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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Tuesday Fiction: “Ratan Mirrors” by Geetanjali Dighe

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Geetanjali Dighe. Geetanjali lives in Mumbai. She publishes IndianSF (IndianSF.wordpress.com), a bi-monthly magazine that features science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Muse India. On Twitter she is @GeetanjaliD.

This is the story’s first publication.

Ratan Mirrors

Geetanjali Dighe

I am dying, Manohar. It’s been a long, hard life without you, but at least I met you in this life. Will I meet you on the other side? Will you be waiting for me, as you promised? thought Ratan, half-asleep, on the edge of death, in the middle of the night. Her old and wrinkled body lay on her warm bed.

The fabric of Ratan’s life began to tear, and the glow behind it poured out in rays. The tear stretched softly, like an old paper coming apart at its fibers, and through it a heavenly Goddess appeared by Ratan’s death-side. A Goddess with a glowing face, a golden orb around her head, four arms; and clad in a beautiful red sari decked with golden borders.

“Remember, the wise see only the truth in the mirror, Ratan,” the Goddess said. Mirror? How odd, thought Ratan. “Seek the truth.” The Goddess smiled and beckoned her with outstretched hands.

A dream-like haze came over Ratan, and she barely felt the tug as she came apart, unglued from her body. She quietly died in her sleep. It was the year 2009. She was 95.

When she opened her eyes, she was sitting on a cot in her backyard, outside her house in the village. Manohar’s brown horse, Chetak, was lazily nibbling grass by the guava tree.

A policeman shimmered beside her. He smiled and said in the most gentle way, “Namaste, Ratan. I am your guide. I thought you might find it comfortable to meet me in this attire.”

“Namaste,” Ratan got up and smiled. “Yes. Manohar, my husband, was a Sub-Inspector. He was killed by a dacoit in the jungle when my children were very young.” She paused. “He is here, isn’t he?” she asked gingerly, looking around.

“Ratan,” the guide said, very lovingly, “Manohar as you remember him is not here with us.” Ratan gasped. “This cycle of life and death – it’s an illusion. It’s a kind of art that you have created and loved. Here, there is only Oneness. Many beings choose to discard their identities once they reach here and coalesce into this one truth – this Oneness.”

“No. No. You must be mistaken!” Ratan sat down stunned. “Manohar promised if anything ever happened to him, he would wait for me, meet me when I died. He said so to me himself that morning, when he rode off to catch that dacoit in the jungle. He never came back.” Ratan started sobbing. “I cried for him my whole life. I had to raise five children all on my own. He promised he’d be here.”

“Dear child, this sadness is just your memory. It’s not real,” said the guide.

“Oh! If I could get just one glimpse of him!” Ratan wept.

“Look around you, these surroundings – your body, your tears – they aren’t real.”

Ratan held up her hand. It started to become transparent. She could see Chetak through her hand, and as she watched, the horse started to dissolve. Bewildered, she wiped her tears, but she could not feel her face.

“Have I become a ghost?” she asked and looked for a mirror.

“I am afraid mirrors aren’t allowed in this realm,” the guide said. “Here there is only Oneness. When it is reflected, it creates some resonant infinities that are difficult to attenuate.”

“What?” Ratan remembered something about the Goddess and mirrors. “But I want to see myself.”

Pop! As if on command, her beautiful Burma wood dresser appeared beside them. It was intricately carved, her case of perfumes lay next to the bronze jewelry box; but in place of the full-length oval mirror was an impossibly deep hole.

The guide sighed, and waited. Ratan walked up to the dresser and looked at the mirror. It was a dark tunnel – a hole of nothingness. Puzzled, she peered into it.

It was as if she had dipped her head in an ocean, and was looking at underwater corals. Except that the coral and the seabed were a boiling burning mass, molten and heaving.

Ratan pulled her head quickly out of the mirror. “What happened? What was that?” she said. “Tell me the truth, was that hell?”

“No. It was Aldebaran. You peered into a star,” the guide said.

“What!”

“You are not in space-time now. You are in another plane – a plane of consciousness. It’s like a dimension… mirrors are gateways to different dimensions here. Let me explain,” said the strange guide. “You can now access any universe, any time, all lives and probabilities. They all exist, in all their possibilities, alongside, beside, below, and above each other. You can jump to any time, any space, any universe.”

