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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Review: Jagannath: Stories by Karin Tidbeck, reviewed by Sofia Samatar (Author Week #5)

Illegal Mingling: Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath: Stories

Reviewed by Sofia Samatar

In a long twilight, the sound of tiny bells hangs in the air: a young woman’s mother is coming for her from the forest. Elsewhere, by the side of a lake, a family reunion is in progress, merry aunts and cousins hatching from cocoons. And in a tin can provided by charity, a tiny creature made of spit, salt, menstrual blood and a carrot kicks its legs, while the first October snow begins to fall. These are some of the strange, seductive images you’ll find in Karin Tidbeck’s stories.

Jagannath: Stories (Cheeky Frawg, 2012) is Tidbeck’s English-language book debut. It brings together works previously published in English, the author’s translations of her own stories—most of them from her Swedish collection, Vem är Arvid Pekon?—and original material. On the strength of Vem är Arvid Pekon?, Tidbeck won a grant from the Swedish Authors’ Fund; her first novel, Amatka, is forthcoming this fall from Sweden’s largest publisher. Jagannath gives English-language readers the chance to enter the shifting territory of Tidbeck’s marvelous multiple worlds.

The stories in Jagannath are fascinating, frightening, and above all, tender. There’s an intimacy to them that’s immediately enchanting: several take the form of diaries or letters, or words exchanged with a close friend. “Some Letters for Ove Lindström” is written to the narrator’s dead father. I first read this story in Shimmer Magazine earlier this year: that’s when the name “Karin Tidbeck” stuck in my mind, along with the haunting melancholy of this story of a broken family, lost hope, and magic. “Some Letters” concerns a young woman, Viveka, who returns to the place she grew up, an old schoolhouse where her parents lived with the other members of a commune: the loss of Viveka’s nuclear family (her mother disappeared when she was three; she lost her father to alcoholism and then death) is mingled with the loss of the commune, which was both an extended family and a vision of a utopian future. Loss fills every line of the story, like Viveka’s last memory of her mother: a red dress and the sound of tiny bells. Who was Viveka’s mother? That question both deepens the sadness of the story, and expands it outward toward mystery, toward the forest.

The red dress returns in “Reindeer Mountain,” where it becomes the sign of the vittra: tall, handsome, magical people who live inside the mountain, and like to wear red. Two sisters struggle with fear of madness and envy of each other in this story of a family with mixed human-vittra blood. The theme of human contact with other species, subtle in “Some Letters from Ove Lindström” and explicit in “Reindeer Mountain,” runs through the collection. “Pyret,” a sly gem in the form of an encyclopedia entry, details the habits of vittra cattle. A footnote informs us that the most common crime among those accused of witchcraft in medieval times was “illegal mingling”: humans consorting with non-human beings.

Many of the stories in Jagannath play with this theme: in “Beatrice,” a woman’s love affair with a steam engine produces a whistle-voiced, coal-chewing child; in both “Miss Nyberg and I” and “Cloudberry Jam,” children are grown like plants. The narrator of “Brita’s Holiday Village” discovers two families at once: while her memories of her relatives begin to emerge in her writing, she dreams the life of a second, insect-like family. And in the collection’s title story, the mother of a family carries her brood inside her.

Other themes include transformation, the nature of time, and the judgments of God. The stories “Augusta Prima” and “Aunts” take place in the same world, a fairyland of the actual fairytale type, where games are bloody and casual torture is the order of the day. The stories show two different perspectives on what happens when time enters this timeless realm. These stories—like “Rebecka,” in which torture leads to salvation—explore different types of illegal mingling, mixing transgression with law and cannibalism with comfort. The intimate tone of so many of Tidbeck’s tales invites the reader to blend in as well, to imagine a personal shift into something slightly different. The words of “Some Letters for Ove Lindström” are ostensibly written to a dead man, but when you read them, you’ll know better. Like all of the stories in Jagannath, these letters are for us.

November 15, 2012 Posted by | November 2012 | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Review: Turbulence by Samit Basu, reviewed by Anil Menon (Author Week #4)

Turbulence by Samit Basu

Reviewed by Anil Menon

The opening scene in Turbulence captures perfectly what reading Samit Basu’s work is like. Determined to give his son Vir Singh his first taste of flight, fighter-pilot Balwant Singh dangles and swings his three-year old from the uppermost tier of the Eiffel Tower. To read Basu is to become that three-year old, roaring for more, even as we soil ourselves in shock. And Basu’s style is exactly that of Vir Singh’s father, a man described as having a ‘mixture of casual confidence and lunacy that is the hallmark of every true fighter pilot.’

