The Apex Book of World SF, Edited by Lavie Tidhar
Posted October 23, 2013on:
published in 2009
where I got it: purchased new
I recently picked up both of the Apex Books of World SF. I’ve had my eye on these anthologies for quite a while now. Up till now, I’ve mostly read books by Americans, Canadians, UK’ers, and a few Australians. It’s time to widen my horizons, don’t you think?
The Apex Book of World SF offers a variety of types of stories, from the surreal to the relatively mundane, and some, such as Elegy and Compartments felt like they were completely outside of time, as if taking place in a world and a language that only have present tense. In many stories, names were left out, characters were just “the daughter”, or “the conductor”, or “the girl”. In English, we seem to have an obsession with naming things, we enjoy naming things, we enjoy giving each character a name that fits that person, we write entire stories that focus around naming. In this collection enjoyed running into so many stores where the priority for what to name was so different. I imagine there was some context there that I missed, something of an implied title or connotation in “the girl”, or “the father”, something our English spellings aren’t quite equipped for. But that’s all okay.
As with any anthology, there were a few entries that didn’t do much for me, but for the most part, the Apex Book of World SF was a winner. I found myself rereading many of the stories, especially Compartments and Transcendence Express. Somtow’s The Bird Catcher was a special treat, made only more terrifying after I did some further research.
Were there cultural references that I missed in these stories? To be sure. Foods, or holidays, or colors of clothing, or being barefoot, or being a certain religion, or urban legends, these are all things that would register with anyone who grew up on that culture, but didn’t register with me because I didn’t grow up with those things. Again, all completely okay, and didn’t stop me from enjoying the heck out of this anthology and going back to reread many of the entries.
And the best part is I’ve got the Apex Book of World SF 2 sitting at home waiting for me. If you are looking for more diversity in what you read, this is an excellent anthology to start with.
Here are just some of my favorites out of the Apex Book of World SF:
The Bird Catcher, by S. P. Somtow – I’ve been looking forward to reading more from Somtow since reading Starship and Haiku. The Bird Catcher was written in 2002 and won the World Fantasy Award for best novella.
When Nicholas was a child, he befriended a serial killer. Caucasian, but still a refugee, Nicholas and his mother were among thousands who fled China when the Japanese occupied Nanjing. On the boat to Thailand, Nicholas meets Si Ui, a strange, scared man, who speaks of insatiable hunger as he catches birds to eat raw. They each see something they recognize in the other. Nicholas is young enough that he may recover, but Si Ui is scarred for life. Nicholas’s mother finds work in a clinic in a small village, and Si Ui shows up there too, as a farmhand. On the surface, this is just a story about a little boy who finds a monster, and sees how easy it would be, how easy it *could* be to become a monster. When children go missing in the village, and are later found dead, Nicholas can stay silent, or he can brag about knowing the monster.
I read this story a few times, and each time I noticed more references to birds being set free and birds being caught. Nicholas sometimes feels free, other times he feels like a caged bird, with wings clipped, and in some ways, he imprisons himself, in many ways we all imprison ourselves, we cut our own wings. The story is pure prose, no forced meter, but wow is it poetic. I’m not sure that I cared much about Nicholas, but everytime I opened this anthology, this was a story that I kept going back to and rereading. Only later, did I learn that See Uey was a real person, was really a serial killer who ate children.
L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars), by Dean Fracis Alfar – Maria Isabella du’l Cielo wants to meet a man. But not just any man. She’s got her heart set on Lorenzo du Vicenzio ai Salvador, an astronomer. He walks around all day with his eyes closed, and at night he names the stars. So, to be seen, she decides she must become a star. After all, she did save his life that day, long ago. Her journey to become a star is a gorgeously fantastic one. She visits a kite maker, who, in an attempt at discouraging her, comes up with a design for a kite and gives Maria an impossible list of materials. But Maria has a simple goal – to be on the same level as the stars, so along with the Butcher’s boy, she starts a gloriously sprawling journey across the world for the materials needed for the kite. I wish this short story was an entire novel, because we only get a few sentences of their adventures, how they endured vows of silence, how they waited for a tree to grow, how they accomplished every mythological feat on the kite makers list. Sixty years later, Maria returns to the home of the kite craftsman, ready for her kite to be built. He’s long dead, but he left the designs for his great grandchildren. I don’t think she does all of this because she’s in love with Lorenzo. But what I think she’s more in love with is the journey, the finding and the getting of the things. Sometimes during the journey, she worries to the butcher’s boy that she is wasting their lives away, and his response is that nothing is wasted. If Maria had never noticed Lorenzo, if she’d never decided she needed a kite so she could be with the stars, her life would have been so boring.
The Wheel of Samsara, by Han Song – A woman visits a lamasery in Tibet, and hears the wails of one of the prayer wheels. The Monks tell her that the lamasery had been destroyed many times, and that one particular wheel was the only item that kept surviving. It’s believed there is an entire universe within that wheel. She goes home, and tells her father what she experienced, and he says the sound is just static electricity. When she returns to the lamasery, she brings her father and one of her students, and the wheel wails with many sounds, street sounds and city sounds, sounds that couldn’t be made by mere static. Her father asks the monks if he can take the wheel with him, to see what it’s made of and what’s inside it, and they agree. Instead of taking it with him, he decides to cut it open right then and there. What happens when someone tries to cleave the universe in two?