“You mean there are parallel universes?”

“Yes.”

“Is there a universe where Manohar wasn’t killed?”

“Yes.”

“How do I find it?”

“You can look into the mirror and choose.”

“Choose?” Ratan was bewildered, but quickly put her head into the mirror. Sure enough, she saw herself at a function where Manohar was being made the Deputy Commissioner of Police. She saw them living their long life together, and felt all their moments strung out like pearls. She could wear them as an ornament. She pulled back out of the mirror.

“So, by going into the mirror, I can create any life for myself?” She asked.

“Yes, but all those worlds are an illusion – they are Maya. The truth is Oneness,” the guide said.

“But, then, if this is all Oneness, how am I still talking to you?”

“Are you really?”

“Am I talking to myself, then?”

Her voice seemed to echo in the silence.

“Did I create the guide and the Goddess? Is all this my own imagination? Who am I?

Who wants to know? came her own reply.

Then Ratan looked at the self inside herself. She was now, never and forever, here, there, everywhere and nowhere. She was the reflection mirrored in myriad lives and worlds and times. She was the mirror reflecting herself. Ratan mirrored and saw Manohar. He was her. There were not two, was no other, only awareness. There was only Oneness.

But I can still choose. I can love Manohar, one more time. I can see Manohar come home, riding on Chetak, one more time. Just this once, Ratan thought, and with a quick step, walked through the mirror and plunged into the tunnel.

It was 1914. In the green, misty monsoon dawn, a group of people were on a morning walk in the village, singing patriotic songs, holding candles for the freedom movement. That morning, in that village, Ratan came kicking and crying into the world. Again.

THE END

April 30, 2013 Posted by | April 2013, Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

Monday Original Content: An Interview with Frank Haubold

German author Frank Habuold is a winner of the Kurd-Laßwitz Award. He is the author, with Gill Ainsworth, of the collection Seasons of Insanity, published by Apex Books.

Frank Haubold interviewed by Charles Tan

Hi Frank! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with science fiction and fantasy?

Oh, that was many years ago. I think it was in the early 70s, when I experienced first books by Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley and Stanislaw Lem in the library of my hometown. These books were rareties, which could not be bought in bookstores of former Eastern Germany. I’ve always fought with me in order to give them back. Fantasy as a genre did not exist at that time.

Seasons of Insanity is a very interesting collection. How did you end up collaborating with Gill Ainsworth?

It was – I think – in 2006, when I sent one of my stories to several English-language magazines. Unfortunately I only got rejections, but the mail from Gill was very friendly and interested. So we stayed in contact. Gill revised the translation of another story, which later reached the shortlist of the Aeon Award, and I translated two of her stories for German anthologies. Sometime later, we had the idea for a joint collection in English.

What was the translation process like, since both you and Gill Ainsworth worked on your stories?

That was a little difficult because the prerequisites were not optimal. Gill does not speak German and my English is rather poor. It is sufficient to translate English texts into German, but the reverse is much more difficult. So I translated my stories sentence by sentence in a kind of pidgin English, and then Gill brought the fragments into a readable form. It took many weeks and months, and of course there were sometimes misunderstandings. Against this background, 130 pages are a lot.

What did it feel like to revisit your old stories and adapting/translating them for this book?

Of course I have selected only stories, that I particularly like. Therefore, the feeling when reading and Pretranslation was not so bad. If a story is a few years old, there are of course always little things one would write a little different today. Much more interesting and sometimes disturbing is the diversity of languages. A phrase that sounds good in German, can sound terrible in English and vice versa. Therefore, only a native speaker is able to assess and correct these subtleties. I am very grateful that Gill has taken this burden.

How did you come up with the concept of seasons for the book?

Gill had this idea. We had a few stories that are tied to specific data, such as Christmas or Halloween. And we had others where the weather plays a role and is typical for certain seasons. Therefore it was making sense to bring the stories to a chronology of the seasons. This works, of course, not perfect in every story, but it does bring some structure into the book. That’s why I like the idea.

How did Apex end up publishing Seasons of Insanity?

