The physical form of The Best of World SF, Volume 1 is impressive: with a swirling black, gold, and silver cover design, the 600-page hardback has a yellow ribbon bookmark sewn into the spine whilst the page layout is distinctive—the design places the author and title of each story vertically in the page margins in a contrasting font. But I suspect that most readers of this book will not find it in a physical form. Not coincidentally, the very evaporation of text into the virtual is a key theme of the volume.
Lavie Tidhar’s introduction speaks of the past as a place of “the dreaded print-only submissions” (p. xii). He is deeply concerned to ensure his reader knows how little of the work of writers outside the Anglo-American sphere was appreciated in the age of print-only, and of the need to “pass” as part of the majority culture to reach publication. His brief survey of today’s key markets for short stories, however, comments on how much attention has shifted online. This offers opportunities, both to writers hoping for a global audience and readers seeking greater breadth.
The playing field, of course, is not yet level—that print-only era really wasn’t that long ago. But Tidhar’s selections for this book seem to offer a substantial case that the world has indeed changed: The Best of World SF, Volume 1 opens with the 2013 Nebula Short Story winner and closes with the story which won the Hugo for Best Novelette in 2019. In between are stories by two authors who have won the Arthur C Clarke Award and two more who have won World Fantasy Awards. Similarly, this is not the first book to collect non-Anglo SF (not even the first by Tidhar). All five volumes of The Apex Book of World SF, for example, have been reviewed here on Strange Horizons over the years. Consequently, and as I’m sure for many other readers of this site, a number of the authors here are already familiar to me. The once impregnable walls of Anglo-American SF now have many chinks in them.
Of course, the authors’ experiences are different from mine, and many of those other “Western” readers. Sometimes this is even made an effective plot point, as in “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Sometimes it is implicit in the setting, such as in “Delhi” by Vandana Singh. Often that difference hardly seems relevant to the story content, as in “Debtless” by Chen Qiufan or “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” by Kiren Tidbeck. Nor, of course, is it relevant to the quality of the stories, most of which are excellent. The difference of the authors’ perspective is clearest in their protagonists. Their beliefs and expectations are far wider than in many collections.
De Bodard’s “Immersion” is a superb piece of writing. It earns its opening position in the volume on this score alone, but surely it is placed as the first piece of fiction precisely because it carries forward the argument of the introduction, of the need to “pass” as part of the majority culture. The device on which the story turns is the “Immerser,” which enables a person to fit into another culture. This takes the classic SF approach of pushing current tech one step further—in this case, the instant translations of which mobile devices are capable becoming a projection of cultural “fit.” And it is that very immersion in the dominant culture which opens up sufficient understanding to begin to break it open.
A little further along, “Fandom For Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is about fitting in by accident. It recalls Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” (2005) in its sense of playfulness and in the sparkling delight of sharing an obsession, in this case of fan fiction being the centre of community. Here, the protagonist is a sentient 1950s robot. When it discovers an anime in which a 1950s robot is a key character, it joins the fandom. It has unique insight into the inner life of the robot—but those reading the fan fiction don’t, themselves, recognise that this is not a fellow human being, considering Computron “an awesome roleplay partner” (p. 95). Is it enough to be accepted for who others think you are?
Both of these are excellent stories, and they exhibit very different characteristics. To crib from the existentialist philosopher Martin Buber, the first of these two stories strives for an “I-Thou” relationship—a seeking and a seeing of other people as fellow beings with whom relationship is possible. The second describes an “I-It” arrangement, where the attempt at a true relationship is absent. While there is interaction in an “I-It” relationship, there is a failure of true communication as the other remains objectified. Reaching across the divide to see another as a fellow being can sometimes seem effortless—but reciprocity can be exhausting. And this is all the more complicated by the common human tendency to establish “in groups” and “out groups.”
It should be obvious that, in a volume that puts before a readership a body of work it argues they have previously ignored, the difference between “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships is of urgent relevance. Despite learning in my university days to believe in subverting the dominant paradigm, I am paradigmatic: a middle-class white male. I bring that to this material. I am on one level part of the Anglo-American mass that ignores material like this. I also bring to this volume, however, decades of reading experience, and what I hope to have been my own attempts to reach across the bounds. Volumes such as this are essential aids in building an “I-Thou” relationship with all the parts of our literatures—these stories should not wind up in the position of Computron.