For the subcontinent’s readers, long familiar with Basu’s work, such prefatory comments are superfluous. He is the country’s preeminent fantasist. His debut trilogy The Simoqin Prophesies was India’s first modern fantasy series and his later works, not all restricted to novels, have scored several other firsts as well. Of course, claims of this sort may seem problematic given the country’s some half-a-dozen vibrant regional literatures as well as problems with the concept of modernity. The fantastic is central to the subcontinent’s literature, and as the folklorist and Tamil scholar A. K. Ramanujan showed, many ‘ancient’ folktales could easily be mistaken for postmodern fables. Nonetheless, I believe there is a difference. Basu’s use of myth is that of the modern: rich in irony, secular in belief, disinterested in didactic ends, and populated with characters who point out to each other the ridiculousness of the fantastic.

Turbulence bears all these hallmarks. Its plot is about a group of Indian superheroes—male and female, some morally challenged— charged with saving the world from themselves. Captain Vir Singh, a superhero in the employ of the Indian Air Force, is interrupted on his mission to take out Pakistan’s main nuclear facility by a mysterious voice. The voice, later identified as Aman Sen, computer geek and the story’s conscience, persuades Vir that larger issues other than demolishing Pakistan ought to be at stake for a superhero. Aman is part of a loose coalition consisting of Uzma, a British-Pakistan hottie trying to make it in Bollywood; Tia, a Bengali girl with the ability to duplicate herself at will; and two cannon-fodder characters, Bob and The Scientist.

Vir learns from Aman and gang that there’s a Big Bad, none other than his former squadron leader, Jai. Naturally, Jai has to be stopped at all costs but since he has his dance-army as well, all hell is unleashed. To paraphrase that old joke about the difference between capitalism and communism, if western superhero stories are about the struggle between a superhero and a supervillain, non-western superhero stories are the exact opposite.

This is not to say the plot is predictable. Vir and Jai both have to deal with a common enemy, a mysterious super-being capable of turning crowds into mobs. Since all the superheroes have exactly one super-power, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to deduce the identity of the Mob-maker. But Basu managed to throw me off the scent by a variety of twists and feints. The triangular conflict provides Basu with a lot of plot leverage. The enemy of an enemy may be a friend, but it is much less certain what to do with the enemy of an enemy of an enemy.

Frequently hilarious, the writing shifted smoothly from one protagonist to another, giving each sufficient screen time to accumulate affection in the reader’s mind. I say ‘screen time’ because the writing shows a strongly visual, almost cinematic, imagination. On the other hand, the plot also scatters them in different locations. The problem of course with a great many characters doing different things in different places is that characters have to periodically disappear for extended periods of time. This gives the narrative an absent-minded quality.

Basu’s authorial voice is a delight to read, but he wisely restrains himself. Instead, he relies more on dialogue and action to highlight aspects of his characters. When he does show characters dealing with themselves, as when Aman binges on world-fixing, the novel threatens to become darker and more serious than it sets out to be. It is perhaps to Basu’s credit that he resists this temptation as well.

A case in point is how superpowers work. The logic is a simple and familiar one. A superpower is a realization of its hero’s deepest desire. Uzma has a deep desire to be adored, Vir aches to defend, Tia wants to live many lives, the journalist Namrata wants to be where the news happens, et cetera. Their superpowers reflect these desires. Aman’s superpower is the ability to control any digital configuration. But what does he desire that this particular ability should manifest? As he explains to Uzma in an early meeting:

‘Growing up in Delhi – and Delhi’s a city of networks, the social kind, and contacts and families – I’ve always felt left out of things, like I didn’t know anything, the right people, the right places…. I don’t know how it was for you growing up in the UK, but here nearly all of us have this huge sense of irrelevance. We’ll never change anything. The world will never know us. We grow up thinking hard work and a certain amount of ability are all we need – and then we eventually have to accept that they can only take us so far… we never feel like we’re a part of anything.’ (page 59)

Geoff Klock in his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why makes a great deal about how they reveal Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, and perhaps he’s right about Marvel-DC comics. But it does not explain superhero comics outside of the Marvel-DC continuum. The driving force behind Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa’s The 99 series is the desire to set the story of Islam straight. Langston Hughes’ superman, Jesse B. Semple, his black Walter Mitty, desired to have the White Man taste defeat. Aman’s explanation goes to the heart of the matter as far as the subcontinent is concerned. Here, the desire behind a superpower, any superpower, is relevance. To matter.

