Monday, December 13, 2010
Review: The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar (Part 2 of 2)
Introducing this anthology, Tidhar writes, "Languages come and go. But stories stay." Fantasy, of which SF is (arguably) a sub-genre, has certainly proved resilient over the millennia. Sadly, we don't know what tales homo erectus told each other over the campfire, and we probably never will know, but if we could eavesdrop, Babel fish firmly inserted in ear, perhaps their stories would be both familiar and eerily strange. If SF is to retain the sense of wonder that is its hallmark, we need to look beyond its alleged home in the US, and to seek out and embrace the unfamiliar, the new-to-us, the wonderful, enchanting other. This anthology is a small start in that direction. Let's hope the enlargement of our SF view doesn't end here.
In Jamil Nasir's 'The Allah Stairs', we're treated to a revenge cycle with a difference. The narrator and his brother Laeth return to their home town in search of childhood memories. They seek out their old friend Laziz Tarash, whose father died in the street, screaming about monkeys, when they were boys. The story generates a sense of nostalgia, rather than threat, and even when the exotic happens, it's hard to believe anything bad will come of it. This gentle journey of reminiscence, however, is doomed to end badly, and in a shocking and unexpected way that provides a perfect echo for the ending. Mood is beautifully handled in this piece, and it draws the reader in so gently yet irresistibly that the suspensions of disbelief is never disturbed.
'Biggest Baddest Bomoh', by Tunku Halim, gave me perhaps my biggest, baddest culture shock. It's not that I'm unaccustomed to conventional Horror stories being, in general, sexist to the point of misogyny; you can't read slush and not have a special mile-thick spot on your skin for that kind of thing. It's more that this story carries no sense at all that the narrator is acting, well, badly, in asking again and again for dates he's not going to get. Sexual harassment, much? He gets his comeuppance--of course--albeit in an unforeseen fashion, but there's a strong sense throughout that the object of his passion is just that: an object to serve the story and his hubris.
Then there's the multiple adjectives. "The next morning found him gazing into those warm, dreamy eyes, longing to caress her gleaming, shoulder-length hair, yearning to press his lips against her fair, smooth cheeks--not to mention those full, cherry-red lips." This is the sort of overblown writing that Western readers currently won't accept, although, conversely, it seems a lot of Western writers haven't yet realised this.
Short version: it's a Horror story. Enough said.
This brings us to my favourite story in this anthology, Aliette de Bodard's 'The Lost Xuyan Bride'. It's no secret that I like de Bodard's writing; after all, I chose her story 'As the Wheel Turns' to head up Issue 6 of GUD. It's also of course a story by a European, which might bias me in its favour, not through parochialism but simply because its themes, tropes, and approach are more accessible to me. Perhaps I even identify with the lost, just-getting-through-the-days private detective, an archetype some GUD readers might recognise from my story 'Sundown' in Issue 0. Whatever the reason(s), I thoroughly enjoyed this melancholy tale. Set in an alternative America, the story follows the private eye narrator as he searches for He Zhen, a young bride-to-be who has fled her arranged marriage and her home, leaving behind her bullet holes and blood.
It's a murky trail, inevitably, and there's much for the detective to learn about He Zhen and her passion for a culture other than her own before he finds her and learns of the choice she has made, a choice that stands for all the compromises women have to make in worlds ruled by men. A fine story that uses its world-building to calculated effect.
By contrast, 'Excerpt From a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang', by Kristin Mandigma is a lot of fun. It isn't a story as such, nor is it a slice-of-life piece. It is, as it says, a letter. It won't necessarily generate laughter to the extent of rolling around on the floor, but more of a knowing smirk. I wasn't sure what an aswang was when I began reading, yet, when I looked up the term later, felt that my ignorance hadn't materially affected my enjoyment of this piece. What more do you need to know, than, "In this scheme of things, whether or not one eats dried fish or (imperialist) babies for sustenance should be somewhat irrelevant." Those who dabbled in left-wing politics in their youth will probably get the most out of it, provided they have the capacity to laugh at themselves--not, I admit, a customary combination.
