Review: The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar (Part 1 of 2)
Monday, December 6, 2010
The Apex Book of World SF
edited by Lavie Tidhar
Apex Publications, LLC, 2009
Paperback, 287 pages
ISBN: 0982159633 (Amazon.com)
9780982159637 (Book Depository)
$18.95 / £11.50
According to author James Gunn, in an essay in World Literature Today, Volume 84, Number 3, May/June 2010, "To consider science fiction in countries other than the United States, one must start from these shores. American science fiction is the base line against which all the other fantastic literatures in languages other than English must be measured."
Gunn justifies this claim by stating that only in 1926 New York did SF become a distinct genre, then, curiously, punctures his own argument by referring to HG Wells' 'scientific romances', which, interestingly, Wells also referred to as 'scientifiction'. If that wasn't at least an attempt to create a separate genre for SF, then what was it?
Yet the question that really goes unanswered, is, what about the SF written "in countries other than the United States" but not "in languages other than English"? That vast body of literature seems to fall between two stools in Gunn's argument; or, to be blunter, as far he's concerned, it either doesn't exist or doesn't matter enough to require measurement.
Perhaps that only goes to prove that, at times, we all need a good editor.
For writer and editor Lavie Tidhar, however, the attitude encapsulated in the introduction to Gunn's essay is only one spur to his efforts to raise the profile of World SF, both in his blog http://worldsf.wordpress.com and in The Apex Book of World SF, a 'sampling of the finest authors from around the world'. For make no mistake, Lavie Tidhar is a man with a mission.
His Apex anthology offers sixteen stories from a large chunk of the world outside the US--the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim. Some were originally written in English while others have been translated. Among the authors I recognise Jetse de Vries, who is a strong advocate for leavening dystopian SF with something a little more positive on occasion, and Aliette de Bodard, whose story 'As the Wheel Turns' leads GUD Issue 6. Beyond introducing the reader to a tiny amount of what's being written outside the closed, largely white, male world of American SF, the anthology has no theme. Then again, it doesn't need one' there's enough here to amaze and discomfort the reader without making things complicated.
When I first started reading the anthology, I confess, I didn't like it. I couldn't get on with it. Couldn't understand why Tidhar had chosen these particular stories. I had to put the book down, set aside my Western sensibilities--okay, prejudices--and shake up my own ideas of what makes a good story, of where excellence in storytelling lies. It wasn't fun. It did however enable me to come back to the anthology with new eyes, and start to appreciate the stories on their own level. A start is all I made, however; I still find the multiple anthologies in Malaysian author Tunku Halim's story grating. That's not how 'we' write.
Perhaps that only goes to prove that it's one thing to intend not to be a bigot; it's another to manage it.
Thai author S.P. Somtow's 'The Bird Catcher' opens the collection with a disturbing tale of a young boy's friendship with the eponymous boogieman. At first repelled by the bird catcher's diet of raw bird liver, narrator Nicholas slowly finds himself drawn into this means of staving off 'the hunger' that has gnawed at him since his release from a Japanese internment camp. It would be easy to dismiss both the bird catcher and Nicholas as evil, but this story doesn't allow the reader that easy way out. Nicholas has lived through what we might well call evil, has inevitably been shaped by it, and is struggling to find his way out the other side. In the framing story, he takes one of his grandsons to see the boogieman's skeleton, and tries, in a world of McDonalds and Pokemon, to make relevant his personal horror tale.
"The war did that to him. I know. Just like it made Mom into a whore and me into...I don't know...a bird without a nesting place...a lost boy."
The writing is strong, although I'm still in two minds about the opening, which refers the reader to JG Ballard's experiences of internment as fictionalised in Empire of the Sun. On the one hand, this gives the reader a quick-and-dirty background to the story and saves a lot of explanation; on the other, it might leave those who've not read Ballard floundering and confused. It's the sort of approach I'd discourage, but as this story won a World Fantasy Award, it's clearly a gamble that paid off.
In 'Transcendence Express', Jetse de Vries establishes that you can write a story about good things being done by clever people, but that it may not be as satisfying as you'd expect. On the face of it, this is a rock-solid hard SF story, with a young scientist taking her knowledge of quantum computing to a small farming village in Zambia, and enabling local schoolchildren to build their own biological quantum computers, or BIQCO's. These computers, which rely on simple products and skills, are set to transform the villagers' lives. The End.
It rubs me up the wrong way when a story lacks conflict. It's as if someone's taken the flavour out of my ice cream, and all I'm left with is something cold. It's worse, however, when a story deliberately evades conflict. Surely it's not hard to see that by enabling one village to make enormous leaps forward in agricultural productivity, you're setting it up for trouble with its neighbours? We might wish human nature were other than it is, but wishing doesn't make it so, and, in my opinion anyway, a truly positive story would show how obstacles are met and overcome, not pretend they won't happen. Conflict and difficulty and mistakes and things going wrong don't lessen a story; they're part of what can make it great.
Guy Hasson's 'The Levantine Experiments' introduces us to Sarah, a child who's been confined all her life and isolated since the age of two. When a crack appears in one wall of her prison, she begins to fantasise about what might be beyond it. Her imagination has been so starved that, even when exercised to the full, it is woefully limited in what it can achieve. Hasson works hard to get into Sarah's mind, so different from ours as it must be, and his descriptions of her mental wanderings, although repetitive, have their own strange fascination.