That was not an easy way. Fortunately, my role was confined to inquire every few weeks, wether the project is going on or not. Obviously, the U.S. market is difficult, and the few genre-publishers are inundated with manuscripts. That makes such projects not easier. But it worked in the end, still, and I am very grateful, that Apex Publications has published our book.

What’s the genre field in Germany like?

In Germany, the SF and horror scene is much smaller and more clearly. Everyone who deals intensively with the genre, knows the relevant publishers and publications. However, only few genre authors are able to earn their bread and red wine with writing. I’m not one of them, and that’s not because I drink too expensive wine …

On the other hand, there are a number of dedicated small publishers who are active in the scene, and also a loyal core audience, however only few young readers.

Who are some of the authors that interest you?

There are many authors, whose works have impressed me. Ray Bradbury, of course, James G. Ballard, Clifford Simak, Stanislav Lem or the Strugatsky brothers. Unfortunately most of them have already died. I like Dan Simmon’s “Hyperion” und the SF-novels of Sergei Lukyanenko. Some of the older novels by Stephen King are also fascinating.

Anything else you want to promote?

This is difficult because there are no English versions of my more recent novels and short stories. Currently I am writing the second part of a space opera called “Twilight of the Gods”, which keeps me busy for almost a year. That’s a pretty crazy story from a distant future in which also the poet Rilke and Jim Morrison will have an appearance. Science fiction purists will not like it. 😉

April 29, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Comments Off on Monday Original Content: An Interview with Frank Haubold

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes out now, and book trailer!

South African author (and Apex Book of World SF 2 contributor) Lauren Beukes‘s hotly-anticipated new novel, The Shining Girls, is now out!

And here is the trailer!

April 25, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Comments Off on The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes out now, and book trailer!

Short Story Highlight: “Sing” by Karin Tidbeck (Sweden)

Swedish author Karin Tidbeck‘s latest short story, Sing, is online at tor.com:

The cold dawn light creeps onto the mountaintops; they emerge like islands in the valley’s dark sea, tendrils of steam rising up from the thickets clinging to the rock. Right now there’s no sound of birdsong or crickets, no hiss of wind in the trees. When Maderakka’s great shadow has sunk back below the horizon, twitter and chirp will return in a shocking explosion of sound. For now, we sit in complete silence.

The birds have left. Petr lies with his head in my lap, his chest rising and falling so quickly it’s almost a flutter, his pulse rushing under the skin. The bits of eggshell I couldn’t get out of his mouth, those that have already made their way into him, spread whiteness into the surrounding flesh. If only I could hear that he’s breathing properly. His eyes are rolled back into his head, his arms and legs curled up against his body like a baby’s. If he’s conscious, he must be in pain. I hope he’s not conscious.

A strangely shaped man came in the door and stepped up to the counter. He made a full turn to look at the mess in my workshop: the fabrics, the cutting table, the bits of pattern. Then he looked directly at me. He was definitely not from here—no one had told him not to do that. I almost wanted to correct him:leave, you’re not supposed to make contact like that, you’re supposed to pretend you can’t see me and tell the air what you want. But I was curious about what he might do. I was too used to avoiding eye contact, so I concentrated carefully on the rest of him: the squat body with its weirdly broad shoulders, the swelling upper arms and legs. The cropped copper on his head. I’d never seen anything like it. – continue reading.

April 23, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Comments Off on Short Story Highlight: “Sing” by Karin Tidbeck (Sweden)

Lavie Tidhar’s MARTIAN SANDS Now Available

At the risk of sounding a little self serving, just a note to say that my latest novel, Martian Sands, is now available from PS Publishing in the UK as an £11.99 hardcover. A signed limited edition of 100 copies is also available.

Martian Sands

1941: an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour, a man from the future materialises in President Roosevelt’s office. His offer of military aid may cut the War and its pending atrocities short, and alter the course of the future . . .

The future: welcome to Mars, where the lives of three ordinary people become entwined in one dingy smokesbar the moment an assassin opens fire. The target: the mysterious Bill Glimmung. But is Glimmung even real? The truth might just be found in the remote FDR Mountains, an empty place, apparently of no significance, but where digital intelligences may be about to bring to fruition a long-held dream of the stars . . .

Mixing mystery and science fiction, the Holocaust and the Mars of both Edgar Rice Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, Martian Sands is a story of both the past and future, of hope, and love, and of finding meaning—no matter where—or when—you are.