'An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, with Lydia on my Mind' takes us into Alexsandar Ziljak's vision of the future of pornography. Forget actors; in the future, anyone who's good-enough looking can be a porn star. The narrator sends a swarm of 'flies' to film them without their knowledge, and assembles the footage into clips he can sell. No, he's not a very nice person. He is, however, in trouble, as his business partner has been murdered after trying to blackmail a porn subject who turned out to be in a very exotic line of prostitution, and he fears he's next.
Quite apart from feeling only glad that the narrator's death is imminent, I had a couple of problems with this story. Firstly, I misread it at a crucial stage, and thought the narrative was discussing how the narrator proposed escaping from Zagreb and the hit squad, when in fact he was only describing how he puts his pornography together. I'm not convinced it was entirely my fault, either; the story is in present tense throughout, which makes it tricky to detect a shift into the past.
My second problem goes deeper, however. I simply had a problem with Lydia: the prostitute who services aliens. Yes, okay, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that aliens would want to have sex with humans; after all, many humans have sex with a fascinating variety of animals--horses, sheep, chickens, and so on. It's often not a matter of who (or what) but how. Accepted. However, do sheep shaggers seek out the sheep who's considered the most attractive by the other sheep? Are chicken standards of beauty used when selecting the sex-object from the farmyard? That's the bit I find difficult to believe; that it matters so much what Lydia looks like. Because, of course, Lydia is beautiful: "beautiful face, sensual lips, long and shiny blonde hair cascading over her shoulders." This is a man's story, after all. I can't help finding this a failure of imagination along the lines of Clarke's in 'Childhood's End', where, in an allegedly perfectly equal world, women still find themselves doing the cooking.
Anil Menon's 'Into the Night' is a story of the culture clash that ensues when widower Kallikulam Ramaswamy Iyer moves from Mumbai to live with his daughter on the island of Meridian in the Canaries, "going to a land of cannibals for the sake of their bright-eyed girl who only thirty-seven years ago had begun a mustard seed as modest as an ant's fart." Bereft without his wife, who effectively acted as his biographical memory, Kallikulam is old and waiting to die. The futuristic culture baffles him. When he expresses his interest in elephants via the 'hearsees' used to connect everyone with everyone, he discovers he's invited a young man sitting nearby to engage in a sexual act. This incident mirrors one in his daughter's childhood, for which a young man was beaten, but even after this experience, he's unable to view the past any differently from how he saw it when it was the present. He's a fish out of water: a lost soul who only survives because he's prickly.
"What is the solution?" he once asked the Flamingo in Tamil, "if the ones I love hate what I love?"
This story's view seems to be that there is no solution, save to make the journey of the title. A valid viewpoint, but not a comforting one.
'Elegy' by Melanie Fazie is also about loss, in this case the narrator's loss of her two children, who (may) have been taken by one of the trees near to her house, perhaps as a punishment. "I don't know how Benjamin failed to see the two masks set in the bark. Two faces drawn in the higher part of the trunk, just below the nodes of your main branches, as if carved from the same wood." The children's father's response to their loss is drink and denial; the mother pleads desperately, endlessly, for the children's return, even if they are changed by their experience. Yet the reader can never be sure if this is what has happened to the children at all.
The collection ends with Zoran Zivkovic's 'Compartments', a story set on a train that may or may not be allegorical. Zivkovic's work is familiar to me from the pages of Interzone, in the dim and distant days when I subscribed to that magazine. I always found his work inaccessible; it seemed hard-edged with determination to keep out any trace of human sensibility. So it is here, too, I think--and I confess I gave up trying to read this piece about fourteen pages in. So all I can tell you is there's a beautiful woman (of course) who is judged for her response to a man's sexual interest in her (of course) and a story-within-the-story about a wax button that wasn't.
This anthology is certainly eclectic. It's sad, funny, moving, and infuriating by turns. Tidhar has given us a mere taste of the powder on top of the iceberg of the offshore SF that's out there, but it's a taste that surely will have us searching for more. This anthology is a must-have, more, a must-read, a must-share-it-with-your-friends, even. Let's all lift our heads out of the trough of the usual fare and seek out something different, something new, something wonderful.
The gorgeous cover art is by Randall McDonald, and it wraps onto the back, too. Lovely design there by Apex.
Lavie Tidhar's work appears in GUD Issue 0 (The Infinite Monkeys Protocol), GUD Issue 1 (Hello Goodbye), and GUD Issue 6 (The Last Butterfly).