(2021) Lavie Tidhar (editor), Ad Astra – Head of Zeus, £25, hrdbk, xvii + 588pp, ISBN 978-1-838-93764-5
As the editor explains to us in his Introduction, most science fiction is written by people who are American. He does not mention the British in this summary(!), though he certainly has a point that SF writers are more than likely to use English as their first language. In the past he has edited five volumes of The Apex Book of World SF, each filled with stories by writers to whom English is a second language, if indeed they use it at all. The Apex series were small press but with The Best of World SF - Volume 1, and the publishers Head of Zeus, he is reaching a much larger audience. From the use of Volume 1 in the title, I assume he is intending to edit further volumes over the coming years. The stories in this volume run from eight pages to eighty-six pages, so some are perhaps novelettes not short stories.
We start with ‘Immersion’, in which Aliette de Bodard takes us to a future of augmented reality. Many people wear immersers, devices which constantly append information to the scene around them and also project their chosen avatar for public gaze (useful for lifting those wrinkles or restyling your otherwise dowdy clothes) - think of Google Glass after a few centuries of development. Whilst some cannot afford immersers and most use them only when required, there are others who rely greatly upon them and addiction can be a real problem.
In ‘Debtless’ (translated by Blake Stone-Banks) Chen Qiufan tells us of an asteroid miner. Like the others, he knows he signed up for this work because it pays very well and he has large debts to clear. It is a dangerous job and to help them deal with it most of their memories are stored elsewhere and they are left with an edited set. For example, when a colleague dies, as happens far too often, their memories are modified to reduce the shock and loss. Following such adjustments, he retains flashes of his more distant past, though they make no sense. As the memory resets accumulate, so does his feeling that he needs to do something about his circumstances.
‘Fandom For Robots’ by Vina Jie-Min Prasad introduces us to Computron, a sentient robot. He is of an old design and lives in the Simak Robotics Museum. Following a question from a visiting teenager, Computron researches the anime Hyperdimension Warp Record. This leads Computron to discover fan discussions and fan fiction.
Tlotlo Tsamaase’s ‘Virtual Snapshots’ is set in a Botswana where normal childbirth is rare, most children coming from the Born Structure. It tells of the old world and the new DigiWorld, and how at least one family reacts to it.
Also set in Africa, this time New Biafra, a century or more after the Catastrophe, Chinelo Onwualu’s ‘What the Dead Man Said’ follows Azuka as she returns to her homeland for her father’s funeral. It transpires that he has a message for her and his spirit is determined she shall hear it.
In ‘Delhi’ by Vandana Singh we follow Aseem as he wanders round the city. He sees Delhi rather differently to other people; sometimes he glimpses it as it was and sometimes as it will be. He also sees people from those other times and just occasionally they see him and they converse, albeit only briefly. This does not make for an easy life.
Han Song’s ‘The Wheel of Samsara’ tells of a young lady from Mars whose visit to Tibet takes her to the Doji Lamasery. There she discovers the Wheels of Samsara, a string of a hundred and eight bronze wheels hung around the temple walls. One of them is dark green and sings to itself, making the strangest of noises. When she and her father investigate, the universe will never be the same.
‘Xingzhou’ by Ng Yi-Sheng illustrates some of the history of the city of the title. It is told by referring back to the narrator’s grandfather, a rickshaw coolie, who came from nineteenth century China, and his grandmother, a demon born in India in the third millennium BCE. It also refers to his grandzyther, a hive intelligence born seventeen million years after the Big Bang, and his grandneither, a white fungus bio-engineered in the city before the descent of war. Xingzhou is not on this Earth, it is the continent of stars.
The Macca Strait is the setting for ‘Prayer’, written by Taiyo Fujii (translated by Kanil Spychalski). A tanker is being used illicitly for mining tokens for the cryptocurrency overrunning Singapore’s economy. Kip is sent to mark the tanker with GPS transmitters, prior to a government raid. Onboard, the three Cerberus security robots run through yet another simulation of an attack on the vessel. Despite all Kip’s care, the robots develop a surprising tactic.
Francesco Verso’s ‘The Green Ship’ (translated by Michael Colbert) describes how a boatload of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean for Europe find a vast wall stretching before them. To their surprise they are found by a Green Ship, an aircraft carrier converted into a floating forest. Soon they will have an unexpected land of their own.