Basu, however, chooses not to dig for profundities. Uzma, upon hearing Aman’s explanation, simply changes the topic. I liked the matter-of-fact approach to the changed world. In an age where the Chinese manufacture most of the world, Indians dominate IT, and a black man is the president of the United States, there is no need to marvel that it is up to brown people to save London.  Unlike a lot of Indian novels in English, this one isn’t interested in interpreting India for the west.

However, there’s also the reader’s comfort zone to consider. Basu’s technique is to make the desi setting feel universal rather than particular. All the characters are enlightened urban sophisticates with universal appeal; one can easily imagine bumping into them at coffee shops, hip bars, at a poetry reading, an art gallery, the other side of the bed. Their desi ethnicities are unobtrusive. For example, when Uzma’s super-posh Muslim parents meet Aman, a Hindu, Basu tells us simply that they subject him, to a ‘thorough investigation on every detail of his life.’

On the subcontinent, that interaction would be a bit more complicated. In reality, there probably would be much screaming. In a Bollywood movie, the father, dressed either in a suit or a dressing gown, would pretend to be happy for his daughter, then take Aman to a vast room with mounted tiger skins and offer him wads of cash to leave his baby alone. This would then be followed by an extended fight scene with the father’s goons. Regrettably, Basu takes the high road and eschews this melodramatic option.

Jokes aside, Basu’s creative choices are not entirely free of the burdens of history. In a country where religious crackpots routinely fulminate about the dangers of miscegenation, the novel would have a much more complicated task were Uzma a Hindu girl and Aman a Muslim boy.

I understand Basu’s decision to avoid the muddy waters of Hindu-Muslim relations. Melvin Maddox in his reevaluation of Thurber remarked that the best way to murder a soufflé is to treat it with the seriousness due to a roast-beef dinner. Basu is not intending to make roast-beef.  However, sometimes the novel’s refusal to take itself seriously goes too far. At several places, his characters cross the line of self-awareness into parody. For example, in the climactic scene, Jai reminds Aman and Vir about what generally happens in Superhero movies and suggests restraint. Parody is something of an all or nothing deal; in small doses, it can make the reader feel foolish for caring about what happens.

At the end of the novel, when all the fighting is done, what remains is irony. Truth is, superheroes have no real role in the modern world. They can’t fix world hunger or resolve the Mid-East crisis or cure cancer or stop domestic violence or end female infanticide. They are irrelevant. What is an intelligent superhero to do? In the end, Aman, whose power derives from his need for relevance, is faced with a choice that is not really a choice at all.

Turbulence delivers exactly what it intends: an entertaining, well-written read. In the genre’s history it will be seen as an important work, a reflection of the subcontinent’s growing self-confidence. Indians have had the pleasure of enjoying his work for about a decade now, and it is wonderful that Titan Books has decided to make it available outside the subcontinent.

August 30, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Monday Original Content: REVIEW: Three Messages and A Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic

This week Charles Tan reviews Three Messages and A Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown and published by Small Beer Press. We’ll have more material on the book this week, so stay tuned!

Three Messages and A Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic edited by Eduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown

Reviewed by Charles Tan

I’ll say it outright: we need more anthologies like these. There’s ambition in Three Messages and A Warning — perhaps more so than the Philippine Speculative Fiction volumes I’ve been reading (and sometimes contributing to) for the past eight years. For one thing, there’s the sheer number of translations, in addition to maintaining a consistent tone and atmosphere.

Second, reading this anthology is diving into the unknown: the strength — and perhaps weakness — of such a book is that every contributor is an unknown factor. Their contributions could be award-winning stories. Or it could be their first piece of published fiction. The only thing that affects my judgment are the stories themselves since I don’t have any preconceptions about the author.

