BOOK REVIEW: The Apex Book Of World SF 2

ApexWorldSF2The publishing world likes to put things in boxes.  By simplifying books into genres they make it easier for their readers to find the types of books they like, and by putting their readership into marketing categories they can select which books to publish which are most likely to sell.  Behaviour control makes good business sense in most fields but bringing such strategies into literature risks stunting author creativity and blunting the tastes of the consumer.  Thankfully there are still authors (and publishers) out there who are determined to push the boundaries and break new ground in order to bring new flavours to their readership.  One such person is Lavie Tidhar, author of the renowned Bookman Trilogy.  Not only does he run the World SF blog but in 2009 he curated and edited the Apex Book of World SF.  The book was a modest success and created enough of a buzz in enough places to earn a second volume.

How much any reader enjoys an anthology depends hugely on taste, so let’s kick off with a more general overview of the package.  Lavie has gathered up stories from a broader spectrum of cultures in response to the first books reception.  We find tales from as far afield as China, Finland, New Zealand, Nigeria and Poland (among many others) and the eclectic mix is thrilling.  I remember reading one or two books of world folk and fairy tales as a child and being transported by the fresh perspectives, idioms and forms of story on offer.  It was as though I’d suddenly turned a corner and discovered a whole new section of the library.  Such is the gift that Apex bring us with their World SF collections.  I shan’t spoil the pick’n’mix delight of the anthology by drearily describing every story.  Instead, I’ll talk about one that I particularly enjoyed, one that didn’t quite hit the mark and finish off with my final thoughts.

Story-telling at its best hits you on multiple levels and nothing did that better for me than Nira and I by Indian/Malaysian writer Shweta Narayan.  Her world is subtle and unsettling.  A fear-haunted community huddle together in an urban archipelago caught in an ocean of mutagenic mist.  It’s an isolating, terrifying existence where a single step in the wrong direction can leave a loved one transformed into a hideous creature, outcast and effectively dead.  The whole place is steeped in tragedy and hopelessness.  A brave young girl takes on the role of a Rememberer, guiding others through pathways in the mist.  As the story progresses and we learn more about their lives, the eponymous characters discover ways to dispel the mist, but to do so entirely will mean changing the way everybody thinks.  When you consider what the mist really is (if you think about it in terms of our world) the analogy is so strong, yet so delicately woven that it quite takes the breath away.  It is a tale of triumph and joy and I shall say no more other than it left me smiling through tears.

In contrast, The Glory Of The World did nothing for me at all.  Sergey Gerasimov’s bizarre narrative felt like it was trying to make serious comments about religion and Capitalism in the guise of a surreal comedy, but in such a convoluted way as to make a nonsense of itself.  It read to me like The Life Of Brian shoved through the Infinite Improbability Drive and hacked up by a grinning maniac at the other end.  It’s a raging stream of consciousness in delirium and I won’t even attempt to describe the plot, beyond the fact that a Messiah figure is brought into an office to be tested and potentially bought.  With greater patience and a better understanding of the Ukrainian mindset I am sure that this enigma of a story could be unraveled to reveal truths, horrors and bitter comedy – perhaps with as much depth and intelligence as Nira and I – but I was unable to grasp it.  Even this crowded cross-cultural impasse is worth reading though for its colourful imagery and brain fizzing freneticism.

Taken as a whole this anthology is a strange brew, full of heady and exotic flavours that don’t necessarily mix well.  My over-riding sense was that, whilst this is a fascinating set of windows into alien worlds, I’m not the fearless and unfiltered reader that I used to be.  I’ve let myself be put in boxes for too long now.  It feels churlish to say, but some clarity should be made about the nature of the tales within.  Whilst there are elements of Science Fiction in the bulk of the narratives, ranging from oblique to mind-blowing, there are a good six or seven stories which I would never dream of calling SF.  I was surprised (even a little annoyed at first) by the inclusion of such tales as Shadow, Hungry Man and The Malady as they seemed to defy the remit of the title, but it soon became clear that these all come from talented writers whose work deserves to be seen.  After all, if we’re pushing boundaries we may as well really push them back.  The only thing that is really important is the quality of the writing and on the whole it’s pretty strong here.  I’ve already gone out and bought a novel by one of these writers (The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski) and look forward to soaking myself in more of his wonderful prose.  By the time the Apex Book Of World SF 3 comes out I hope I’ll be ready to cast caution to the winds and leap through those windows.  Perhaps you’ll join me.

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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