The Apex Book of World SF 2, edited by Lavie Tidhar
Reviewed by Ben Godby
03 August 2012
What is "world SF?" For a young white man living an admittedly bourgeois lifestyle in the pleasing (though occasionally frigid) climes of Canada, the term conjures the image of a dusty marketplace where women wearing colourful hijabs trade coffee beans for nanocircuitry. It makes me think of Noah's Ark-type colony ships, within which beneficent and enlightened world governments have loaded not animals, but a man and woman of every race and creed. But for every image so conjured, I bite my lip and wonder how I could possibly think these things seriously. I ask how I could ever reach an understanding of "world SF" that isn't Anglo-centric—that doesn't make of diversity simply a "sensawunda."
Reading The Apex Book of World SF 2 was some kind of start towards having a fuller understanding of what world SF means. For me, personally, it was an experience just as much of education as of pleasure. But that isn't to say that the anthology has any particular pedagogical method; if anything, it's more like an anti-method, ramming together as many different types of fiction and authors as possible to make the point that there is no single, homogenous idea behind the enterprise. World SF is not a specific kind of fiction practised beyond the US-UK literary axis; nor is it specifically opposed to that kind of fiction. World SF exists, essentially, by its exclusion from the dominant discourse, and a better understanding of what it can offer is achieved simply by realizing that it is there—and that it is not what you expected.
The breadth of this anthology is striking. There are horror stories, steampunk battles, alien comedies, faerie tales, near-future hard SF, and post-apocalyptic wastelands all rolled in together. There's even some stuff that's just plain weird. The Apex Book of World SF 2 includes writers from South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It also includes writers living in America, but who are not American by birth, and writers from the English diaspora: Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In short, the idea of world SF is complicated. As Charles Tan writes in the afterword: "How can one not be part of the world? By writing your story in space? What we mean by World SF is something closer to International SF—beyond your nation, beyond your borders. But that in itself is problematic, because that implies a reference point. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that reference point is the US" (pp. 370-71).
I think that this is the best way to understand world SF in the context of this anthology: that it is fiction from outside the US. Although Tan also points out that "a lot of SF that we read . . . is based on Western cosmology and belief," and this is certainly very true, this is not an appropriate way to look at this anthology, which (without even returning to the complicated fact of including authors who are obviously culturally "western" and authors who are, though of different background, living in the United States) includes some very prototypically western stories—such as "The Malady," by Andrzej Sapkowski, a romantic retelling of the Tristan and Iseult story. It's more appropriate, in a certain sense, to look at this anthology as a piece of affirmative action. Those who published it, and those who are going to read it, are deliberately trying to let in the voices of people who might be pushed to the side and left unheard because of geographical, historical, or linguistic barriers. This anthology isn't just literary: it's political.
But that is not to say that the fiction itself is political, or that it orients itself around a single type of narrative or idea. This isn't like a themed anthology, where a bunch of writers have shared their take on zombies or dystopias, or a shared world, where a collective of individuals fleshes out a communal imagined reality. The fiction represented in this anthology certainly isn't the produce of any writer deciding to write world SF. It is rather a representation of the diversity of imaginative fiction that exists beyond the bounds of the traditionally dominant American publishing industry. Its politicization exists in the fact that it demonstrates how much more fruitful the genre could be if only we took more strides to break down the walls that separate the community.
Some stories draw in an obvious and integral way on their worldliness, dealing with themes like post-colonialism (as in "Trees of Bone" by Daliso Chaponda), local myths or environments (such as "Maquech" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia), and the differences between cultures ("Shibuya no Love" by Hannu Rajaniemi). Some stories play very actively on the expectations and attitudes of their potential readers. "The First Peruvian in Space," by Daniel Salvo, is by far one of the most powerful and astonishing ironic turns I have ever read in a story, and it accomplishes this by developing our expectations about colonialism and racism before turning us on our ears.