In ‘Eyes of the Crocodile’ by Malena Salazar Maciá (translated by Toshiya Kamei) we follow a woman on a distant planet, somewhere well into the future. Long ago they invented nanobots to generally protect them and look after their health but also to instil within them the traditions of their ancestors, in this case tribal markings. However, errors occurred within the nanobots and they have become a deadly threat. Despite all the precautions of her people, the few survivors, they are now inside her. Will she live long enough to do something about it, or will they turn her into something else?
Tade Thompson’s ‘Bootblack’ is set in Cardiff and we learn of Linus Carter, a simple lad who earns his living shining shoes. One day he sees a bright light and shortly afterwards a man appears dressed in a bright and shiny costume, a man who asks questions and talks about wars. One day, he says, leaders would want to know what happened in the Great War and that there would be wars where even more people died. Then others in shiny clothes appear, looking for the first man…
Somewhere in the forest is a house with an unusual occupant, as Anita finds out in ‘The Emptiness in the Heart of All Things’ by Fabio Fernandes. In reality a police officer investigating a series of unusual deaths in that part of the country, Anita pretends to be a doctoral student as she interviews the owner, the reclusive author Elizabeth Barbosa. At first she thinks Barbosa to be innocent, that she is wasting her time, but overnight she hears a long, shrill, ear-piercing whistle. As she gets to know Barbosa and the neighbouring villagers and their problems over the next few days, she starts to wonder what is really going on.
‘The Sun from Both Sides’ by R.S.A. Garcia is one of the longer stories. One day, in a small hut in a forest on another world, a wife concludes that her husband is more than a little late returning from the market. Following him into town she discovers the reason - slavers have raided the place and captured many of the locals. She follows them to the next town, intent on releasing her husband. At first she may come across as a simple wife scraping a meagre existence in the forest but she is far, far more - as the slavers are about to find out. Furthermore, her husband is also far, far more than he seems, and soon he will be recalled to the planet on which he was once a powerful ruler. Things will not be the same.
Christina Jurado’s ‘DUMP’ (translated by Steve Redwood) is, as its title suggests, set in a huge rubbish dump. Naima is a Rat, one part of one the varied societies of peoples that live, trade, and die without ever leaving the place. Whilst on her daily scavenging exploits she discovers an old computer; it is fully working and has all the updates. It will be worth a fortune and it should bring her an immediate and permanent advancement within her group. But life is not always what it seems.
‘Rue Chair’, as described by Gerardo Horacio Porcayo, is a mythical place. It is part market, part many other things. It has much to offer and much of it is illegal, exotic, or otherwise unusual. One should venture there with care as there are many reasons why one might not come back.
Unsurprisingly in ‘His Master’s Voice’ Hannu Rajaniemi tells us about a dog and his master, though there is also a cat. Early on neither of the animals realise it but they are creations of their master, who lives quietly and alone on an old oil rig. When he is betrayed, arrested, and executed for breaking one of society’s greatest taboos, they want revenge. By now they are no longer simple animals; they have learnt much from their master and his systems and they are well augmented.
Young Benjamin Schneider is the subject of Nir Yaniv’s story ‘Benjamin Schneider’s Little Greys’ (translated by Lavie Tidhar). Ever since he was a child he has visited his doctor with one ailment or another, almost weekly; each is unusual and clears up almost immediately. The doctor gradually becomes intrigued.
Set in an Iceland which knows about supernatural creatures and the worlds they come from, Emil Hjorvar Petersen’s tale ‘The Cryptid’ follows a researcher as she attempts to prove the existence of a particular creature, the Serpent of Lagar River. If she succeeds she will get a prestigious job at the Cryptozoology and Wonderbeast Research Centre. The pollution from the nearby aluminium plant makes diving in the waters of Reydar Fjord extremely hazardous though, if it exists, the Serpent might get her first.
‘The Bank of Burkina Faso’ by Ekaterina Sedia introduces us to the deposed Prince of Burundi, who would rather like to get his money back from the Bank. The trouble lies in finding it. Then he receives an email from a lady who is having the same problem - perhaps, working together, they can find a way of locating and entering the bank?