Third, there’s a sense of diversity in the book. Two stories, for example, share a common concept, a town populated by animals: “Lions” by Bernardo Fernández and “Wolves” by José Luis Zárate. However, the treatment, theme, and allegory of the two stories are very different from each other. Whereas “Lions” showcases a gradual juxtaposition, “Wolves,” on the other hand, is this inevitable surrender to something beyond mortal comprehension. And that’s simply scratching the tip of the proverbial iceberg. One could make an argument that certain stories aren’t speculative fiction: “The Guest” by Amparo Dávila and “Three Messages and A Warning In The Same Email” by Ana Clavel come to mind. But again, the sensibilities in which they are, are stylistically different: “The Guest” features this unnamed entity while the titular story weaves itself in a mystery that’s either science fiction or literary metafiction. These stories tackle genre tropes or challenge existing definitions that’s refreshing to read and encounter.

If you’re looking for a common motif, a recurring element that attempts to define the “Mexican Fantastic,” you won’t find it in this book. The selections are simply diverse, and perhaps the only conclusion that one can claim is that a lot of the stories are relatively short as several are flash fiction while the lengthier pieces don’t even come close to the novelette. It’s simply a different kind of sensibility, one that makes sense in this kind of anthology where the aim is to showcase variety and breadth.

As far as impact is concerned, the stories hit home, although perhaps not too deep. They’re jabs and body blows instead of knockout punches, but considering the length of the stories, it’s understandable why several of them don’t leave bruises.

If there’s one significant flaw with the anthology, it’s not that the book has three introductions (which is, admittedly, overkill), but one of them is written by Bruce Sterling. I know he means well, and it’s not everyday that a famous writer gets to write the introduction to a book, but there’s this sense that he’s patronizing. There’s some value in his introduction, don’t get me wrong, but the crux of his argument is that “The United States of America is Mexicanizing much faster than Mexico is Americanizing” so “The face of an old friend can be better than a mirror, sometimes,” the old friend being Mexico.

Save for that one detail, Three Messages and A Warning is a treasure trove of stories that showcases a unique brand of aesthetics when it comes to the fantastic.

June 25, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Comments Off

The Mall reviewed by Harry Markov (Author Week #3)

The Mall

By S.L. Grey

Reviewed by Harry Markov

The Mall by S.L. Grey is horror on steroids with a PhD in psychology. It’s the smart answer to the SAW series as far as torture challenges are concerned and I estimate that even Hannibal Lector would worry entering this alternate reality. Writers Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg set out to chillingly disturb and tastefully disgust.

I admit The Mall exhibited a rather slow start. Thirty pages in and I had not caught a whiff of horror, rather atypical from I’d expect from horror regardless of medium. In retrospect, I’m happy with the pacing as S.L. Grey justify every sentence used in the introduction of Dan and Rhoda, the unlikely protagonists, who must team up in order to survive the mall’s hazardous games. Both characters are socially dysfunctional. Dan’s a mall bookstore clerk with a strong tendency to whine as consistent with his emo persona, while Rhoda’s a scarred junkie with a short fuse and a potty mouth.

It’s Rhoda’s irresponsibility [leaving the kid she’s supposed to babysit at Dan’s bookstore in order to meet her dealer] that triggers The Mall’s domino effect. When the kid disappears [Rhoda really doesn’t know his name, OK] and Dan’s ineptitude to focus on anything other than his woes causes Rhoda trouble with the Highgate mall cops, it’s Rhoda’s idea of revenge to later take Dan hostage and have the whole mall searched for the kid. This plan backfires, when the Highgate mall ceases to be the Highgate.

S.L. Grey excel at reality distortion. As the characters enter sub-basement after next, the mall dons a more sinister atmosphere and the world tilts towards the macabre. From a mannequin massacre to mortifying signs, murderous text messages [while both cell phones suffer from no reception] and glowing rooms, Dan and Rhoda have to navigate this byzantine underground, until they enter the Other Mall. The Mall that has no closing time. The Mall that has no exit. The Mall that venerates consumerism, glorifies body mutilation and robotizes its employs as mechanic slaves.

The Mall employs the video gamer logic from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, most prominent in the scene with the elevator death-trap. References to Through the Looking Glass litter the whole novel as evident from the satire aimed at consumerism and the ideals celebrated in the under-mall. The Mall is high concept in its approach as to how it presents materialism and the hunger for hoarding and the itch to own.

Shoppers function as celebrities, whose purpose is to consume as Rhoda’s skillful narration demonstrates. Body image is taken to extremes with starvation and obesity as ideals of beauty and the advertising business promotes the true face of these ideals. In the under-mall, people have accepted the damage and seek more damage. The juxtaposition between the honesty and the familiarity of the advertising methods is what makes the under-mall so startling.

