, or Israel. Han Song and Yang Ping, say, or Guy Hasson and Nir Yanev, are very different writers telling very different stories (there is a darkness to be found in the stories by Hasson and Yanev which perhaps bears investigation, but I wonder that in noting that, I am falling into the same trap which calls American SF "optimistic" and British SF "pessimistic"). When it comes to the myriad voices which are telling stories of the fantastic, perhaps all we can do is be selective in the way Tidhar has been here: pick good stories, keep your eyes on what is going on (Tidhar runs the World SF News blog), and consider any such anthology to be a small step in a larger project. The gaps here are not evidence of inattention but of spaces which we hope will be filled. When they are, on this evidence we will all be enriched.

Some of these stories (such as that by Jetse de Vries from the Netherlands) are straightforward science fiction, and others (such as that by the Malaysian Tunku Halim) explore native traditions of the supernatural, but most mingle voices. This tone is caught from the beginning. When S. P. Somtow's "The Bird Catcher" (2002) begins with a reference to "this other boy in the internment camp. His name was Jim," we don't need the reference to his memoir being turned into a Spielberg movie to recall J. G. Ballard's The Empire of the Sun. The (American) narrator of this story, surviving similar prison camp experiences to those of the young Ballard, cannot turn them into art. He can only pass on his story to his grandson, perhaps because his experience—his encounter and apparent bonding with the notorious Chinese serial killer Si Ui—is too complex to fully articulate and he himself has been dreadfully changed by his experience of war and its aftermath. His experience is one of betrayal, and confrontation (perhaps even complicity) with the raging "hunger" at the heart of human darkness. This fine, allusive, and unsettling story won the World Fantasy Award.

In "Transcendence Express" by Jetse de Vries (2007), the children of a Zambian village are shown by a Dutch volunteer teacher how to construct cheap "quantum computers." Is this a story of people being "saved" by being given Western technologies by well-meaning volunteer workers? Perhaps, but the villagers are seen as taking control of their own lives, and the goal is to make such relief work unnecessary. Guy Hasson's "The Levantine Experiments" (2007) shows the victim of what seems to be an experiment in watching a child grow up with no human contact whatsoever after the acquisition of language. There are cracks in the walls of this totalitarian structure. But even after her rescue, freedom leads to a bigger prison, a desire for bigger spaces. A fable or extended metaphor rather than a story, it nevertheless deftly reaches a sense of wider if darker space by noting, almost as an aside, that it is set in a time when the nature of human nature is the subject of a series of experimentations. "They were the years before Man discovered his own true nature." Once the story is read, that sentence becomes horribly unsettling. The cartoon violence of Nir Yanev's "Cinderers" (2004), which explicitly references Donald Duck's three manic nephews, explores similar moral territory, although the narrator of this ferocious yet entertaining story is an artist for whom death and destruction is the raison d'être of their art form. We as an audience always seem to be happy enough with slapstick comedy where "an asshole bourgeoisie" is comically assaulted. And like good radicals we applaud. But where do we draw the line?

Han Song's "The Wheel of Samsara" (2002) offers the kind of fusion of science fiction and traditional fantasy which I have read in other Chinese SF: while there are what we might call "sf" references like the settling of Mars, the only explanation we get for the apparently magical existence of a universe inside a Tibetan prayer wheel is that it is due to "static electricity." But I suspect that there is much more going on than even its obvious symbolism of transcendence and cultural ownership. This story reads like a very clever answer-story to another, much better-known story in which Buddhist religion is fused with science fiction, although this time it seems to be the beginning of a universe rather than its ending which results. If so, its appearance in an anthology devoted to the different voices of SF is doubly justified. In contrast, Yang Ping's "Wizard World" (1998), a post-cyberpunk story of a young man deeply into life in a secondary, virtual, world and how he breaks out of this into a more authentic reality is much more traditional science fiction, albeit written in the shadows of William Gibson and Vernor Vinge rather than Arthur C. Clarke. In some ways it is a routine "the real world is better than the artificial one" story. But there's a real sense of observation of the addiction of game playing, a sardonic sense of humour, and perhaps the way computer gaming is such a central part of youth culture in the technologically developing Eastern countries makes it a stronger protest.

If satirical references are there in the stories mentioned so far, Kaaron Warren's "Ghost Jail," which is set in Fiji, presumably extrapolates more directly recent political developments in that country. Warren's Fiji is a society where houses can be repossessed for "uncontrolled verbiage activity" and ghosts used to contain the dissidents. Lisa and Keith find that the only way they can change the world is to become ghosts. Although the dissident journalists seem to be the central characters, the other characters are also memorable: Police Chief Edwards; Selina, the self-proclaimed "DJ to the disaffected"; and Rasmilla, the beggar whose childhood ghost is always with her.

Other elements of the fantastic in this anthology are also infused with folklore. From the Philippines we have Dean Francis Alfar's "L'Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)" (2003). Maria Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, the stargazer. To get him to notice her, she needs to build a kite which will take her to the stars. To find the materials for such a kite takes sixty years. This is a moving story of unattainable love—not only that of Maria Isabella but that of the butcher's boy who helps her. In contrast (and again the way stories here are contrasted suggests that there either is a fine editorial hand at work here or a remarkably deep pool of good stories are available—or both), Kristin Mandigma's "Excerpt From a Letter by a Socialist-Realist Aswang" (2008) engages more definitely with the megatexts of science fiction than those stories I've noted above. The "aswang" (a kind of vampiric demon) mordantly criticises the use of science fiction as a discourse of political protest, making reference to "this novel about an interstellar war between monster cockroaches and alienated capitalist soldiers" whose main character may be a Filipino infantryman "[but] I assume he is capitalist too." There's a beautiful command of jargon here, and anyone with the slightest acquaintance with left wing politics or science fiction apologists will be laughing out loud: who knows, the aswang may even be right . . .

