Fiction Reviews

The Best of World SF - Vol. 2

(2022) edited by Lavie Tidhar, Head of Zeus, £25, hrdbk, 649pp, ISBN 978-1-803-28031-8


This rich and vibrant collection comprises 29 stories, 8 of which appear in English here for the first time, featuring writers from as far afield as Bahrain, Poland and Zimbabwe… plus a host of other countries in-between. None were included in TBoWSF Vol. 1 so as Tidhar states in his helpful introduction, each of these volumes offer a window onto a different vista. The underlying themes range just as widely, from robots in space to the nature of reality, and from gods, petty and awesome, to zombies, and as Tidhar acknowledges, although he has chosen works that lean primarily towards science fiction, some do include elements of the fantastical. Here I have chosen those that, for me, had the most impact, in hopes that they give something of the flavour of the volume as a whole.

Let me begin with the end. The very last story is ‘The Farctory’ by Ukrainian writer, K. A. Teryna, as translated by Alex Shvartsman (nine of the stories have been translated and due acknowledgement is given for the work involved). It begins with the hero-narrator ‘Bach’ (the clue is in the name!), struggling with a broken-down vending machine that dispenses – and here the weirdness begins – senses. Heading off to a bar that serves colours, Bach hatches a plan – whose precise details remain unclear – to help him find Barbara, whose relationship with Bach is likewise left vague. Not surprisingly, it all goes pear-shaped and he falls into some kind of existential loop that (of course) takes him through different perspectives on a noir-ish reality. With shades of Dick and Mieville and a conclusion reminiscent of a famous scene from The Matrix, this is one of those stories that, odd and unsettling as it is, definitely sets hooks in you.

At the opposite end of both the real-surreal spectrum and the book itself is Nadia Afifi’s ‘The Bahrain Underground Bazaar’. This also begins in a dark place, literally and metaphorically, as the narrator, Zahra – old, cancer-ridden and out of step with her family and modern life – immerses herself in the recorded death experiences of different people. Prompted by the suicide of a woman who jumped, or so it seems, from a cliff top in Jordan but who also achieved some measure of peace in her final moments, Zahra sets off across the Arabian peninsula to Petra on a final adventure. At the last moment, however, the story takes a turn into the light as a cross-generational encounter helps the woman achieve a kind of reconciliation with both her family and her fate.

Similar in tone and content is ‘The Gardens of Babylon’, by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, in which the designer of video-games derived from old Babylonian stories, takes a drug-induced trip away from the domes and droids of the futuristic city into episodes from the past, both recent and ancient. With archaeology and oil intertwined through successive occupations and rebellions, the narrator follows a mysterious cat through a series of scenes before overcoming his writers’ block through a startling realisation about his own ancestry.

Family also looms large in Cassandra Khaw’s ‘When We Die on Mars’. Despite the suggestive title this is really about the pre-launch prep, both physical and, crucially, psychological, that must be endured before undertaking such a voyage of literally no-return. The initial cohort of seventy-two is slowly whittled down to a core team of twelve, whose job will be to make the planet habitable and hospitable. Focussing on relationships, past and present, and beautifully elegiac this story speaks to what must be left behind in order to arrive somewhere so harshly different.

Usman T. Malik, on the other hand, suggests that we may not need to let go of family entirely while travelling interstellar in ‘Beyond These Stars Other Tribulations of Love’. Sweating and fretting in New Karachi, Bari struggles to balance the demands of his engineering job with looking after his mother who has dementia. As anxiety and exhaustion tighten their grip, he’s suddenly given an offer he can’t refuse: emigration to a new world whiole still being able to care for his mum. Using ‘Penrose-Hameroff theory’ (which is a thing, albeit not widely accepted; his consciousness is placed in a quantum superposition which allows Bari to live a kind of split existence, between living and loving on the starship and, via the house AI, tending to his mother back on Earth. But inevitably, as with all such bargains, there is a cost, and the story ends on an ambiguous and poignant note.