Although not entirely accurate, The Mall pays homage to body horror through the use of cell phones as extensions of both Rhoda and Dan as well as the main weapons the Management of the under-mall to tease and spook. As the couple descends further down in the mall’s depths, I felt how much they relied on their phones, on the reception and the time display and how with every sub-level their phones betrayed them, stripping Dan and Rhoda from their sense of time and becoming weapons for the Management.

The Mall’s atypical structure accommodates the ‘What Happens After’ segment, where Dan and Rhoda have escaped the under-mall and are faced with the normalcy of Joburg [as normal as Joburg can be]. I risk spoiling the novel, by giving away succulent character development. I’ll say it this way, S.L. Grey answer the question ‘What if the victims enjoyed running from monsters and evading fatalities?’ The answer warped all my expectations from horror as genre and proved to me that horror is more than shock and screams.

The Mall is a catalog of horror. It’s universal as malls around the globe. It will have you look with distrust your cell phone the next time you receive a text.

 

October 12, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Monday Original Content: Brittain Barber reviews Ogawa Issui’s The Lord of the Sands of Time

The Lord of the Sands of Time

Ogawa Issui

 Reviewed by Brittain Barber

I am going to go ahead and assume that no readers out there are currently wondering what would happen if aliens invaded ancient Japan, or how time traveling cyborgs would fight them off. Even if the cyborgs had been skipping through time in an effort to block the xenocidal menace and were aided by a snippy, AI-controlled spaceship, this is probably not a question that keeps people up at night. Ogawa, on the other hand, has let the scenario occupy his Seiun Award winning brain long enough to unleash The Lord of the Sands of Time on an unsuspecting populace; Haikasoru then chose this as one of its four launch titles.

I was initially planning on categorizing this book under Alternate History, but have changed my mind. I think that The Lord of the Sands of Time fits better into Historical Fantasy, despite technically being science fiction. I made this executive decision because Alt History tends to take time travel (or whatever) as the point of departure for an exploration of how technology, usually of the military variety, would change the target milieu. Ogawa, on the other hand, is much more interested in how the time travel affects his characters than what might happen when a visitor from the future suddenly starts modernizing Yayoi Period Japan. (And by “Yayoi,” I mean Japan in the 3rd Century BC, not “yaoi” boy love manga. I made myself look stupid in front of an anime crowd by mixing these terms up.)

The novel starts in Japan, when Princess Himiko and her retainer are attacked by aliens. Himiko appears to have been a real person, though details are sketchy. (I think we can safely assume, however, that she was never attacked by aliens.) She is promptly saved by the heroically named Orville, in the guise of “Messenger O.” Orville, it turns out, is a cyborg from the future, constructed to travel back in time and fight against aliens bent on the destruction of humanity.  As Messenger O, he has been strategically maneuvering the Japanese (Yamatai, at the time – Japan as a country was several hundred years away) into a position where they can effectively fight when the aliens appear in force. When he saves Himiko, Orville steps out of the shadows and begins the battle in earnest. (He also puts himself in a position to score with a Japanese princess, but that appears to be a tertiary motive at most.)

Full disclosure time: I don’t generally like time travel stories. Like my other pet peeve, ESP, time travel opens up a stadium-sized can of worms that authors rarely deal with in a skillful manner.  Had this not been written by a Japanese author, I probably would have skipped it. Instead, since my goal is to get through every Haikasoru title in the public library, I snapped it up.

For the most part, Ogawa didn’t let me down. He takes his time travel, chooses his side (multiverses generated when realities splinter at decision points vs. static and basically unalterable time flow), and lets the consequences play themselves out. Despite the implications of unleashing technology centuries early in Japan, the focus of the story remains on Orville and Himiko. In the latter’s case, she is forced from being a figurehead into real leadership as the people rally around her to repulse the alien invaders. Orville is the Wandering Man O’ Woe, who has fought the aliens (and lost) across the centuries. He carries terrible burdens, of course, like impossible love and the knowledge that humanity is, by and large, too petty and shortsighted to ever win this war. I suppose that I would be woeful myself, if I had spent 400 years fighting a losing battle with aliens who somewhat inexplicably want to crush Earth across the time streams.

