MAY 24, 2016
WE ARE DESPERATELY looking for others; our survival depends on them. Fundamentalists are everywhere, defining their identity through the exclusion (or downright elimination) of those who are different, by race, gender, class, religion, nationality, language, culture, or mental health. No coincidence, zombies are also everywhere — especially on our screens — and they seem familiar: hordes of easily identified starving and suffering others who just want to consume.
It is difficult to extricate zombies from the global problem of massive migration and its flow toward the geopolitical localization of wealth and resources, away from the historical or contingent conditions that make migration desirable. The former so-called First and Third Worlds have never been closer. Terror attacks remind us there’s a war going on right around the corner. Science and technology have given us the opportunity to interact in “real time” with an ever-widening number of people from all around the world. The nature of this technology has invented the global. We are definitely closer, especially if you are the right other (or so thousands of dating platforms would lead us to believe).
We do need others, right?
Science fiction has always been obsessed with others. The bestiary of the genre confirms this — from aliens to post-humans, as well as clones, zombies, mutants, and unnamable things on the fringes of our understanding. Science fiction believes so much in the other that it constantly reinvents it.
Even more, science fiction believes that science and technology turn us into others. For better or worse, the genre presumes that scientific breakthroughs change the very fabric of our existence. The practice of science fiction deals with imagining others. Its bookends are the utopian and apocalyptic imaginations, with a multiverse of possibilities in between. Fantastic others exist not only in the imagination; some of them also write science fiction stories. Women have entered the field, as well as African Americans and LGBT writers, demanding a readership and a voice in a genre that imagines the future. It is a pleasure to read Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany, as well as new writers like Ted Chiang and Paolo Bacigalupi. The inclusion of alternative voices has created new tensions in the SF community, as the recent Hugo Awards crisis illustrates.
The Hugos are among the most prestigious awards granted to science fiction and fantasy writing in the English world. In 2015, two groups within the English-based science fiction community, the self-named “Sad” or “Rabid Puppies,” legally sabotaged the nomination process through campaigns and voting strategies to make sure their favorite pieces won. Brad Torgersen, the outspoken leader of the Sad faction of the Puppies, complained that today if you see a spaceship on a book cover, instead of getting a “rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant amazing words,” you will probably end up with a story “merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings.” A cover sporting a person wearing “a mechanized suit of armor” might actually suggest “gay and transgender issues” or “the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.” The science fiction community responded to this conservative backlash: an unprecedented five nominees declined their nominations, and in five categories the vote went to “No Award.” This strange stalemate has as much to do with the aesthetic question of how readers find pleasure in art as it has to do with a political tension concerning the right of others to have a voice. It’s also telling that Liu Cixin, a Chinese writer, won the best novel award with The Three-Body Problem, a novel originally published in Chinese and translated into English by Ken Liu.
The publication of the fourth volume of The Apex Book of World SF, which gathers science fiction stories from 26 different countries around the world, offers a hopeful contrast to the Hugo controversy — it shows that there’s a readership interested in how others fictionalize their relation to science and technology. What do others imagine as others? The promise of alien-ness bristles throughout the volume — the thrill of getting “past a certain point […] [where] the thread snaps […] the narrative breaks,” as Zen Cho (Malaysia) describes in “The Four Generations of Chang E,” a poignant story about the descendants of a human who migrated to the Moon, becoming, truly, others. Editor Mahvesh Murad, a writer “born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, where she still lives,” wisely introduces readers to the anthology, claiming that “this is not a book of diverse stories,” but a book of “really great stories from all over the world.” And it is a really interesting place to look for others.
In the anthology, others come in different guises. In a handful of stories, they are particularly dangerous, such as the invasive race that travels as signals throughout the universe, adapting to “computational substrates” (like our brains and telecommunications devices) in “Pockets Full of Stones” by Vajra Chandrasekera (Sri Lanka). In some stories, the other looks a lot like us. In Swabir Silavi’s (Kenya) “Colour Me Grey,” the narrator finds himself part of a lineage of “agents of color” fighting against BigBelleChiefMan, who has made the world gray and who turns “truth is singular” into an enforced belief.
