Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Apex Book of World SF 3 - Lavie Tidhar

A lot has changed in genre fiction since the appearance of the first volume of The Apex Book of World SF in 2009. A discussion about a more inclusive genre in terms of culture, gender and sexual orientation has been raging for quite a while now and progress on this front is clearly being made. Where Tidhar probably had to work very hard to get access to enough material to fill the first volume, nowadays more and more material is being published by writers form outside the English speaking world and western culture. It's a development that can't be completely laid at the feet of this series of anthologies of course, but it does offer a platform for such works and shows that there is a market for it. In other words, there is more than enough reason to keep the momentum going and release a third volume.

This third volume again is a mix of stories originally written in English and translated works. Almost all works were previously published in magazines or other collections, only one is original to this anthology. It has stories from all continents, with maybe a slight emphasis on Asia, and it stretches science fiction to include fantasy and horror. Two things are a bit different compared to the previous two editions. The women far outnumber the men in this collection, and it contains fewer stories than the first and second volume did. I don't know if the the abundance of female authors is intentional but Tidhar clearly did opt to include a few longer pieces in this anthology.

As with any collection, I didn't connect with all of the stories the same way. The overall quality is quite high but the variation in style and themes will almost inevitably cause the reader to have a few clear favorites. I'll mention a few of mine but I encourage you to find your own. These anthologies have been an eye-opener for me.

The Anthology opens with Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. She is from Thailand and has been making her presence felt in the short fiction market in the past couple of years. I've read one other story by her that was contained in the anthology We See a Different Frontier (2013). This story is one of the first she published and if I had to classify it, I'd say it is a form of military science fiction. It is not easy on the reader. Where much science fiction prefers plot over form, in this story neither wants to give ground to the other. It is beautifully written and has quite an emotional impact. Some readers will be left with questions about what just happened though. From a literary point of view this may be the strongest story in the collection.

The City of Silence is another of my favourites. It was written by Chinese author Ma Boyong and is one of the two stories that have been translated by Ken Liu. The story is set in a future where the state exercises extreme levels of control over its citizens. They go so far as to create a list of 'healthy words' that are permissible to be used in conversation and on the heavily censored internet. As people find more and more creative ways to get their opinion across, the list grows ever shorter. Language itself is under threat from the state.

The story is clearly inspired by George Orwell's 1984 but takes the control of the state to even more extreme levels. It underlines the interesting relationship between the state, politics and language in a way. I can't help but wonder how much of this story is criticism of the Chinese government. On the other hand, for the western reader there is a clear parallel to such things as privacy on the Internet and net neutrality. The City of Silence offers a lot of food for thought.

Jungle Fever by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzor (Malaysia) is one of the uncut horror pieces in the collection. It deals with a woman who scratches herself on a jungle plant. A wound that starts to change her immediately. The story is told from first person perspective and the main character knows exactly what is going on but doesn't care. It makes the story a bit understated and somehow that adds to the horror of the transformation. 

Two stories in this collection deal with ghosts. Waiting with Mortals by Philippine author Crystal Koo is the one that had the most impact on me. Like many ghost stories it revolves around unfinished business and the deceased not being able to fully experience mortal life. In this story the dead have the means to influence the living however. It is invasive and profoundly unethical but obsession drives some ghosts to do it anyway. The psychological pressure on the  main character builds to the point where he has to face his situation and his own motivations head on. The tension in the story is very well built up although some readers may find the resolution a bit predictable.

Another horrific story, although it leans towards fantasy a bit too, is Three Little Children by the French writers couple Ange. It was translated by Tom Clegg and is based on a children's song. This version is a lot darker than what you'd normally tell children. In the story we change from the point of view of a child to that of an adult and back, giving it alternately the feel of a fairy tale and a murder mystery. In that sense, it is a very clever piece of writing. I liked the fact that the translator retained the French lyrics of the song too.

The anthology ends with Dancing on the Red Planet by the Korean-Norwegian author Berit Ellingsen. It's a frivolous piece about the first manned mission to Mars and how to celebrate this momentous occasion. It almost makes you wish the Americans had pulled something like this in 1969. It leaves a smile on your face when you turn the last page of this anthology. It's an excellent choice for a final story.

Once again Tidhar managed to find a number of high quality and very diverse stories to fill the third volume of The Apex Book of World SF. Readers who have enjoyed the first two volumes will not want to miss it. In terms of quality it may well be the best one of the three. Tidhar admits in his Introduction that he has access to a larger number of stories now than when he started work on the first volume. Let's hope this trend continues because these anthologies have made it abundantly clear that it pays to look beyond the English speaking world. Genre fiction is a world-wide phenomenon, it's past time to start treating it as such.

Book Details
Title: The Apex Book of World SF 3
Editor: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 266
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-937009-24-3
First published: 2014


  1. Great review! I'm working on my review, and City of Silence, Waiting with Mortals and Britta's Holiday Village were some of my favorites. I completely agree with your thoughts on Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods, that was a tough one for me. The first time I read it I got so absorbed in the form and imagery that I had trouble figuring out what was going on. Good thing I went back and read it again, because after the 2nd time, I really enjoyed it!

    1. Thank you!

      I hear Sriduangkaew has a novella out this month or next month (not sure). I think I'm going to have a look at that if I can get my hands on it.