‘Waking Nydra’ by Samit Basu is also space set but offers a witty and engaging and distinctly Indian take on the story of Sleeping Beauty and, indeed, story-telling in general. The hero – or so he thinks – is Raja, a space-cab pilot who is a big fan of the Princess Nydra soap opera and who happens to be ferrying a fully equipped military passenger to a war-zone space station. Despite his passenger’s insistence that he stay out of the way while she searches for someone asleep among all the dead aliens and humans, Raja cannot help inserting himself into the adventure. Sadly for him, the ending reveals that he’s just another disposable bit-player.

Switching perspectives, from humans venturing into space, to aliens arriving here, Neon Yang’s ‘Between the Firmaments’ is a queer tale of love under a brutal occupation, interwoven with South-East Asian myth. Bariegh of the Jungle was once a mighty deity but is now forced to assume human form for fear the colonising ‘blasphemers’ will use their ‘sun-metal’ to extract his god-hood in order to power the city that he himself is helping to build. Everything changes, however, when Bariegh falls in love with a boy, or something that has taken on the shape of a boy, and his pursuit of that love threatens not only to reveal his true nature, but also the lives of those closest to him. This is a magnificent story of passion and sacrifice that skilfully blends the futuristic and the fantastical.

The power of gods, whether hidden or, in this case, discarded is also the topic of ‘Salvaging Gods’ by Jacques Barcia. Here the main character is Gorette, a teenage scavenger who digs through the town’s rubbish dump with her dad in search of used-up gods. Stumbling across one in a pile of debris she successfully ‘incubates’ its code in her own altar and manages to fashion the necessary inputs and outputs. Gorette quickly comes to realise, however, that she has retrieved and rebooted more than she bargained for. The little god fulfils her wishes to the max: when she asks for a warm bath, she gets the full works; when she wishes a dead child alive again, that too is granted. As a result, word soon spreads about the girl and her miracle-maker and in true ‘be careful what you wish for’ fashion, things rapidly spiral out of control, until Gorette brutally regains command at the end.

Creation, of something out of (almost) nothing and, disturbingly, of life out of dust, is also the central idea in Dilman Dila’s uncanny ‘The Child of Clay’. Labita is unable to create babies out of the metallic dust-balls that periodically fall from the sky and, as a result, has been banished to the edge of the robot village. Forlorn and desperate, Labita walks to the Tree, which legend has it is the source of the dust from which conscious children can be forged. Next to the Tree is the Pond, the Devil in contrast to their arboreal God, from which Labita takes the material to fashion a clay-robot hybrid. This too falls apart, with painful consequences for Labita herself. Undeterred, however, she constructs another, minus the metallic frame this time, which the Tree then absorbs to produce a … well, that would spoil the ending but suffice to say, this is another case of desire transforming into disaster.

At the other end of the life-line from birth, however bizarre, is death, of course, and ‘Dead Man, Awake, Sing to the Sun!’ by Pan Haitian and translated by Joel Martinson, is a zombie story with a difference. Told from the perspective of someone who became ‘vaguely aware’ of the news of their death some time after it happened, no explanation is given as to why certain folk slowly become more and more tired, and stiff-legged, and finally, cold. Within the ‘living dead community’, however, it is believed that the cause has something to do with harbouring certain unfulfilled wishes, which for our hapless narrator has to do with his years-long failure to give his girlfriend a birthday present. Resigned and compliant, he and his fellow living dead are led away to their graves to be ‘unbound’ in water. Fortunately for them, the guard suffers a burst blood vessel and they manage to escape. Unsure at first how to proceed, the group resolves to form the first National Living Dead Congress, with the aim of creating a calmer, more rational and more harmonious society by, of course, biting the still living. Despite his own desire to achieve a measure of peace by simply being dead, the narrator cannot escape the violence that ensues, or the associated personal consequences.

As I indicated, these are just my personal highlights from the collection and as different in themes and approaches as they may be, they still don’t span the full range of its diversity. There may be some fans out there who still think that Anglo-American science-fiction has all that they need, to which I can only say: friend, you have no idea what you are missing!

Steven French

See also Ian's review of this title.


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