A bitter resentment, and even defiance, permeates “The Lady of the Soler Colony,” a steampunkish story by Rocío Rincón (Spain) that tells the story of the people who live inside gigantic female statues that serve as both a fabric and as figures of worship. One day, the statues start walking and leave. The ensuing catastrophe is also liberating. Bernardo Fernández’s (Mexico) “The Last Hours of the Final Days” tells the love story of teenage skaters wandering around the deserted carcass of Mexico City, waiting for the apocalypse to arrive.
If provoking a “sense of wonder” is one of the primary effects of the genre, there’s wonder and strangeness enough in the anthology, which also manages to elude the cozy middle-class trappings of privilege that usually make “standard” science fiction so boring and predictable. There are not as many white people in need of rescue or kicking ass as usual. The opposite is actually true: a lot of the characters in this volume appear to be fragile singularities in a world that fails to acknowledge and protect them, or that changes so fast that their experience seems to be as irrelevant as it is intense.
Singularities and radical becomings seem to pop up everywhere. “Tiger Baby,” by JY Yang (Singapore), allows us to understand why human life is so boring and limited, as we read about the main character changing into a different creature. “Pepe,” by Tang Fei (China), tells the story of two adolescent storytelling robots in a world that has outlawed them; they try to pass as normal children while their “narrative machines” break down and the stories they tell go nowhere. “Pepe,” in particular, shows how science fiction is able to raise questions about the particular way in which we understand the universe. The post-human character follows another logic of engaging others and the world. Being different and trying to hide it, the narrator of the story — in a moment where despair seems to be indistinguishable from love — manages to ask: “Why are you, Pepe?”
Personally, I would have liked more sex in the anthology. Sexual practice with or between aliens (legal, illegal, or imaginary) can be quite a thing, if handled properly, as Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Netherlands) does in “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow,” a love story about teens who go beyond queer. Look, the main character, casts no shadow or reflection. He is the son of “the founders of the Progressive Parish, a local political party that worships being different.” The character gives us a quick description of the Parish get-togethers: “‘We just adopted a little Filipino.’ ‘No kidding! Our son is gay.’ ‘Really? Well, ours has no shadow.’ Three-nil. Nobody beats that.” Even if diversity turns into religion, Look feels completely alienated, a trophy for his parents, until he meets Splinter, whose whole skin is a mirror. The boy without a reflection elopes with the boy who cannot help but reflect. In one of the most poignant stories in the volume, just touching is a risky sexual experience.
I would also have loved more politics, even though the anthology starts with the brilliant “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” by Usman T. Malik (Pakistan), a story that weaves together the four states of matter with a woman’s quest for her dead brother, exploring the relationship that binds together family in the context of terrorist attacks. The story, nominated for both a Nebula and a Bram Stoker Award in 2014, grabs you by the neck and does not let go. But more politics would have been welcome in a collection that seems to be the written-SF equivalent of foreign film selections. Drugs are also missing, and I can totally understand that science fiction anthologies wish to engage young audiences as a way to ensure survival. But in a world where testosterone therapies are becoming almost recreational, where a crisis of the imagination clouds our political thoughts, and where drug wars are global (even if you are just hooked on oil), I would have expected these issues to appear with more frequency.