April 22, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off on Lavie Tidhar’s MARTIAN SANDS Now Available

Short Story Highlight: “The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Thailand)

Over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, yet another story by this young author from Thailand, The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate:

Before the end there would be love-songs to a passion so fierce that the offspring of my body turned into suns; tales of our courtship a wildfire that scorched the world.

The annals of heavens may not always be trusted. They were texts carefully edited, passed to chosen scholars; it did well to remind the warlords—and once empire dreams had come true, the monarchs calling themselves heaven’s sons—that above them reigned paradise, and above paradise an everlasting emperor.

Much was elided and confused. But in the beginning, it was mostly that I was young.

The Huang He was new, freshly disgorged from a dragon’s gullet, brimming with stomach-lizards and fish with scales thick as lamellar. The heat drew me, as it too must have drawn him. And so I found Dijun by the banks with knees drawn up like a boy, gazing into the waters. In his palms flame detonated into monsters that cavorted to the edge of his nails and spilled onto the grass, turning green to black-brown.

I measured and watched him through the frame of my hands. What did I know of him then? That he was an oddity, not unlike me; that he was without a place at court, without sworn brothers earned through blood and fire. A lack that left him wifeless, for all that women gazed upon him as they would on rare silverwork. They would glance at him, and sigh a little, and look away. Untitled and unpositioned, what husband could he make?

I did not think of positions or titles.

He noticed my approach, and his smile intrigued me, for aesthetically it was most pleasing. Being young I mistook this for something else; being young I thought beauty was all there was.

“Would you like to try?” He held out his hand, where many-eyed beasts spun through their deaths and rebirths, purer each time, finer with each cycle.

“How did you know?”

“Your shadow moves on its own even when heaven’s light stands still. Like calls to like.” Dijun hesitated. “And I find I cannot look away from your radiance.”

I inclined my head. Men offered flattery; women accepted with poise. That was the way of things. – continue reading!

April 19, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Comments Off on Short Story Highlight: “The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Thailand)

Turkish Science Fiction Author, Baris Mustecapioglu to Visit London Book Fair

Via BSFA:

The London Book Fair is almost upon us once more. Taking place at Earls Court in London from 15th – 17th April, the fair will encompass trade stands, workshops and seminars and talks from various featured authors.

This year, the London Book Fair is shining its spotlight on Turkey with both a professional and cultural programme.

One Turkish science fiction author visiting the fair is Baris Mustecaplioglu, creator of theLegends of Perg fantasy series set in the fantastical lands of Perg, which blends Eastern and Western cultures. His latest book is also a fantasy, Şamanlar Diyarı (The Land of Shamans), published in 2012. Baris’ books have found publication in Bulgaria, Serbia, China, Germany, Syria, Poland, Romania and India and he has also recently had a short crime noir story published in America in Istanbul Noir. Baris is also the General Coordinator of Fantasy and Science Fiction Arts Association in Turkey (FABISAD) – so from one society that appreciates the genre to another, hello!

bio

Baris, who is currently getting ready to head to London from what he tells me is a very cold Istanbul, will be making the following appearances during the fair:

Monday 15 April

18.30-19.30      Innovation and the Novel

                        Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0EB

                        Participants: İnci Aral, Baris Mustecaplioglu & Jasper Fforde

For the details of the event visit the event page on Foyles’ website.

Wednesday 17 April

11.30-12.30      New Fiction: Fantasy and Crime

Whitehall Room, Earls Court

Participants: Hakan Günday, Baris Mustecaplioglu & Ahmet Ümit

Chair: Barbara Nadel

April 17, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Comments Off on Turkish Science Fiction Author, Baris Mustecapioglu to Visit London Book Fair

Tuesday Fiction: “Looking the Lopai in the Eyes” by Indrapramit Das

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Indrapramit Das. Indrapramit is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Apex Magazine, Redstone Science Fiction and Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (Zubaan Books, India), among others. He also writes reviews for publications including Slant Magazine and Strange Horizons, and comics for ACK Media. He has an MFA degree from the University of British Columbia, which he uses as a small tablemat while pretending to be an adult. To find out more, visit http://flavors.me/indra_das or follow him on Twitter (@IndrapramitDas).