As far as things I liked, the main setting is right up there. I am a sucker for Olde Nippon and the Yayoi Period is a new and exciting place for me. Much like Western stories, where Middle Ages stuff is easy to come by but other historical eras are comparatively untapped, very little outside of Tokugawa or Warring States Period Japan makes its way into fiction. Yamatai was a welcome place to spend a few hours. I also enjoyed the strategic implications of time travel. The forces of good and evil would ebb and flow in a time stream based on the effects of their actions on other time streams. For example, victory for the good guys meant that more cyborgs came from the future to help out, while defeat caused people to wink out of existence as their home time stream was destroyed. This sort of thing can rapidly descend into chaos, but Ogawa manages to keep things under control, perhaps simply by not thinking too much about it. Finally, the characters are likeable and sympathetic. Like other Japanese fiction I have read, there is a melancholic undercurrent that tugs the heart strings a bit and gets the reader cheering for a happy ending. I have said this before, but Japanese SF often seems to be more about people than ideas. This may just be a humanist streak that attracts the Haikasoru higher ups and leads to a skewed selection, but I have seen it in other publications as well.

In the negative column, the book is most likely a translation of a “light novel.” These are roughly analogous to YA fiction here, though it often has as much to do with length as thematic content. The trade paperback is pricey for just being a couple hundred pages, but that is only relevant to book buyers, not library patrons like myself. Price aside, the book is short, and Ogawa skips lightly over the surface of several questions that could easily be explored more thoroughly. Lord doesn’t feel incomplete or rushed, but more story probably wouldn’t have hurt. The end is also a bit abrupt for my taste. While Ogawa sets up the reasons for this early in the book, his deus ex machina pulls the rug out a bit from under the themes of self-sacrifice and brooding inevitability that slowly build through the story. It keeps the book from being a total downer and makes sense, but is somewhat lacking in narrative grace.

And so, at last, the final recommendation.The Lord of the Sands of Time gets my qualified approval. It is not essential, nor is it life altering, but it is creative and interesting. If nothing else, it answers the question posed at the beginning of this review; I don’t know of any other book that does. Ogawa makes very reasonable demands on the reader’s time, so with the right expectations, this is a worthy couple of hours spent in ancient Japan.

Brittain writes for the Two Dudes in an Attic blog – which you should check out!

September 12, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Comments Off

Strange Horizons reviews A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud

Strange Horizons review French author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud‘s collection, A Life on Paper, published by Small Beer Press:

I first came across Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud in the pages of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #25. The story, “A City of Museums,” concerns a group of “rats”: homeless youths living secretly in public museums. From the first sentence, I felt I’d stepped into an old-world sort of fiction, a story by Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne: a tale told by gaslight, accompanied by meaningful pauses and gulps of ale. “You wouldn’t dream of staying here without having booked a hotel room far in advance, for once in town, trying to find lodgings with the locals is hopeless” (p. 139). This sort of tale generally ends with the teller rubbing his beard (yes, it’s a he, and he has a beard), and delivering advice or a piece of rueful philosophy. That doesn’t happen in Châteaureynaud’s world. Instead, the tale opens, revealing a dizzying gorge with something at the bottom you can’t quite make out. There’s a death, a chalk outline, a slap, a hint of betrayal, a glimpse of dreams pursued in secret, and then it’s over.

The story stayed with me, and when a collection of Châteaureynaud’s stories, A Life on Paper, was published by Small Beer Press, I bought it. And I experienced, time after time, the sudden jerk, the sense of being swept up by a rogue wind, which had thrilled me when I read “A City of Museums.” In these stories, a father records his daughter’s brief life in 93,284 photographs; inscriptions with a terrible meaning appear all over a soldier’s body; a collector purchases a mummified girl and dresses it in jeans and a sweater; a decapitated head drinks moonshine and begs for death. Yet the weirdness is never left to stand on its own. The tale always takes one more step, yielding powerful imagery or psychological insight. When the living head drinks, it sits in a bucket and swallows the same moonshine over and over; when the mummy meets her end, her erstwhile owner gets married with the insurance money. The startling moments and unexpected turns packed into these extremely spare stories, many of which are less than five pages long, make for a reading experience that is disorienting in the most rewarding way, subtly creepy, and often breathtaking. – continue reading.

August 18, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Comments Off

Monday Original Content: Classics Revisited: “Wandering Stars” review

WANDERING STARS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF JEWISH FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. Edited by Jack Dann. Introduction by Isaac Asimov. Jewish Lights publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1998.

