Strange Horizons: 2015 In Review

Cypher 2

My relationship with speculative fiction took a serious turn in 2015. Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) and Seo-Young Chu’s Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? (2010) captivated me as much as critical notes and essays on the craft of writing and storytelling by Samuel R Delany, Damon Knight and Ursula Le K Guin.

My current reading strategy seems inadequate to tackle the growing field of SF. I found myself reading and rereading stories from the excellent oeuvres of Kelly Link, Geoff Ryman, Catherynne M Valente, Kij Johnson and Karin Tidbeck, among others. Apart from World SF, I developed a special taste and critical eye for a small but fantastic body of speculative work from South Asian writers living and working outside the Indian subcontinent: Usman T Malik, Vandana Singh, Indra Das, among others.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina proved that live action science fiction films could be more than hero worship in 2015. Vincenzo Natali’s Cypher (2002) and Splice (2009) also blew my mind. Together, they have convinced me that SF film could match the genius of the best of contemporary SF prose. Now I can’t wait to see Natali’s adaption of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). (I hope that he finally gets ‘lucky’ in 2016.)

This year, I couldn’t stop recommending Drabblecast to close friends. And I finally joined a long list of amazing people who have fallen utterly in love with Uncanny Magazine.

PS: A shortened version of this review first appeared in Strange Horizons with excellent recommendations from a host of amazing SF writers and readers.

The Apex Book of World SF 4

The Archivist - Julie Dillon

The Archivist by Julie Dillon ©

My review of The Apex Book of World SF 4 is now up at Strange Horizons. Excerpt:

The first story in the collection is Usman T. Malik’s Bram Stoker-winning “The Vaporization Enthalpy Of a Peculiar Pakistani Family.” I’ve read it many times here and elsewhere. This time I was struck by the author’s note: “For the 145 innocents of the 12/16 Peshawar terrorist attack and countless known & unknown before.” In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, this story achieves greater significance and delivers tender insight as well as the solace we have come to expect from the work of artists. Tara Khan, the protagonist, represents millions of Muslim women who have lost their loved ones to religious fanatics, wars, and terrorism:

“Salam,” she said. “Peace be upon you, brother.”

The nuktah that was him twitched. His fried vocal cords were not capable of producing words anymore.

“I used to think,” she continued, licking her dry lips, watching the infinitesimal shifting of matter and emptiness inside him, “that love was all that mattered. That the bonds that pull us all together are of timeless love. But it is not true. It has never been true, has it?”

He shimmered and said nothing. (p.14)

One of Malik’s earliest stories, ‘Vitriol,’ (Papercuts, 2012) featured a woman whose body had been disfigured during an acid attack. In ‘Vaporization,’ both male and female bodies melt in a drone attack. In ‘Vitriol,’ the cause of the protagonist’s suffering—the acid attack—is a taboo subject. The narrator respects her seeming unwillingness to talk about the public and private nature of her shame, and limits himself to the exploration of the social mores of her time and culture. After reading ‘Vitriol,’ I felt that perhaps there is no way we could fully grasp the ‘horrors’ of our world even if we tried. ‘Vaporization,’ however, is preoccupied with an attempt to examine and understand even the most horrendous of human encounters and experiences through faith and science. While Malik’s earlier attempt is less concerned with the norms of the horror genre and more interested in building character and suspense, ‘Vaporization’ is an elegant proof of superior craftsmanship and the scope of speculative fiction and poetry.

Malik’s prose turns into poetry in the story’s final act, and it manages to stay appealing and enigmatic even after multiple readings. The author’s journey from “Vitriol” to “Vaporization” is a triumphant one. It shows why new writers from around the world are abandoning the mode of exhausted realism and embracing the conventions of contemporary SF in order to entertain, shock or heal people in the age of cyber warfare, widespread terrorism and unmanned bombers. Malik provides a robust model for writers from both his own part of the globe and beyond.

This is true for most of the twenty-eight writers from twenty-four countries featured in the new anthology, including Zen Cho (Malaysia), Vajra Chandrasekera (Sri Lanka), Haralambi Markov (Bulgaria), Natalia Theodoridou (Greece), Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Netherlands), Julie Novakova (Czech Republic), Samuel Marolla (Italy), Dilman Dila (Uganda), Isabel Yap (Philippines), Yukimi Ogawa (Japan), and Bernardo Fernández (Mexico). Together with authors featured in the previous anthologies, they represent the best of international SF today.

