Sunday, August 25, 2013

We See a Different Frontier - Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad

We See a Different Frontier is an anthology of postcolonial speculative fiction. It's not something that has a high chance of succeeding commercially so it started out as a Peerbacker project in 2012. It managed to gather quite a bit of support, mine included, which enabled to editors to expand it beyond the original length they were aiming for. The volume that was published in august 2013 contains 16 short stories, an introduction by the editors, a preface by Aliette de Bodard and an afterword by Ekaterina Sedia. This afterword in particular, puts the whole anthology in perspective. Don't stop when you finish the last story. Sedia has some very interesting things to say.

Colonialism is an uncomfortable subject for me. I'm from the Netherlands with has a centuries long history of colonizing other parts of the world. The Republic's influence stretched from New York and Taiwan to Sri Lanka and Brazil, although the biggest impact was probably felt in Indonesia, the Cape, the Antilles and Suriname. it brought the country great wealth over the backs of the local population. Massacres, slavery, murder and discrimination, there are a great many black pages in our nation's history. The Netherlands still struggles with its colonial past. Relations with Suriname and Indonesia are strained to put it mildly. Acceptance of our role in the slave trade is grudging at best and the question of whether or not to compensate the descendants of the victims of that trade is far from settled. The colonies may have gained independence or self-government but that clearly is not the end of it.

This anthology touches on a lot of this uncomfortable truths. The stories are written from to point of view of the colonized. It is a direct opposite science fiction's tendency to transplant the myth of the American frontier into space or a secondary world. A lot of science fiction and fantasy is seen though the eyes of explorers, conquerors and settlers. Expansion is glorified and the cost of it to others is often seen as either inevitable and an acceptable price or a minor footnote in the story. There is something very attractive about the chance to start over, build for yourself instead of taking over what others have been building on for centuries. What more does the western mind need than a blank slate, unexploited resources and a self reliant attitude? There's a fair few novels in the review index that cater to this taste to some extent. Only the slate is rarely blank. Cultural and ecological havoc is nearly always the result. The cultural aspect is examined from various angels in this anthology.

The stories in this collection deal with some very complex issues. Where, for instance, is the line between respecting local custom and cultural appropriation? There is no sharp distinction between the two. Or should we perhaps use cultural assimilation as a more neutral term instead? How about suppressing cultures? Whole languages and cultures have been destroyed by banning the use of a language, forcefully relocating people from their familiar environment (or simply destroying that environment) or by removing children from their families to raise them as considered fitting by the colonial powers. These are blatantly destructive actions but not the only ones that put pressure on a culture. The assumption of a new language or the influence of the dominant culture's media output continue to chip away at local cultures long after the colonists have given up power. On the other hand there is the question to which extend you should hold on to certain cultural practices. Cultures are dynamic and change due to inward pressures as well as contact with other cultures. Can you actually revive or even preserve a culture under pressure? At what point does a culture become an idealized version of its historical self?

Once you realize the complexity of the issues involved admiration for the editors' selection sets in. The quality of the writing in this anthology is remarkably high but as usual, some stories had a bigger impact on me than others. One of the ones I particularly liked is Old Domes by J.Y. Yang, a story that among other things, deals with the question why so many places that were once part of a colonial empire don't appear to have much of a history before the colonists arrived. Yang's story is set in Singapore, a place that had been inhabited for centuries before the arrival of the British in 1819. There is a melancholic atmosphere about the story but the exploration of how history is written attracted me the most.

Ernest Hogan takes us in a completely different direction with his story Pancho Villa's Flying Circus. It is something of an alternative history set in the second decade of the twentieth century. As the title suggests features the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, albeit briefly. Hogan takes on the early stages of Hollywood, and shows us his version of what would become the dominant force in cinema in later years. It's a quite brutal piece of writing really. It leaves the reader feeling distinctly paranoid.

Them Ships by Silvia Moreno-Garcia evokes quite different emotions. The protagonist is a girl from the slums of  Mexico City. When an alien invasion rolls over the world her life changes completely. It is a form of captivity but with clean clothes and three meals a day. While some of her fellows are planning rebellion, she sees opportunity. It is a very practical attitude and gives the story a cynical aftertaste.

Sandra McDonald's Fleet uses a post-apocalyptic setting. The story takes us the island of Guam, for centuries at the mercy of various colonial powers but now completely cut off from the rest of the world. Despite the horrors the world has inflicted on the island, a lookout for ships from the rest of the world is organized with strict instructions to bring any outsider to the Elders directly. Without giving the clou of the story away, it is quite a horrific tale.

The final story of the collection is Rochita Loenen-Ruiz' What Really Happened in Ficandula. The story is inspired by a real event in the Philippines during the American occupation of the archipelago.  Essentially the story is about the kind of violence that can occur as a result of vast cultural differences and ignorance. The author alternates snippets of of past events with the life of a girl raised in a colonial society as a second rate citizen. She is about to disembark on a new planet carrying the history of her people, ready to start a new life. The question that she ask herself is whether or not she should bring history along. An interesting feature of the story is that in effect, she becomes the colonist.

We See a Different Frontier is a fascinating piece of reading. It tackles a theme that is so hugely complex that there are countless of ways to approach it and the stories the editors reflect that. The diversity in these stories is stunning. The anthology offers no easy answers but makes the reader aware of issues that are rarely raised in science fiction. In her afterword Ekaterina Sedia mentions that the collection left her 'a bit whiplashed' and that is not far from how I experienced it. These stories are challenging and thought-provoking, qualities that good speculative fiction in my opinion needs to possess, but at the same time they manage to cover ground most readers of the genre will be unfamiliar with. This anthology is one of the best themed anthologies I've had the pleasure of reading. It deserves a larger audience than it is likely to get.

Book Details
Title: We See a Different Frontier
Editors: Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad
Publisher: Publishing
Pages: 213
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9573975-2-1
First published: 2013


  1. This looks really great precisely because it tackles such a complex subject. I'm going to have to check it out!

    1. Would be interesting to hear your thoughts about it.