"And slowly, in her dreams, she would rise with each breath she took. As the nights continued, she rose higher and higher, halfway up the room. And then she rose even higher. And then, one day, she was almost close enough to reach the darkness."
Yet I have doubts. It's one thing in the Harry Potter books to ignore the damage Harry's upbringing in the cupboard would do; it's another thing to place a character in an experimental situation with clearly-defined parameters without thinking through fully what the consequences would be. I don't believe that the experimenters would be pushing toilet paper through to Sarah; if she's had no contact with another human being since the age of two, they'd be washing her shit off the floor. Even though her eventual release has horrific consequences, they don't feel like the right consequences. Her character is formed not according to her circumstances but according to the needs of the plot. When I'm told that Sarah "understood everything", once it had all been explained, I don't and can't believe it. Even those of us with the best advantages and the broadest education couldn't make that claim. Sarah, with her lack of a frame of reference for what we might consider 'normal' human life, has no chance.
That said, there's a lot to interest and disturb the reader in this story. As a thought experiment, it's perhaps more painful than successful, and some reference at least to Bowlby's theory of attachment might have helped, but it does force the reader to think about how a child in that situation might develop, and how strange their thinking might be.
I loved Han Song's 'The Wheel of Samsara', a short tale in which Western curiosity and Eastern fatalism meet to...ah, no, read it for yourselves! It's short, but the right length. The characters are not fully-rounded; instead, they are developed just enough to fulfil their roles. A beautifully-crafted work.
'Ghost Jail' by Kaaron Warren is set in Fiji, where a child can be "trapped in a closed circle of gravestones, whimpering." Beggar Rashmilla, with the aid of the ghost of her sister, forever wrapped around her neck, can see and, to an extent, control ghosts, and is therefore hired for obscure purposes at Cewa Flats. The flats are supposed to be being cleared for redevelopment, but ghosts aren't easy to evict. This story is frightening on a visceral level. A ghost attacks another character, Lisa, who is powerless to defend herself. "He thrust the fist into her mouth and out, so fast all she felt was a mouthful then nothing but the taste of anchovies left behind." A visible, tangible, aggressive ghost against whom there's no apparent defence--and Cewa Flats is full of such. Once driven to the flats by the regime they tried to speak out against, Lisa and Keith are unable to leave. It seems they've been effectively silenced--but there is a way out.
This story weaves a large and disparate group of characters together to great effect. There's the charming but unscrupulous police chief, the well-meaning outsiders, and even an agitator who perilously walks both sides of the tracks. More than archetypes, however, they are people, too.
Yang Ping's award-winning 'Wizard World' was one of the less successful stories for me. I've always had difficulty in engaging with stories set in virtual worlds, but I can't help feeling this one in particular needed to work harder to make me care about the world that's suddenly and ruthlessly snatched away from the protagonist here. Or, if not that, to make me care about him, because, alas, from beginning to end I never did. It's a common failing of male writing--in my experience--that the need to make the reader empathise with the central character is often overlooked. So when 'Xingxing' dies in Wizard World, and loses his account, and this turns out to be only the start of a hacker conspiracy to destroy the whole MUD, we have only the potential for an exciting story. Add to that some surprisingly easy and unexplained changes of behaviour and of intent, and the story feels somewhat empty. Character is serving plot, rather than plot arising from character. Or perhaps its my narrowness of thought holding me back again.
'The Kite of Stars' by Dean Francis Alfar is a fairy tale with a bittersweet ending. When Maria Isabella Du'l Cielo falls in love with astronomer Lorenzo, she convinces herself that he will only ever notice her if he sees her among the stars. So begins her quest to find the materials needed for a kite that will carry her to the heavens: "...acquiring the dowel by planting a langka seed at the foot of the grove of a kindly diuata (and waiting the seven years it took to grow, unable to leave), winning the lower spreader in a drinking match against the three oldest brothers of Duma'Alon, assembling the pieces of the lower edge connector whilst fleeing a war party of the Sumaliq..." The quest is bizarre, yet entered into heart and soul by both Maria and her ever-faithful companion, a butcher's boy who first named Lorenzo to her. The language is lyrical and beautiful, and carries the reader along despite the protests of the rational side of the brain that this is fantastic, ridiculous, that nobody would do this, not even for love.
Perhaps the story's greatest strength is that, although Maria's quest seems ludicrous and her dedication woefully misapplied, the writing never loses respect and affection for her. It would have been so easy to beat her with the stick of her own foolishness, but the author's fondness for her won't let harsh judgements in.
I wasn't sure what to make of Nir Yaniv's 'Cinderers', which seems to be about multiple personalities, or possession, or possibly Donald Duck's nephews. It makes effective use of repetition, a shtick that's always difficult to pull off, managing to keep it at the level where it's amusing but not irritating. It's the sort of story anthologists love; you can put it anywhere and it'll calm the readers down or cheer them up or do whatever might be the opposite of what the last story did.
Part Two of this review will appear next week.
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