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You can read the full review at Strange Horizons.

The Devourers by Indra Das

My review of Indra Das’s debut novel, ‘The Devourers,’ is now up at Strange Horizons.

Excerpt:

Much of the conflict in The Devourers comes from Alok, Fenrir, and Gévaudan’s guilt and inability to reproduce among their own kind, and Cyrah’s struggle to come to terms with the werewolves’ identity and sexuality. Ultimately, she refuses to become either the faithful wife or a nurturing mother, leaving her newborn baby in the care of the tribal people of the Sunderbans: “I will not be your human idol, your little goddess of suffering” (p. 257).

Their son, Izrail, doesn’t seem to have a problem with his identity or sexuality. He is like Fenrir, who believes in the power of writing, and recognizes the need to embrace and speak the tongue of one’s lovers, without any fear of judgment or inhibition—even if the language is not their own; even if they are outsiders, foreigners. The act of writing and storytelling in The Devourers, then, becomes the act of giving birth. This is Fenrir and Izrail’s way to ensure that they live on through stories “beyond their bodies” (p. 58). And Alok’s translation of the scrolls becomes a key to their survival in a rapidly changing world:

We have many names, or none, sometimes. This body, this face; it’s the one I was born with, the one that Cyrah and Fenrir gave me. But I can change it, if I will it, though after so long it would be difficult. But I can. Just like I can change my second self as well, if the circumstances are right. Identity doesn’t mean the same thing to us as it does to you. Names are arbitrary in such an existence. (p. 287)

Throughout the novel, Izrail insists that he is not a human. What he actually means is that he is neither a man nor a woman. He is both. The word “khrissal,” which the werewolves use to denote “man,” could also be read as a word for a heterosexual man or woman. Alok and Izrail clearly don’t belong in this straight category. They have a fluid gender: werewolf, gay. Through Izrail and his stories—whether real or imaginary—Alok finally comes to terms with his own gender and identity. Izrail’s second self—a werewolf, a rakshasa—also stands for Alok’s private, second self—which is revealed to us towards the end of the novel in an unforgettable, beautiful passage. Fantasy then becomes a door to freedom, a means of escape from the bondage of harsh reality for both of them.

Das is a prophet of the new Indian speculative fiction—a writer who is bold enough to resist the ghosts of Sanskrit, and carve a new imaginative territory for himself and his audience. He gives us the names and stories of a tribal goddess—Banbibi, Bandevi, or Bandurga—but doesn’t consider Hindu goddess Durga or the shape-shifter Vetala worth exploring, as it could destroy the realism he is trying to achieve. There is also a danger of censorship and failure in taking religious or mythical creatures from a conservative country and using them to express a new thought, a whole new language of queer fiction. It is not possible, a fact Izrail recognizes: “When I left the Sunderbans, I thought of myself as more werewolf than a rakshasa, though I didn’t know the word then” (p. 288).

Traders from the British East India Company give Izrail the word he is searching for. But the influence is one-sided. The Europeans come to explore India and inhabit it, but they refuse to convert to the land, its religions and customs. They bring their own myths—werewolves and demons. It’s this mindset The Devourers attempts to break. In one of the memorable passages, Cyrah describes Gévaudan as “shaken” by the “lack of superstition” in the Christian worldview of one such trader, Edward Courten, in which there is no place for the “other”:

He’s arrogant. He believes I’m a man, and nothing more. He believes in his one Christian god, and no other. He believes in his empire and its ways, and no other. (p. 219)

By borrowing mythological characters from Europe to write a novel set in India, Das is hinting at the legacy of the British occupation and how he came to inherit the English language, and the modern, scientific worldview. By eschewing religious and mythological characters from India’s rich past and its predominantly Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist literature, Das is showing us the influence of a more western—rigorous and scientific—mindset in his upbringing and worldview. It is also true, perhaps, for the young, digital generation of India.

You can read the complete review here in Strange Horizons.