Violence, though, is frequent. At least four stories deal with the care of corpses. “The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov (Bulgaria) depicts the complex and solemn ritual in which a woman cuts up her husband’s corpse with their daughter. In “The Symphony of Ice and Dust” by Julie Novakova (Czech Republic), a post-human expedition finds the remains and logs of human interstellar travelers and decides to make a symphonic tribute to them. In Sese Yane’s (Kenya) “The Corpse,” a coroner discovers the extreme pleasure of just taking the cadaver home. But “Six Things We Found During the Autopsy,” by Kuzhali Manickavel (India), takes the award for best corpse-dealing fiction in the anthology, and maybe even as the best story in the anthology, allowing us to look at the notes from an autopsy where a group of creatures try to make sense out of a corpse that contains a Playboy magazine hidden behind the jaw and St. Sebastian tied to the spinal column. If cognitive estrangement is the cornerstone of science fiction, then this story accomplishes it with a double-pronged efficacy — the reader cannot really decide who is the strangest: the actual corpse or the creatures performing the autopsy.
Hardcore readers may complain that sometimes the anthology crosses over into the fantasy genre, leaving the cognition out of estrangement, and although this may be true in some cases, one has to assume that when speaking to the rest of the world, the distinction between hard and soft science fiction becomes blurry. Mauricio-José Schwarz, a Mexican SF author, used to say that some people find it funny that there could be such a thing as science fiction in Mexico, to which he always replied that even if his country didn’t produce much science or technology, it sure did suffer from them. Maybe the way to characterize “World SF” is not as hard or soft, but sharp, when it works well. In the experimental universes, the mathematicians of the universe create to satisfy their curiosity, according to Sathya Stone’s (Sri Lanka) “Jinki and the Paradox,” “you should know by now. Math always hurts.”
The search for others in science fiction also implies the quest for vectors of flight and change. On a global scale, wondering where the future will come from forces us to understand there is no single future, but several, coexisting at the same time, and a particular cultural cartography is allowing us to map them out. In The Apex Book of World SF 4, nationality seems to be the way to organize these futures, although the nomadic lifestyles glimpsed through several of the authors’ biographies complicate such organization. The authors of the 28 stories in the anthology come from 26 different countries. In this anthology, half the stories come from Asian writers, eight from Europe, four from Africa, and only a couple from the United States. But there’s also an underlying statistic that may be more telling. Regardless of nationality, only seven out of the 28 stories were written in a language different from English, and subsequently published outside of this particular language literary science-fictional market, constraints, virtues, and vices.
The terms “World Science Fiction” or “Global Science Fiction” are becoming legitimate fields of interest at a time where human life is indistinguishable from technological interference and scientific thought. We are technology. We are post-human. And we understand both the “global” and “world” adjectives only through the eyes and screens technology has afforded us. If we loosely understand science fiction as the imaginative exercise with which we deal with science and technology, then it becomes a major tool in understanding a reality that increasingly grows less believable and more fragile, in which crisis has become our quotidian condition. We are desperately looking for others because, in a globalized culture and economy, they might not exist anymore. We might have exterminated them, and we fear our genocidal complicity.
The characters in “Black Tea,” written by Samuel Marolla (Italy), seem to understand this, trapped in a house they cannot escape while being hunted down by a creature they cannot fully understand. In “First, Bite Just a Finger,” Johann Thorsson (Iceland) describes how to get the ultimate high: by eating ourselves. The story seems to imply that there’s nothing more pleasurable than taking tiny bites out of our own body. No one understands the pleasures of a junkie addicted to himself.
Maybe it’s just a case of cultural narcissism, the communicational pleasure of assimilating the other, a kind of global, technologically enabled and inevitable autophagy. If you are reading this, we could probably look for each other in our favorite search engine and find ourselves in a matter of seconds. We enjoy the privileges of both a shared language and a common technology. Yes, we are closer, and a global conversation is both inevitable and desirable. And maybe we are desperately looking for others because we fear there might not be any left, and somehow that sounds like a terrible nightmare. If there are no others, we are forever trapped inside ourselves.
In this sense, The Apex Book of World SF series does what science fiction does best by trying to produce otherness, by granting it a voice, by finding paths and conversations where we may change. A line from Malik’s “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” that works as a prayer amid the searing pain caused by terrorist attacks may serve as the quantum engine of a science fiction that has turned global: “Let there be possibility.”