Strange Horizons reviews The Apex Book of World SF 2
What is “world SF?” For a young white man living an admittedly bourgeois lifestyle in the pleasing (though occasionally frigid) climes of Canada, the term conjures the image of a dusty marketplace where women wearing colourful hijabs trade coffee beans for nanocircuitry. It makes me think of Noah’s Ark-type colony ships, within which beneficent and enlightened world governments have loaded not animals, but a man and woman of every race and creed. But for every image so conjured, I bite my lip and wonder how I could possibly think these things seriously. I ask how I could ever reach an understanding of “world SF” that isn’t Anglo-centric—that doesn’t make of diversity simply a “sensawunda.”
Reading The Apex Book of World SF 2 was some kind of start towards having a fuller understanding of what world SF means. For me, personally, it was an experience just as much of education as of pleasure. But that isn’t to say that the anthology has any particular pedagogical method; if anything, it’s more like an anti-method, ramming together as many different types of fiction and authors as possible to make the point that there is no single, homogenous idea behind the enterprise. World SF is not a specific kind of fiction practised beyond the US-UK literary axis; nor is it specifically opposed to that kind of fiction. World SF exists, essentially, by its exclusion from the dominant discourse, and a better understanding of what it can offer is achieved simply by realizing that it is there—and that it is not what you expected.
The breadth of this anthology is striking. There are horror stories, steampunk battles, alien comedies, faerie tales, near-future hard SF, and post-apocalyptic wastelands all rolled in together. There’s even some stuff that’s just plain weird. The Apex Book of World SF 2 includes writers from South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It also includes writers living in America, but who are not American by birth, and writers from the English diaspora: Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In short, the idea of world SF is complicated. As Charles Tan writes in the afterword: “How can one not be part of the world? By writing your story in space? What we mean by World SF is something closer to International SF—beyond your nation, beyond your borders. But that in itself is problematic, because that implies a reference point. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that reference point is the US” (pp. 370-71).
I think that this is the best way to understand world SF in the context of this anthology: that it is fiction from outside the US. Although Tan also points out that “a lot of SF that we read . . . is based on Western cosmology and belief,” and this is certainly very true, this is not an appropriate way to look at this anthology, which (without even returning to the complicated fact of including authors who are obviously culturally “western” and authors who are, though of different background, living in the United States) includes some very prototypically western stories—such as “The Malady,” by Andrzej Sapkowski, a romantic retelling of the Tristan and Iseult story. It’s more appropriate, in a certain sense, to look at this anthology as a piece of affirmative action. Those who published it, and those who are going to read it, are deliberately trying to let in the voices of people who might be pushed to the side and left unheard because of geographical, historical, or linguistic barriers. This anthology isn’t just literary: it’s political. – continue reading!
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