The story was first published in the November 2011 issue of Redstone Science Fiction.

Looking the Lopai in the Eyes

by Indrapramit Das

Earth almost looks like home, from here. Brilliant blue, cloud-clothed. More visible land-masses, but otherwise strikingly similar. But Alwaea knows it will be very different. She touches the cold window, tracing with her finger the sun-brightened curve of the planet her genes were forged in. The planet that decided, so long ago, what she would look like, right down to the pattern of spirals on her fingertip, delicately imprinted on the glass.

Alwaea knows that Earth did not decide who she would become, and that is all she has. Her hand is trembling.

She is the Ambassador, she tells herself. She was chosen for this.

She will soon meet the governments of all the countries that sent their diaspora across the galaxy to populate her home. She cannot imagine the myriad cultures, the clashing languages, the opposing ideologies, the boiling throng of violent discord she understands Earth to be. She can barely imagine a planet inhabited by billions of humans, when her world has yet to host even a million.

When she first saw Earth through the windows, it almost felt like she hadn’t slept for years, nurtured by robots while her vessel folded space around itself. It felt like she hadn’t left at all. But the closer she comes to the planet, the more different it seems. The glass squeaks as Alwaea runs her fingers across it. This time she traces them along the shorelines she can now see below the clouds. In her mind, they evoke the Earth-map of hundreds of countries she had studied when she was younger, so different from the undivided canvas of her world’s supercontinent. The map had confused her, especially when her mother told her it was obsolete because of temporal distance and shifting politics.

Alwaea’s home is one world, and one country. She represents a single government, though her people have a different word for it.

She closes her eyes and thinks of the vast open spaces of her world. Of staring into the crafty yellow eyes of the Lopai on her nineteenth birthday, winter-breath lit up by the sister stars. She had locked her arms around its horns and rammed her booted feet onto its simian hands, hard enough to shock but not to break. She had wrestled the devil of the steppes to the ground, snow turning to slush underneath them, and she had let go and spoken one of the twenty words the Lopai speaks, one that her mother had taught her. She had watched it run from her on all fours, graceful muscles rippling and horns lowered sideways in submission, its long tail a whiplash against the white ground. She had laughed at the wet red of her hands, when she touched her bloody face.

Alwaea opens her eyes, and she is still shaking. She has never been this afraid in her life.

She opens the envelope in her hand, takes out the letter inside. It is from her mother, who was also Ambassador. It has been years since she handed it to Alwaea on the surface of their world. The vacuum seal of the locker it was in has kept it from weathering. The handmade paper is still crisp, if a little warped. She can even smell the overwhelmingly familiar fruit-sweet traces of pyrap musk her mother wore as perfume, hiding under the smoky scent of brewed ink. Alwaea has waited for all of her voyage to read the letter, as she was told to. She reads it aloud, so the whispered words reverberate in the cramped landing capsule.

“Don’t let them look down on us, Alwaea, like they did to me. You’re far stronger than I. Show them how we’ve grown, and show us how you’ve grown. Come back with our independence in your hands.”

Alwaea’s chest tightens to see her mother’s slanted handwriting again, after this endless voyage of cold sleep. She should feel fury at the letter, the way it leaves no room for failure, no room for concern, even. But she thinks of the time her mother sat in a capsule much like this one, approaching Earth, both her parents long dead from pre-vaccine contagions. Her mother, who came to Earth and failed at diplomacy, failed to show its nations that her home no longer needed to be called a colony but a world of its own.

No, Alwaea thinks. Light-years away from home, she cannot remain angry at the woman who taught her to tame the devil of the steppes, to look the Lopai in the eyes, the woman who had kissed her bloody forehead and come away with lips red to show her pride. Alwaea knows that her mother might no longer be alive by the time she returns to her world. But she will bring their independence with her all the same.

Alwaea puts the letter in her lap. Earth comes closer, little by little, the sun glaring off the mirrors of its oceans. Her people’s motherworld, still beautiful despite its age. Yes. Alwaea will show Earth how they’ve grown in the solitude of another constellation. She realizes she is no longer shaking.

Alwaea touches her face. Her palms come away wet, and she laughs.

