It’s a great day when we get another volume in the Apex Book of World SF series, begun by Lavie Tidhar (series editor) and Apex Publications nearly a decade ago, and continued first by Mahvesh Murad and now, Chistina Jurado. Together, the five volumes feature some of the greatest speculative fiction you’ll ever read from around the world, including stories that have been translated into English from other languages. In Volume 5, Jurado has focused not just on finding great stories but also on representing parts of the world that hadn’t received as much attention in previous volumes. The result is a collection that takes you from Singapore to Venezuela, Germany to Egypt, and many places in between. Here ghosts rub shoulders with untamed code, androids that are indistinguishable from humans cross paths with 3D-printed food, and space and time suddenly seem much more complex and beautiful. Most of these stories play with how people perceive their world, move through time, or adapt to sudden change. You won't find space operas or generation-ship stories here, but that's fine because Volume 5 is all about the mind: how and what we believe, how we know what we know.
I had already read the stories by Taiyo Fujii, Vandana Singh, Basma Abdel Aziz, Karla Schmidt, Liliana Colanzi, and Chi Hui before getting my hands on this collection, and some of those I had read a few years ago. WSF5, though, was an opportunity for me to reread them (which I rarely get the chance to do these days), and I am glad that I did. In many cases, I loved the story even more the second time. Japanese hard-SF author Taiyo Fujii is probably familiar to many English-language readers because he already has two novels, one story, and one excerpt available in translation, all since 2015. “Violation of the TrueNet Security Act” (tr. Jim Hubbert), which was published that year in Lightspeed, fits well in WSF5. The first time I read it, I thought it was a fun, fast-paced, gripping piece, but now that I’ve also read Gene Mapper and Orbital Cloud, I can better appreciate Fujii’s ability to seamlessly weave in discussions about computer code into his larger story of a post-internet world. Part detective story, part thought experiment, “TrueNet” forces readers to think about what the next stage of global connectivity might be and how the internet we know today is as much about power and freedom as it is about code and calculations.
Bolivian author Liliana Colanzi’s “Our Dead World” (tr. Jessica Sequeira), too, was even better the second time. I had first read this tale of Mars and the stress of living on another planet in her collection of the same name (2014; translated into English in 2017), but reading it in the context of the other stories in WSF5 was enlightening. Perhaps surprisingly, very few stories in this collection take place on another planet. Colanzi's piece, then, stands out as a meditation on humans breaking their bond with Earth and working in a landscape so foreign that it alters their minds. Psychological stress and self-doubt, though, run through many of the stories in WSF5, like Israel Alonso's “You Will See the Moon Rise” (tr. Steve Redwood), Eliza Victoria's “The Seventh,” and Giovanni De Feo's “Ugo,” in which characters are suddenly forced to rethink their identity and place in time and space.
War and aggression also inform many of these stories, whether they focus on conflict between humans or between humans and aliens/ghosts/vampires/etc. Chi Hui’s “The Calculations of Artificials” (tr. John Chu), a chilling and sorrowful story about androids trying to keep humans apart (so they won’t kill each other in yet another nuclear war), goes to the heart of what it means to be human and why people are aggressive toward one another. Does the elimination of violence and acts of rage mean that the species has changed beyond recognition? Can such elements ever be entirely purged from humanity, and should they be? Like Chi Hui’s story, Karla Schmidt’s is a long, complex tale about war between humans living on a desolate earth and a different species of human living on the shattered rocks hanging in the sky. Careful plotting and painstakingly detailed worldbuilding make this intense story into an experience. We so rarely get German SF in translation these days, and “Alone, On the Wind” is a lovely example.
I adore Vandana Singh's “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” for its inventiveness and lyricism. Structured as an exam for “intrepid explorers venturing into Conceptual Machine-Space, which is the abstract space of all possible machines,” the explorers of the story are given three scenarios, each of which includes “machines that do not and cannot exist.” Singh weaves together science fiction and fantasy in a most unique and enjoyable way here, as she does throughout her collection of the same title.
And finally, I must call out Vina Jie-Min Prasad's “A Series of Steaks,” one of the only stories in WSF5 that absolutely drips with dry humor and passages that made this reader laugh out loud. Prasad's narrator is so jaded and resentful, and yet still able to connect with another human being and carry out a complicated task that only she can perform. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
The rich variety of stories in WSF5 makes it a perfect addition to the Apex series, hopefully to be followed by many more such anthologies.