Friday, February 5, 2016

Microreview [book]: The Apex Book of World SF, Volume 4 ed. by Mahvesh Murad

Set a course for great science fiction. Destination? EARTH!

The Meat:

Growing up as a white boy in the suburban American Midwest, the world often seemed like the spinning globe at the beginning of Universal movies, with the USA always front and center and everything else sort of bleeding away at the edges. It's a reality that is reinforced watching those movies, where outside the US and perhaps a few European countries, the world is a vast and dirty slum, good only for when you need somewhere for aliens to blow up or heroes to escape from. The xenophobia at the beating heart of most entertainment produced and marketed to me told a unifying story of the world, captured and condensed into a simple lie, that the only people worth telling stories about where white, straight, cis-males who spoke "proper English."

I would like to say that nowadays things have changed. In some ways, they have, as evidenced by the fact that this collection is made up entirely of previously printed material. The stories come from near and far, many of them originally written in a language other than English. And the quality is, for me, unassailable. Each of the stories that I had read at the time of their original release that appear in this collection I loved and included in my monthly short speculative fiction recommendation list. Indeed, "The Language of Knives" by Haralambi Markov is one of my absolute favorite stories from 2015, and uses an enchanting style and stark imagery to explore the roles people find themselves in: in their families, in their professions, in their ages. The story is at turns surprising and affirming, emotional and richly inventive. And the entire collection is filled with stories that stand up just as well.

My biggest issue with the collection, and probably the greatest trouble with collections in general and international collections in particular, is that there just isn't enough space for everything. I think there is a phenomenal effort to include works from all over the world, and the stories included range from fast and fun to heartbreaking and dark as hell. As a sampler it works quite well, and I think that's what it's purpose is, but it makes the organization of the collection as a whole somewhat jarring at times and in some ways it can't help but create a The West vs. Everything Else mentality, which is both necessary and frustrating. Necessary because the Everything Else is forced to share resources to be seen and heard, and frustrating because it creates a false unity that can flatten intersectionality. That said, I think the collection remains very conscious of the complex nature of the project it's undertaking and is obviously involved in a long game of trying to bring attention to stories that deserve to be read and examined and celebrated.

As for the stories themselves, I rather loved them. Thomas Olde Heuvelt's "The Boy Who Cast No Shadow" had me in tears with a story of friendship and coming of age and fragility and life and death. There are stories that I get to the end of and just sort of stare at for a while, eyes wet, and this was one of them, a powerful piece about expectations and visibility where one boy has no shadow, to reflection, and the other only reflects. So, so good. JY Yang's "Tiger Baby" was as good as the first time I read it, a piece about a woman pushed into a role and striving to match the image of herself in her mind, striving to become something powerful and dangerous. A story about the power people want to have and the power they do have and the vast distance between the two.

There are a lot of stories on display here, and despite the SF in the title of the collection many of the works are fantasy and horror. There is a bending of genre expectations as well as a bending of expectations in general. Because the stated purpose of the collection is to provide a showcase for perspectives springing from experiences outside the white, Western mainstream. There are stories of immigration and intolerance, like Zen Cho's excellent "The Four Generations of Chang E" (which, come on, manages to make a pun intelligent and nuanced). The story shows the shifting sands of otherness, the way that cultures are not static things but rather a complex set of expectations, beliefs, and small revolutions and rebellions.

There are stories with a scope that takes on the entire universe and stories that are intensely focused and personal (and some that cross both of those). There are stories that give their characters a happy ending and stories that dive headlong into tragedy and heartbreak. Stories that explore what it means to be human in a global way. Take Vajra Chandrasekera's "Pockets Full of Stones," a story about family and isolation and also invasion and threat in a way that's difficult to understand or predict. It's not a happy story, but it one that shows the way that humans can be global creatures, social and able to reach through the walls of difference that separate us from each other. And the collection as a whole does an excellent job of building that global consciousness, that awareness of isolation and connection that is integral to being human.

And in the end I love what the collection manages to do, which is to take a collection of unique and strong voices and create something of a harmony with them, a symphony. Each piece, each place that is explored and personal history that is examined, both stands on its own and also illuminates the collection's theme of world science fiction. The result is a collection that shines with great stories and an important message: that to limit yourself to reading only stories coming out of one country or one situation is to ignore not only a richly diverse world of published stories but to blind yourself to the increasingly global nature of humanity, with all the complexity and nuance that entails.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 8/10 

Bonuses: +1 for an amazing range of science fiction and spec stories, +1 for making my laugh and cry in the same collection

Negatives: -1 for a few choppy transitions story to story

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 "amazing and important and you read that like right now" see our full rating system here.


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

REFERENCE: ed. Murah, Mahvesh. The Apex Book of World SF, Volume 4 [Apex, 2016]