Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Apex Book of World SF - Lavie Tidhar

One argument in the (completely pointless) debate on whether or not science fiction is dying is that the genre is a very anglophone affair. I'm not entirely sure I agree with that statement. Simply because Science Fiction does not get translated into English does not mean it isn't written and published outside the English speaking nations. There is an extra hurdle though and that is the size of the market. Science Fiction is a niche market and it is becoming more so every year. To sustain a population of professional writers you need quite a few people who read science fiction. English can provide that, many other languages cannot. I don't know of of any author writing in Dutch who can make a living writing science fiction or even fantasy.

There are several strategies to deal with this problem. A first group simply keeps their day job or supplement their income with other activities in the publishing world. A second group writes mainstream literature or other, more profitable, genres and throws in a work of science fiction once in a while. A third group attempts to write in English, translates their own work or has their work translated to reach a wider audience. Writing speculative fiction in a small language is hard but that certainly doesn't stop people. There's is quite a bit out there if you know where to look. The Apex Book of World SF collects a number of stories from around the world. Most of these writers have adopted the third strategy. Some of the sixteen stories were written in English, three were translated by the author and in three cases the translator is named in the copyright information. I have been looking around for quality Dutch genre fiction with limited but encouraging success, it only makes sense to see what is on offer in the rest of the world.

The Apex Book of World SF is a very mixed collection, containing stories that could be seen as horror, fantasy, science fiction and even surrealistic literature. As usual with these kinds of collections I didn't enjoy all stories in equal measure. In fact, there were a few that didn't appeal to me a whole lot. The stories that did were the majority though. I'm not going to write down my thoughts on each of them, this review is going to be too long as it is, but I'll mention some of the highlights.

The collection opens with The Bird Catcher by Thai S.P. Somtow. It's an award winning story and deservedly so. The Bird Catcher describes a visit of an old man and his grandson to a museum where the remains of a notorious serial killer are on display. The grandfather takes his grandson to tell the horrific tale of this criminal and his own part in the criminal's story. It's a horrific tale about a traumatized boy who has witnessed the horrors of the fighting in the second world war in China. Somtow does not spare the reader the details but the what I liked most about the story is how the main character deals with complicity and guilt and how the grandson is not impressed with what to him is ancient history. If you look past the horror it is a very sad tale, one with an unbelievably complex tangle of emotions in the main character.

Transcendence Express by Jetse de Vries is one story I was particularly interested in, partly because the author is Dutch and partly because of a number articles and interviews I read online. De Vries is a man with an opinion. A scientist (illegally) brings quantum computing to a poor nation in Africa and thus heralds the end of development aid. The concept is very interesting indeed but de Vries does take rather big strides. I think there is a longer work hidden in this story. The consequences of the actions of the scientist are enormous but wouldn't it be nice to be able to grow your own computer?

The collection contains two stories from Chinese authors. Wizard World by Yang Ping is the one I like best. By the end of this century a vast MUD occupies the time of millions of people around the world. The main character is one of them. He hasn't been outside his apartment for three years. When his carefully developed character is killed a strange series of events is set in motion that will chance the main character's life. This is one for all you World of Warcraft addicts out there. I thought the rising panic in when the main character's work is wiped out in a instant was particularly well done.

One of the two Israeli contributions is the collection's most disturbing story by far. Cinderer by Nir Yaniv is about arson made into an art form. Right from the beginning it is clear there is something very wrong with the main characters. The reference to Donald Duck, the complete lack of guilt or even acknowledgement of the loss of human lives and careful build up to the point where the reader fully realizes what is wrong with the main characters is chilling. The author uses a number of story elements to make this story disturbing but it is the structure he chooses to tell the tale that really makes it work for me. The use of repetitions and changing from one character's point of view to the next in particular.

The Lost Xuyan Bride by Aliette de Bodard is set in an alternate version of North America where the continent was not only colonized from the Europe but also from China. As a result the American west is now an independent state culturally heavily influenced by China. As a result of the Chinese and Europeans clashing, Mexico has retained an Aztec culture. Throughout the reader can feel the tension between these three very different cultures. The story itself is detective story. A lonely American PI in Xuyan is hired to find the daughter of one of the influential families in the country. The plot is good but I admire this story most for the excellent worldbuilding.

The last story I want to mention is Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang by Kristin Mandigma. It is one of the two contributions from the Philippines. I admit I needed the help of wikipedia to figure out what an Aswang was. You probably need a passing familiarity with left wing politics to fully appreciate this but it is absolutely hilarious. The combination of the spot on socialist jargon, the angry tone of the letter and the way the author takes on the merits of Heinlein's Starship Troopers had me laughing out loud. A brief but very strong contribution to the collection.

So how successful is this collection? As the editor points out in the introduction the The Apex Book of World SF is geographically speaking incomplete. The focus is mostly on Europe and Asia so there is much more territory to explore. Tidhar has managed to gather a bunch of quality stories though, and he hints that this may be the first part of a larger project. What he has presented so far certainly leads me to believe there are more of such jewels to be uncovered outside the anglophone sphere of Science Fiction. I certainly hope that The Apex Book of World SF will be successful enough to allow more ventures into world SF.

For those of you who like to be informed on this topic, some of the people behind this publication have set up a news blog here.

Book Details
Title: The Apex Book of World SF
Editor: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 287
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9821596-3-7
First published: 2009


  1. Cinderers is a great tale! "Fight Club" Style on the main character and a great domain of the repeticions and different perspectives of the personalitys. One of the best tales i've read this year.

    Great Review,

    Roberto Mendes

  2. The three personalities are well done, aren't they? I think the way he names them is a real stroke of brilliance.

  3. You are absolutlly right. The Donald Duck reference in the names of the three personalities takes the environment in the storie to a new level:)

    I'm the editor of Dagon, a portuguese speculative fiction magazine, and i´m publishing "cinderers" in January.

    Roberto Mendes

  4. Is that a Portuguese language magazine?

  5. Yes. The only one to be published in real paper. It´s a new project : the number zero was released in August for free as an e-book, the number zero, containing international participations oth the for of an interview with Lavie Tidhar, The "Cinderers" by Nir Yaniv and an article from Larry Nolen. The rest of the Line up is "made in Portugal"! To be realesed on January 2010!!!