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.
The Lord of the Sands of Time
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.