MORE WANDERING STARS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF OUTSTANDING STORIES OF JEWISH FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. Edited by Jack Dann. Introduction by Isaac Asimov. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1999.

Reviewed by Carl Rosenberg

These two books are reissues of Wandering Stars (hereafter WS), first published in 1974, and More Wandering Stars (hereafter MWS), first published in 1981. Both books feature delightful introductions by Isaac Asimov, who also appears with a story,”Unto the Seventh Generation” (in WS). Both books are really one book, and I will review them as such.

In his introductions, Asimov gives some interesting historical background on Jews and science fiction, noting that Jewish literature is not usually associated with science fiction as a genre. He points out (in WS) that many early Jewish science fiction writers used pen names: “A story entitled ‘War-Gods of the Oyster-Men of Deneb’ didn’t carry conviction if it was written by someone named Chaim Itzkowitz.” (However, Asimov almost always published his writing under his own name.)

In a wider sense, however, fantasy and the supernatural have always played a large part in Jewish literature, going back to biblical myths, continuing with supernatural tales derived from Jewish mysticism. Until the modern era, of course, this was not thought of as “fantasy” as such.

This fantastic tendency remains influential in modern Jewish literature, probably as much as realism—historically a much more recent literary tradition. This tendency can be found in the work of Jewish writers who are not usually thought of as writers of “fantasy” per se, including major writers such as Kafka, Agnon and Peretz.

Two such writers are represented here. One is Bernard Malamud, who appears with one of his best stories, “The Jewbird” (WS), which ends heartbreakingly, like much of his work. Malamud was strongly influenced by the Yiddish storytelling tradition, so that he often seems like a Yiddish writer in English. Then there are two stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Jachid and Jechediah” (in WS), and “The Last Demon” (MWS), both absorbing, if bizarre, stories which show Singer’s most fantastic, occult side.

The stories in both volumes are diverse in theme, dealing with a wide variety of Jewish issues and experiences, and in mood and style. Avram Davidson’s “The Golem” (WS) is a light-hearted modern retelling of the Golem legend. Howard Schwartz’s “The Celestial Orchestra” (MWS) is a lovely mystical vision. Jack Dann’s “Camps” gives a grim juxtaposition of the young protagonist’s pain in a hospital and his dreams (or are they dreams?) of  a Nazi concentration camp. Barry Malzberg’s “Leviticus: In the Ark” (MWS) gives a bizarre, Kafka-like view of Jewish ritual, and its possible development (or regression). Hugh Nissenson’s “Forcing the End” (MWS) is a stark portrayal of religio-nationalist fanaticism all too relevant to present-day Israel.

Two stories (in WS) offer variations on the overbearing Jewish mother, a theme I  find tiresome (and often sexist). I found this true as well of Harlan Ellison’s “Mom”; however, Robert Sheckley’s “Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay” is more imaginative.

Some of the stories show the possibilities of Jewish life in extraterrestrial settings, such as Robert Silverberg’s thoughtful “The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV” (WS), and William Tenn’s lighter “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi” (WS). The latter story features a narrator who is a futuristic version of Tevye the Dairyman—“Milchnik the TV Repairman.” This story is flawlessly told in the style of Sholem Aleichem’s monologues.

These books could have gone even further afield by including a story or two from a major non-Jewish writer of the fantastic: the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, who had a strong interest in Jewish culture and lore. Borges wrote at least two stories (two of his best) on Jewish themes: “The Secret Miracle” and “Death and the Compass,” the latter a detective story using Kabbalistic themes.

Whatever their limitations, these anthologies contain many entertaining stories which will interest those with a penchant for modern Jewish literature, for science fiction and fantasy, and those like myself who enjoy both.

First published in Outlook Magazine <www.vcn.bc.ca/outlook>, Vancouver, BC, Canada, July/August 2001.

August 8, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Comments Off

Aliette de Bodard reviews Wolf at the Door

Aliette de Bodard reviews J. Damask (Joyce Chng)’s first novel, Wolf at the Door – the world’s first Singaporean werewolf novel!

So, I finally got a chance to read J. Damask’s Wolf at the Door (published by Lyrical Press)–and really, really liked it. It’s a urban fantasy set in Singapore: Jan Xu is part of the lang, the Chinese werewolves: her pack is her family, and the thing around which her world revolves. She has married and settled down with her partner Ming, who isn’t a werewolf; and she has two small girls, whom she raises half like humans, half like wolves.