THE END

April 16, 2013 Posted by | April 2013 | , , , , | 2 Comments

Call for Submissions: Mothership – tales from Afrofuturism and beyond

Forthcoming anthology gathers “tales from Afrofuturism and beyond”

Co-editors Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall are pleased to announce that their forthcoming anthology, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, has already attracted a diverse array of story submissions. Nonetheless, with roughly a month left until the close of the collection’s submissions phase, the editors hope to see yet more genre fiction by, for, and/or about persons of color.

Washington, D.C.-based Campbell, who initiated the project, describes its genesis and goals this way: “When we look up at the night sky, space is black as far as the eye can see. Yet when we read novels about it or watch something on TV or in the movie theater, it is white beyond all comprehension. With this collection, we hope to give space some much needed … color, shall we say (and other genres, of course).”

Hall, a longtime Atlantan, said of the acquisition process for Mothership, “We’ve been extraordinarily lucky. In just the last few days we accepted several stories, including ones from Nisi Shawl, Eden Robinson, and Junot Diaz. I can’t wait to see the stories yet to come, though, whether from practiced hands or exciting new talents.”

More information about the project (including guidelines for submission) and the anthologists appears online: http://mothershipconnect.com/index.html

April 15, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Monday Original Content: Superficial Darkness and Luminous Ink

by Athena Andreadis; originally posted at Starship Reckless

InkThere has been a resurgence of arguments over grimdark fantasy, sparked by Joe Abercrombie’s recent second salvo after his earlier pas-de-deux with Leo Grin. This time around, Abercrombie equated “realism” (as in: non-stop pillage and teen-level gothness… or is it kvothness?) with “honesty” while arguing with a semi-straight face that he, unlike those who dislike gratuitous grottiness, was not making moral judgments.

Last time around, I was the sole non-anglomale to enter this fray. This time, several women responded (links below). All raised important issues (the exclusive focus on rape of women; the determined distortion/impoverishment of real history; the fact that several items are subsumed under “grittiness”), though Elizabeth Bear’s defense of (revisionist) grimdark bears this immortal phrase: “…sociopathic monsters can and do accomplish good – sometimes purposefully, sometimes not.” In other words, a soldier who participated in flattening a village is a force for good because he let one of the village children survive.

Having said my piece on grittygrotty fantasy, I don’t deem the subgenre interesting enough for additional investment. However, during these discussions journalist and author Sabrina Vourvoulias wondered if Ink, her debut novel, is classifiable as grimdark because it contains some of the items that are de rigueur in that domain: betrayal by friends; death of beloved and/or central characters; violence and violations; grim settings and unhappy endings. I had long intended to write a review of Ink, so I considered this my opportunity.

My verdict: Ink is not grimdark if only because it’s not the standard-issue SFF watery gruel. It’s also not grimdark because: it spends as much time showing beauty, heroism and honor as squalor, betrayal and violence; its violence (except in one instance) is neither gratuitous nor meant to titillate; it shows imperfect but functioning individuals, families and communities, not the baboon troops standard in grimdark; it doesn’t fridge its women (instead, it hews to the more traditional mode of “men die, women endure”); it shows mutual desire and consensual sex with neither prudery nor prurience; it’s layered and nuanced; and it’s politically engaged and grounded in reality while also containing doors ajar to other worlds.

Some reviewers compared Ink to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, because both show near-future US societies based on plausible extrapolations. But whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is straight dystopia, Ink is more than that. Ink is a nagual, like one of its protagonists: a twinned being, a shapeshifter – something common in non-Anglo literature that has left its genre boundaries porous instead of having them patrolled by purity squads. Ink combines mythic, epic, dystopian, urban and paranormal fantasy – it’s a direct descendant of the better-known Hispanophone magic realists. Its closest contemporary relatives are Evghenía Fakínou’s luminous works, famous in Hellás but unknown to Anglophone readers.

Ink describes a very near-future US in which the distinction between full citizens and the rest has become absolute and is enforced by biometric tattoos that specify status. Those who are not full citizens are subject to the customary abuses: curfews, job and housing discrimination, deportations, concentration camps, child abductions, involuntary sterilizations, vigilante violence. The story, spread over a decade, chronicles the reactions to this setting in both the real and magical realms.