Other stories, however, don't brush up against these sorts of themes at all. "Branded," by Lauren Beukes, is a classic cyberpunk story, and its South African flavour could easily be missed or confused for clever language-play in the tradition of A Clockwork Orange. "Zombie Lenin," by Ekaterina Sedia, is a work of high speculation, mysterious narration, and even a little zombie fun; but, despite being set in Russia, it doesn't teach us the differences between being a student in Russia and being a student in the West, or what it's like to live in a post-Communist state. These stories are, first and foremost, SF, even though they are undeniably influenced by their authors' own histories and geographies.
Suffice it to say that the stories in this anthology don't submit to any particular agenda. But together, they form a powerful argument for the value of diversity in fiction. I found that the anthology reinvigorates the idea of diversity, because it pushes such a radical, free idea of what that constitutes. As I was reading, I found my own assumptions about diversity challenged. For example, when I write my own short stories, I try to incorporate diversity, and I constantly find myself coming back to multiculturalism. Reading The Apex Book of World SF 2 made me realize that this is, on the one hand, a Western fixation (gathering peoples and cultures into the American melting pot—or, in my nation's version, "the Canadian salad bowl"); and that, more importantly, this is radically different from real diversity. For example, the one thing I didn't read in this anthology was a story with a token white person. On the other hand, I really can't count the number of fantasy and science fiction stories I've read that contained a carefully placed person of colour, a convenient same sex relationship, or a "native" character who helps the protagonists better understand the new world in which they've found themselves. And that's because these are all Western interpretations of diversity. In world SF, what we see instead are stories about real people and places, which opens the door to diversity through sharing and understanding, rather than through assimilation.
One of the difficulties in reading these stories as a white, Western reader was the ever-present desire to interpret them according to what I know about the various histories and characters of the nations and peoples represented. For example, in "Undercity," by Nir Yaniv, there is an Under Tel Aviv that, one day, switches places with the "Upper" Tel Aviv. The lives of residents in both worlds are radically changed, suddenly living in a world of daylight, on the one hand, and darkness, on the other, to which they are foreign and unable to physically assimilate. When I read this story, I immediately related it to the entire, massive, weighty corpus of information, thoughts, and events related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Does Under Tel Aviv represent the Palestinians? Is this a story written by an Israeli who is tortured by the actions of his government? Is he writing a story to relate the sorrows both his people and the Palestinians share?
The problem with thinking along these lines is that Yaniv may not have intended this kind of interpretation at all. It may very well be just a fantastic, wonderful, weird story. Or, it may be about a political issue that I don't even know about or understand—because I'm not from Tel Aviv. But I immediately jump to the conclusion that bears best on my understanding of Israeli politics, trying to find the worldliness in this kind of story even though I only know the most infamous version of its history and not the actual local context. I had to restrain these impulses and try to find, not what these stories might mean "in the world," but what they meant inside of me. Yaniv's story speaks very powerfully to the human spirit, in a way that doesn't need to be rooted to any one land. World SF may truly be written in space, because from the vantage point of the stars, we all look human.
In that sense, this collection really worked for me. It allowed me to see that world SF is not a particular kind of fiction, that it doesn't have any more particular interests or agendas than I do. "International" writers are, ultimately, individuals, and though they will be formed by their environments and experiences, that doesn't mean they can't simply tell a good story, one that speaks to a general human condition and not to some highly specific space in the world. In other cases, authors may very well wish to address themes that are directly tied to their own geo-historical situation; but as an outsider—even, or maybe especially, as an outsider critic—I felt it better to restrain myself from confabulating politics where none was necessary.
Not surprisingly, then, The Apex Book of World SF 2 is an easy recommendation for any SF fan. It's a good read, and, for those of us who need encouragement to experience fiction from beyond our usual realm of experience, it's an opportunity to be exposed to new voices and worlds that we might not otherwise see. Lavie Tidhar's project is very important to the future of not only international authors, but the entire SF community. I have no doubt that everyone who reads this anthology will have a different response to it, but we can all only benefit from being exposed to the kind of diversity this anthology embodies.