Transcendence Express, by Jetse de Vries - David and Liona are volunteers in Zambia. He’s works at the hospital, she’s a teacher. But what exactly is she teaching? First she has her students working on wood carving, making flat boxes. Then the students are babysitting some kind of solution mixed with salts and sulfides, it’s very fragile. Some of the boxes never set, others begin working right away. Liona says she’s making computers for the kids, but how could this be possible? David gets angry, he wants her to stop leading the children on, and Liona simply invites him to sit in on her class and see the machines at work. And they do work. The students talk with their computers, each teaching the other. In a classroom led by Liona, filled with students and their ever speeding up computers, who is teaching who? Remember, this is a science fiction story, *not* a fantasy story. Also, it’s got a highly amusing little romance dynamic, that everytime David asks her how the things are really working, she seduces him and distracts him, keeps his mind on her body, not her brain. I couldn’t help but chuckle while reading this, and I got a huge grin on my face by the end.
Into The Night, by Anil Menon – After the death of his wife, Ramaswamy is on his way to live his with daughter. But why does she have to live so far away? and who are these weird people she lives with? Why does his daughter insist on moving away from the traditions, on moving away from what is right and true? Ramaswamy doesn’t understand all the technology in their smarthouse, he’s not interested in learning how to use the technology. She tries to help him, but he’s not ready for or interested in these changes to his life. There’s a remarkable scene in the beginning when Ramaswamy is reminiscing about his wife, and longing for his daughter. Who is this odd but beautiful young woman helping him on the ferry? He’s never met her before, why is she being so kind to him, shouldn’t she be home with her husband instead of helping strange senior citizens? This is why Ramaswamy can’t live by himself, the kind lady helping him is his daughter, and he doesn’t remember who she is. This scene being right at the beginning colors the rest of the story.
The Lost Xuyan Bride by Aliette de Bodard – This takes place in de Bodard’s Xuya Empire, where China discovered and colonized the Americas first, and history was forever altered. I’ve read a few stories in this world, and most of them take place in the far future, when we are space faring. The Lost Xuyan Bride takes place in the present day, and is told by an American, so we get a lot more background on the Empire. Now that I know more of the history, I want to reread the other de Bodard Xuya Empire short fiction I’ve read.
Brooks a private investigator, specializes in missing people. He’s pretty much got to work for himself, because as a Protestant American living in Xuya, no company is ever going to hire him. But he can’t go home either, there’s a warrant out for his arrest for miscegenation. Doesn’t matter that the Xuya woman he married died shortly after of cancer. Brooks’ latest case is locating He Zhen, a young Xuya woman whose mother and fiance seem oddly unemotional about her being missing. Files have gone missing from He Zhen’s computer, the fiance is into organized crime, it’s pretty obvious someone in her family helped her escape the arranged marriage. My favorite thing about this story is how Brooks navigates Xuya and the Mexica Empire to the south. He’s the outsider, the foreigner, he’s got to fake his beliefs and fake an assimilation to get his job done. But what has He Zhen traded her arranged marriage for? When all your choices are taken from you, will you settle for just the slightest freedom? Maybe Brooks and He Zhen have more in common than they think.
You can read The Lost Xuyan Bride online at Aliette de Bodard’s website.
Compartments by Zoran Zivkovic – What a strange, beautiful, surreal ride! A man barely catches his train, and the conductor minds not at all that he hasn’t got a ticket. The conductor confesses to the new passenger about some not-so-appropriate behavior with a beautiful female passenger. The conductor didn’t do anything terrible, but still, the conductor is embarrassed and ashamed at his behavior. What follows is a surreal comedy of manners, where the new passenger meets people in the different compartments, and hears different stories about this unusual female passenger, who seems to seduce everyone she meets. In one compartment, a mother claims the woman seduced her husband proven because the two had the gall to talk about the weather (of all things!) and now her shamed into silence husband is dead to her; in another are monks who play chess backwards; in another is a nurse who takes care of an ancient couple; and there are others yet. The passengers in each compartment tell stories about the beautiful female passenger, and while traveling down the hall from compartment to compartment, the man hears contradictory stories from the conductor, who also acts as a valet of sorts. Completely strange, completely surreal, and completely unique, certainly one of my stand out favorites of the collection.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s to be found in The Apex Book of World SF. Reading these stories made me feel equally lost and enlightened. A little like when I started reading fantasy – I felt lost, I felt like I was drowning and I couldn’t get enough even though I had no idea what direction I was running in. Everything was new, everything was wonderful, nothing was cliched or tropey, everything was fresh. It’ll be a long time before I understand all the missed references, which in a way, is the best thing ever. Because who wants a short journey to understanding? that’s boring.