Monday, December 3, 2012

Microreview [book]: The Apex Book of World SF 2

The Meat

Science fiction and fantasy have made a lot of progress in recent years when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity, clearly evidenced by the success of non-white writers like Ken Liu, E. Lily Yu, Aliette de Bodard, Sherman Alexie, Ted Chiang, Charles Yu and Nora Jemisin in what was once a very white genre. Yet despite this progress, you'll notice that most of those I just named are born and/or raised in the United States and Britain. Fewer authors working outside the Anglosphere, not to mention those writing in languages other than English, have been able to pierce our bubble. While this may be unsurprising in one sense--Anglophonic authors predominating in a largely Anglophonic market, consider how SF/F stacks up to, say, crime fiction. Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, Shuichi Yoshida, Keigo Higashino, Mehmet Murat Somer, Gianrico Carofiglio, Qiu Xiaolong--this small sample of non-Anglophonic authors who have been published in English and made a major impact on English-language crime fiction underscores the comparable absence of such voices from SF/F.

The Apex Book of World SF, first published in 2009, served as a correction of sorts. Edited by SF provocateur and international nomad Lavie Tidhar, the anthology spawned a very good blog, a lot of worthy discussion and renewed interest in voices from beyond the Anglosphere. The Apex Book of World SF 2 continues this tradition, and is both an impressive and exhaustive compendium of global short fiction, where recognized names like Lauren Beukes (South Africa), Hannu Rajaniemi (Finland, Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria/US) and Andrzej Sapkowski (Poland) rub elbows with less established authors, some of whom are appearing in English for the first time.

I have to admit, this was a hard book to review--in part because of the sheer depth and breadth of what's on offer (26 stories), but more because the tie that binds the stories together, "world SF," is a heterogeneous, residual category with a lot of ambiguity as to what it means. Does it mean translated short fiction? No, because many of the stories presented were written and published in English, some even in mainstream Anglo-American journals. Does it mean short fiction written by those born and raised outside Anglophonia? No, because other stories were written by longtime residents of Anglophonic countries. Then there's the case of Okorafor, who as I understand it has Nigerian roots and writes about Africa but was born and raised in the US, and is rightly considered a significant figure in US science fiction. But the various white, native Anglophones who write about non-Anglophonic contexts are not included.** So the question is--what, exactly, does "world SF" mean?

The best idea I can come up with is that, to be considered a "world SF" writer, you have to either be from a non-Anglophonic country, be intimately engaged with a literature based outside Anglophonia or display transnationality in your writings. Thus, if you had an individual born and raised in the UK, but who lives in and writes about Malaysia, and is furthermore an active figure in Malaysian SF/F, he or she could be considered part of the canon despite his British roots. But "Joe Exoticizer" from Bristol, who does not speak Malay and has no meaningful connections to Malaysia beyond what he reads in the Guardian or Telegraph, yet sets his stories in Kuala Lumpur, would not. This definitional scheme allows for Okafor's inclusion--she's obviously a transnational writer, with transnationality constituting a central theme in her writing, and is an active figure in African as well as Western science fiction. I can accept this framing, but I do wish there was a bit more clarity and precision on the definition side of things, and perhaps some additional curating of the works involved.

All that said, there are some common themes among the stories included in the volume, which speak to the different kinds of perspectives one encounters when one leaves the relative shelter and isolation of the Anglosphere. As mentioned above, one of these is transnationality. The opening piece, “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, is a rather stunning mediation on the feelings of rootlessness and alienation that inevitably creep into the psyche of any thoughtful expatriate. That's not all it's about, of course, but as someone who has spent a good proportion of his life in countries other than the one he was born in, it really spoke to me in a profound and lasting way. Several stories speak directly to the experience and aftereffects of colonization or coming from the periphery of what sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein once called "The World Capitalist System." Among the best of these is “The First Peruvian in Space” by Daniel Salvo. I'd go into more detail about it, but there's a crucial twist that I'm loathe to reveal or even foreshadow. “Eyes in the Vastness of Forever” by Argentine writer Gustavo Bondoni is another doozy--a surreal, ambiguous fantasy about a Portuguese sailor encountering what may or may not be the end of the world. And “Trees of Bone” by Daliso Chaponda is an incredibly creepy slice of magic realism dealing with, in turns, the inexorable death of tradition and equally inexorable vigor of hatreds--even when the conditions that gave rise to their trajectories fades from view.

Some of the stories, of course, are not centrally focused on issues of perspectivity, but instead are just good science fiction by authors we probably haven't been exposed to. Zimbabwean writer Ivor Hartmann's "Mr. Goop" is, at heart, both an exploration of the emotional implications of artificial intelligence and a bittersweet coming of age story. Andrzej Sapkowski's "The Malady," an unusual take on the Tristan and Isolt mythos, has quite a different tone from his Witcher books (two of which I have glowingly reviewed), but showcases the sheer breadth of his talent, and cements his status--for me, at least--as the best writer of fantasy prose since Gene Wolfe.

Not all the stories worked for me, unfortunately. Lauren Beukes is a very talented writer, but the emphasis on futureslang in "Branded" grated on me in the same way the Chad Mulligan chapters from Stand on Zanzibar grated on me, even if that was central to what she was trying to accomplish. Similarly, "Zombie Lenin" by Ekaterina Sedia displays her considerable abilities as a writer, but is, in the end, not her best work--it's clever, but too self-consciously so, and as such, lacks subtlety. Joyce Chng’s “The Sound of Breaking Glass,” by contrast, just wasn't very well written And despite my love for classic Marvel/DC superheroes, I didn't really care for Andrew Drilon's Silver Age love letter, "The Secret Origin of Spin-Man," perhaps because Silver Age love letters have become so cliche in comics themselves.

The hits, though, far out number the misses, making The Apex Book of World SF 2 a major success and important chapter in the development of the genre towards a more inclusive, broad-minded and--consequently--an intellectually richer state of being. If SF/F is exhausted, as Paul Kincaid has argued, it may simply be because we are looking for vitality in the wrong places.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for expanding the world of SF/F in a meaningful and very real sense; +1 for the original translations and works presented in English for the first time.

Penalties: -1 for definitional ambiguity that could have been reconciled and improved upon through additional curating of selected works; -1 for picking unusually weak stories from strong writers like Beukes and Sedia.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."

Read about our non-inflated, Pitchfork-style scoring system here.

**ED: For those who think this is a call to include this kind of thing in a compendium of "world SF," it's not. Please read the rest of the review, and you will understand the sentence is part of an exploration of where the boundaries of "world SF" are set by the anthology.