The real echoes are multiple: there have been many near-silent holocausts in Latin America during caudillo regimes; biometric identification and surveillance methods are already with us; the treatment of “aliens” has been an endemic festering wound in many polities, the US prominently among them; tattoos and concentration camps have been used throughout history to isolate “others”; and “others” are routinely dehumanized across times and cultures – usually as a means of retaining power (for the strong), borderline privileges and self-esteem (for the weak), as well as an easy method for retaining social homogeneity.

Jaguar nagualThe magical echoes are subtler but just as layered: the naguales come from age-old shamanistic practices in Mesoamerica; the belief in magic linked to a specific location is ancient and universal; so are the concepts of shadow doubles and wereanimals, both good and evil. There are liaisons between the two realms – not only the half-dozen primary and secondary characters with second sight and/or twinned selves, but also the kaibiles, who appear as fearsome adversaries in dreamtime within Ink but in realtime were the infamous Guatemalan counter-insurgency special forces.

There are no “alpha” heroes in Ink; those of its characters who achieve heroic status do so without fanfare by simply being decent and taking risks despite fear and consequences – and while embedded in complex networks of blood and chosen relatives (the sole glaring absence is that of old women). The characters are economically but sharply delineated and their intertwinings are natural and believable. Where Ink approaches quotidian is in the choices of its protagonists’ occupations: Finn, a journalist; Mari, a liaison/translator; Del, a painter; Abbie, a computer wunderkind.

Ink also stumbles slightly by giving its two women protagonists remarkably similar fates. Both get violated – Mari by a decent-appearing vigilante, Abbie by a once-dear friend. The latter is the only point where Ink is in danger of entering generic grimdark territory: not only is Abbie’s sadistic scarring not really necessary to the plot, but it’s also totally out of character for the person who inflicted it. Also, both women have to carry on after the loss of the loves of their lives, with children as their main consolation prize (though they also reclaim other vital pieces of themselves that make them more than just custodians of the future).

Two secondary characters cast enormous shadows in Ink and almost walk away with the novel – I for one would happily read tomes centered on each: Toño, a gang leader with the charisma and code of honor that often goes with such positions; and Meche, who walks between worlds like Mari – and is also a formidable chemist, the inventor of synthetic skin that can give passage to legitimacy. [Note to self: the successor to The Other Half of the Sky will focus on women scientists; tap Sabrina for a Meche story.]

Stylistically, Ink commits all the “errors” excoriated in HackSFFWorkshop 101, though (repeat after me) they’re common in literary fiction and I personally love them: its four protagonists speak in first person and often in present tense; it makes unapologetic jumps in narrative time; it has an enormous cast of characters, without obvious telegraphings of who’s important and who isn’t; and its chapters have titles instead of numbers.

The language in Ink clearly comes from someone who is a fluent speaker of more than one tongue: it has the giveaway shimmer of submerged harmonies, of unexpected, felicitous word couplings. Ink also has snappy dialogue and vivid descriptions. Some exchanges made me laugh out loud or weep a little, and the erotic passages pack real heat. The peripheral characters are sharply drawn and distinct, and the Latinos are not generic. They’re Mexicans, Cubans, Guatemalans, with their unique histories, customs, dialects and magicks.

Some reviewers complained that the paranormal element in Ink was intrusive or not well integrated. I’d argue that the real problem is that Ink should be much longer than it is. Although it’s a saga of sorts, it has a strobe-light staccato effect that fits its current lean frame. But unlike just about any other SFF book I’ve read recently (nearly all infected with the dreaded sequelitis virus), the issues and characters in Ink – as well as its author’s talent for weaving richly-hued tapestries – cry out for a Márquez-size door stopper.

Sabrina-VourvouliasIf Ink had been written in any language but English, it would have become a bestseller with reviews in the equivalent of the NY Times. For Anglophones, Ink is an uncategorizable hybrid. These terms are invariably used to signify that a book is doomed because it doesn’t aim for an automatically defined readership. I, however, a walker between worlds myself, use the terms as rare praise.

Images: 1st, Ink (publisher: Crossed Genres); 2nd, a jaguar nagual (sketch from a Zapotec stela by Javier Urcid); 3rd, Sabrina Vourvoulias

Links to recent discussions of grittygrotty fantasy:

Foz Meadows
Sophia McDougall
Liz Bourke
Marie Brennan
Elizabeth Bear

April 8, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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