With by far the longest title, Kuzhali Manickavel’s story ‘An Incomplete Guide to Understanding the Rose Petal Infestation Associated With EverTyphoid Patients in the Tropicool IcyLand Urban Indian Slum’ is what it says. EverTyphoid is a most strange disease and the symptoms are very interesting…
‘The Old Man with the Third Hand’ by Kofi Nyameye introduces us to Dee, a young girl who sees people such as the old man with a third hand when others do not. Her parents send for a doctor from an institute - but who is it that really cannot see?
Lauren Beukes has set her tale in the jungles of a very green planet, hence the title: ‘The Green’. The alien jungle is full of wonderful things, medicines, technological solutions, etc., waiting to be discovered by the Inatec company. However, somebody has go out into the Green and do the exploring, bringing back the samples, and there is a price to be paid, both physical and psychological.
Travel from planet to planet need not be through outer space, as Karin Tidbeck shows us in ‘The Last Voyage of Skidbladmir’. The Skidbladmir is a ship of sorts though it is mostly a tall building; it is also the creature that lives in the upper floors (whilst the passengers are accommodated in the lower floors). The creature has the ability to sort of slip between worlds, which is so much quicker than space ships. There are many such creatures and companies have learnt how to exploit them, how to make them go to specific destinations rather than merely wander where they want to. But Skidbladmir is growing and soon the building will not be big enough.
‘Prime Meridian’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia concerns the rather miserable life ‘enjoyed’ by Amelia. Once a promising student, she had to drop out and look after her dying mother. With jobs scarce everywhere and no qualifications, her only real money comes from being a professional friend, rentable by the hour through an app. But Mars beckons, if only she can save up enough money.
We finish with ‘If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try again’ by Zen Cho, which won her the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. Byam is an imugi and, at a thousand years old, ready to ascend as a dragon. Just one problem; it must not be seen by a human as it does so and, well, there just happen to be a few about. A thousand years later and Byam tries again, but again there are pesky humans around at the wrong moment. Another thousand years later and this time no human is watching - but unfortunately Byam shows in the background of a selfie taken by a lone mountain walker. Will Byam never become a dragon?
I enjoy short/shorter stories because they allow the writer to introduce an idea and take it somewhere without having to spin it out for a whole, and probably cumbersome, novel. However, I found a few of these stories to be so brief that the writer did not have long enough to get across the idea for the story for it to make sense to me, or maybe to gain comprehension of the setting. It is one thing to have a fully formed idea in one’s mind, it is another thing to get that idea across to the reader - sometimes more text really is needed. Writers should always remember that what they have not told the reader will remain unknown; the writer should not assume that the reader will of necessity understand the context. On the other hand, the longest story drags and on and on, being a series of almost identical rehashes of the same scenes, as it too slowly crawls towards its predictable end.
I found the stories very varying in appeal; some I thoroughly enjoyed whilst others left me asking ‘so what?’. With twenty six stories on offer, I should not be surprised that not all of them enthralled me, though I am left wondering about the differences in my tastes and those of the editor. Perhaps, as an editor, he likes ‘writers’ writers’ whereas I, as a reader, prefer ‘readers’ writers’, i.e. he is looking at the writing itself whereas I am looking at the story. For each story he has written an introduction praising the writer and explaining why he just had to have something by him/her in this volume. I wondered, though, whether he was more impressed by the writer in general than the chosen story in particular.
Given the book’s title, I must debate whether these stories really are the best SF that the world has to offer - that is a large claim to make and I have to say that I think it has blown its trumpet too loud. I have read many books of short/shorter stories that I preferred to this one.
As for the authors not writing in English as their first language, this was not a problem at all. The stories were all well written (and well translated in some cases). You may not have heard of many of these authors but do not let that put you off - you may be very pleasantly surprised.
This is a large hardback of nearly six hundred pages and that comes with a downside - it is heavy and awkward to read. It would have noticeably more comfortable to hold and read had it been shorter, perhaps as two volumes or if some of the stories had been held over for Volume 2. This might seem like a minor point but there were times when I just did not want to pick this up, preferring something easier on my hand and arm muscles (especially after a hard day in the garden). By the time I reached the end I thought I had completed a marathon, and that is hardly a recommendation.
Interesting? Mostly yes. The Best? No.
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