Right, let’s get this out of the way straight off: that’s a pretty weak cover. I realize it’s probably aiming for some jerry-rigged bioengineering kind of thing, but I doubt “failed experiment to crossbreed a sickly croissant with a camper van” was the effect anyone was after. Never mind, move past it; the stories are what matter and I’m pleased to report that they’re really very good.
Enough with the context, get to the stories already you cry/mutter quietly in your own head. I know. I had a similar experience with this book, as it has to be one of the most thoroughly contextualized anthologies I’ve read in a long time: you get a forward, then an introduction, and finally an afterword to wrap it all up again. My first instinct was that this was all a little excessive, a little trying too hard to justify stuff that really doesn’t need to be justified. And then someone else goes and says something stupid on the internet (shock) and reminds me that maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss these efforts, that this ongoing justification for speaking to and with the voices of non-dominant sociocultural groups is, sadly, entirely justified in its, er, ongoingness.
The stories then. Really this time. The second half of this collection is strong, building from Joyce Chang’s dreamy, slightly narcotic ‘Lotus’ to a run of consistent excellence. Particular favourites include: ‘A Heap of Broken Images’ by Sunny Moraine, which is an uncomfortably pitch-perfect exploration of atrocity tourism; ‘I Stole the D.C.’s Eyeglass’ by Sofia Samatar, telling of sororal love, antagonism, and resistance; and the twisty shifting tale of filial confliction that is Gabriel Murray’s ‘Forests of the Night’, which perhaps particularly resonated because of my personal parental responsibilities.
The first half is more variable. For my money it has the weaker stories, but also the two stand-out contributions to the collection. Neither ‘Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus’ (Ernest Hogan) or ‘The Gambiarra Method’ (Fabio Fernandes) really worked for me, and seemed to be saying little more beyond “Look! This is how it could (have) go(ne)!” which is fine and laudable in and of itself but in a collection like this seems like the bare minimum you would expect. However, ‘Old Domes’ (J.Y. Yang) and ‘The Arrangement of Their Parts’ (Shetwa Narayan) are both outstanding. The former a brilliantly executed meditation on change and tradition writ in the stones and ghosts of Singapore’s architecture, and the latter a wonderfully taut artifice of magic and defiance which gets the collection of to a flying start.
What’s interesting is that while a lot of these stories are post-apocalyptic, very few are out-and-out dystopian. In more traditional western SF the two usually march in lockstep, but the decoupling here serves to drive home the point about who apocalypses are really disastrous for. How you view where you end up is highly contingent on where you think you’ve started from.
Angry, considered, thought-provoking and affecting: this is well worth a read.