Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Apex Book of World SF 2 - Lavie Tidhar

Science Fiction is a very Anglo-Saxon affair. Just about all big names in the genre are either from the UK or the US (and most are white men but that is another discussion), with only once in a while an author from another cultural or linguistic background. On top of that, the English speaking world is not overly fond of translations so chances of stumbling across a science fiction novel originally published in, say, Urdu or Swahili is fairly minimal. There is a great deal of Science Fiction being written outside the English speaking world however. I generally try to keep an eye out for these publications but I must admit I only occasionally read one. In 2009 I spotted The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar. A collection that promised a look beyond the English speaking world and introduce it to the finest science fiction from across the globe. The collection used a very wide definition of science fiction, including stories that could be considered horror of fantasy and the geographical distribution left something to be desired. Still, it was a clear impulse to the discussion on the topic of diversity in Science Fiction that is still ongoing.

Given the discussion it provoked a second anthology seemed logical and indeed last month The Apex Book of World SF 2, again edited by Tidhar, was released. It contains 26 stories, or 27 if, like me, you acquired the pre-order edition, as well as an introduction by the editor and an essay by Charles Tan, one of the indefatigable advocates for a more diverse genre. The approach is more or less the same as the previous editions. The stories are a mix of original or first time in English publications and reprints. Some have been written in English, some translated by the author, some by translators. One of the criticisms the first volume received was that is was mostly focussed on Europe and Asia. In this volume, the Americas and Africa are well represented too. There are a number of big names in this anthology. Hannu Rajaniemi, Ekaterina Sedia, Nnedi Okorafor, and Andrzej Sapkowski for instance, have made an impact on the genre already, but the majority of names will be less familiar to even the more experienced Science Fiction reader. Diversity is what the anthology aims for and that is certainly what it delivers.

In terms of styles, sub genres and themes the anthology is is just as diverse as the last one. Some stories are fairly traditional science fiction, others veer of into Fantasy, Horror or Surrealism. There is a risk to this approach of course. For the reader looking for a specific brand of story, the anthology has little to offer. It requires the reader to be inquisitive, the want to experience literature from other traditions than the Anglo-Saxon one and to be open to a wide range of interpretations of the genre and cultural peculiarities. This is a lot harder than it seems. Some stories really clicked with me, for others I only got that whooshing sound you hear when something goes right over your head. There is different and too different? It certainly made me reconsider how much I thought I knew about the world. Interpreting these stories can be very tricky indeed.

One of the ones that clicked for me was the opening story. Alternate Girl's Expatriate Life by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. The author is from the Philippines but currently based in the Netherlands and, if I were to venture a guess, married to one of the locals. The story has a little bit of a Dutch flavour to it, if one knows where to look, but it mostly deals with the stereotype of submissive Asian women. I can't help but wonder how much grief this stereotype has caused her personally. The Philippines do have the reputation as one of the places where middle aged single men can find a young bride easily. Combine that with the racist undertone of Dutch politics at the moment I'm not sure the country is very welcoming to foreigners at the moment.

Malawian author Daliso Chaponda contributed the story Tree of Bones to this collection. It is a dramatic tale set in (probably) 22nd century Burundi, where ethnic tensions once again run high. The courage of one man who has witnessed such atrocities before and his unique talent to allow people to share what he has seen are central to this story. It is an interesting mix of dark elements and optimism in a way. I thought it was a very moving story.

The two stories I mentioned above can be comfortably fitted in Science Fiction. Joyce Chgn's The Sound of Breaking Glass is more fantastic though. It features and eccentric old man making wind chimes out of broken glass bottles. His neighbours obviously see him as crazy but harmless. It is a heartbreaking story, one of those pieces that is all about the mood of the story. She captures the old man's loneliness, indifference to his neighbours' opinion of him and the almost inevitable conclusion very well.

Chng's story is followed by one that only has one speculative element in it. A Single Year by Vietnamese-Hungarian author Csilla Kleinheincz could pass for mainstream fiction if the author chose to market it that way. The story is about the main character struggling with her father's unfailingly correct predictions of the future. What do you do if he tells you the man you intend to share your life with, only has a year to live? The descriptions of the main character's struggle with this knowledge and the unwillingness to accept the future as unchangeable war with each other in this story. The sheer emotional distress of the main character is almost overwhelming. Not a happy story but very well written.

Nira and I by Shweta Narayan, an author who grew up in India and Malaysia, has the air of a folk tale. If it is indeed based on some traditional story I don't know which but that particular bit of knowledge is not necessary to enjoy it. The characters in the story live in a place where perpetual mist is keeping out the sun. The mist is dangerous if you don't know how to live with it. The community is with one foot in the tangible world and another in a land of ghosts. The story is almost minimalistic. There is so much going on between the lines that is never outright mentioned or covered in a very understated way in the text. There are issues of caste and sexuality involved for instance but never very explicit. It is a story that stays with the reader for a while after reading it but I do wonder if it would have been better with a little more flesh on its bones.

The last story I want to mention is A Life Made Possible Behind the Barricades by Brazilian author Jaques Barcia. It is one of those stories that is hard to put in a genre but I guess Steampunk comes closest. It describes the struggles of a couple of which one half is biological and one half mechanical. Their love is not accepted and they have made a run for it to a place where they might be able to be together. Their destination is a battleground though. Behind the barricades they try to build a new life but whether the barricades will hold is questionable. It is a familiar story in a way but Barcia gives it a twist. The revolutionary atmosphere in the story mixes well with the Steampunk elements of the story. It evokes images of early industrial era worker's quarters during a general strike. It's violent, intense and quite strange. One of my favourites in the collection.

The Apex Book of Word SF 2 is bigger, more geographically balanced and, if possible, more diverse than its predecessor. I'm impressed with Lavie's selection and the work it must have taken to collect these stories from all over the planet. In his afterword Charles Tan points out the numerous problems with the term world SF. I guess that if a review wants to, they could have a field day picking this anthology apart based on the difficult to define concept. Personally I don't see the point of doing that. The Apex Book of Word SF 2 aims to show the genre in all its diversity and tries to show that it is much more widespread than the English language world. In that respect it succeeds admirably. Not all stories in this collection work equally well for me but collectively they make a statement. Even in the days of instant communication, the world is larger and stranger than any one of us can possibly imagine. This anthology gives us a taste of it and invites us to explore the world of science fiction in the widest possible sense of the word. Working with such a fuzzy concept as world SF can't have been easy but Lavie has managed to create an anthology that no fan of the genre should ignore. I suggest you go do some exploring of your own.

Book Details
Title: The Apex Book of World SF 2
Author: Lavie Tidhar (ed.)
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 375
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-937009-04-5
First published: 2012

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