Sometimes, achieving this is relatively easy. “His Master’s Voice,” from the Finnish writer Hannu Rajaniemi, is rooted in a science fictional culture I share. He was living in my adopted UK at the time of the story’s original publication in 2008, during the height of a raft of fiction about the coming singularity. The story seems like the epitome of a lost cool now, perhaps because it is an excellent example of its type, with augmented animals, fast-forwarded timelines and the use of “digg” as a noun. I delighted in those works at the time, but it seems out of place in a 2021 publication. Still, Rajaniemi’s central point about copyright control remains valid, as does the progress towards commercial control of the genome.
For its part, “Debtless” by Chen Qiufan, which has a 2019 date, combines genomics, debt, and the blockchain. This could have worked, though the very mention of blockchain deadens my heart. However, the story centres on the dull repetitiveness of asteroid mining in a way that I found … well, dull and repetitive; and that surely does not earn it a stay of sixty pages.
By comparison, the novella “Prime Meridian” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2018) is significantly longer, and could have been just as grinding. Her protagonist is one of the multitude of the impoverished, the ordinarily poor, and most of the story is of malaise, of ambition so deeply thwarted that even hoping for a good outcome feels like self-delusion. But Moreno-Garcia’s characters are granted their full depth, their past and present, hopes and fears. The protagonist’s escape feels like a victory even though it may take her to a place even less pleasant. I was engaged with her journey, with the setting which the story explores without needing to emphasise.
If Moreno-Garcia gives a sense of place to her future Mexico, “Delhi” by Vandana Singh plays with a history which may not be familiar to all readers while offering them a protagonist who is also slightly loosened from the story’s present, able to see his city and its residents in the past and the future. As he concludes this is reality rather than insanity, he makes attempts to communicate with those he finds in other times. Naturally, his ruminations turn to whether his interventions have been ignored, or if his warnings have reinforced the history which he attempted to change. This theme for the ages becomes all the more direct when he has to confront his own future, his own past, and his true place in the city.
There is one story in which the attempt at an “I-Thou” relationship between the characters is explicit. “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” by Karin Tidbeck (2018) is a story in which the central conflict is between those who consider the being which powers their void ship simply as an It—and those who value the being, whose name is Skidbladnir. Wrapped around this is a sense of longing for home, for the past, for when times were simpler—and a growing recognition that returning and going back are not the same thing. There is also a sense of multiple alien cultures, and a gradual revealing of what Skidbladnir is, both as a being and a vessel, which allows the imagination to flourish.
Nevertheless, sometimes, I didn’t succeed in my own reaching-outs. I didn’t enjoy, for example, “The Old Man With The Third Hand” by Kofi Nyameye (2017), which I think had more to do with it comprehensively falling outside my idea of the genre. Tidhar calls it “an unsettling tale of perception” in the story’s introduction, but the content seemed to consist of a series of imaginary friends. I can see an element of interior distress here, but I could not find a way in. It felt to me as if the story would have been more at home in a literary magazine.
In this, however, the story seemed quite an outlier in this volume, even given that the collection doesn’t conform to any single definition of genre. Elsewhere, for what should be our shared “in-group” of science fiction aficionados, there is plenty in this book to celebrate amongst its twenty-six stories. There is a merging of Scandinavian myth and crypto-zoology with the scientific method in “The Cryptid” by Emil Hjörvar Petersen (2021) or the neat application of machine sentience in “Prayer” by Taiyo Fujii (2020). “The Sun From Both Sides” by R. S. A. Garcia (2019), meanwhile, is a compressed novel, packing in the breadth of a space opera. Both “The Emptiness at the Heart of All Things” by Fabio Fernandes (2018) and “Bootblack” by Tade Thompson (2017), meanwhile, consider the justice of self-protection when the authorities are not on your side.
In other words, The Best of World SF, Volume 1 earns its place on your SF bookshelf beside the best of the genre in the past half-century, regardless of whether that shelf is physical or virtual. It does the key job of a good anthology, sharing great work and of introducing new names to readers. It also supports an expanded sense of the places, people, and themes that are part of SF, helping us all to build a larger sense of Thou.