In Jamil Nasir's "The Allah Stairs" (1990), set in Jerusalem, the narrator and his brother discover that what seemed to be the fantasies of their withdrawn, possibly disturbed schoolmate are true. It is interesting to compare this story to Tunku Halim's "Biggest, Baddest Bomoh" (1997). Both stories draw upon local elements of the supernatural and the characters' engagements with them as somewhat alienated figures. Nasir's characters are returning to Jerusalem after twenty years "in a different country," to find their schoolmate Laziz stuck in a humdrum job and a story told about the death of his father which seems to reflect what the narrator's brother analyses as subliminally passed-on delusions. Or are they? Halim's Idris is an accounts clerk more used to computer screens than consulting a "bomoh," or shaman. Halim is a popular writer of horror stories in Malaysia and this is a story of how Idris pays the bomoh to make the delectable Zani, new to his company, love him. There's a twist, and it's not an unexpected one, but this Malaysian version of a common horror motif works for me, with its amusing brief picture how essentially ordinary and domestic the "biggest, baddest bomoh" is.

Closer to (as it were) mainstream science fiction is a story (first published in Interzone) by one of the two French writers featured in the anthology, "The Lost Xuyan Bride" (2007) by Aliette de Bodard. The mixture of hard-boiled crime investigation and alternate history works well here. Seedy investigator Brooks takes on a missing person case in a world where the USA is sandwiched between a Chinese dominated region west of the Rockies and Greater Mexica. Brooks himself is a refugee, unable to live in his native country because of its laws against mixed race liaisons (his lover Mei-Lin had been half Xuyan). This is a world de Bodard is exploring in other stories, according to the introduction. I intend to read more work by her, because her alternate America is a fascinating world. While Alexsander Žiljak's "An Evening in the City Coffee-House, with Lydia on My Mind" (1999) perhaps suffers from its clumsy (if narratively appropriate) title, this too is a straightforward science fiction story illustrating that well-known proposition that the cutting edge of communications technology is the porn industry. The narrator and his partner Piko make a living from filming, via swarms of nanotech cameras, attractive sexually active people and enhancing the footage. Lydia is their best prize. But Lydia appears to be turning tricks with aliens and when Piko attempts to blackmail her, the organisation behind her starts to hunt the pair down. The story is mostly reflection rather than action as the narrator arranges his escape (through more advanced technology), but the way it is told adds to, rather than subtracts from, its ingenious impact.

Following this, however, is perhaps the best story in the anthology, one which oscillates between boundaries. Anil Menon is an Indian writer residing in the USA. His "Into the Night" (2008) is the story of an encounter with the future. So often in SF the future is an otherworld location where thought experiments of the present can be set. Or it is an anticipation to be enthusiastically embraced or equally shunned. Here, it is simply something which claims us all. The 82-year-old Kallikulam Ramasawmy is flown to end his days with his daughter Ganga on the South Pacific artificial island of Meridian. Resentful and unwilling to embrace the technologically and culturally "advanced" world his daughter offers him, Ramaswamy is a pompous, narrow, comical man, a Mr. Pooter for the 21st century. But he is also us. This is a story about how we all, in the end, drown in the wave of the future, unable to grapple with it. "Life is change," says Ganga, "and we all have to adapt." But her lecture is as pompous as her father's hidebound response, and when we read of her "offering truth when he longed for comfort" we can only sympathise with a man who, when we do the maths (Ramaswamy was "barely nineteen" in 1962) has lived through his own share of momentous personal, political, technological, and cultural changes. "Into the Night" is an elegy for a man's life, but perhaps also an elegy for the notion of the science fiction future itself. And "Elegy" is also the title of the immediately following second French story from Mélanie Fazie, originally published (2001) in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A mother laments the disappearance of her children, apparently into or through a tree on a hill, and pleads that, if they cannot be returned, at least she may join them. All children disappear, in the end . . . the location of this story in the book does not seem to have been chosen by chance and it seems to be saying, in a very different generic form, and from a different viewpoint, much of what Menon has said. A skillful juxtaposition.

Finally, there is "Compartments" by Zoran Živković, first published in Serbian in 2004. Živković, another World Fantasy Award winner and a writer who has been frequently published in Interzone, has a Kafkaesque quality of surreal and often humorous strangeness and it's here to the fore in "Compartments." The carriages visited by the narrator are venues for non sequiturs, mystery, and bizarre logics. In them he meets (among others) chess-playing monks, an old gentleman who ate his first wife "but not all at once, of course . . . otherwise he might have been sent to the gallows," and the conductor who is overwhelmed by the simple message "not to lose hope." It ends the anthology on a high note, and our only disappointment is that it has ended. As in the last sentence of "Compartments," we pause, hope that more will be said, and when it isn't we move on.

But we hope that we will return to this territory. Tidhar has highlighted the way story weaves in and out of national and cultural boundaries, even language. This is the most exciting anthology I have read since the SFWA European Hall of Fame. May there be more such.

Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the School of English, and a widely published critic. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham. He is the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.



Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, and a widely published critic. For ten years he was Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the University's School of English. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham, and (with Peter Wright) Teaching Science Fiction in the Palgrave "Teaching the New English" series. He was the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.
2 comments on “The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar”

Thanks for the great review, Andy! Just a small correction: "Nir Yanev" should be "Nir Yaniv"...

Andy Sawyer

Apologies to you and Nir for the spelling mistake. Entirely my typo.

 

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