Then Marianne comes back. Marianne is Jan Xu’s sister, but there’s a catch: raised like all werewolves, Marianne failed to shape-shift when she hit puberty. Though considered a member of the family, Marianne has always chafed at what she saw as second-class membership of the pack, and left Singapore after quarrelling with Jan Xu. But now she’s back, boyfriend in tow–and she seems to have ideas of her own about where to take the pack…

This is original on several levels: the most obvious is the setting, which shows us not only Singapore seen through the view of an insider, with no exoticisation or over-description of familiar items and locations. It’s very casual about everyday life, but nevertheless effectively manages to convey not only Jan Xu’s life and her excursions to all ends of the city (including a hunting reserve in Malaysia), but also to effectively base its mythology on its setting, making the most of Singapore as a crossroads, teeming with immigrants who each bring their own folklore (I loved the bar which had vampires mingling with nagas). I also liked the way Damask ties her werewolves to Chinese folklore, rather than to European myths; it’s very nicely done.

The second thing is the emphasis on family. A lot of urban fantasy is focused on the single girl (who might have children of her own, but who is still secretly looking for The One); and while those are definitely strong stories, it was really nice to see a book which focused on, well, what happens after the wedding and the childbirths. Marianne’s returns has repercussions on Jan Xu’s family life, and her relationship with her husband and her two girls: some of my favorite scenes take place in the quiet times at the flat, when the emphasis is on how she and Ming can deal with the consequences of what happened, and how to best shield the girls from it all. Jan Xu also has strong ties to her extended family, which nicely dovetail into the pack mentality of werewolves.

It’s not perfect. There is a set of flashbacks to Jan Xu’s past as a teen vigilante (sort of The Famous Five, except with dragons and other supernatural creatures), which feel a bit out of place: I love the background and the fact that they place Jan Xu’s friends as strong individuals (and I would really love to see those expanded into a YA novel), but the way they’re scattered throughout the story feels a little haphazard, and I felt those sections could have greatly benefitted from tidying up. But, all in all, it was a very nice and interesting read, and definitely worth a look if you’re tired of urban fantasies set in the US.

Wolf at the Door, by J. Damask, published by Lyrical Press

E-book, $4.50, Cover art by Lynn Taylor

 

June 24, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Comments Off

Review of French Canadian Magazine Solaris

Over at the SF Portal, René Walling reviews Solaris #175, “one of the oldest ongoing genre magazines”, and the premier French-Canadian SF magazine:

Like most issues of Solaris, this one offers many mixes: fantasy and SF, literary explorations and pulpy adventure, Canadian, French and American writers, yet somehow the editorial team manages to bring it all together in a coherent and diverse whole. – read the full review.

 

November 22, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

New Review for The Apex Book of World SF

Responding in part to Jetse de Vries “Should SF Die?” essay, Val’s Random Comments Blog responds, including a long review of The Apex Book of World SF – calling Nir Yaniv’s Cinderers “the collection’s most disturbing story by far” and Kristin Mandigma’s Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang “absolutely hilarious”.

One argument in the (completely pointless) debate on whether or not science fiction is dying is that the genre is a very anglophone affair. I’m not entirely sure I agree with that statement. Simply because Science Fiction does not get translated into English does not mean it isn’t written and published outside the English speaking nations. There is an extra hurdle though and that is the size of the market. Science Fiction is a niche market and it is becoming more so every year. To sustain a population of professional writers you need quite a few people who read science fiction. English can provide that, many other languages cannot. I don’t know of of any author writing in Dutch who can make a living writing science fiction or even fantasy.

There are several strategies to deal with this problem. A first group simply keeps their day job or supplement their income with other activities in the publishing world. A second group writes mainstream literature or other, more profitable, genres and throws in a work of science fiction once in a while. A third group attempts to write in English, translates their own work or has their work translated to reach a wider audience. Writing speculative fiction in a small language is hard but that certainly doesn’t stop people. There’s is quite a bit out there if you know where to look. The Apex Book of World SF collects a number of stories from around the world. Most of these writers have adopted the third strategy. Some of the sixteen stories were written in English, three were translated by the author and in three cases the translator is named in the copyright information. I have been looking around for quality Dutch genre fiction with limited but encouraging success, it only makes sense to see what is on offer in the rest of the world.

Read the rest of the review or buy your copy today!

December 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

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